In many places around the world the millennial period was characterised by a spirit of optimism. Not so in Berlin. Here, any hopes and expectations for the new millennium were dampened by the general malaise that followed the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its debts were at record levels, the economy was stagnating and various scandals had undermined trust in politics. There was no trace of optimism about the future.
Besides the internationally acclaimed Berlin club scene, the only other branch of city life to flourish in this milieu was the culture industry, and especially the art scene, which had been in the ascendant ever since the mid-nineties. Its growth was driven by artists and galleries. Drawn to the freedom and openness of the city, the artists had come in their droves and from all corners. Meanwhile, ever-increasing numbers of new galleries had been opening their doors, predominantly in Berlin-Mitte, where they took on many of the artists who were now resident in the city. Between them, the artists and galleries working in Berlin at the turn of the millennium not only managed to win back the city’s former status as the artistic capital of Germany, but also paved the way for it to become, for a while at least, the global capital of contemporary art.
This exhibition brings together works by eight artists, all of whom were part of that development and had a formative influence on the programme at Galerie Guido W. Baudach: André Butzer, Björn Dahlem, Thilo Heinzmann, Thomas Helbig, Andy Hope 1930, Erwin Kneihsl, Markus Selg and Thomas Zipp. All of them came to the city on the Spree in the mid to late-nineties, enriching the art scene with the knowledge and influences they brought with them and with a spirit of innovation that fell on extremely fertile ground in the Berlin of those days. Thomas Helbig and Andy Hope 1930 had studied in Munich and London, where both had been involved with a loose artists’ collective known as the Deutsch-Britische Freundschaft and its renowned series of exhibitions. Thilo Heinzmann and Thomas Zipp came to Berlin as former students of Thomas Bayerle at the Städelschule in Frankfurt and shared his interest in the cultivation of a contemporary painting practice. André Butzer and Markus Selg moved to Berlin from Hamburg in 1999 when their already legendary Akademie Isotrop, an independent artists’ group with an autonomous teaching programme covering the broadest possible array of disciplines, disbanded after five highly productive years. Björn Dahlem and Erwin Kneihsl also came to Berlin around that time: one as a young graduate of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and former member of the HobbyPop group, the other, almost twenty years his senior, as an artist who had first moved to Berlin in the mid-seventies and was now returning having studied photography at the Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt in Vienna.
The photographs, collages, drawings, paintings and sculptures exhibited here were all made between 1999 and 2001. In both form and content they attest to the breadth and depth of artistic production in Berlin at that time, but they also demonstrate how artists in Berlin at the turn of the millennium were consciously engaging with art-historical tradition and, without making any concessions to prevailing trends, actively exploring new forms of expression and creativity in contemporary art.
André Butzer, for instance, stepped up to the plate to create his own cosmos in paintings. On show in this exhibition is his Friedens-Siemens IV, one of the first Berlin pictures from the series of the same name. Painted in the year 2000, this mostly black-and-white portrait of an amiable species of bodiless walking heads marked the transition to a new phase in Butzer’s work. The Friedens-Siemense went on to become the central characters in his sci-fi expressionism of the noughties, populating the utopian world of Nasaheim together with other comic-like beings.
Björn Dahlem’s sculptural works from this period also took the heavens as their subject matter. In terms of both form and content, the installation Schwarzes Loch (M-Sphären) is one of his early ‘signature’ pieces. Originally exhibited at the Kunsthalle St. Gallen in 2003, then destroyed in a fire at the museum Hamburger Bahnhof, this work, the first of Dahlem’s vast visualisations of the dark giants of space, has been especially reconstructed for this exhibition.
Thilo Heinzmann’s O.T. also represented a new departure for the artist when it was made in 1999. Just a year prior to this Heinzmann’s efforts to renew the practice of painting had led him to the discovery of polystyrene as a potential painting substrate. He began using it for red and black monochrome compositions in pigmented epoxy resin, sometimes dripped, sometimes rolled.
Thomas Helbig’s Ikone of 2001, a painting that manages to be both sketchy and full of detail, is another prototypical work insofar as it combines the two influences that still feed into his diverse artistic practice even now: European folk art and the early avant garde. Their shared roots remain a constant spur to his work.
When Andy Hope 1930 first arrived in Berlin at the turn of the millennium the works he made alternated between painting, drawing and collage. This exhibition includes Machiavelli Transfer and The Trees are… from the year 2000 - two previously unseen examples of the sort of work that would subsequently become so typical of the artist: adaptations of super-hero comics, splatter stories, fantasies and science fiction that incorporate these genres into the field of contemporary art.
Erwin Kneihsl’s monumental artist’s book Alexanderplatz (1999) stands at the centre of this exhibition. Its many black-and-white photographs, some consisting of multiple overlapping layers, provide an unadorned and yet artistically stylised documentation of everyday life at the turn of the millennium in Berlin’s most urban location. Like Alfred Döblin’s epic novel of the same name seventy years before, Kneihsl’s Alexanderplatz pays tribute to the city, its social outsiders and marginal groups.
Markus Selg, one of the pioneers of computer-generated painting, is represented in this exhibition with Rendezvous (Ersatz) from the year 2000, a large-format work on paper depicting the meeting of two mutant-like creatures against a dark background. While these two figures and their backdrop might seem fantastical and unreal at first glance, the representation is quite consciously exaggerated and can just as easily be read as an event from the nightlife of the city.
Thomas Zipp’s STURM at Lake Placid is one of a series of works made at various locations at the turn of the millennium: his so-called ‘dirt paintings’. For this series Zipp decided to let life participate in the painting process, carrying his canvases around with him everywhere and allowing them to come into contact with all the environmental and other influences to which he himself was exposed, before finishing them as paintings by deliberately selecting specific sections and applying precise, often minimal supplementary marks.
These works from the turn of the millennium are indicative examples of important, pioneering phases in the creative work of their respective artists. They also attest to a particularly innovative and productive moment in Berlin’s recent art history. But this exhibition is more than just an invitation to review and retrospection. It also provides an opportunity to consider the art of the late nineties and early noughties in terms of its relevance to contemporary art, and to take a comparative look at the artistic centre of Berlin then and now.