Reflecting A New Light

At Kurfürstendamm, no one seems to have gotten the memo that Berlin was "poor, but sexy." Out here, brand stores like Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Gucci confront you as you walk along its immaculate sidewalks. While €10 can buy you a great meal in Kreuzberg, you’d be lucky to find a döner at that price here (ok, I may be exaggerating a little). But that’s why I was so surprised when I heard of an artist exhibiting work in the area.

Though I’ve written about the moving-out-west of creatives due to the rising rent prices in the east, this still seemed bizarre. As it turns out, Berlin based artist Frank Hülsbömer was showing new pieces in the city’s newly opened Mulberry store. I met with Hülsbömer to discuss his latest exhibition at this London based high-fashion leather store and—let's just say I ended up getting more than what I bargained for.

Dressed in Rags, Surrounded By Riches

Once inside Mulberry’s posh boutique, I’m greeted by the very tall and kind Hülsbömer. His manner is unpretentious and wise—not ostentatious like you would expect from an artist exhibiting within an extravagant emporium. After the staff at Mulberry accommodated us with a refreshingly cold glass of water, he took me to his work. Hülsbömer’s main piece within the shop is a reflective ball close to the ground that slowly rotates. What looks like a hollowed-out globe is filled with rectangular pieces of mirror, casting flickers of light around the store. 

Hülsbömer tells me that this “reverse disco ball” spins roughly at the speed of a 33-RPM record player. Its gleaming structure is actually composed of pieces of glass from Berlin’s old Palast der Republick, which was controversially destroyed in 2008 to build the current Stadtschloß.

Hülsbömer next to his work at Mulberry. Photo: Chris Phillips

While some artists particularly use materials that carry a loaded history, Hülsbömer insists that this is a new approach in his practice. Glamorous as this all is, I ask him if he usually exhibits in such a high-end atmosphere. “In a clothing store? Yes, this the first time,” he laughs, “Usually its been galleries or project spaces—this is very different.”

Having lived in Berlin for the majority of his adult life, Hülsbömer is aware of the connotations this neighborhood has: isn’t exhibiting here selling out? Isn’t this a career suicide? But he assures me, however, that there were no financial incentives for exhibiting his work at this Mulberry in Charlottenberg. “This has always been a really posh area, but it feels like it’s coming back” he explains, “A friend of mine invited me to show here and [Mulberry] only has my piece on loan for a few months.” 

Inside the Mulberry store, where Hülsbömer's work illuminates the walls. Photo: Chris Phillips

Based off my own research, he couldn’t be more right: artists really are taking over this part of town. Yet he informs me that this isn’t the only work he has displayed in the area. He is part of a group exhibition just a few blocks away in what he describes as one of the most historic buildings in Berlin. Curious to see where artists are also exhibiting in this district, I follow Hülsbömer ​through Charlottenberg’s bright and bustling mid-afternoon atmosphere to our next location.

The Dark History of a Hotel

We arrive at Hotel Bogota, which once served as artist studios and later as Nazi headquarters until finally assuming it’s current role. Presently, Hülsbömer is included in a group exhibition that is part of the Hotel manger’s impetus to reclaim the establishment from its shady past. Once inside, I am humbled by its magnificent ambiance. Its interior is like a worn leather chair, both classy and humble. The dark maple partitions along the walls are overshadowed by the myriad works that hang throughout the entryway. I’m reminded of Manhattan’s Hotel Chelsea or Berlin’s Paris Bar who share a sophisticated yet alternative quality. Although it was easy to feel comfortable inside, Hülsbömer soon divulged into some of the hotel’s darker secrets.

“What is now the breakfast room was where Goebbels and Hitler would screen movies to see if they were appropriate for wartime Germany. In the basement they also stored ‘degenerate art’ taken by the Nazis, including paintings by Kirchner and Kollwitz." We then enter an antique elevator where he takes me up to see his work. Once there, it is clear that the Hotel’s manager reserved for Hülsbömer one of the best floors. “This was once the atelier for the German artist Yva,” he explains.

The former studio of Yva at the Hotel Bogota. Photo: Chris Phillips

Yva (aka Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon) was a popular 20th Century photographer. Many Berliners may know about her, either by her dynamic photographs or by her discovery of a then young Helmut Newton. Born here in 1900, Yva documented the Berlin underworld, showcasing the bohemian and artistic characters of the city through risqué photos. Sadly, when the Nazi’s came to power, she was deported and later murdered in 1942. Appropriately, Hülsbömer attempts to pay tribute to her with a modest, illuminating kinetic artwork.

Hülsbömer with his tribute piece to Yva. Photo: Chris Phillips

Spinning on a glass surface, this piece trades the reflective veneer of a mirror for colored Plexiglas, reflecting a Bauhaus-esque pattern on the ceiling. Recalling designs by László Moholy-Nagy or the stained glass of a church, it hauntingly spins over the visitors in the room. This seems like an ideal work to install in a building whose historical significance can overshadow the art exhibited within.

Through the simplicity of the exhibition, I was able to meditate on the life of Yva and the horrors of the previous century. I may have had my doubts on Hülsbömer’s sincerity when I first heard about his work being displayed at Mulberry. But after listening to  what he had to say and observing his tasteful sculpture at Hotel Bogota, I’m thankful that artists like him exist.

Article by James Shaeffer