Art in the Media: Norman Foster’s renovated Reichstag, Andy Warhol on video and CNN's The ArtClub comes to London

Air-raising adventures in Berlin, the mythology of Andy Warhol on screen, and The ArtClub hitting its stride at London visual art events


Politicians have always been a reliable source of hot air, no matter what nationality they may be, but only an architect of Sir (now Lord, see p.6) Norman Foster’s abilities could have found a means to recycle that air to productive effect.

As a recent Omnibus documentary Rebuilding the Reichstag revealed (BBC1, 7 June), Sir Norman’s transformation of the Berlin Reichstag incorporates a whole series of wizard innovations that fuse practicality, ecological awareness and a sensitivity to historical symbolism. To come up with a winning design for a parliament building in which the public are elevated to a roof-garden, while the politicians sweat it out in a chamber below, demonstrates that there is still a place for chutzpah and humour in modern urban planning. And the warm air is indeed pumped from the lower part of the building to the upper levels, preserving energy while deepening the inherent humour of the architectural hierarchy.

This short programme offered a historical profile of the Reichstag, together with an engaging account of the sources of its political and social mythology. Its researchers had succeeded in tracking down some of those who had played walk-on parts in the building’s chequered history. A former Russian soldier-turned-beekeeper, one Mikhail Petrovich Minin, stepped forward to claim the honour of having hoisted the Red Flag onto its summit when the building was stormed by the Russians in 1945—still an iconic moment in the annals of the Red Army—while Marleile van der Wyst was among those Berliners born in the cellars during the air-raids. Marleile knows better than most what it really means for the Reichstag to reclaim its original identity as a cradle of German democracy.

Under wraps

In more recent times the building has offered itself as a site for contemporary art. The finished building now houses work by Richter, Polke, Baselitz, Kiefer et al., but before the builders moved in, the artists Christo and Jean-Claude finally got to realise their dream of wrapping the Reichstag. This time, however, it was the process of unwrapping at the end of the project which perhaps assumed the greatest significance—Lazarus shedding his winding-sheet.

No architect charged with resurrecting such a politically charged symbol of German nationhood could have hoped to satisfy all the opposing ideologies which continue to revolve around it, but Sir Norman has largely succeeded. He had been concerned that the invitation to a British architect to enter the first round of the competition might have been merely a token gesture, but his caution proved unfounded.

“Sir Norman came to visit us and asked us if this was just for show or if he had a chance to win,” revealed Peter Conradi, a member of the Parliamentary Building Committee. “We said, ‘If you win, you get the job’ and he said: ‘We’re going to win.’” That determination gave Sir Norman first prize in what was effectively an “architectural world championship” and it gave birth to another typically visionary building, although only after the initial architectural plans had had to be revised following the first round. The brief now was to stick to the existing shell and not to exceed the budget of £215 million. As Sir Norman himself explained: “At the first stage it was almost as if someone had said: ‘Design us a very large bus’ and then at the second stage they were saying: ‘Modify it—we only want a car, a very important car, but we only want a car.’ So we started again, completely, from scratch.”

With the help of some state-of-the-art computer-aided design, a menacing Japanese rubble-muncher, and large quantities of polished Bavarian limestone, a daring, double-helix dome was raised from within.

Sir Norman’s dome became all the more meaningful when one learnt that during more benighted times the building had sheltered not only Berlin’s citizenry but also Albert Speer’s grandiose, unrealised models for a Reichstag mega-dome. To acknowledge the building’s positive, earlier functions, while exorcising its unwelcome ghosts, was a laudable achievement, but it was the huge, wall-mounted German eagle for the council chamber which caused Sir Norman the most headaches.

The question had been whether to transplant the existing eagle from its eyrie in the old Bonn parliament building, or to design one anew. Sir Norman recommended the latter and proceeded to assemble enough information and images relating to eagles, both real and emblematic, to qualify as a world authority on birds of prey. After weeks of drawing, the result was a “friendlier eagle, less aggressive, a bird about to take flight.” However, despite an apparently successful pitch to the Building Committee, the old Bonn bird won the contest: “MPs want to find at least one piece of familiar furniture in their new home”, commented an insider. At least Sir Norman got to sign his name upon it.

The success of today’s renovation which looks to the future while genuflecting to the past, was confirmed a few months ago when Sir Norman was awarded the prestigious 1999 Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Strange life

There will always be room for films about Andy Warhol, however well documented his life may already be. Superstar: the life and times of Andy Warhol, a film by Academy Award winner Chuck Workman, and now available on video, provides one of the more penetrating profiles of the man most famous for having “made fame more famous”. Any self-respecting filmmaker tackling Andy’s strange life has an obligation to get the key players on board and Mr Workman leaves no stoned turn unturned.

Most of what is worth saying about Andy has already been said before, but, while there were few surprises from the Factory cohorts, deeper insights came from Henry Geldzahler, Roy Lichtenstein, John Coplans, and Warhol’s editor on Interview magazine, Bob Colacello, for whom life in the inner circle was “like being part of some crazy peasant family.”

Mr Workman’s workmanlike biopic gives us the full Andy: the sick child, the talented young commercial artist, the workaholic, the star-struck misfit, and the “cheap” skinflint, deeply scarred by the lack of material wealth in his early life, who had a craving for jewellery, silver and diamonds and who “loved people to beg him for money.” Andy was a voyeur who “didn’t have the energy for sex”, but to many he was also the sexiest guy in town. “His alien looks created a barrier between him and bullshit”, said pop diva Grace Jones (she should know), while according to critic and curator Henry Geldzahler, “he extended the Marshall Plan beyond consumer goods”, by making something essentially emblematic of the US that could be exported all over the world.

His aesthetic sensibility left differing impressions, too. Art critic Hilton Kramer suggested that, “The statement he’s making in his work goes something like: ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’”, although one member of the Warhola clan declared proudly and with much gravitas that: “He taught me that there was art in my lunch.”

There are no intrusive voice-overs in this engrossing and wittily edited documentary which knits together the analytical and anecdotal to productive effect. It has some inspired moments and may even tell you a few things about Warhol that you didn’t already know. Perhaps it’s not possible to make a dull film about Warhol.

Evidently, someone had planned to resurrect Andy as a robot after his death: an automaton which would continue to appear on television and at the social events on which he thrived (“Andy would have gone to the opening of a drawer”, said one wag). But Andy himself had already declared his wishes for the afterlife: “It would be nice to be reincarnated as a big ring on Liz Taylor’s finger.” If you’d asked Andy if this video was worth buying, his reply would probably have been “…er…yes.”

Worth watching?

And finally, CNN’s weekly arts programme, The ArtClub seemed to have improved considerably since we last watched it a few months ago. You can’t do much in half an hour, and all too often the tendency with the magazine format is to turn everything into superficial froth by adding a fatuous commentary to every image on screen. The most recent edition (12 June) took a slightly more sensitive approach, allowing sculptor Richard Deacon to speak seriously about his work on the eve of a major exhibition at London’s Lisson Gallery, and visiting three small independent London fine art outlets curated by women—Nylon, Salon Three and The KDK Gallery. Nylon seemed the most progressive of the three, its curator Mary Jane Aladrin having turned her own home into a gallery where the art shares space with domestic reality.

There is not much intelligent visual arts coverage on the small screen these days, largely thanks to game-show economics and the creeping culture of cable and satellite that threatens to steer us into even more dismal waters. The fact that the digital television companies have finally decided to give away their set-top decoders for free on this side of the Atlantic suggests that the public has been less than impressed with what’s on offer. It’s not the hardware that is stopping people from subscribing; it’s the lack of anything worth watching.

The ArtClub happens to be the only programme on CNN made by an independent production company, and a London company at that. The weekly broadcast enjoys astronomical viewing figures and, I am told, receives fan mail from all over the world. Has this encouraged CNN, or any of the other cable or satellite companies, to produce more serious visual arts programmes? Sadly not.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Air-raising adventures in Berlin'