BERLIN — When the Berlin Wall came down in the early 1990s, artists and D.J.s descended on this seemingly lawless city to organize exhibitions and raves in cavernous empty buildings. Or, at least, that was the (largely accurate) cliché.
Since then, however, art spaces here have become less about D.I.Y. and more about real-estate development and big business: Until recently, the hottest conversation topics in town were runaway gentrification and an exodus of artists and clubs.
But that was before the pandemic.
When Germany locked down in March, the renowned techno club Berghain closed, too, along with Berlin’s other nightclubs and theaters; the huge lines hoping to get past the famously choosy bouncers disappeared, along with the no-cameras-allowed Arcadia of booming techno and writhing bodies inside. Berlin’s visual artists were grounded in their studios. The city’s cultural heartbeat slowed.
By June, some museums and galleries had opened with restrictions, but nightclubs remain closed. Berghain’s reclusive owners, Michael Teufele and Norbert Thormann, approached the prominent collectors Christian and Karen Boros with an idea: Why not collaborate with a large-scale exhibition featuring local artists in the club? Everyone was game.
“Studio Berlin,” which opens Sept. 9 and runs through December — maybe longer, depending how the pandemic develops — is a show about the places where art gets made. Ms. Boros and the curator Juliet Kothe assembled works from 115 artists who live and work in Berlin after visiting studios around the city. Most of the pieces have been created since March.
The show is overwhelming in scope, filling the vast club, which is housed in a former power plant. More artists are taking part in this show than in the Berlin Biennial, the international exhibition, postponed from June, that opens Saturday.
With so many such recent works, “Studio Berlin” is a snapshot of the here and now, and it’s also a declaration of both uncertainty and hope: On the building’s exterior are Rirkrit Tiravanija’s banner “Morgen ist die Frage” (“Tomorrow is the Question”) across the top of the facade and, propped against the exterior near the entrance, a sculpture by Dirk Bell, the thick steel rods of which spell the word “love” in interlocking letters.
With no bouncer at the door, visitors enter a soaring foyer and then must immediately apply a sticker to their cellphone camera lenses — the club’s no-photo policy continues, including for The New York Times — afterward, they’ll encounter a huge ocean buoy suspended from the ceiling. Called “Die Mimik der Tethys,” by the German artist Julius von Bismarck, the buoy sweeps up and down through the space. Connected via sensors to a buoy in the Atlantic Ocean and mirroring movements of the real sea, it sets the tone for a show that is big, and a little unpredictable.
Some art here reveals how polyglot Berlin’s post-Wall art scene has become since the 1990s. The dance floor’s famous sound system booms with a sound piece by the Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh — an aural pastiche of Lagos street noise, rather than thumping techno. High on the wall is a clock with created by the Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh; its hands move backward, perhaps counting down time until the pandemic is over.
Upstairs in the Panorama Bar, a part of the club where less driving music is usually played, the art is more sensitive and introspective. Hanging like an umbrella over part of the room is an oversize flower sculpture by the artists Petrit Halilaj and Álvaro Urbano (a couple who met in the club more than a decade ago.) A video by Sven Marquardt, a heavily tattooed Berghain bouncer, shows scenes of quiet domesticity. Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili, too, shows a series of Polaroids depicting flowers she bought each day during lockdown, an intimate musing on ephemerality.
Other pieces refer to Berghain itself: Cyprien Gaillard’s small stainless-steel engraving called “Land of Cockaign” blends in with the polished metal of the toilet stalls. A piece tracing paths on the floor in black lacquer is the work of the American artist Christine Sun Kim, and the lines represent how she, as a hearing-impaired person, moves through the club. A textured sculpture by the Turkish artist Nevin Aladag looks like a series of violently hammered indentations in a metal plate; the artist made it by dancing in high heels. And Verena Issel, a German artist, has transformed a dark passage into a junglelike installation, surrounding visitors in everyday objects — brooms, wine bottles, plastic cocktail glasses and brushes made to look like palm trees and jungle plants — which gives a disorienting feeling, like navigating the club.
Art pops up everywhere, in the club’s corners, hallways and stairwells, but “Studio Berlin” is most awe-inspiring in the Halle, an massive space in back of the club that only opens for special events. Inside, on two levels, is work by some of Berlin’s best-known artists, such as Olafur Eliasson, A.A. Bronson and Angela Bulloch, along with emerging ones, like the photographer Yero Adugna Eticha.
It’s also a vivid reminder of post-Wall Berlin’s history of innovative repurposing — once a power plant, then a club, then an exhibition space. In the best cases, this repurposing, temporary or not, reflects the art and music scenes’ community spirit: Standing in the Halle, I was reminded of a celebrated show called “36 x 27 x 10,” put on at short notice in 2005 in the Palast der Republik, the former East German Parliament building, after it had been emptied for demolition.
Back then, it was a daring move for artists to occupy the building, and it was a political act, too: They wanted to convince the city government of the need for a dynamic local contemporary art venue. The Palast der Republik is long demolished, but some of the artists in “36 x 27 x 10” are still around, and some are even in “Studio Berlin,” like Mr. Eliasson, Mr. Bell, Monica Bonvicini and Tacita Dean.
“Studio Berlin” is chaotic and organic, and, for some of us, a bit nostalgic. It’s not a show that tries to make astute curatorial statements; it’s about celebrating the city’s cultural assets — its people and their ideas.
It’s also about preserving those assets. The city of Berlin is contributing 250,000 euros (around $295,000), and the Boros Foundation is paying in, too. At a time when the future of nightlife is unclear, “Studio Berlin” reopens Berghain to a new public, and gets some long-furloughed club employees back at work. (They will be working as exhibition guides.)
“Studio Berlin” shows what’s possible under adverse conditions, which is when Berlin’s culture is so often at its best. But most of all, it brings club culture and art back together again, a little like the those golden days of 1990s. This time though, everything’s much bigger — and more costly, too.
Through December at Berghain in Berlin; studio.berlin.