B-750 in West Berlin and the Sculpture Boulevard
Berlin Turns 750
In 1987, thousands of Germans, international tourists, dignitaries, artists, and intellectuals would flock to both East and West Berlin to take part in the abundant festivities planned in both city halves as part of the city’s 750th anniversary celebration. In West Berlin, planners sought to use architecture, art in public space, exhibitions, concerts, and academic conferences to present a city-wide Gesamtkunstwerk. This was also necessary to make up for the fact that the historic city core was all in East Berlin. Maintaining strict control over their respective aesthetic ensembles required significant oversight over what images, displays, and actions could be integrated into public space. But attempts to control what people saw in public space had no bearing on people’s response, nor could they control the multiple meanings and interpretations visual displays could provoke.
In West Berlin, planning for B-750 began in 1982. Both the Senate and Parliament formed planning commissions responsible for organizing events and identifying a set of themes for the celebration. Ulrich Eckhardt, head of West Berlin’s B-750 commission, recognized the difficulty of hosting the celebration in West Berlin, considering the city’s historic core was located in the heart of East Berlin. Eckhardt and his committee instead focused on celebrating the city’s magnetism as a cosmopolitan, modern, tolerant city, and highlighting its cultural and scientific achievements.
West Berlin’s extensive arts and cultural programming during B-750 included three distinct series featuring art in public space. Two of the three series incited public and critical condemnation, and became a source of embarrassment for Governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen. At issue was the use of public funds for sculptures and installations and the nature of the art on display.
Many disgruntled West Berliners found the art ugly or simply “not art,” a waste of taxpayer dollars, and an undemocratic use of public space to serve elite tastes. As Barbara Straka, project leader for the Sculpture Boulevard series, observed, the hostile response “exposed a shockingly deep cleft between contemporary art and the public and revealed a previously unrecognized potential for resentment toward the work of contemporary artists.” Yet the episode also prompted West Berliners to work through the complicated relationship between artistic freedom, democracy, and state support for the arts in postwar Germany.
The Sculpture Boulevard
Running along a four kilometer stretch of the Kurfurstendamm and Tauentzien Strasse from Rathenauer Platz to Wittenberg Platz at a cost of 1.8 million Deutschmarks, the Sculpture Boulevard series promised to transform the Kurfurstendamm into a “temporary museum.” Officially opening in April 1987, the series featured public sculptures from eight artists who either lived in West Berlin or had ties to the city.
The planners in the West Berlin Department for Cultural Affairs and the New Berlin Art Association (Neue Berliner Kunstverein) intended the series of abstract and conceptual modern sculptures to expand public awareness of the multitude of uses for public space. The NBK also sought to reclaim the fading memory of the boulevard’s past as a meeting place for the European avant-garde. Cultural Senator Hassemer described the Sculpture Boulevard as a birthday present to the city, and a symbol of West Berlin’s renewed standing as a “cultural metropolis.”
Olaf Metzel's 13.4.81
In the early morning of 19 March 1987, under cover of night, Olaf Metzel appeared at the intersection of Kurfurstendamm and Joachimstaler Strasse to install his sculpture, 13.4.81, a 36 foot (11 meter) tall pile of red and white police barricades with an overturned shopping cart teetering off the side. The sculpture’s title, 13.4.81, recalled a date marked by violent demonstrations in West Berlin, following a sketchy press report that an imprisoned RAF member had died after a hunger strike.
As Berliners awoke to find Metzel’s sculpture installed in Joachimstaler Platz, the Berliner Morgenpost was on hand to capture the public response. During the Morgenpost reporter's interviews with onlookers and local politicians, some referred to the sculpture as a “pile of trash,” and interpreted the work as some sort of glorification of West Berlin protesters.
But this was not his intent. Instead, he intended the sculpture to represent a critique of the media’s role in shaping reality and influencing local politics. The sculpture’s title, 13.4.81, recalled a date marked by violent demonstrations in West Berlin, following a sketchy press report that an imprisoned RAF member had died after a hunger strike. That evening, Metzel had photographed an identical arrangement or “incidental sculpture” of barricades on Joachimstaler Platz following a the day of protests. Metzel understood the remnant of the day’s violence as a “ready-made memorial” to the episode.
Wolf Vostell's Concrete Cadillacs
One week after Metzel’s sculpture appeared, a crowd of 200 protesters gathered at Rathenauer Platz in Berlin-Wilmersdorf as the next Sculpture Boulevard artist, Wolf Vostell, and crew began installing the first of two Cadillacs for his sculpture Two Concrete Cadillacs in the Form of the Naked Maja or Concrete Cadillacs (Beton Cadillacs).
Despite protesters' claims otherwise, Wolf Vostell’s Beton Cadillacs was neither arbitrarily designed and executed, nor was it out of place located directly off a freeway entrance. In fact, the nude female form in Francisco Goya’s painting The Nude Maja informed Vostell's conscious positioning of the automobiles. Vostell installed one Cadillac vertically, embedded in an arched piece of cement. The second Cadillac was pointed nose downwards on a concrete ramp, secured over top with another concrete band. In this version of Beton Cadillacs—already his third sculpture involving cars and concrete—Vostell wished to initiate a 24-hour “dance of the auto drivers around the golden calf,” referring to the fetish of car culture in modern society.
Artistic Responses to Concrete Cadillacs
Throughout April 1987, Vostell and Metzel, the Department for Cultural Affairs and organizer Barbara Straka received angry letters and even death threats. The controversy over the sculptures also became a regular fixture in the opinion pages of the local press. Protesters continued to gather signatures on petitions calling for the removal of the sculptures and handed out inflammatory fliers at the site of Vostell’s Beton Cadillacs. Both protesters and allies would also incorporate action art elements into artistic responses to the sculptures and their heated public reception. Like West Berlin’s professional action artists, they also embraced wit and humor to add a sarcastic bite to their message.
In May 1987, the Taxpayers' Association--heading up the protests at Rathenau Platz--sponsored the action, Say it with flowers. The grop covered the Beton Cadillacs with flower bouquets, with signs nearby declaring: “flowers instead of concrete.” The action reflected their repeated claims that art should be beautiful, and Vostell's cadillacs were far from it. In a similar manner, other protesters installed their own rudimentary sculptures made of trash and household items nearby as a statement that their works had involved just as much artistic skill as Vostell’s sculpture.
In July, a group calling itself “Stammtisch” orchestrated the installation of the Trabi-Pyramide, (featuring an East German Trabant emerging from a pyramid shaped block of concrete) in the vicinity of Vostell's Beton Cadillacs. A doll of Ronald Reagan sat in the driver’s seat, reading a copy of Soviet newspaper, Pravda next to a Gorbachev puppet in the passenger’s seat reading USA today. According to the Stammtisch members, the action was intended to provoke “reflection, discussion, or even just a smile.”