Potsdamer Powerhouse

The Bass chronicles Berlin's artistic rebirth

A monumental four-panel C-print by Frank Thiel at the Bass Museum of Art captures the rebirth of an uber-hip, anything-goes Berlin following the collapse of the Wall in 1989.

The German photographer's Stadt 7/12, 1999 documents the sprawling construction zone of Potsdamer Platz, a major architectural program master-planned by Italian architect Renzo Piano. The panels engulf visitors at the entrance of the museum's second-floor gallery.

Thiel's arresting piece is part of "Constructing New Berlin," the first major survey of contemporary art created in post-Wall Berlin.

Frank Thiel's Stadt 2/36/A (Berlin, Reichstag), 
1998
Frank Thiel's Stadt 2/36/A (Berlin, Reichstag), 1998

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Through January 21
Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-7530

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Featuring fifteen Berlin-based artists of diverse nationalities, the exhibit includes painting, sculpture, photography, film, video, sound, and performance art, most of it created in the 21st Century, some specifically for this show.

By the mid-Nineties, Berlin had become a playground for artists and bohos of all shades and stripes who had swarmed to sooty sections of former East Berlin, where thousands of abandoned and derelict buildings opened up for squatters, and cavernous studio spaces could be acquired dirt-cheap.

Out of the rubble of the gritty Cold War outpost, hundreds of galleries and alternative spaces flared like flash fires, stoking an edgy cultural scene.

Berlin experienced a period of explosive growth. A-list architects like Sir Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Peter Eisenman juiced up the city's skyline in an all-out building blitz.

Generous grants subsidized local artists, and residency programs drew international artists to a reunified German capital. Out of a mix of radical opportunity, raw energy, and unrepentant nonconformity, Berlin has emerged as an international contemporary art powerhouse.

Tacita Dean is a British artist who went to Berlin for a scholarship program in 2000 and chose to remain in the city. Her film Palast plays in a darkened room, projected onto a suitcase-size space on a wall above eye level, forcing viewers to crane their necks. The movie unspools the passage of time as reflected against the bronze mirrored windows of the recently bulldozed Palast der Republik, the former German Democratic Republic's seat of government. As cloud formations drift across the window panes at sunset and birds flap in the coppery sky, the rush of traffic and people chattering can be heard on the soundtrack. The work conveys a sense of Berlin's fading history.

In an adjacent room, configured circularly, Olafur Eliasson's 360 Degree Expectations is a mind-fucking contraption of blinding intensity. The Danish artist, who has made Berlin his home since the mid-Nineties, has taken a halogen light and beamed it through a lighthouse lens mounted on a motor. The simple mechanical construction, placed in the center of the space, projects a prismatic band of light that arcs steadily around the room at chest level. It creates the illusion of riding on a prismatic merry-go-round.

Outside the room, the annoying racket of a bug zapper in meltdown mode splits the air. Carsten Nicolai's Telefunken depicts changing sound frequencies on a small TV set. The din is represented by widening bands of white waves flickering against a black screen. As the sounds take on the pitch of ham radio static and rise to a crescendo, the tube begins making popping corn noise, goes blank, and the sequence sets off again.

Next to that ear-blistering, low-tech opus, Ali Kepenek's Turkish trannies nearly swallow a whole wall. The fashion shutterbug's Transsexual Prostitutes photo installation depicts denizens of Berlin's seamy underbelly in surprisingly candid shots that are tacked down with Day-Glo ribbons of tape. In one, a blond, blue-eyed minx, wearing a star-spangled sequined bra and a silver choker, gazes saucily at the spectator. In another, a brunet with coffee-saucer-size hoop earrings cocks her head back in laughter, her schnoz shrouded in post-plastic-surgery bandages.

Johannes Kahrs's moody paintings, isolated in the rear of the gallery, are charged with psychological tension and beautifully executed. His image bank is usually drawn from stills of horror flicks or thrillers. Fond I depicts a closeup of an elegantly dressed woman fidgeting with a purse in her lap as she sits in the back of a limo. The flesh tones of the creases in her hands and the vivid slash of red fingernails against the tarry black background deliver a jarring contrast.

On an opposite wall, another of the painter's head-turners shows a closeup of a young woman sporting a shiner, her face almost curtained off by an unruly yellow fright wig. She appears to have been battered by a pimp. The slick, flat surfaces of the artist's scenes belie their eerie imagery, and they burrow provocatively into the viewer's skull. Oddly Kahrs's oil-on-canvas works have been framed under glass.

The Berlin Files, a collaborative work by Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, is a surround-sound video installation exhibited inside a blacked-out space lined with benches. The twitchy montage runs about twelve minutes and drags the audience into a bizarre, fragmented narrative. A woman's voice tells someone off-camera to enter an apartment around the corner and to "be careful — the kitchen light is blown." A tracking shot leads through the apartment, poking into empty rooms. Although the dwelling seems lifeless, a piano plays on the soundtrack. Through a crack in a door, a man's hands are seen stroking the piano keys. A jump cut shows the man running across a frozen field while a dog's barks echo in the background. The piece ends with a raffish fellow, draped in a silver lamé jacket, warbling David Bowie's "Rock and Roll Suicide." At the lyrics "just turn on with me and you're not alone," a platinum-blond tart pops into the picture, mascara streaking down her face in a spit of tears.

Thomas Demand's work also tweaks perception. He culls images from the media, re-creates life-size models of architectural spaces out of colored paper and cardboard, and then photographs the facsimiles. The result is work thrice distanced from its source.

A handful of his spectacular, color-saturated C-prints depicts the settings associated with a young boy who was purportedly sold by his mother to a group in a southern German village in 2001. They abused and murdered the child and then dumped his body in a garbage bag. The sensational case rocked Germany. Demand's Cell (Klause) V, depicting an interior view of the closet where the boy was killed, re-creates a widely reproduced media image.

This insightful show boasts a kinetic glimpse at the intriguing scene that has emerged since the end of the Cold War. The variety and complexity of the works shout, "Welcome to the New Berlin," leaving no doubt about the resurgence of the city's visual arts.

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