Beyond ‘Hypezig’: Connecting international artists in eastern Germany

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WHETHER it’s ‘the new Berlin’, ‘das bessere Berlin’ (‘the better Berlin’) or even ‘Berlin twenty years ago’, annunciations of Leipzig as some kind of challenger-successor to its big brother in the north have had a quite persistent habit of entering discussions of the city’s creative scene in the last decade or so.

By nature of history and geography it’s somewhat inevitable, but while flattering – the population of Leipzig’s metropol is about six times smaller than the capital – they’re a perhaps lazy framing of a post-industrial city that has a distinct identity and set of priorities of its own.

Leipzig’s cultural life, housed in the studios, galleries and shared spaces that are distributed liberally amongst its residential areas, generally carries a sequestered feel that reflects the lower level of attention traditionally afforded to these parts; while both experienced the DDR and everything that came after, this city did so without the constant glare of so much of the world.

As commonly recounted in rundowns of this city, the ex-industrial sites that so often house these spaces are also fairly easy to acquire and keep hold of round here – one of the more positive residual effects of a gradual exodus of the manufacturing industry – while renting costs, maybe the biggest constraint on any creative looking to live off their work, are much kinder too. According to crowdsourced figures by Numbeo, monthly payments on a centrally-located apartment in Leipzig are on average about thirty-nine percent cheaper here than in Berlin.

Nurtured by this healthy state of affairs, and an against-the-flow genius loci reflected in the popularity of punkish street fashions round here, Leipzig has remained a fertile ground for the arts at a grassroots level, in a way perhaps not so true of many major European cities at the turn of the 2020s.

A fine display of this DIY spirit is encountered in a little trip out to the west of the city to the old Dietzold, a striking factory building slinked in by a few car dealerships on the outer edge of Lindenau.

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If the Baumwollspinnerei – the gargantuan studio and gallery site in the famously active district of Plagwitz – is the main event, then this is what you would call the fringe. It’s where, as I’m told by one of the studio occupants of the ground floor, that you tend to get the lesser known, but often more challenging artists doing their thing.

Up its concrete stairway and behind some thick steel doors is the 465 square-metre home of the Pilotenkueche residency. A trans-disciplinary project founded in 2007 and run by changing sets of artists since, Pilotenkueche brings a group of twelve young creatives from around the world together under the same roof, who then spend three months working on their own pieces in each other’s close company. These are typically graduates, selected carefully by by a jury of three according to individual merit and harmony within the group – with so many artists working under the same ceiling, building a team that creatively and dynamically complements itself is of most importance.

“We like to look for artists that are interested in experiencing new things, who want to evolve, and look to develop their art” says director Julianne Csapo, who I meet at an open studio event affiliated with the city’s Design Open Weekend.

“Not just evolving in terms of producing, you know – we aim for people who are interested in new interactions and new perspectives.”

“We tend to look also for a kind of diversity. Sometimes what you find is that maybe someone who’s doing abstract and someone who’s making sculpture, for example, will be working on the same topic. It’s very very interesting when you find those things they might have in common.”

A keen follower of the programme for over a decade, Romania-born and Germany-raised artist Julianne took the reins as director just before the fortieth round of artists arrived in July, having studied multiple disciplines in Flensburg and the Dresden’s Hochschule for a total of twelve years.

Being run by people of a similar background to the participants is central to the philosophy of this project’s setup, she says, and in subversion of the trope of the disorganised creative, has some operational benefits too.

“It brings certain advantages – we know how it is to be empowered, how different art could look, and how important it is to be aware of what an artist is doing and needing right now.”

“We make it so the programme relates to what the artists bring, so it’s not a set programme in which we always do the same thing.”

With a walk around the room, you bear witness to a gamut of styles you would hope to see when viewing the work in progress of artists from all points of the globe; some are sleek, immaculately put together geometric models, while others drip onto floor coverings with a much more raw form of expression.

There’s some bias towards painting – being the home of both the old and the so-called ‘New Leipzig School’, it’s a form that’s long been popular in this part of the world. It’s partly a development borne out of omission, with there being no degree-level courses that offer sculpture in the city.

One such artist who’s taken to oil and acrylic is Cecilia Klementsson, who arrived at Pilotenkueche in September after having spent some time exhibiting in Australia and her native Stockholm.

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Her current project sees her, using the four colours of italian pink, magenta, phthalo green and cobalt red, appropriate and invert examples of hypersexualised fashion magazine advertising from the late 1990s and early 2000s, altering the gender of the model each time while retaining the pose of the original copy.

The result – a violent transformation, made further uncanny by the woozy, hazy effect created by the colour composition – is intriguing, and intentionally jars.

“In using these poses that are quite seductive, the goal, I suppose, is to dare the viewer to still be attracted to them, despite the fact that there’s this quite uncanny bit with the fleshy-ness and off-colours of the skin.”

“For their gender, it makes you see how men pose in these pictures versus women. With men it’s often arms-up, with a stance that flexes the muscles, and shows the armpit which women never do, whereas with women it’s often a passive seductiveness, a reclining waiting seductive, that’s not so active.”

“The images become a paradox with these colours, because the colours are what make the models beautiful, but also show all the flaws in the skin. I want to give it almost the feel of a billboard that started sweating, or one that got rained upon, and all the makeup came off.”

David Elias Schilling’s work, meanwhile, takes inspiration from the desecration of natural landscapes by the coal industry in Leipzig’s county of Saxony, adorning the canvas with an ink that is itself a product of the locale. Abstracting the dark visual legacy of demolished, or in the case of Pödelwitz, to-be vanished villages. that make way for fossil fuel extraction, he chooses to avoid an over-emphasis on mourning, and instead frame the acts as an unlikely act of renewal.

“I like to look at how now, in Europe, people are starting to look at things in a more zen Bhuddistic way. In every death, there is life – that’s now my thinking.”

“With these things we have to stay positive, to see the details, to see the beauty in the beast – a burnt out house, or somewhere derelict like here, has destructive energy, but it is super beautiful.”

The pieces reach their final form when he photographs people in front of the paintings in whom he sees positivity, in doing so juxtaposing the negative monochromatic energy of the backdrop with the queer radiance of his peer group.

As Julianne observes in part herself, one can interpret the diversity of this space occupied by the collective as microcosmic of a hypothetical global art scene of the future, a realisation of an intercultural coalescion that, despite great technological shifts towards a more interconnected world, still seems far out of reach, partitioned by legal and cultural barriers imposed on those who look to take their vision further afield than home.

Of course, though this kind of international residency programme is not necessarily radical in itself nor unheard of, it’s rather notable here for taking place in a city not known for being one of the most diverse in Germany.

While other urban centres perhaps have a longer history of housing the ‘ausländer’, in the former East it’s often harder to secure finance for international artists, something which does credit to the lifespan of this project, which is soon entering its thirteenth year in spite of not being in receipt of public funding.

Though taking the world to Leipzig is not necessarily a primary political focus of the programme, this aspect does intrigue Julianne; “I guess as an artist, I think the base of everything is art (laughs). And every action is political, no? The base of every political action is art.”

It’s also something in the back of her mind when planning the acquisition of studios in the nearby countryside in the years ahead.

“The people there sometimes have some quite interesting ideas [about foreigners]”.

An important connection with the local area is brought within the current urban site, with two of each roster being artists chosen from the region. Some chosen from the global set happen to have history too – David is a returnee, moving back to the area after being based in Vienna.

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After their three-month stint in the city, some of the international participants will stick around, while many take what they’ve learnt here into a continuing journey to pastures new.

In the past, a number have gone on to collaborate on films and exhibitions afterwards, forging cross-continent partnerships that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to form.

But for the time being the current round, who will have the final exhibition of their works in ‘Overwhelmed: Incorporeal Happiness’ in December, remain closely and happily communed within one space.

At today’s open studio, which lasts throughout Saturday into the late evening, a duo from a nearby studio bring the gift of music as the sun sets outside, playing an unscheduled set of Salvodorian folk music on traditional string instruments. It’s warmly received, a neighbourly gesture seemingly typical of an art community in this city that comes across quickly as having a strong emphasis on familiarity and close collaboration.

Such an ethos is replicated in Pilotenkueche’s work to establish a strong, lasting young artist network, a goal bundled in with a broader, rather noble one of granting much-needed time and space to explore the far reaches of their creative talents.

“We try to support an ongoing network that leads to ongoing collaboration… and it’s fantastic when it happens”, says Julianne with a soft smile, when I ask her about some of the ultimate aims of the project.

Attempts to ascribe innate character to old rusty buildings – and to baptise a ‘new Berlin’ for tourists to descend upon – are common to the facile estate agency-style chatter that blankets reporting of towns like Leipzig, but if we’re to interpret the longevity and continued success of Pilotenkueche as symbolic of how Leipzig as a city is blossoming as a cultural centre, it’s worth remembering there’s nothing about an abundance of industrial spaces that guarantees the vivacity of an arts scene.

The same as the manual labourers who toiled in these factory spaces before them, it’s ultimately the living, breathing, thinking people who make things happen here, as opposed to anything that occurs by virtue of the bricks and mortar themselves.

A visit to this programme goes to serve further as a reminder that, in the global art community as in any grouping of people, the realisation of potential can never be seen as something that happens in a vacuum – it so often requires the co-operation and sacrifice of those who give up their time to have others flourish.

Given a fair chance, as people have been here and around Leipzig, and you’ll find they’re more likely to pursue projects that work towards not their own narrow financial interests, but exactly that.

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