Artist Simon Starling gives the lowdown on life in Berlin
Where do you live in Berlin?
Berlin is a series of interconnected ‘villages’ and I live in Kreuzberg which, although geographically located in the east of the city, was part of the former west. It has always been a bit of a hideout for Berlin oddballs. Bowie and his pals hung out there in the 70s, as did Nick Cave. It also attracted many of the ‘draft dodgers’ from West German military service. While other parts of the city have taken on a kind of euro-homogeneity, Kreuzberg still retains its diversity and rough edges.
Do you know many other artists/art professionals there?
From the beginning my contact with Berlin was always via the art world. I started visiting the city in the mid-90s to see my friend, the artist Dave Allen, who had moved there from Glasgow a few years earlier. It was through Dave that I got to know the Berlin scene, which in those days seemed to have a lot in common with the Glasgow scene—it was very ad-hoc and opportunistic. Later I started working with the gallery neugerriemschneider who have a space in Mitte. The great thing is the sense that you can be very involved and present in the scene one moment and then, when it suits, invisible the next.
How does the cost and standard of living compare?
It’s still relatively cheap, although prices are going up all the time. The introduction of the euro was an excuse for a lot of people to up their prices overnight. Compared with other European cities the standard of living for many people is probably low. Times are quite tough at the moment and jobs are hard to find and badly paid when you get them. The city does seem to have an undying optimism and an ability to transform itself—it’s extraordinary what has happened there in the last 100 years.
What are facilities for artists like?
For me the really important thing has been the existence of small businesses that in many other cities have disappeared. There are still so many extraordinary specialists making and selling things with great care and affection. You find fabricators whose grandfather made prototypes for Mies van der Rohe—people like that. It makes the whole process much richer.
What is the gallery scene like?
What does the city think of art?
I guess the strange thing about Berlin is that institutionally the city is relatively poor in terms of contemporary art. For example, unlike other German cities it doesn’t have a really strong Kunstverein. Compared to a smaller less vibrant city like Frankfurt, it is lacking something at that level. There are big museums and commercial galleries but somehow not enough in between. The two really important venues when I first came to Berlin in the mid 90s were Kunstlerhaus Bethanian and Kunstwerk and they seem to have lost their way a little. Of course all of these venues put on fantastic shows from time to time. The Neu National Gallerie, for example, made a very interesting show with Rem Koolhas last year, the place was packed with models and people too, and then a few months later all that could be seen in this vast glass box was Mark Wallinger wandering around dressed as a bear. It was genius! I think in a way it’s important that the exoticism of Berlin has worn off since the early 90s, although having said that there does seem to be a return to what I understand to be a rather reactionary, figurative painting which seems a little nostalgic for that moment. The collectors eat it up though!
What are the main differences between Scotland and Berlin in terms of attitudes to and opportunities for artists?
Scotland has still a long way to go in acknowledging the significance and impact of its visual artists. In Berlin that seems to be a given. But at the same time it’s the grassroots scene that has made both Scotland, particularly Glasgow, and Berlin the important places that they are for the visual arts. It’s more a question of how that grassroots culture grows and matures. Berlin seems much better equipped for that to happen. But it’s really impossible to compare the two situations in any really meaningful way. One important thing in Berlin is a sense that the dialogue surrounding art practice is of central importance. Things like Dave Allen and Raimar Stanger’s magazine Neue Review are clear indicators of this—a magazine written by collaborative teams of artists about recent exhibitions or events in the city. It’s a winning formula. Scotland has had a tendency to stifle its critical voices, not cultivate them.
What is your favourite haunt?
To feed the mind I am always very happy to spend some hours in proQM, the wonderful Mitte book shop that specialises in art, architecture and theory. And then to sustain the body my local pizza place in Kreuzberg; Il Cassolare makes the best pizza I’ve had, in or out of Italy—it’s also the selfappointed heart of Berlin’s Italian punk scene.
What is the best place for gigs?
The annual Merz Musik festival showcasing contemporary classical and experimental music in various venues around the city. Last year a snakeskin-clad Lou Reed came to town to perform his Metal Machine with a Berlin emsemble. Christian Marclay’s graffitied poster ‘scores’ were also performed in the Neue National Galerie, which was stunning.
Have you noticed any significant changes?
The people arriving in Berlin change all the time, they come in waves. At one point it was Scandinavian artists who moved there, then perhaps you suddenly started to meet a lot of Italians, now it’s the French and Americans who are arriving in great numbers.
What is the best and worst thing about Berlin?
The summer and the winter.
Will you stay and why?
For me it offers a perfect alternative to my life in Glasgow. It’s always about juggling things but we’ll see what happens. I now have a teaching job in Frankfurt, and Berlin is only three to four hours away from work.
Simon Starling was one of only three British artists to exhibit at the São Paolo Bienal, 2004. His show at the Modern Institute ran from 8 Oct–5 Nov 2004