Berlin is a place of monsters. I have seen it myself and have the evidence to prove it.
It started with a giant quasi-frog that used to stand (now, in 2023, it no longer does, and this is a great pity!) at Rosenthalerstrasse 39 (near Hackesche Höfe) in Berlin and glare (rolling its eyes!) at tourists. It was love at first sight. I longed to meet my object of affection. What is his name? Where did it come from? What story does it hide? What ingenious creator brought it to life? And so, marvelling at the huge quasi-frog, I spotted the entrance to the…
Here I have discovered an underground world full of monsters! They were created by artists from the Dead Chickens group. It’s a one-of-a-kind kinetic art museum and you visit it by attending a show! It’s narrated by a certain mysterious witch (last time, June 2023, a wizzard gave a tour – MJ) who introduces visitors to the strange creatures. And it’s very noisy! Monsters moving, dancing, singing… I met, among others, a huge ant (she’s a bit unbalanced!), a monster who listens to techno (a female named Püppi) or the graceful Orangina (see for yourself who she is!)….
Here, too, a hall of mirrors awaited me. Did I see in myself… a monster? Apparently the artist materialises what is in his head. But does this mean that the man who creates monsters is himself a monster? Or does he have a monstrous imagination? Not at all. The opposition between beauty and ugliness is not obvious today, the belonging of monsters to the drawer with evil, even less so. As the world is old, so are the monsters. In stories, beliefs and mythologies, they were evil, cruel and usually ugly. They were considered to be the embodiment of evil and the most awful qualities. Nowadays, no one is impressed by the Loch Ness Monster, which has been photographed a thousand times, and on German television there is a dating show, Sexy Beasts, in which monsters and witches date (the protagonists wear monstrous masks), and the Cookie Monster is probably the nicest creature on earth.
n the Berlin underground, I met the wonderful Hannes Heiner, artistic director of this astonishing venue and a member of the Dead Chickens, a group that has existed since 1986, who not only told me about the monsters he makes, but also revealed some interesting facts about Berlin. He also turned out to be an interesting partner for a conversation about… kitsch. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Is Berlin a good city for monsters?
I think so. However, I have to say that the monsters come out of me rather than the city.
Do you meet monsters on the streets?
No. But first you have to define a monster, because anyone can have one. Monsters have existed as long as humans have. The history of their creation is inseparable from man. They can be a symbol of fear or change. They also have specific roles in fairy tales.
Do you have a favourite story related to monsters? What meaning do they have for you?
I used to draw them when I was a child. I was also a little mechanic. I liked machines. In our art group, everyone was responsible for something different. We made shows, music, art. We came together to do something together. The monsters at the very beginning had a supporting role. They were in the background of our show. But over time they became the most important. They demanded more attention until they finally got it. Because what we are showing today is also a show….
Probably the best advertisement for the Monsterkabinett is this huge frog (2023 – it’s gone now, hidden in the underground, resting, waiting for better times! – MJ), which is located in the courtyard, just before the entrance to the underground. Who is it?
As a child I had my favourite fairy tale, ‘The Adventures of Strong Vanya’ by Otfried Preussler. It featured a fat monster living in a tree that blew people’s roofs off their houses. This monster’s name was Och. Then I couldn’t remember exactly what the name was and I came up with BLOCH and that is also the name of the monster I made. I wanted to honour the story in this way.
What does creating a monster look like? Where do you start from?
First there is an idea, then it develops and then it is realised. I start with a drawing. Before, it used to be that everything started from a piece of sheet metal, some rubbish I found somewhere. Now this is no longer the case, usually the monsters show a specific concept.
Are you a bespoke designer?
It happens, but unfortunately rarely. For example, I made a monster for the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw. It’s called Elektrybalt. At the beginning, the client provided us with two sketches, which I then modified. Elektrybałt moves with his eyes and the book he has on his head. I was inspired by Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s painting The Librarian and the short stories of Stanislaw Lem. I sketched in pencil and airbrush so that I could have a spatial idea of what would emerge at the end. I had complete freedom. We still improvised together during the realisation. The book was the most difficult to make, it took a long time to make, so we worked in three, and in the final stage on the plastic, in five.
What are you currently working on?
To be honest, right now I would describe myself more as… (Hannes used the word ‘Schausteller’ here, and this word was used to describe itinerant fair owners, itinerant artisans, exhibitors) than a producing artist. Monsterkabinett and the associated duties effectively eat up my time. In addition to the daily mini-repairs, I am working to technically improve the entire Monsterkabinett. I am now fulfilling an order for a ‘Gespens-Tisch’ (the word ‘gespenstisch’ means something bizarre, grotesque in German). It is a secretary having four muscular steel legs, which at the tips of its fingers try to creep. Lying on top of it is a sleeping stone creature that has a tail, pulling on this tail moves the top layer so (thanks to a hydraulic mechanism) that a secret hiding place appears… I have lots of ideas for the Cabinet and new creatures, but everything takes time and money.
What is beauty to you?
Even in fairy tales it was said that what is beautiful often hides bad intentions… As an artist, I try to explore the world in my own way, including the values of the times in which I live. I develop the language in which I speak, my own handwriting, the way I create, in order to give shape to my imagination, to show it. Art is something spiritual. Beauty has many faces for me, it can be pure, aesthetic, natural, artificial, but also strange, grotesque and even disgusting – then it should be sincere and touch me internally.
I was inspired by this conversation about beauty. And since we also started talking about ugliness, we touched on the subject of kitsch. Hannes became interested in how I see kitsch. That I don’t necessarily identify it with pink plastic, something cheap, but I treat it as a philosophical issue, that kitsch interests me on many levels. I started to tell the story of a Norwegian painter called Odd Nerdrum, who, with his work in figurative painting, which was considered passé, deliberately called himself a kitsch painter to spite everyone, and redefined the term. And this is how I found out that David Bowie, who lived in the German capital in the 1970s, had once acquired one of the Norwegian’s paintings, and Hannes had just told me about it! In addition, he told me exactly which painting the singer had purchased. David Bowie collects artwork and the fact that he has a work by Nerdrum among his paintings makes me love him even more! I’m sharing it with you! Here is that painting:
Here some thoughts on kitsch that came up during our conversation:
– Kitsch is a quaint, dusty negative term for something banal, trivial, decorative and sentimental and is perhaps unsuitable for use in today’s world.
– Kitsch is the opposite of art, because art is a creative and spiritual process that attempts to reflect the inner world and reality in some work of art.
– Kitsch is considered stiff, dull, forceful, superficial… But kitsch is often so absurd and far from reality that it has found, through its absurdity and as a means of expression, a gateway to art (initially in Trash and Pop art and now hard to give up).
– I think the boundaries between so-called high art and pop culture are blurring. They have started to intermingle.
– The term ‘kitsch’ has become redundant and is at most an element of a style of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art that dissects the realities of the world of capital, consumption, artificiality and the human interior.
– I personally find trivial literature inspiring, especially science-fiction or horror films. It causes images to arise in me, I imagine fascinating images that are reflected in my artistic activity, they have a great influence on it.
10178 Berlin Mitte
Bilety: 10 Euro
Visit the website of this wonderful place: monsterkabinett.de
And these are pictures from 2023. Vivat Monsterkabinett: