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Ich bin ein Berliner: More Pricks Than Kicks

I thought a year was long time to stay in one place but Dorothy trumped me. “The last time I left Berlin was 10 years ago,” she said over her Sternburg, at 60 cents a bottle the impoverished drunkards beer of choice. She mentioned it as a fact, without pride or regret, like saying on which day the rubbish is collected or when you had your shoes fixed last - incidentally done free of charge at an orthopedic clinic in Neukölln, where they also pay you 40 Euros to undergo tests on your feet (mark it in your notebooks for desperate times).

Dorothy and her boyfriend Oskar, a rabid fan of FC Schalke 04 who between episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants - or, as it’s known around these parts, Spongebob Schwammkopf -
spends his time pouring over supermarket catalogues looking for bargains with a dedication bordering on the scholarly, are part of an endangered breed. They are the true Kreuzberg believers from its glory days in the 1980s: the days of Nina Hagen, legendary bar SO 36, Nick Cave at Oranienstrasse, Der Himmel über Berlin and Christiane F. giving blow jobs for a fix in the toilets of Zoologischer Garten.

Still of an afternoon you can see them loitering with intent on the concourse at Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn station, selling everything from valium to fake pairs of designer jeans. Every week or so the U-Bahn security swarm through the station with their muzzled dogs and clear it out, but after an hour or two, everyone resurfaces, tentatively at first, the hardcore in the vanguard, gammy of leg and gaunt of face from years of shooting every drug they can lay their hands on. From then on it’s business as usual.

But times have changed. Nina Hagen found God and moved to Los Angeles, when she isn’t hosting Germany’s answer to Pop Idol, Nick Cave lives in Brighton, and Zoologischer Garten was cleaned up years ago. The cheap rents that drew artists from across Europe and beyond to the shadow of the Wall and, post-89, into Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, are implacably rising. Bergstübl in Mitte, where my last spate of riot-running saw me testing whether beer bottles really do smash over one’s head like you see in the movies (they do), closed down last month. SO 36 is Berlin’s answer to CBGBs, and the squalid beauty of Mitte’s turn of the century apartments are metamorphosing into a nightmare of track-lighting, power showers and child-friendly courtyards, enlivened with whatever period features the young Euro-executive requires.

All of this came to mind when, after a year in Berlin, I made my first trip back to London. Walking down Shoreditch High Street, Brick Lane, and Kingland Road, I remembered how it was when I first moved to London 10 years ago - already, according to London’s own true believers, 10 years too late. When you could watch Valie Export films at the Lux Cinema (R.I.P.), when Brick Lane market was a market rather than a fashion parade for people with more ethnic food in their bowels than sense, and rather than being a ‘picturesque’ dump, the 24-hour bagel place was just a dump.

London, of course, now basks in the light of its own glory, an immense celebration of itself and of all the things that caused me, this time last year, to book a one-way ticket out of town. By a trick of upbringing, or reading too many of the wrong books (or the right?), I like my cities desperate, dirty and sad, and I don’t believe that the loss of those things can be compensated for by any amount of organic cheese or lottery-funded art.

Coming back to Berlin a week later, I realised that it is only a matter of time before my new home-town goes the same way. While I am not aware of any sociological study conducted on the subject, I’m nonetheless sure that there’s a direct correlation between the proliferation of organic produce and the transplant of a city’s heart. Somewhere, I am sure, between chain-smoking macaques and mice with ears growing out of their backs, there is a laboratory where city planners hatch contemporary modes of living just like Dr António Egas Moniz 70 years before. His claim to fame? The prefrontal lobotomy.*

I realise that this blog entry is not exactly a laugh-a-minute, or what my father would have called “as funny as a barrel full of dead babies”. So, as some light relief, I thought I’d include what I am proud to call The Worst Interview Ever Conducted. I had hoped to use it in an earlier blog. It was done via e-mail with Santiago Ydanez, a Spanish artist based in Berlin who recently had a solo exhibition at Invaliden1, one of the many galleries along Brunnenstrasse. The show itself was excellent: Santiago is an immensely gifted painter, and his monumental portraits of animals or self-portraits bristle with energy, vigour and power. The artist himself was courteous, interesting and obliging.

The interview was, well, shit. So here it is, in all its glory:

QUESTION: Do you see a conceptual unity in your work as a whole?

ANSWER: My work is born from autobiographic references with my general knowledge. It collects about the fauna and the landscapes of the place where I was born and to insert them in moments of History of Art that I like. I mix this all with a primitive and basic feeling of my life.

QUESTION: Can you describe your physical relationship to the canvas? (I am thinking about the photographs in the catalogue you gave me which show your relationship to painting as highly dramatic)

ANSWER: ....

QUESTION: Is there a narrative element to your paintings?

ANSWER: Usually I do not use narrative elements. I prefer images which can touch some feelings.

QUESTION: Do you view your animal paintings as different from
your human portraits and, if so, how?

ANSWER: There is not many difference. Both of them try to dive on basic aspects of the live.

QUESTION: How long have you lived or been connected to Berlin?

ANSWER: This is my fourth year living here but I just live here part-time. I share my home between Granada and Berlin.

QUESTION: How do you view the art scene here and how has it
changed since you've known it?

ANSWER: In these four years I have not analysed the changes here, maybe just an economical recovery...

QUESTION Do you have any contact with London and if so what
are your thoughts about the art scene there?

ANSWER: I am not in touch with London at the moment and about the context there I am on the move through the Media, awards, openings…I think it is an effervescent city about the creativity.

Santiago Ydanez. Excellent painter, just don't ask for an interview.