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Not Just a Business Trip:
American Artists in Berlin and their Relationship to Europe

John Miller, from the series "Middle of the Day", 2004,
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss

Ever since the sixties, prominent American artists have often been guests of the DAAD program in Berlin. Yet what once helped the prestige of a city divided by the Wall has today become a point of departure for cultural divergence: many of the artists invited feel more at home in Berlin and Europe in general than in the USA. Their criticism of the patriotism at home grows in tandem with their experiences abroad. Harald Fricke spoke with the artists Jimmie Durham, John Miller, and David Krippendorff about identity in the era of globalization.

The barracks look empty; there are no more American flags hanging from the apartment buildings. Even the McDonald's Drive-In is abandoned. To the left and right of Clayallee in Zehlendorf, you really notice that the American allies have pulled out of Berlin following German Reunification. One position will still be occupied in 2005, however: Jimmie Durham has been working in a studio on Käuzchensteig for several years already, right between the sculptor Bernhard Heiliger's foundation and the Brücke Museum, with its treasures by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Pechstein, and Emil Nolde.

Jimmie Durham, Belegstück I-IV
Sammlung Deutsche Bank, edition griffelkunst
©Jimmie Durham

An American in Berlin lingering on in a historical location - an ambassador for the peaceful time dawning between East and West following the end of the Cold War? Durham has a hard time with the idea. The 64 year-old artist doesn't see himself as a representative of American culture in the least. When he came to Berlin in 1998 as a guest of the German Academic Exchange Program (DAAD), he'd already long broken ties with his country of origin: born 1940 in Washington, Arkansas, Durham was at first a poet, performer, and object maker before he became a political activist in New York and one of the leading figures of the American Indian civil rights movement throughout the seventies. Himself of Cherokee origin, he was pushing for more rights on the reservations, urging the government again and again to make reparations.

It was only in 1985 that Durham began dedicating himself exclusively to art; he left the US, moved to Mexico and later Europe, where he lived in Marseille before resettling in Berlin. His biography alone prevents him from seeing himself as a bona fide American artist in a position to contribute something to the cultural exchange between Germany and the US - a relationship that may indeed have been crucial during the time of the Wall, when international artists were invited to Berlin to secure the city a connection to the Western world.

David Krippendorff: Mistake #2
© David Krippendorff

A 1958 exhibition of works by Jackson Pollock at the Hochschule der Künste gave the starting shot, and in 1963, a three-year "Artists in Residence Program" was called into life by the Ford Foundation, out of which the artists' program of the DAAD was born. Since that time, in addition to guests from all over the world, a large number of prominent American artists have stopped over in Berlin: John Cage, Edward Kienholz, Lawrence Weiner, Dorothy Iannone, and Nam June Paik, as well as Nan Goldin, Andrea Zittel, and Sharon Lockhart.

John Miller, from the series "Middle of the Day", 2004,
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss

Some of them have stayed on in the city well beyond their DAAD residency. Kienholz, for instance, remained here until his death in 1994 and was honored with a large retrospective in 1997 at Martin Gropius Bau. On the other hand, John Miller came to Berlin in 1991 and was so taken by the changes in the Eastern part of the city that he's since spent every summer in a studio at Kunstwerke with his wife Aura Rosenberg and daughter Carmen. Miller knows, of course, that his presence was supposed to help strengthen the city's cultural life, but "ironically, many more artists are now flocking to Berlin at a time when the city is more economically depressed." At the same time, it's not the city's local peculiarities that Miller refers to in his photographs and conceptual works - he's far too involved in the everyday forms people live with and use worldwide in the era of globalization.

John Miller, from the series "Middle of the Day", 2004,
Courtesy Galerie Barbara Weiss

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