Excretion as Monument: “10” at Berghain

Installation view, 10, Berghain. Sarah Schönfeld, "Hero's Journey (Lamp)". Berghain. Copyright Zsu Szabu
Installation view, 10, Berghain. Sarah Schönfeld, “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)”. Berghain. Copyright Zsu Szabu


The experience of visiting Berghain always feels something akin to a pilgrimage. Mystique surrounds the club’s admission process: entrance is never guaranteed. I like to think that one needs a pure heart and open mind, but others have their own theories. Once inside, time and space condense and move to their own rhythm. This temple to techno and vice stands out as something oddly special and unique within the monotony of club relics spawning and decaying across Berlin’s surface.

This month, Berghain celebrates its ten year anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, the club has organized an exhibition of artists, who, over the course of the club’s history, have worked with or contributed to its status as a Berlin icon. Stretching over two levels, the former power station has been transformed into a curated show of painting, sculpture, installation and video works, including a projection by Carsten Nicolai and photos by the infamous doorman Sven Marquardt. Sarah Schönfeld, one of the exhibiting artists, is a veteran of the club, having worked behind the bar for over five years. For the exhibition, Schönfeld collected the urine and sweat of Berghain partygoers, presenting their biological excretions as monuments to the club’s mythical and sometimes magical status.

2000 litres of Berghain piss forms the base material for Schönfeld’s piece “Hero’s Journey (Lamp)”. Over a period of ten weeks, club goers were invited to participate in the sculpture by contributing to its contents in the club’s toilets. The lamp itself is long and table-like, a transparent vitrine mounted on thick steel legs. Bright lights on either side shine directly into its contents – the collective archeology of thousands of partygoers. The urine has been treated with Phenonip, a chemical preservative used in the cosmetics industry, to prevent it from going rancid. The lamp stands in a dark corner of the exhibition space, glowing with a deep spectrum of yellow and red that dissipates into blackness as the liquid gradually absorbs the light.

Schönfeld’s work is inspired by an interest in ecstatic emotions, synthetically induced by drugs. She views the experience of intoxication, specifically within the walls of Berghain, through the lens of American mythologist Joseph Campbell’s monomyth – the hero’s journey. A monomyth, as identified by Campbell, is a narrative pattern that remains consistent across cultures, religions and societies, regardless of their geographical proximity or historical time period. Monomyths appear in Greek mythology, Star Wars and even the biblical figure of Christ. The hero’s journey has several characteristic stages; first, there is a call to adventure. If the call is accepted, a journey is initiated by passing through a gateway and entering into a supernatural realm. It is here that the hero faces challenges and temptations, which, if completed successfully, can result in a transformative experience. When the hero returns, the knowledge and experience gained is re-integrated back into the community. Schönfeld proposes that the same narrative structure can be seen as an overlay for the experience of going Berghain. Perhaps this helps to explain the resulting folklore that contributes to the club’s mystique.

Installation view, 10, Berghain. Sarah Schönfeld, "Hero's Journey (Towels)". Berghain. Copyright Zsu Szabu
Installation view, 10, Berghain. Sarah Schönfeld, “Hero’s Journey (Towels)”. Berghain. Copyright Zsu Szabu

“Hero’s Journey (Towels)” is the second piece of Schönfeld’s in the exhibition. The “towels” are several long velour hangings draped from the club’s towering walls. Extending over several meters, the white velour fabric is interrupted with horizontal strips of purple. Over one evening, sweaty Berghain pilgrims were invited by Schönfeld to be dried with the velour. The material was then treated with the chemical Ninhydrin, a substance used by criminologists to discover traces of human contact in a crime scene. The resulting purple tones are outlines of the bodies’ points of contact. The towels have a sense of religious monumentality to them, hanging on the walls in this church of techno. 

Schönfeld’s work is certainly arresting and her choice of materials is unusual. It can be easy to discount artwork made from bodily fluids as simply sensationalist, but what sets Schönfeld apart is her material awareness and a solid conceptual framework. It is difficult to discount the complexity of thought and research that has gone into the production of the pieces, and of course, they look really, really good. The industrial feel of the glass in the vitrine and the monumentality of the towels resonate with the club’s cavernous interior, but the works would be equally at home in a clean, white gallery space. The hero’s journey as a narrative reference point resonates with the intoxicating experiences that Berghain is notorious for. The space really is otherworldly, from the staunch gatekeepers, to the dark rooms and toilets with no mirrors. The folklore and speculations surrounding the Berghain scene place the partygoer at the central point of experience. It is something unique and special, but also destructive and dangerous.

See more of the work in “10” below

Text by Tomasz Kobialka

“10” is on show at  Halle Am Berghain from 7 – 31 August 2014.

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