Monday, 26 December 2011

Bathed in Art at Stattmarkt

I checked out Stattbad's Wedding's Christmas arts market last Sunday night. The Stattmarkt, as it was called, was housed within the venue's shower rooms. It was like a cross between a Turkish bath and a Turkish bazaar. A long, tiled corridor ran down the centre of the room and the shower cubicles leading off of it were occupied by artists selling their wares.

The constant buzz of a tattooist's needle, rising from one of the cubicles, underpinned the strains of music coming from the bar next door, where a guitarist was soloing to introspective, tough techno. As I passed each cubicle, avant-garde artisans leaned out to invite me in or to chat to their neighbours. In other cubicles I saw artists lost in their work, oblivious to the confines of their allotted space as they churned out stencils or sewed crafts. Roars of laughter rose up from groups of people who had gathered inside of other cubicles, unseen. The constant susuruss of voices warmed the clinical glare of the strip lights and coated the room's tiles in condensation.

The market had the ambience of a pool party that had just had its plug pulled... but then again, it was the end of the night after a busy weekend. Clumps of debris and puddles had formed in the corners, as if left behind by some sort of departing tide (most likely, a flood of shoppers).

Last-minute offers, deals and invitations abounded. "If you buy that book, you can have a free tattoo with it," said an attractive Australian woman, smiling sweetly at me. She was waving her Mojito towards a volume of street art that I had just been poring over. I only had a fiver left but I just had to know: how much would it cost for a tattoo and a kick-ass coffee table accessory, anyway? "Thirty euros," she replied. My chronic state of broke-ness never broke my heart like it did at that moment.

The young woman then began showing me her swag bag full of newly-acquired arts and crafts. "I'm a Selfish Santa," she gloated. "All the presents in this bag are for me!"

Moments later, a smartly-dressed Jochen Kuepper (manager of both Stattbad and RiotArts) popped up behind her and repeated the two-for-one offer: "If you buy a tattoo, I'll give you the book for free. Only 25 euros for both," he said. I was more pained than ever to hear that the price was still going down... and still out of my budget range. "Okay," Kuepper said as he took in my pained silence, "you can have the book for twenty euros." Misinterpreting my lack of reaction as indecision, he jumped in again and said, "Fifteen, then... fifteen euros!" He then proceeded to count down backwards from 10 in a cunning ploy to pressure me into making the purchase.

"Can I have it for five?" I offered halfheartedly but he shook his head, sticking to his (admittedly low) price. When he had counted down to zero, Kuepper picked up the book and theatrically tossed it into a nearby janitorial cupboard, pointedly locking the door behind it.

"Now it's gone, and it's not coming back," he scolded playfully. "You missed your chance!" Story of my life, mate, I felt like saying...

As the market's closing time approached, all pretence of profit margins vanished and a flurry of swapping ensued. I saw tats traded for tomes... one-eyed cushions converted into two-tone tops... handbags bartered for beer... I noticed that the stall-holders seemed to be leaving with more goods than they claimed they had collectively arrived with, in defiance of the laws of physics, apparently. Their bags and suitcases bulged and creaked as they hauled them out the door, packed with experimental creations that would soon be tickling the toes of somebody's trippy Tannenbaum (or their own Tannenbaum, as in the case of the Australian lady).

After the market had shut down and the after-party had started up, I spoke to Neil Numb, owner of ArtTart.tv. As the garrulous Scotsman alternated between the dance floor and the bar, he told me that he was there to showcase his company's works in a new shop. Like many other artistic souls from around the world, Neil is here in Berlin in order to react with its creative chemistry on a personal level. Stattmarkt is a perfect example of this process: artists and their fans interacting on equal footing and connecting for collaborative, as well as financial, reasons.

Neil says he lives a nomadic lifestyle, following positive vibes wherever they lead him. Despite his hippy-like determination to avoid putting down roots, this is the second time that he has returned to Berlin to live.

"I felt like I had unfinished business here," he told me. Not so surprising, when one considers the business that he is in. ArtTart.tv produces a riotous array of postcards, posters and prints of works by artists from around the world. As a print distributor, Neil is always on the lookout for inspiring and visionary new clients whose works he can distribute. Berlin is a wellspring of that type of person.

One of Neil's best-known clients is Berlin's Tim Roeloffs, a collage artist who has been working out of Tacheles for many years. Roeloffs' collages are feats of precision-tuned anarchy, combining acid-washed pastel landscapes and pasted on images from history and pop culture. His art brings to mind a seedier, street-wise version of Terry Gilliam. Like all the best Berlin artists, Roeloffs has seized upon the endless influx of raw imagery that the 21st century has armed the individual with - via the internet and the globalized media - and turned it into his own, private language. In addition, Roeloffs is a seasoned traveler who, presumably, finds himself in a position of interpreting the world without recourse to spoken communication on a regular basis. His collages embrace the relevance of sensory input, freed from logical interpretations or excuses; he employs everything that meets the eye to reveal deeper levels of reality. The results range from the elegant to the repulsive but all are exceptional for their honesty. Like many Berlin street artists, Roeloffs' work juxtaposes established artistic traditions with prefabricated images, in order to present a highly private and internal view of the world.

The cut-and-paste, slapdash style which visitors and locals identify with Berlin is all about subverting the faceless institutions of art and media, for the purposes of communicating an individual version of the truth. Beneath the fractious, clashing layers of culture, history and fantasy which surround us, lies a synchronicity and flow that supersedes the surface details. It is the flow of an individual journey through life. In a world in which individual concerns are increasingly overshadowed by those of powerful groups, Berlin is a city where that vision still counts for something.

Prints like this one (by New Zealand artist Fritch) start at 14.99 for an A3 size poster. Please visit ArtTart.tv for more information about artists' works and prices.

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