In one of those parts of Berlin in which no one knows to which district it belongs (Are we still in Mitte? Or is it already Kreuzberg?), a former glass warehouse is located. The building is not utterly charming, somewhat unapproachable, and surrounded by social housing and an obscure urban development mansion project from the 1980s.
Today, the building stores not glass but a museum. A museum that wrongly calls itself a gallery – a gallery that cannot look back on a century of history – but it is still one of the most substantial exhibition spaces in Berlin. Berlinische Galerie, which this text is all about, is only three expeditious walking minutes away from König Galerie. It is about time then for a quick stroll around the block to visit the neighbors.
© Berlinische Galerie and image Harry Schnitger
An exhibition space does not end at the front door nowadays, but anywhere on the internet, in public space, at the very least: outside. Berlinische Galerie is well aware of this, and so the visitor encounters the art long before entering the museum, in this case in the form of thirtytwo road signs. The signs were installed by artist Silvia Klara Breitwieser as part of her work Botschaften – Die Berlinische Galerie (1996 – 97), which was part of an exhibition series hosted by Berlinische Galerie. For her extensive piece, the artist asked museums across Germany about the state of the art back in the late 1990s. The answers (“You can imagine the opposite,” “Trust your eyes”) now point the way to the museum.
When one finally enters Berlinische Galerie and passes through the entrance hall, the first exhibition space is reached. When it comes to its spatial dimensions, they are about as good as a midsized shipyard and so provide room for large-scale installations, sculptures, ideas. To name two of them (works about the ideas, of course): Narrow House by Erwin Wurm filled in the room with a compressed version of his parents’ home, 1.1 m in depth; while earlier this year a heavy pendulum made of leather by Monica Bonvicini was hung from the ceiling.
When leaving this room through a wide door to the left, the visitor enters the center of Berlinische Galerie, an endless, dazzling bright inner room around which everything else is arranged. Right in the middle of the room, a double staircase is situated, and it is rewarding to make an extended break during this short walk through the museum here. At first sight the stairs seem to be terribly standard: two sets of stairs rise from the ground and merge together at a central platform, from which two further staircases lead off to the first floor. During exhibition openings the good-looking cool kids gather on the platform to sip their beers not realizing how oddly constructed the thing is that they stand on.
© Berlinische Galerie and image Nina Strassguetl
Almost like a section of DNA but in rectangular form, the staircase revolves around its axes, leaving the stair climber with the question of which rising to choose, where to continue, once reaching the platform. Are those the front or back stairs? And do the back stairs lead to the same place as the front? Finally, the ludicrous idea of dividing the construction into twenty-three steps for the bottom section and eighteen steps at the top saves this heavy structure made from metal, concrete, and glass a place in the collective memory of Berlin’s stairs: right next to the gently rising ramp under the Reichstag dome and the expansive steps from Friedrichstraße to Grill Royal. Even after several phone calls with various members of staff of Berlinische Galerie it was not possible to find the name of the person responsible for the stairs. The designer is protected from both damning criticism and immediate stardom.
After overcoming all forty-one steps, mentally and physically, one reaches the collection of the museum situated on the first floor. The focus lies on art that has been created in Berlin since 1870, which is a willful yet consistent approach considering the close connection to the city already inherent to the name of the museum. Moreover, the institution was founded in 1975 with the clear aim to collect and display art from Berlin.
Since then, in both its forms and focus, this singular collection has grown, which now cuts across a broad range of artistic practices and mediums (painting, photography, drawing, architecture), movements and scenes (Berlin Secession, New Objectivity, Dada). It is an accurate reflection of the cultural landscape in Berlin over the past 150 years: the last drawing of Max Liebermann, a portrait of his wife Martha from 1932, is part of the collection alongside a collage-like painting by Wolf Vostell indicative of the Dada movement; not to forget K.H. Hödicke’s Kriegsministerium from 1977, which depicts the divided city of Berlin as a radically gloomy end of the world caught between the two superpowers waging the Cold War. Today, the painting is on display on the upper floor of Berlinische Galerie, which can be walked through and around to the point at which one, well, reaches the stairs again. The descent takes much less time than the rise, and after going down and around the corner and past the museum’s store and the ticket counter, from which, by the way, one is always kindly greeted, the visitor comes out onto the forecourt.
Berlinische Galerie is a reliable indicator of what art from Berlin stands for today, how it works, by whom it is made. The museum is an enormous and rewarding archive for everyone interested in the recent cultural history of the city. It provides the established but also younger, emerging artists of Berlin needed space. Enough has been said about the stairs, and therefore, without further ado: Berlinische Galerie is a fantastic neighbor.