Berlin has become a haven for artists from all over the world—a free zone where experimentation, individual expression, and international influences converge. The artists in this hour demonstrate the diversity of practice and sensibilities in the German capital.
The “Berlin” episode features Nathalie Djurberg & Hans Berg, Olafur Eliasson, Hiwa K, and Susan Philipsz.
[dramatic string music]
- What we are interested in is to examine
the organization of the world.
Art doesn't stop where the real world starts.
[buzzing and clacking]
- It just looks a little... I mean, it kind of looks nice.
The way that the cable is connected to the top--
- Yeah, that's temporary, yeah. So, we're happy with the light.
- I'm excited.
I also think these shadows are great.
Congratulations. It's perfect.
It's nice with the glowing thing inside.
The placement of the color we should locate
here in the model and do it
exactly like that on site.
- You see the blue over there? - Yeah.
- And then there was a red, there's a red there.
We need more of that.
The objects are not necessarily the most
interesting part about art.
It is what the object does to me when I look at it
or engage in it that is actually interesting.
[shifting string music]
You are somehow provoked into a more negotiating role,
because you go like, "What am I looking at?"
Then you are more likely to also inquire,
"Well, what does looking actually mean,
and why am I seeing things the way I'm seeing it?"
Instead of questioning the object,
you are in fact questioning yourself.
That, I think, is one of the great things art can do.
Art can somehow offer an opportunity
to sort of do some self-evaluation.
[minimal electronic music]
When I came to Berlin in the early '90s,
the art scene was still relatively small.
It was cheap, easy to get a studio,
easy to meet friends.
That created a lot of artistic activity.
I was so impressed with the artists,
but I also realized I had to be as honest
they were to themself, I had to be to myself.
That's why I said I'll just deal with the tools
that I have and what I know.
I grew up in Denmark, and I spent a lot of time
in Iceland, where my parents are from.
I would typically spend more time in the countryside.
I would just climb and make small dams
in the rivers and so on.
It's not about me growing up in a certain situation.
It's really about you and what you can make of it.
And that's why I brought in working with ephemera,
working with water, working with temperature,
and so on.
It was not really about romanticizing
nature versus culture.
It was just that these were the things I knew.
I thought that a waterfall would offer
a dimensional quality to these enormous spaces,
which would allow us to physically relate
to the city on a more human scale.
It was about creating this sense of presence,
in which you are welcome, and you could share it
looking with somebody else, and, you know,
creating that moment in its own surreal way.
Nature presented a great toolbox,
which would offer a lot of spatial experiments
through which we could investigate each other.
[buzzing and clacking]
You see, the thin one is-- is too out of focus.
But it looks great. It looks great.
A lot of people still think that artists work
in this kind of solitary position,
and I actually don't think that's the case.
Artists are incredibly interconnected
in different networks.
Can you lift it up a little bit?
When I started my studio in Berlin,
for many years, I did everything myself,
and, gradually, I was lucky to realize that other people
are probably better at it.
- When I started in 2000, we were three people,
and, two years later, we were 20.
Then, continuously, more people arrived.
- I really didn't want to get specialized in a form,
but more in content.
The ambition was to prevent us
only working with one thing.
For some five, six, seven, eight years now,
we've been around 90 people.
Broadly speaking, there's three teams
in the studio-- one is craftsman,
one is a research team,
and one is a team of architects.
The fact that they would feel that it's worth
being a part of the team is incredibly inspiring.
- Then we can... sorry.
Here, I'll need this, because we have some things,
of course, in the workshop that we should start here.
- We should get the circadian models
into somebody's computer.
Then there's also something about the color, blue, red,
but I like this kind of incredibly bulky lamp
to sit down.
- It's always a collaborative moment.
No one here does anything alone.
When starting a project together,
we think about, what does he want to say,
or what is important to say
in these days or at this moment?
[minimal electronic music]
- I've always been interested in,
how does one know that one is in a public space?
Like, "The Weather Project," I wanted to see,
can I create a work of art both inside and the outside?
We play around a lot, and we do a lot of things
that are, you know, nonquantifiable.
We experiment with artworks that eventually does not
turn into an artwork, because it turns out to be
a lot less interesting than I thought it would be.
Sadly, it happens a lot.
One of the important things is that everybody
seems to have some kind of feeling of,
"Why are we doing what we're doing?"
- So, ten years ago, he'd be very focused
in thinking about what artworks do in museums
and what museums do to artworks.
He wanted to test art in public space.
What does art do when you encounter it
in an unprescribed way?
- My entering into the studio offered Olafur
the possibility to actually work
in a public space in a more significant way.
The boring thing to me about art is if it's only made
for people who look at art anyway.
- I think we should take away some of the glasses
along the edge.
These ones out here.
I think if we take out every second of those,
we are quite close.
Where are we next?
- Here or there.
- Yeah, but I think these two are too much the same,
and this one-- I guess it would
be nice if one was inside.
I mean, look how nice they are just alone.
No, I mean, three of them are really great.
- Slide here a little bit. - Which is fine.
- And then there's this kind of thing...
- He has strong opinions, but he's also very open
about how his thoughts get expressed.
Not necessarily about that he likes this or that,
but it's about the potential of the material.
It's the potential of a shape, of a space.
We consider the bridge more as an artwork
than an architectural work.
The idea behind the bridge
is that you actually generate a space
rather than only the connection between two sides.
We want to have a design which is a lot more playful.
The idea of crossing from one side to the other,
kind of jumping over, like, little islands.
- Most anyone among us has experienced the power
that an artwork has to create some type of interior change.
Something that motivates us, makes us go,
"Wow, you know, this made me think differently."
Take "Ice Watch," for instance.
We brought these 12 blocks of Greenlandic ice
to Copenhagen in 2014
to coincide with the publication
of the fifth climate report,
and then again in 2015 in Paris.
We wanted to talk about climate change,
and we thought, well,
what art does is that it affords
an immediate experience of something,
and what we lack today
is an immediate experience of what climate change means.
- I was finding a lot of satisfaction
in doing the "Ice Watch" project,
and this gave me confidence to start
to operate more on behalf
of the cultural sector in advocacy.
Once, I met with a engineer who's sort of a solar nerd.
And I, as an artist, I was interested in,
how does it feel to be able to harvest your own energy?
You know, clearly, his skills and my skills
must be usable together, and this is how
we came up with the "Little Sun" project.
- The idea that we were looking at with "Little Sun"
is could we make something which, for us,
is a work of art,
but for someone here in Berlin,
could be an advocacy tool for renewable energy,
and for a child in Ethiopia, could maybe really be
a life-changing thing?
I don't think it's so much a shift in Olafur's work
as it is an evolution and an expanding of the tools.
- I often thought about the studio not being
a place you step into to get away from the world
but a place through which you can have a microscopic look
at the world outside.
On a good day, the studio is almost like
an amplifier of these sort of frequencies
on which the world is moving.
- The goal was to do something meaningful with art,
to also go beyond art.
- What we are interested in when making art
is to examine the organization of the world.
Art doesn't stop where the real world starts.
I really think we need to find a way to create solutions,
just like science has presented solutions to us.
Art, as a civic muscle,
actually has something to offer.
[ambient string music]
- Art is, like, one of the few places in society
that is not so rigid,
which doesn't have to have one single purpose.
Because where would this fit in otherwise?
My work, it's a looking for the answer,
but the answer in itself is not so important.
It's more important what I discover
during the making of it.
I moved here around 2003
for the electronic music scene.
I was just sitting at home making music for myself
before I met Nathalie.
Berlin is like a free zone.
You live in sort of a bubble.
There's not so many social constraints.
- Living in Berlin has had a big influence.
For me, it's more feeling very free.
I'm self-taught in animation,
and he's kind of the same with music.
- If you're self-taught, what's driving you
is the necessity to do it.
- The best way that I can make the idea
is by making an animation.
It's just because that fits me.
If I could do it in a simpler way, I would.
So if I was a brilliant writer, I would write.
Before, I had been so frustrated
in not being able to tell what I wanted to tell.
I didn't find a way to do it in one image.
Then I made an animation, and that suited me perfectly
because I didn't have to be content with one image,
I could have a thousand.
In the studio, there are no taboos.
Taboos exist because we are really scared
of being that ourselves, so we don't look at it.
Bringing art into the light, to say that,
"No, that was just a thought.
Didn't really belong to me in that way.
I was just so terrified of looking at it
because I was so scared of finding out
something about myself."
[man speaking foreign language]
- [speaks German] - [speaks German]
I never did something that was like a maze before,
but this is pretty massive, because, usually,
I don't have to be inside the set this much.
- Okay. [laughs]
Another exciting day at work.
- [speaking foreign language]
- Ah. You can't use that when I said that.
When we met, she didn't think I would be
a good musical partner.
- He was sharing an apartment with my best friend,
and she suggested that he would make music to me.
I gave him a finished one that I wasn't happy with.
- When I saw her films, I hadn't seen
anything like it before.
Like, nothing, there's nothing that looks like it.
It evoked something specific in me.
In the beginning, I was kind of scared
to make music for them, actually, because I thought,
like, "I don't want to change them too much."
- When he gave it back to me, he had flipped it so much
that all the mistakes
and all the crudeness of it didn't matter.
It had made the flip that I hadn't been able to.
Even though, like, images evoke emotions,
music or sound do it even more.
Hans is an expert manipulator in that way.
- I don't really care about story.
It's the situation that interests me.
For me, it's not so interesting
if I know everything that's gonna happen in the animation.
I lose interest in it because then
I've already seen it in my head.
I don't write ideas up.
I never do,
because the one that matters stays anyway,
or they come back in another form.
[music playing over speakers]
- It's more about letting things pop up
and just knowing which things to grab.
That's how I see ideas a bit, like, I don't make them,
I'm more, like, catching them.
The best I can do is just catch the right ideas.
- I am intrigued by what is hidden
and what it is trying to hide.
For the "Dark Side of the Moon,"
it's about exploring a secret that you don't know
what it is, like, your own secret
that you expect to find, but you never find it
because it doesn't really exist.
- For this film, which is in this
sort of enchanted forest setting,
I wanted the music to be mystical.
It's more like a musical, almost.
Because the characters are so clumsy
and ugly and a bit disgusting,
I wanted to make the music really beautiful.
- There's always, like, a distance
when you look at a screen or a projection,
so I wanted to have this immersion
of being with it physically.
[dramatic electronic music]
- It's like walking inside an animation.
The forest, it's, like, a magical place,
and we wanted to work with that.
- Both Hans and I are very colored by being Swedish.
The culture of the folklore, that was a very, very big
influence in my childhood,
and that always went back to nature,
like fables where animals are representing
different human characters.
If I use an animal,
I can show, like, a personal trait, a characteristic.
I was extremely fascinated with the folklore
that are not directed for children.
My art is not for children.
A child would look at the animation,
might see a banana, but a grown-up might not,
or they will see a banana but also what it symbolizes.
My process is really long.
The animation that I'm working on now,
I worked on it for, like, four and a half months.
I don't like post-production at all,
and I don't like editing.
There is no point in doing that afterwards.
Animating is, for me, to jump into the unknown,
and once that is done, there is
no feeling or necessity to work with it after.
[music playing over speakers]
- So now I'm just trying out different basic ideas.
It's quite dark,
and I want to keep it like that.
In this animation, it's, like, this search
that goes on and on in this maze.
I want the music to be almost like
it's rolling forward all the time,
almost, like, a bit drunk.
That's what I want to emphasize
with the music.
- The film is about that you get lost in your own mind.
Wanting to get out,
you keep on going in this loop,
just going through these corridors like a maze,
never getting out.
Even if I'm not doing something
that is directly about me,
it's absolutely still about me.
Everything I do in art is a discovering of who I am.
That is the search.
That is the fascination.
I don't think that emotions or feelings should be controlled.
They should be felt and looked at.
It's when they're hidden that they are a problem.
I have nothing really to say to anyone
because I can't know what anyone else needs.
You can think that you know what someone else needs,
but it's impossible to know.
But since people are not that different
and I'm a human being,
some parts of me will really resonate with other people.
[atmospheric dance music]
- Living in Berlin, the history is so raw.
I mean, you still feel it.
I think the city doesn't want to hide its past.
When I first came to Berlin, this was one of
the first places I came to, actually.
Train stations, they're very evocative places,
you know, as places of departure and separation.
It has a kind of melancholy feel about it,
I think, the station.
And I love that sound.
I'm interested in the emotive
and psychological effects of sound.
Often, I'm just looking for a place
that has an interesting
acoustic or architecture history.
Like in Kassel, for instance, it was the atmosphere
of the train station that kind of drew me.
"Study for Strings" started from standing
at the platform's end and thinking
about sound coming from a distance.
[string music playing]
I discovered that Kassel is where they made
major deportations of the Jews to Theresienstadt,
which was a concentration camp
where they sent all the creative people.
I started thinking about Pavel Haas,
who'd composed this composition,
"Study for Strings,"
while he was interned in the camp.
[string music playing]
And it was to feature in this propaganda movie
for the Red Cross.
They wanted to pretend that, you know,
everything was great in the camp.
But it was really tragic because it was--
straight after it was shot,
they were all sent to Auschwitz.
In the original composition, it was a 24-piece orchestra.
So what I decided to do was to record
just two of the parts.
See, silences, really makes you think about the absence
of the other performers who would've been killed.
Alexander, you were playing the bottom one, weren't you?
The bottom, yeah. Third one, yeah.
And so what we're gonna do is create a tension
with the three tones that you'll be playing.
So if you can just follow as closely as this as you can.
- There was never kind of a point
where we were working together as a collective.
It just seemed to develop
out of our shared life together.
After we moved to Berlin, it became clear
that Susan was getting very busy,
and I started to manage some of Susan's productions.
Susan is much more intuitive
and can determine the tone
or the atmosphere of a space.
Susan has a very good, you know,
understanding of space,
when a space is kind of layered
and when the meaning is just there,
just below the surface.
And then just doing something very minimal
to let it reveal itself.
- On March the 12th, 1938, without warning,
the German armies marched over the Austrian border
and hit the road in triumph into Vienna.
- I was invited to make a work
that marks the 80th anniversary
of the annexation of Austria to Germany
that happened after Hitler's speech.
It's not something that they're proud of,
but they want to acknowledge their part in it.
So, with each new project in public space,
I make a sound test just to get an idea
of how the sound would be in this particular space,
'cause sometimes it can do really unpredictable things.
Yeah, so it's four channels,
two from one speaker, two from the other.
You can place anything in the Heldenplatz,
I mean, and it will take on a political connotation
because of the context.
- Yeah. This one is working.
We'll need to bring the volume up.
- At the beginning, I tested a work
which used the sound of a viola
and another work where I actually used my voice.
- What is the name of-- is that--
- It's called "Weep." "Weep, O Mine Eyes." Yeah.
- Singing has always been part of my life,
singing with my sisters,
and then I was in a band for a little while.
Then I became aware of what happens when you project
your voice into a room and how it can define space.
♪ Who loves the Sun?
♪ Who cares that it is shining? ♪
I think it's clear that I don't have
a trained voice.
I'm singing in a way that you might sing
if you were on your own,
the songs I sang in the supermarket.
I originally performed live,
where I sang over the PA system at hourly intervals.
It has quite a disarming effect
because you feel like you're listening
to something quite private.
I'm trying to create this sense of solitude
in this very public place.
[singing over PA]
I've thought of songs as kind of like found objects.
Singing them unaccompanied and then placing them
in a particular context could make you
see the place in a new way,
or the words might take on a new meaning.
[singing indistinctly over speakers]
The song "Lowlands," which was this old
16th-century Scottish ballad about a sailor who comes back
to say a final farewell to his loved one...
it's a very sad lament,
but the context prevents you from really being moved.
Recording for my voice or battling with the sounds
of the trains and the traffic, you're all of a sudden
aware of where you are because the ambient sound
is really loud and hostile.
When I was really young, I was more interested
in the historical part of the museum
rather than the painting galleries,
'cause I found that really boring.
- [speaking German]
- "War Damaged Musical Instruments"
is a work that has been going for a few years now.
And I've been recording these musical instruments
that have been damaged in war.
The first ones I came across
were the ones here in Berlin,
and that led me to different musical instrument
museums here in Germany.
It was clear to see that these instruments
could never play music anymore.
I mean, they were so badly damaged,
but they still could produce sound.
Sometimes, it would be a very
fragile, delicate sound,
and it was really more about the breath.
I became interested in breath being a metaphor for life.
Each of the speakers plays a tone from the "Taps"
and represents a different instrument.
Originally, it was used on the battlefield.
It was one of the signals
that meant it was safe to come back.
It makes you wonder, who was the last person
to have played it, and what happened to them?
As a student, I wanted to make
political art with a capital P,
but I was never happy with the results.
Those political themes come through the work
in a more subtle way.
In Vienna, the work that was the most successful
was the sound of me rubbing the rim
of four crystal wine glasses.
It does have this kind of feeling of a voice.
I wanted to give voice to those forgotten voices
who were persecuted during the Holocaust.
By defining the space with sound,
you draw attention to and remind people
what happened here.
Sound can really act as a trigger for memory
and can bring you back to a particular place and time.
I wanted to bring those voices
from the past into the present.
[radio static sputters]
[man speaking foreign language]
- German voters cast their votes
on whether to give Chancellor Angela Merkel
a mandate for a fourth term.
- For the first time in 60 years,
a right-wing party has won enough votes
to get into parliament.
- Many Germans are shocked
that Merkel's decision to allow
more than a million migrants into Germany
has clearly damaged her.
- [speaking German]
- [speaking German]
Sometimes, artists work more into the future,
show them what could come,
but, sometimes, you have to remind them
just what happened yesterday, you know,
because people tend to forget more and more.
Baruther Strasse is the name of my street.
I got a studio here.
"Barut" in Arabic means explosive powder.
Anything I do is an archeological act.
You start to dig...
and the material starts to-- to tell you who you are.
The material tells you, "Okay, you are doing quite well.
I like you like this.
Go further. Stop here."
You play, and you test your borders,
as a small Chihuahua or dog.
You try to see who is the master,
and the material always talks to you.
Mostly, I take my works from anecdotes
like my own childhood.
I was born in Kurdistan of Iraq.
Kurdistan is a minority in Iraq.
Color TVs didn't come to Kurdistan
because the government's not investing, always,
in those minority areas.
So my father was putting color foil on the TV.
One week, we had it red. One week, we had blue.
The whole city was doing that.
It's a very silent protest.
You exist, but you don't exist on the map officially.
After the First World War,
the French and the British decided
not to give the Kurds a country.
They gave a part to Iraq, to Iran, to Syria,
and to Turkey,
so we are just cut in four pieces like pizza.
As a Kurdish person, you are twice unsafe.
Like, as Iraqi, you are unsafe once as Arab,
but when you are Kurdish, you are unsafe twice.
[man speaks foreign language]
[man shouting indistinctly]
I don't like to hide behind my camera.
To jump in front of your own camera,
you make yourself vulnerable, and you are not
looking at things as an object,
you are a part of it,
and this engagement is very important for me.
I say it was very stupid to do it
because I--it's-- I wouldn't do it now.
You experience things differently with a joke.
It has a twist.
It has a way of stimulating your thinking.
A joke always wakes us up with a slap,
which comes from somewhere you don't expect.
Maybe a bit to the... yeah.
No, no, that's okay.
- Other side? - Back, back, back.
I have very rational part of my practice,
but I also have a very irrational part.
I want to bring something what doesn't fit,
what doesn't fit,
and it's a bit strange, you know?
- Yeah, shoes around the corner, because...
[man speaking foreign language]
- Since many years, I knew Bakir Ali,
the Kurdish philosopher, was based in Berlin
working as a taxi driver.
We had long-term discussions in Kurdish.
So I just started to attack him physically.
- [speaking Kurdish] - [speaks Kurdish]
- [speaking English]
- Very often, people say, "You are visual artist."
I say, "I'm a blind visual artist."
[wistful acoustic strumming]
I search blindly for tools.
I'm more like having a begging bowl
and knocking at doors,
"Do you have anything to give me?"
I'm just borrowing disciplines,
from dance to marble game
to music to cooking.
They are the language of the people.
I think, if art had some chance,
it should change completely this intellectual language.
When you are trying to balance something,
you are in a panic.
You are swinging all the time.
You don't have a center.
You are not anchored somewhere.
The wave of refugees itself is a statement.
It's a performance art, actually.
Like, people are performing, coming here, saying,
"You see what happens to me because of your ignorance,
because of you not caring about the system."
I would be very happy to go back to my country,
'cause I want to spend some time with my mountains,
my people, but in peace.
I remember, we had, always, war.
I don't remember that there was no war in Iraq, you know?
I went through three wars before coming to the West.
During the Second World War, Kassel was destroyed...
and now Kassel is producing so much weapons
and exported many, many weapons
to my country and other countries.
Kassel is forgetting its own past.
[melancholy piano music]
- [speaking German]
- [speaks German]
It's not about patronizing,
but it's just about reminding people.
The refugee which we see, they come just because
you've export wars to those countries.
Sometimes, you call your work political,
but by overdosing it, you kill the political in it.
So, for me, it's important to make this soft connection.
And, here, I call it to refer with your pinky,
not with your index.
Instead of telling all these white people,
"You guys, look what you are doing
to my family, and people are dying,"
no, make them get it by themselves.
I think it's our responsibility,
people from dominated countries,
educate them about politics.
Educate them about knowing about our pain.
The major changes should happen here
because these countries are countries who are in charge
of making big decisions about the whole world,
and people here, they live quite well,
and they don't care.
They don't want to change anything.
We are stuck somehow.
I'm in a quite stressed situation for now,
free-thinking what I'm doing, whether it's helpful
or just decorating the facade of the system
with this "democratic" color.
- Next time on "Art in the 21st Century"...
- Making work out in the world,
it is endlessly fascinating.
You can never invent
the incredible things that happen.
- To learn more about Art21 and our educational resources,
please visit us online at pbs.org/art21.
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