At Barriers' Edges

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This was not the first time I was to see photographs by Sven Marquardt, although I was not aware of it at first. Marquardt, who came to Tel Aviv in late October last year to open a show of his works at The Block, Tel Aviv's leading techno club, is famous first and foremost as the legendary bouncer at the Berghain, Berlin's premier techno venue (and arguably the world's). Back in the 1980's, before becoming deeply involved in the city's flourishing post-reunification nightlife scene, Marquardt was a young photographer living and working in East Berlin. His work was published among others in Sybille, one of the few fashion and lifestyle magazines to have appeared in the GDR, and aside from commissioned work he documented an intimate circle of friends from the small, rarefied punk-and-fetish scene on the other side of the wall. A number of his portraits from the time – sexually charged renderings of men and women mostly in the nude, their expressive bodies twisting and swerving in religious-like mise-en-scènes of passion and pain – were included in an extensive, high-profile exhibition dedicated to independent photographers from the GDR, shown last year at the Berlinische Galerie.

Geschlossene Gesellschaft ("Shuttered Society"), as it was called, brought together a fine selection of bodies of works from the immediate post-war years through to Germany's reunification and the GDR's dissolution. Though most participants were in fact involved with the regime in some way or another – there was no way not to be, as the background research provided by the curators showed – the various works on view were produced under more or less private circumstances. The scope of genres, stylistic approaches and topics represented was understandably wide, and, surprisingly or not, corresponded to a large extent with the main photographic trends prevalent in the same 45-years time frame in the West. One could see there, for example, the Eastern equivalent of a perplexed, critical eye as it roams through alienated, post-industrial landscapes and other deserted, man-made surroundings; or the empathic renderings of groups and individuals, sometimes in domestic settings, but still inscribed in a sociological-like serial gaze.

The presence of such stylistic approaches was perhaps the most striking to a viewer accustomed to comparable photographic idioms, but stemming from a capitalistic (or indeed anti-capitalistic) background. The corresponding bodies of work, from the 1970's and 1980's, were also among the finest on show. But other genres and topics, even when less adverse to such cursory divisions and preconceived notions, offered an equally rich viewing experience: the post-war rubble of cities in ruin, candid snaps of vibrant street-life in the 1950's and 1960's, the re-building effort, industry and labor. By contrast, chapters dedicated to experiments in medium and format, either as a continuation of pre-war artistic projects or as an echo to later avant-garde currents, had little to offer except the validation that such type of work was indeed being made; and save a few exceptions, the potential impact of works centered on individualism, self-styling and expression, together with reworkings of western pop and subculture influences, was denied them by the general scope of the exhibition, which was more favorable to historical and sociological overtones – if not by the semblance of a too-direct reinterpretation of currents originating in the West.

Marquardt's own works in Geschlossene Gesellschaft – intimate-size prints in black and white – were included in this last chapter of the exhibition, where they were eclipsed by works of a more realistic bent. Despite the immediacy of their delicate and expressive beauty, his photographs call attention to themselves in a different, ostensibly a-political context. It should be reminded perhaps, that Marquardt himself cultivates an air of eerie mystery, which goes far beyond the sum of his occupations as bouncer and artist-photographer (as advantageous as his self-crafted image may be to both). He is heavily tattooed, most noticeably on one side of his face, and adorns himself with piercings and chains to match. Grey-haired and somewhat corpulent, these days he opts for an inspiring mix of tailored elegance and leathery apparel, complete with multiple zips and buckles, wearing his jeans tucked in hefty, anarcho-looking Doc Martens. The look behind his intelligently-black glass frames is one of sphinxly, quiet concentration.

It is very much due to this image, coupled with the all-important office of gate-keeping the Berghain, that Marquardt gained a household notoriety in Germany in recent years. The Berghain, which operates since 2004 in parts of a huge Stalinist-neoclassic edifice originally built as a power station, maintains an intentionally obscure 'door policy'. It is known for the long trail of clubbers queuing up every weekend at its doors, when the 48-hour long party is on. Waiting time might peek at two hours or more – a risk to be reckoned with, since when finally confronted face to face with Marquardt, the man at the door, verdict is cast instantaneously – im Augenblick, to borrow the German term.

With such elusiveness, the odds and chances of getting in have become a matter of local folklore, giving rise to all sorts of speculation. Beauty, exterior markers of wealth and overall attractiveness would not necessarily grant one entrance; it's all up to the momentary whim of the man at the door, everyone seems to agree. In a number of interviews he gave, both in the local and international media, Marquardt has done little to dispel the mystery, although he does maintain that the persisting rumor according to which tourists and English speakers are not welcome is misguided. The decision, he says, is indeed reached in an instant – with the blink of an eye – by looking directly at the hopeful partygoer in front of him, based on a conjectured formula of crowd ratios meant to insure that the crowd inside the club, whether straight or gay, local or foreign, may 'celebrate properly' (richtig feiern, as the Germans would have it, which, in this particular case might just as well refer to the live sexual acts engaged in by a predominantly gay crowd in the establishment's darkrooms and mock-prison cells).

Be that as it may, a distinctively Anglo-Saxon sense of indignation brought by tourists and other internationals continues to rebel against what seems as yet another instance of preposterous injustice – while the mystery surrounding the Berghain's door policy continues to grow, no doubt contributing to the club's anyhow secretive aura. In internet forums and private conversations, some dare to come forward and offer precious advise based on first-hand experience – what should one wear, how is one to behave during the wait, what to say when finally addressed (and more importantly, in which language), and whose company to prefer – but these too are dispensed with due caution, in full awareness of the impenetrable mystery of the matter at hand.

Among the various advises and cues, however, there is perhaps one that may be adopted with a fair amount of certainty. It is best to remain silent, we are told – a directive which undoubtedly lends a degree of solemnity to the eventual encounter with Marquardt, be its consequences as they may. Indeed, such harsh contrasts as exist in the Berghain – self-imposed silence as a prelude to a resounding blare of electric beats, strict house rules (it's not allowed to take photos onside) as opposed to unchecked sensual indulgence – are an integral part of the experience on offer. And if a queue is in any way comparable to a liminal experience, to a rite of passage meant to carry the individual to an existential stage of a different order, then silence is very much a necessity – just as it takes a man of Marquardt's fierceness, composure and menacing stature to oversee the entry.

A silent monumentality no doubt partakes of Marquardt's photographs as well, past and present. More than a decade separates his early series, all of which were shot in a conscripted perimeter of a few Prenzlauer Berg streets – the imposed-privileged home of the erstwhile east-Berliner punk scene – from the second, belated phase of his career. Unlike many other artists and creatives from the former GDR, instead of enjoying a new-found freedom as the wall came down, it is precisely then that Marquardt gave up photography altogether, returning to it only in the 2000's.

When he took up photography again, the Berghain and its circle would already provide him both the subject matter and backdrop. As before, his newer portraits also feature friends – this time scenesters and club-regulars – who are again shot in dreamy, black-and-white daylight, but the format of the prints has grown, and with it the range of queers and eccentrics who parade here as if in a human theater of self-exhibition: ageless grandes dames, secretive couples, delicately transparent youths; vampiric gazes, bestial prosthetics, morbid gents in antiquated suits; Indians, cowboys, statuesque bullies, above all heaps of overdeveloped musculatures – a mixed lot, yet of a very peculiar kind. Marquardt's exquisitely gothic black-and-white, coupled with the home-turf coziness of the Berghain's – an exemplary site of former industrial glory, of a cherished, sanctified dereliction that emblematizes Berlin as a privileged site of historical standstill at the very heart of history – provides the backdrop for these curious tableaux.

This type of symbiotic cooperation between the photographer and his subjects is, of course, not unique to Marquardt. It may be said to go as far back as the medium's very beginnings, constituting to a photographic genre in its own right. In Marquardt's case, especially in his later projects, the high level of stylization and eerie fantasy stem in part from the feeling that they set fantasy on the loose – or their subjects' fantasized self, more precisely. As to is his earlier series, it is certainly true that when looked at against their historical background – that of a delimited punk perimeter (Marquardt has told in interviewed how at the time, due to his unusual appearance, he was banned by the police from the Unter den Linden avenue and the capital's official district at Mitte) – the liberation entailed by the very act of exposing oneself in what was still largely regarded as deviant sexuality lends itself to a fantastical quality, to a detachment from the throes of a too harsh reality. His photographs from the time indeed possess an almost pastoral dream-quality, which seems to launch their subjects into a distant realm away from known reality. By contrast, in his recent series, owing to their more systematic seriality and skilled execution – and no less through their voluntary confinement within the protective bounds of the Berghain as 'home' – a sociological gaze slowly sets in with regard to the 'scene' they depict; perhaps that of an Überblick.

Images courtesy of Ostgut

Text published in conjunction with the SIP

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