These were two dissonant cities. Copenhagen is smooth as butter, all its surfaces calm and uniform. A local artist-run scene is thriving there, supported by government grants and a stable society. Berlin is sutured by construction cranes. So many closed sidewalks and temporary walkways; so much dust. Berlin’s international art scene emerged out of gaps in its social structure, in buildings left vacant years ago.
Twice I visited the National Gallery of Denmark, where I was blown away by a collection of Danish early modern art. It was like seeing Cézanne and Braque for the first time: modern paintings wholly fresh to me, yet surely deeply familiar for Danish art viewers. Art historians—and Americans—often forget that many other histories have passed by in parallel to our own.
In a display on Renaissance Grand Tours, wall texts integrated modern-day reflections on travel by Danish students. One wrote, “Is the journey then just a way to reach a goal, to come back home?” In an adjacent gallery, two poster-style paintings hung over a doorway:
This dialectic of home, its intimacy so foreign in a stately museum, is in fact at the heart of such art institutions founded in the name of nationalism. But art’s ties to national identity is fast fading from our art world, whose internationalism, like color-blindness, can feel like whitewashing.
In Berlin, the international is in full force, perhaps most visibly in the current wave of hip expat youths who have adopted Berlin, at least for a time. Berlin’s underlying internationalism is of course more traumatic. The overlap between historic trauma (war, invasion) and contemporary cache is dizzying.
The Sammlung Boros, the private contemporary art collection of Christian and Karen Boros, is housed in what is referred to colloquially as “the bunker.” The bunker was built under the Nazi regime to protect Berliners from Allied bombs. After that war was lost, the building was used by the the East German government to store imported goods for officials, earning it the nickname “the banana bunker.” After the wall, the bunker fell into the hands of the 1990s techno scene, and became a legendary underground club. Skipping ahead to a very different moment in Berlin’s history as an art capital, the Boros family bought the bunker to house their collection of 700 contemporary artworks, and live in a penthouse built atop it. The building is haunted by all these disjointed histories.
In one of the bunker rooms that once safeguarded huddling masses, Thomas Ruff’s colossal starscapes hang upon walls speckled with DayGlo graffiti left from 1990s club days—night sky alongside nightlife; cultural capital alongside cultural history.
At the end of my visit was an installation by Klara Lidén: trash cans from various international cities arranged across the room. As soon as I saw the New York City trash can, I hurried to it like an old friend, so cozy and familiar. I thought, how perfect, to present your foreign international art viewers with a banal object synonymous with home and all its ambivalences. I saw there something about the international character of the art world, about what an object loses in attempting to speak the elite language of the universal.