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Up Against the Wall : For the Artists of Berlin, the Wall Never Really Fell. And as the Art Scene Moves East, Envy and Contempt Heat Up a Strange Cold War

February 27, 1994|Sharon Waxman | Sharon Waxman is Paris-based features writer for the Washington Post

Back when life had a taste and texture, back when it had a spirit and a rhythm of its own, then Rainer Tschernay could create.

Back when he didn't have to sell his paintings, back before money, money, money became the point to everything, then he could work on his crude sculptures in his East Berlin studio. He could draw and paint landscapes. Then he could see clearly. Back before the Wall came down.

Before the Wall came down, "Raw" Warzecha had found his niche. Back when West Berlin's Kreuzberg was an island of Turkish immigrants and punk artists near the Wall and nobody cared if you owned a building or just lived in it; back before the Frankfurt suits came with their bulging wallets and the Wall was an immutable fact of life, then he could paint. Now, it's not so easy.

Now the abandoned buildings, the squats, are disappearing; rents have gone through the roof, everybody's fighting eviction and the art scene has moved to East Berlin. Who has the head, really, for art?

Yes, it was certainly better before the Wall came down.

"When the Wall fell, I had the feeling that they just opened the zoo. That there were all these wild animals on the street," says Christopher, a 33-year-old west Berliner who hangs out with the Dead Chickens, a "Wessie" cyberpunk performance art group. He recalls how the "Ossies" jammed the center of west Berlin, gaping at the wealth of a consumer society. Christopher, who makes crude handcrafted jewelry and will not give his last name because he hates his father, has met his cousins in east Berlin only once since 1989. He can't relate.

Neither can his friends, the Dead Chickens. They are a hot young group on the West Berlin scene, exhibiting their monster-sculptures in the prestigious Raab Gallery and performing in art festivals around Europe. They make wild, horrifying costumes that move mechanically and explode on computer-controlled cue and ooze blood, brains and green liquid while they play ear-splitting noise. Very underground. Very subculture. You know: nukes and punks and heavy black make-up. Very, very Berlin.

Like many artists from West Berlin, including Warzecha, the Dead Chickens were evicted from their squat in Kreuzberg, which is now an area of prime real estate. As Kreuzberg becomes yuppified, artists have increasingly moved down-market, to the east. You might think that the Dead Chickens would have found kindred spirits among the young, anti-art artists of the East, particularly since the Dead Chickens now work in a huge basement in East Berlin.

But the Dead Chickens find East Berlin's subculture . . . boring. Dated. "Pathetic," says Breeda C.C. (her only name), an artist who creates many of the Dead Chickens' costumes. "Some of the artists I find very slow, I must say. Their films are slow, very--poetic, very heavy. Full of senses, slow, gray. I can't explain it. Too heavy," she says.

"Hyper-political," says Nils Peters, 26, another Dead Chicken.

"What we do, it's more sarcastic," Breeda insists. "What they do is very serious . I saw this performance art in Dresden--you know, people sitting around a fire wearing bandages, eating mushrooms." She rolls her eyes. "It was so . . ." pause . . . "depressing."

LIKE EVERYONE ELSE IN THIS CONFUSED, CHAOTIC, work-in-progress of a city, the artists in east and west Berlin do not get along. The don't mingle with their formerly inaccessible peers, they don't share or hang out or communicate. There's no connection. Four years after reunification, Germany finds itself plunged deep in economic recession, battling record postwar unemployment--16% in the east--and struggling to comprehend a frightening resurgence of violent fascism among its restive youth. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the chasm between east and west Germans is as wide as it was before the heady, history days of November, 1989, when they were no longer divided by cement and electrified wire.

But here in Berlin--with its centuries of collected artistic wealth, with its historic role as a haven for painters, musicians, actors and the avant garde and its ever-vibrant cultural scene (no less than two orchestras, three operas and about 50 cabarets)--the division seems odd. Artists, a group you might suppose to be curious or at least non-judgmental, grumble and snipe and criticize each other. Instead of exploring what for so long was just out of reach, they have turned in on themselves, living--as much as possible--as they did before the Wall came down, in enclaves, in cocoons of friends, contacts and odd exhibition spaces. Like other Germans confronting the sudden end of decades of division, the artists of east and west Berlin regard one another--for the most part--with mistrust and distaste and contempt.

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