Art In The Club: Berghain’s walls welcome transcendence

Hero's Journey (Lamp) by Sarah Schöenfeld © Adrien Missika

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It has been observed that the club and the gallery seem to exist in a state of mutual opposition, where one can almost be defined against the other; a place of quiet contemplation against one of total abandon, stillness against beats, space against bodies and stasis against movement.

Purposes, too, are at odds: the conditions of calm and neutrality in a gallery space reflect a need for a space whose atmosphere is conducive to deep thought, reflection. Where ideas can germinate in the shadow of their visual expressions. Clubs obliterate that peace, blasted out by music, drugs and sweat.

And yet, in spite of these differences, the increasing frequency with which musical acts are transposed to galleries has seen Kraftwerk perform at the Tate Modern; Ninja Tune’s roster appear at the ICA and – after some police intervention – Just Jam host a night at The Barbican. But what if we consider the inverse of the club/gallery binary; not music in galleries, but art in clubs?

Berghain – world famous techno institution, gay sex club and cornerstone of Berlin nightlife – needs no introduction here. But a new book, Kunst Im Klub, published by Hatje Cantz, documents and comments on Berghain’s less well-known engagement with visual art.

All the artists it features are in some way connected to the club. Some, like photographer Sven Marquadt, have worked there since its opening. Others, like Piotr Nathan, are artists who have work permanently installed there. In its texts and images, it begins to articulate a reflection of the same logic that explains the legitimacy of the gallery as a venue.

The specific cultural conditions that led to the opening of Berghain are too complex to go into here; the unique circumstances of Berlin in the 20th Century, reunification and the fall of the Wall in 1989, the accompanying collision of cultures, plus the influence of Detroit techno, the gay club scene, the hedonism, the unusual conditions of institutional permissiveness and the enduring rejection of pure financial capital, and so on.

“Art is capital, but it’s also a field for interrogation; a discipline in which people can investigate taboo questions, reconfigure social boundaries and deconstruct prejudices”

It’s complicated and fascinating and important enough to be the subject of myriad PhDs and academic studies, and no doubt in fact it is. Suffice to say that all of these things created a kind of perfect storm; one where art – the arts, music and visual art especially – continues to be treated with the kind of respect and seriousness that can only exist when its actual transformative power and social significance is truly valued and believed in.

And that’s sort of the first point of contact between the two; art and clubbing. It’s true that the intersection between clubbing and art as the UK experiences it looks a little shaky; with superclubs like Oceana as an extreme example of the worst, it’s unfortunately the case that the British club scene is on the ropes at the moment. Even without the constant closures and increasingly restrictive licensing which clubs are being subjected to, the fact that you’re being chucked out at 6am necessarily imposes a limit on the night, a limit which is mostly absent in Berlin.

There’s no doubt that the art world is as riddled with cynics and dilettantes as it is home to genuinely creative, intelligent people, but it is the latter category that really matters. Art is capital, and to some it is status, but Art In The Club reminds us that it’s also a deeply important field for interrogation and exploration; a discipline in which people can investigate highly complicated and often taboo questions, reconfigure social boundaries and deconstruct prejudices.

Piotr Nathan © Zsu Szabo

Wolfgang Tillmans is an artist who’s has had three sets of work installed in Berghain’s Panorama Bar since the club opened. Each set compromises of two matching abstracts from the same (respective) series, and one figurative image. The first of the figurative photographs, nackt, installed from 2004 to 2009, depicts the lower half of a woman’s torso. She is leaning back and to her left, seated, wearing a grey top. Naked from the waist down, her legs are parted, exposing her vulva to the camera. The second, Phillip, close-up III, installed from 2009 to 2015, is a man, bent at the waist with his trousers lowered, reaching back to expose his anus with his left hand. The third, installed this year, is a close-up of an open mouth. The teeth are almost invisible; the image is focused entirely on the tonsils, the glistening back of the throat.

Tillmans is a Turner-prize winning artist whose work sells for Big Bucks; he’s also a groundbreaking and hugely influential photographer, but what’s important here are the images themselves; their frankness – the frankness that mirrors the hedonism of the club, its roots in totally unapologetic gay sexual expression.

Because that’s one of the things that uncontaminated art and uncontaminated clubbing share: each offers a non- judgemental platform for the exploration of human identity. The recurrence of orifices implies a special focus on sexuality, and indeed, one of the things for which Berghain is most notorious is its ‘darkrooms,’ but that’s not the extent of it.

“There’s something that uncontaminated art and uncontaminated clubbing share: each offers a non- judgemental platform for the exploration of human identity”

Sarah Schöenfeld is another of the artists featured in the book. She’s perhaps best known for her All You Can Feel series, in which she exposed a range of drugs to film negatives, before enlarging and printing the resulting images. The prints have been exhibited widely, and used as cover art for Answer Code Request on his releases through Berghain’s label, Ostgut Ton. Of clubbing, she says, “Basically, it’s the same desire for transcendence and a shifting of perspective that takes place within religion: the fact that you want to perceive things differently than you do in normal ‘daily life’.”

This sentiment is echoed by Nina Lorken elsewhere in the book, who writes “Berghain… is a place where people are able to escape reality for the duration of their stay and concentrate exclusively on their senses… people… are able to surrender themselves unhindered to pleasure and live out fantasies without a chance of them reaching the outside world.”

The contributors to this book repeat this motif to varying extremes. It reaches its apex, and drifts away from contemporary ideas of worship, in a couplet in Hanno Hinkelbein’s poem, Beasts:

“…Once madness’s seized you, feral man, then over you is watching Pan,
And dances and with abandon sprawls such beauty onto concrete walls.”

This cry for release might jar with the controlled gallery, or any religious institution, but it chimes with certain movements, like the incredibly transgressive Viennese Actionism, which prefigured contemporary performance art, and also with certain ancient rituals – Bacchanals and Dionysian Mysteries. What clubbing seems to offer, these people argue, is a uniquely contemporary response to a fundamental need. Contemporary art at its best, I’d argue, fulfills something similar. A platform for the articulation and expression of controversial or challenging thought. Piotr Nathan describes, “the way techno music dissolves into dance and sex… dissolving into an ecstasy that consequently develops under the protection of a likeminded community.”

That in Berlin, and specifically around the Berghain, this community is shared between both clubs and galleries is exciting but not unique. In the UK too, both draw a similar crowd, with a shared interest in the subversion of the everyday. What the UK, unfortunately, lacks, is the corresponding break from materialism.

Berghain is successful enough that it doesn’t have to jack up the prices to keep going, but it could. Similarly, while it may or may not be in a decline in this respect, Berlin remains an attractive destination for artists because of a low cost of living that fosters creative endeavors, and allows a success to be measured in more than finance.

You could argue that it’s in the purity of intent that art and clubbing seem to have their most important parallels. When the shared aim is a type of freedom of expression, for its own sake, the gallery and the club become a platform for a genuine bit of independent thought. Catalysed by something external, like music or imagery, but unmediated or governed by institutional systems of control.

Berghain forbids cameras, and has no reflective surfaces; through this it becomes what a gallery should be – a place not to be seen, but to see.

Art In The Club is available now via Hatje Cantz

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