Berlin has an illustrious relationship with art. In the early decades of the last century, artists including Vassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee came from all over Europe. They quarrelled, bantered and shared drinks in the Café des Westens and the Romanisches Café, both now extinct. Painters, sculptors, poets and actors grouped under the Dada movement found Berlin a fertile ground for producing works that examined the horrors of the Great War and the challenges facing Europe in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest conflicts in history.
Art still defines this city. Every year millions of tourists file in and out of gallery exhibitions on Museum Island, taking in everything from the reconstructed ancient altar of Pergamon to impressionist works by Manet and Renoir. With Berlin being a flat and walkable city, thousands of those same visitors then wander towards Oranienburger Strasse in the Mitte district.
Until September 3, they would have chanced upon Kunsthaus Tacheles, an independent arts centre based in the bombed-out remnants of a Jewish department store which was used by the German SS during World War II. Tacheles (a Yiddish word meaning “straight-talking”) moved into the pock-marked building three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and took root. Every day artists in residence allowed hundreds of curious visitors inside, explaining their work while people took photos of the walls and ceilings plastered with posters and cracking acrylic paint.
Now the painters, sculptors and performance artists of the self-financing collective have been thrown out. On September 4, bailiffs acting on behalf of the bank that owns the building moved in, accompanied by police officers. One by one, the 40 Tacheles artists inside filed out, some carrying the final canvases they produced in the house. A throng of people stood outside the building in solidarity with the artists, but there was no fight or bitter sloganeering – only a sombre recognition that the Kunsthaus is no more.
“I cannot say so much. This is just too much,” one young artist said, shaking his head as he watched the camera crews swarm around the front door.
|Martin Reiter is the director of Tacheles [Andrew Coombes/Al Jazeera]
For Martin Reiter, director of Tacheles, the eviction is a depressing denouement to the storied history of the house. He says thousands of artists and visitors alike have benefitted from the space and that the eviction amounts to what he calls a kunstraub – art heist.
“This is a house of arts production and it’s not been under anyone’s control for the last 22 years. That means there is no official neo-liberal cultural management,” he says.
“It’s not corporatised and the art market is not ruling the aesthetics of what the artists are doing. Therefore, this is a problem for the established scene as well, so that’s why they want to evict us at any cost.”
The battle by Tacheles to stay in the house intensified when a 10-year lease with the now-bankrupt Fundus group expired in 2008. Three years later, the new owner HSH Nordbank paid 1m euros ($1.25m) to buy out 80 occupants of the building. The Zapata nightclub inside the building closed down after that deal – the fire-breathing metal dragon above the bar belched his last flame in April 2011.
But Tacheles clung doggedly to the space it considered a symbol of community and self-reliance in a city where many long-term residents have bitterly complained about the tide of gentrification. While the bank took its case to the courts, artists came from all over the world to take advantage of the space on offer and share their knowledge.
Wilko is one of the artists evicted by the bailiffs. He says many of the artists working at Tacheles will find it difficult to make a living from their art now that they no longer have studio space. “This is a great loss for the arts scene and for Berlin. There were at least 500,000 visitors here annually. We are well known across the world. Even in China, artists demonstrated to maintain this house,” he says.
“This was more than an art house. In the nights there were parties; it was open 24 hours. It was interesting in particular to Alexander, as he comes from Minsk and he is not used to talking to people from Japan and the United States and Italy and France, all in one day.”
Wilko is referring to Alexander Rodin, a Belarusian avant-garde painter and performance artist who a few feet away is pounding out atonal chords on the most elderly of baby grand pianos.
“My colleague and I have been here only three months, but we organised festivals in support of Tacheles,” Wilko says. “One was called ‘Please Urinate Here’, because the security guards urinated on the sketchbooks of Alexander Rodin.”
Reiter shares Wilko’s distaste of the security guards who stood sentry on behalf of Nordbank in the last days of the art house. He says they monitored the artists’ every move and cared little for the art inside.
“The security acted in a military way – they destroyed Rodin’s pictures. They destroyed the whole exhibition of Amaru Cholango,” he says, referring to an Ecuadorean indigenous artist.
Berlin’s Mitte district has changed dramatically since reunification in 1990. The district had been on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall and in the early 1990s it was a magnet for left-wing activists, anarchists, and punks.
That’s changed. Sweeping down from the Friedrichstrasse rail station towards Oranienburger Strasse and then along to the world-famous Alexanderplatz, Mitte is now home to chic cafes, expensive restaurants and boutique clothes stores. But Reiter says that while Kunsthaus Tacheles was unusual in the new and sanitised Mitte, it still helped boost trade in the district.
|Wilko is one of the artists evicted by the bailiffs [Andrew Coombes/Al Jazeera]|
“Over the last four weeks Tacheles has been closed to the public because the owners closed up the back door and only the artists are allowed to go in and out,” he says. “So we lost a lot of visitors to the exhibitions, and the owners of the restaurants and shops around here lost sixty per cent of their business. Tacheles has been a lighthouse for this area. It is a fixed point; if you come to Berlin you go to Museum Island to see the Pergamon and Bode Museum, and then you go to Tacheles.”
The artists of Tacheles say the collective will continue, even in such straitened circumstances. They are pooling their limited resources to ensure that everyone has studio space somewhere in Berlin. Reiter is considering moving most of the Tacheles operation to the southeastern district of Neukolln, itself a vibrant (although increasingly expensive) place for artists, writers and musicians.
As the final few artists shuffle out of the Kunsthaus Tacheles, a young Australian film-maker in a chocolate brown suit reflects on what Berlin is losing.
“I came here three months ago, to write an opera – then I found out about this place and that it is shutting down,” Liam Melaluka says.
“To me, this building is like the caves we see from thousands of years ago, where people have painted and left their marks. This is a building of living colour, where people are constantly creating. Even as I walked through here on the last day there were new pictures on the walls.”
He looks up at the empty building, which stands oddly mute for the first time in years. He sighs.
“For Berlin, for Germany and the wider world this was not an ancient cave where you were not allowed to paint. It was a place you were allowed to add to. Now that it is gone, where else can we paint? The sides of the streets, where police can arrest us?
“This wasn’t like an office space, where you can move to another building and take your PC. This was a place people put their heart into.”