Caitlin Mavromates takes a look at the city’s diverse range of public artworks…
Public art can be defined as any piece of art that has come into the public domain through public funding or Percent for Art policies, in a space accessible to the greater community.
Its form can range from a marble sculpture or mural to a contemporary installation or even a performance. While many might think of public art as static, it can be – and often is – an interactive process, as residents, artists, politicians, and workers all come together to form a piece that adds to the culture and history of their city.
When we look at such pieces, we sense a greater shared history, a collective memory that tells us something particular about that given place and time, whether deeply political, controversial or just attention-grabbing. Often, as is the case of Berlin, these definitions and functions become blurred.
Often public art is thought of as a top-down project, in which an artist is commissioned to do a piece for a government or organisation. And it’s certainly true that Berlin’s abundant memorials speak to the role that public art can play in telling the history of the city.
However, street art can do the same thing, and often for the future too. Despite being mostly unofficial (not to mention illegal), it is nonetheless central to how both locals and visitors perceive and understand the city, sometimes underlining Berlin’s contemporary role as a “creative capital”.
When these different forms of public art reside amongst one another, they creates a patchwork that can lend insights into the past, present and future…
Stands and Falls
“Steht und fällt” or ‘Stands and Falls’ is a work by acclaimed British sculptor Antony Gormley that dates back to 2001. The project is one of the hundreds of commissioned contemporary artworks that adorn German parliament buildings. Located in a flooded courtyard of the Jakob Kaiser Building, this sculpture of two rusting cast-iron figures are almost entirely hidden from view. They can be seen from a concrete jetty—the only way to cross the courtyard—as they overlook the artificial lake. This body of water literally reflects the five sculptures located on the walls of the German Bundestag. These sculptures add a human element to the otherwise abstract installation and link people to their environment in a moment of reflection and meditation.
Diary/Guestbook at Kino Intimes
The Kino Intimes, a small one-screen independent cinema, opened in 1917 in heart of Friedrichshain. The kino screens both independent and alt-mainstream releases, but the real sight is the exterior. The outside wall is called the “diary” or “guestbook,” as it is a constantly changing piece of graffiti and stickers. Over the years, hundreds of urban artists have added their mark, adding to the continually evolving artwork. This is not your average street art; rather it is actively encouraged by the cinema as a more conceptual piece of “permanent change,” challenging what public art can mean in a rapidly evolving city like Berlin.
Standing at the western entrance of Volkspark Friedrichshain, this elaborate fountain depicts fairy-tale characters from the Brothers Grimm stories. It was built in 1893, when famed city planner and architect Ludwig Hoffman was commissioned to design and build a public space for everyone in the city to enjoy—especially the poorer families who lived nearby. At the end of the Second World War, Friedrichshain Park suffered extensive damage, and the sculptures were thought to be demolished. However—like a scene from a fairy tale–they were rediscovered, albeit damaged, behind a wall in a vegetable garden in 1950. Over the following year were restored and have been on display ever since.
Kaninchenfeld or ‘Rabbit Field’ is an installation by Karla Sachse located on and around the former GDR checkpoint on Chausseestraße. Set into the pavement, the series of brass bunnies are a symbol of the real rabbits that used to not only hop around here in the Cold War years, but also used to dig tunnels between the East and West sides of the city, without getting shot. Representing a freedom of movement that was denied Berliners during the city’s division, 120 of the rabbits were originally installed in 1999, though due to new road works and construction over 40 of them have disappeared already.
Peace Be With You
In 2009, the left-wing German newspaper Die Tageszeitung (Taz) unveiled an installation by sculptor Peter Lenk. Residing on the exterior wall of their headquarters in Kreuzberg, the sculpture depicts a naked man with a five-storey-long penis that extends to the roof of the building and narrows into a cobra head at the tip.
The man depicted is the editor of the populist paper Bildzeitung, Kai Diekmann, whose headquarters have a clear view of the installation from a few hundred meters away. The piece goes back to the two tabloids’ ideological rivalry between left- and right- wing, but began to really take shape in 2002 when the Taz published a satirical editorial about Diekmann’s (probably fictitious) penis enlargement surgery in Florida.
It was one of many articles that were a part of the back-and-forth rivalry of the two papers, but this one caught national attention when Diekmann sued the Taz for damages and lost. Some time later, this piece of public art was commissioned as a visual expression of the Taz’ victory.
Originally an icon of futuristic 1970s architecture, this bizarre abandoned building was once used to house restaurants, pubs, and a discotheque that was shut down for renovations in 2002 – and which never re-opened. It is named the “Bierpinsel” or ‘Beer Brush’ for its brush-like shape and also because at its opening in 1976, free beer was served. In 2010, street artists from around the world were invited to paint the buildings over a number of weeks, creating an exhibition of street art both within and around the structure. The building was only supposed to be this way for a year, but still has not returned to its original red colour.
Block der Frauen (Block of Women)
The “Block of Women”, a sculpture by Ingeborg Hunzinger, is all but hidden away on Rosenstraße, in a small park where an old synagogue once stood. It was built to commemorate a particularly poignant moment during the Nazi years commonly known as the Women’s Uprising Of 1943. During February of 1943, approximately 8,000 Jewish citizens were detained by the Gestapo and the SS, including around 2,000 men who were in “mixed-marriages.” Until this point, these marriages were tolerated, but when they were separated from the rest of the prisoners and taken to Rosenstraße 2-4 (the former Jewish Welfare Administration), women and children gathered in front of the building demanding answers. On February 27, 1943, the women demanded to speak with their loved ones and their release. Approximately 600 women gathered in daily protests for a week when their partners were finally released, an event that has prompted many questions about what might have happened if more brave souls had stood up to the regime.
Prinzenstraβe Frog Prince
Aptly located in the Prinzenstraße (Prince Street) U-Bahn station, this Frog Prince resides high above Platform 1 from where he calmly looks over his realm. Installed in 1902, the frog has survived war-time bombing, theft (from his previous location in a stairwell), and storage during the station’s renovations in the ‘80s. Since then he has been patiently waiting for the next twist in his fairy tale existence.
Sunken Wall, Invalidenpark
Built in 1992, Christophe Girot’s “Versunkene Mauer” or “Sunken Wall” sculpture stands at the centre of Invalidenpark, and appears to be sinking into the water basin around it. The site has complex history and military associations. During the 18th century, the area was used as a vegetable garden for soldiers who had become injured during war, and was repurposed throughout the 19th century a number of times by the Prussian military. In 1843, it was a memorial park, and in 1891 a chapel was added to commemorate the Franco-Prussian War. After the destruction from World War II, the space remained unused until the fall of the wall, when it was redesigned by landscape architects Atelier Phusis and Christophe Girot. Today this sculpture stands as a narrative of its complex past but also a symbol of perseverance and hope for the future.
Commissioned by the authorities of the former GDR in 1986, sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt created this tribute to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on the eastern bank of the Spree river. This site was formerly an Old Town quarter between Alexanderplatz and the Spree that was heavily bombed during World War Two. After the destruction of this densely populated, commercial space, the GDR authorities set up plans for a park in which this sculpture now stands. After reunification, this statue became controversial, as it symbolised the values of the old regime—but it has prevailed as a monument of artistic and historical significance important to the history (and the acknowledgement of that history).
These two Cadillac cars set in concrete were a part of a project that aimed to transform West Berlin’s shopping street into a “boulevard of sculptures.” Erected in 1987 by Wolf Vostell for the 750th anniversary of Berlin, this sculpture was the subject of mass controversy. It plays with the idea of the car as a fetishized object in the German and American identities, and references the mass of cars that enter and exit the city’s motorway.
The Oberbaum Bridge is one of Berlin’s iconic landmarks, linking Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg—two boroughs that were formerly divided by the Wall—across the River Spree. During the GDR years, the bridge was a checkpoint, used mostly as a pedestrian border crossing for the residents of West Berlin only. Since 1997, an installation titled “Steine-Paper-Schere” by Thorsten Goldberg has adorned the bridge. The sculpture features two neon signs embedded in the iron supports of the U-Bahn line that are controlled by a random generator that illuminates the outline of a fist, an outstretched hand, and a hand holding two fingers out. They play a game of rock-paper-scissors throughout the night. This game, with virtually no winners or losers, and random in strategy, questions the arbitrariness of political decisions throughout both the Cold War and contemporary times.
Der verlassene Raum (The Deserted Room)
In a quiet playground in Koppenplatz stands a sculpture by Karl Biedermann and Eva Butzmann that consists of a bronze table with two chairs – one of which has been knocked over. The sculpture was a winner of a competition in the GDR in 1988 that aimed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht, and finally installed in 1996. The larger-than-life work refers to the sudden departures of those who had to leave in the middle of the night during the pogroms, with no time to gather possessions or make plans.