Wednesday, May 22, 2024

In a Former Berlin Squat, Slick Photo Shows (and Martinis)

On a cold, gray Berlin afternoon in February, 1990, a few months after the Wall came down, a group of young artists and anarchists from East Germany climbed through the window of an abandoned department store and began creating their own utopia.

The central Berlin building they occupied became the famous Tacheles squat. Open around the clock, with artist studios, a sculpture garden, movie theater, bar and concert venue, the Tacheles was a tourist destination and symbol of post-reunification Berlin’s heady, underground culture. The Tacheles lasted 22 years, until the artists who worked there were evicted, in 2012, with a promise from the city to keep the site as a cultural space.

The new, extended complex also features luxury apartments, high-end office spaces and a shopping plaza designed by the architects Herzog and de Meuron. Its transformation from a gritty squat into a sleek, corporate development tracks with broader changes that are reordering Berlin.

Fotografiska will host exhibitions from international and local artists in a six-floor, 53,000 square-foot space that also includes a rooftop bar, cafe-bar, bakery and fine-dining restaurant. It is backed by private investors and will be run for profit.

“What’s happening in Berlin is, we had a great time drinking out of plastic cups,” said Yoram Roth, a Berlin-based entrepreneur who is the chairman and majority shareholder of the Fotografiska group. “But we have an audience now that wants a nice glass of wine, a sensible meal, and to be part of the cultural landscape.”

He said that he hoped the extended opening hours for Fotografiska shows — until 11 p.m., daily — would attract people who want to check out an exhibit after work. The bars will likely have their own draw. “In New York, we’ve become the number one place for Bumble dates,” Roth said, adding that he predicted that Fotografiska would become “the martini bar” in Berlin.

In an interview, Huxtable said that she was “excited to do this show,” but had some reservations. “It’s probably not ideal for artists that there’s a new, really expensive development being built in what was formerly a squat,” she said. “I hope my name isn’t being used to promote a real estate cleansing. I don’t want to be part of a P.R. campaign.”

Jochen Sandig, a co-founder of the Tacheles squat who now runs two Berlin art spaces, said he had similar concerns about the project’s conflation of art and commerce. “Tacheles, the highest symbol of Berlin creativity, is now a shopping mall,” he said. “Even the Fotografiska, with its many bars and restaurants, is a shopping mall, buying fashionable artists for their image.”

He recalled that, when he arrived at the Tacheles in 1990, aged 22, the building was a bombed-out World War II wreck facing demolition. “The ideals are ruined, save the ruins,” was the slogan of the occupying artists, who Sandig said engaged in a “social experiment” for “anyone to join if they were active.”

In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, spots like the Tacheles — artist-run spaces, clubs and gig venues — sprung up in disused buildings around the city. In the following decades, as the economy surged and the population increased, many were cleared to make way for real estate developments and infrastructure projects. With each closure, the city lost a little of its bohemian spirit.

“Tacheles was a wild organism,” said the artist Tim Roeffels, who had a studio there from 1992 until the end, in 2012. “It was a dinosaur of the ’90s, a C.V. of everything that Berlin once was,” he said: “a bit stinky, a bit sticky, a bit cheap, a bit dirty.” He added that the freedom to experiment and fail that he found there wouldn’t be possible in a commercial space, where risk-taking isn’t profitable.

Although their models might be different, there is some overlap between the Tacheles’s objectives and those of Fotografiska Berlin, which the center’s executive director, Yousef Hammoudah, said in an interview were to “create a more conscious world,” and “to inspire new perspectives.”

“Yes, we’re for profit. Yes, we’ll generate revenue,” he said. “But at the same time, we’ll support artists in a way that no state-funded museum will.” There were gaps in the programming of Berlin’s existing photography museums, he added; Fotografiska would fill those by concentrating on “gender, identity, race, sexuality, queerness” when selecting the artists it works with.

Spyros Rennt, a Berlin-based Greek photographer, said he was pleased by Fotografiska’s commitment to presenting work by local artists. And, he added, Berliners had “become a little numb to this type of takeover of old spaces that used to have special meaning.”

Sandig said that, despite his doubts about Fotografiska, he was also optimistic about the building’s future. He said that he had told Hammoudah, “‘I hope you’re so successful at Fotografiska that you have to move out and get a bigger place.’” Then, Sandig added, the building could be given back to artists. “We’ll put it in a foundation, and let a new generation do their thing,” he said.

In the meantime, maybe Berlin will finally offer a decent martini.

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