Flaneurs in Berlin

Hans Jürgen Hafner, catalog text (English)

Until at least into the late 1990s, visitors to Berlin were always strongly encouraged to pack robust footwear. It was impossible to imagine the particular “Berlin flair” of those days without the omnipresent piles of dog poop. As a kind of putty between the diverging potentials and the incommensurable relics of the slowly reunifying capital, they were equally unloved and unavoidable. The Berlin dog was at that time not yet a droll fashion accessory as we know them today from big-city hipsters, but rather a sociopolitical statement and at the same time a stalwartly useful animal. Today, however, in concert with the comprehensive gentrification that is transforming the last alternative areas of Berlin, we meet more and more dutifully leashed fashion-dogs. Little dogs, whose little owners happily clean up after them once their dogs have conducted their business.
It’s hard to not see a connection between this phenomenon and the latest of Maria and Natalia Petschatnikovs’ projects, Dogs (2011). In it the artists, to put it broadly, devote themselves to the theme “dog” in distinct variations. In the process, two formally divergent approaches meet: on the one hand, we find various dog breeds on leashes sketched in realistic, small-format, focused felt-tip drawings on transparent paper; on the other hand, lifelike—if stylized only based on the most essential characteristics—Plastiform sculptures form a kind of sculptural/installation tableau. Both the images and the objects focus on individual dogs in stylized poses. Each dog stands isolated, on its own, but at the same time enters the spotlight of iconically produced or vividly occupied stage situations, indeed, is “posed” for that reason. Those holding the leashes, that is to say the dog owners, however, are left out—even when the artists bring both images and objects together in the installation-style relationship of the exhibition. Even though they are clearly referenced in absentia—through the leashes that lead out of the drawings or from the sculptures and are affixed to the wall—the people “behind” these dogs do not appear. As such, the literal terms and conditions of ownership, and with them, the socially, economically, and administratively regulated connections of urban dog ownership, are both addressed and left out. However, it is not an exaggeration to describe the Petschatnikovs as trace-seekers or field researchers of daily urban phenomena. Indeed, in this project a substantive perspective opens up that is confirmed by looking at other projects by the artists.
Take, for example, the series U8 (2010), which, in fine oil painting, also on transparent paper, shows detail views of the twenty-four U-Bahn stations on the famous Berlin Line 8. Interiors empty of people, these views often zoom in on details such as stairwells and ticket machines, depicting a kind of survey of the particular characteristics of the Berlin U-Bahn Line 8’s operations. Even those who aren’t personally familiar with the stations along Line 8, from Wittenau in the north to the southern terminus of Hermannstraße, will recognize the particularities of the single images of this series; Berlin experts will inevitably, however, spot the characteristic orange of the tiles in U-Bahn station Rosenthaler Platz or the chic—grown somewhat scruffy in the meantime—of the day-and-night-pulsating hub of Hermannplatz.
And yet, despite all the suggestiveness that inheres in these concentrated, color-intensive paintings, they want to be not so much documents of a sociologically motivated view as bearers of association. Herein lies a further parallel that connects them with the objective of the Dogs project. Maria and Natalia Petschatnikov are not sociologists, their methods are not those of documentarians, their motives not those of field researchers. Rather, they look for their motifs as they stroll through the city and collect, and the photographs they take while doing so become the basis for the painterly or sculptural engagement with the objects. In this engagement we find mixed dynamics of memory, of association, that find their expression in reduction, in focusing, and in stylization. In this sense, the link to the iconographic inventory of realism, its affinity to techniques of the sketch, is very far from the atmospheric immediacy of painters of modern life, as in the mid-nineteenth century, or flaneur photographers since the 1920s. It seems that, instead, these calculatedly focused images and installation-like stages achieve associative spaces thanks to the disparity of their media. A narrative level thus comes into being, and spaces open up that want to be filled with one’s own stories, memories, and ideas. The Petschatnikovs also emphatically invite the viewer to make connections between their various projects, as between the various media that they utilize. The storyboard that I would like to develop for the artists’ works would thus also extend to the series Cash (2010): again in the small, photographically defined format of compact oil paintings of euro bills, discarded, arranged as if accidentally placed in the light of attention. As such, for me a circle is thereby closed: the dogs, U-Bahn folklore, and money to a theme that is currently as exasperating as it is unavoidable in Berlin, and that sums up the pervasive gentrification under the banner of “Berlin flair” and its nevertheless serious social effects. Admittedly, conscious contemporaneity outside art never comes off without a hitch.