After months of forced closure, the Friedrichstadt-Palast recently opened its doors to visitors, this time in a new context. Legendary Berlin icon, Sven Marquardt, premiered his latest photo exhibition in the otherwise vacant halls.
The exhibition’s behind the scenes, intimate look at the Palast’s dance ensemble during their offstage moments resonates deeply, during a time when the dancers’ stage has been lost for so long. We interviewed Sven and C/O Berlin curator, Felix Hoffmann about how they pulled off putting on the exhibition during a pandemic.
In the summer of 2019, Sven was asked to take on a project about the dancers at the Friedrichstadt-Palast Berlin. He quickly agreed, and by October 2019 Sven was taking portraits of the members of the international ensemble. The concept behind Sven’s portraiture, to show dancers in the offstage moments right after performance, was meant to capture the exhaustion, vulnerability, transition, release, and personality of each of the dancers. He explains, “There is this moment ‘after the show’, the moment after their appearance when they wipe away this glamour and get rid of the stage elements – the costume, the headpieces – and then they’re in their rehearsal clothes, their private looks combined with their on-stage ones.” Sven worked with Felix to put together his portrait series just before lockdown.
Just a few months later, COVID-19 changed the lives of performers, artists, and venues alike. The images of the dancers photographed in those intimate, vulnerable offstage moments has become even more poignant, as these young artists are now wholly stageless, waiting indefinitely until the next performance. ‘Stageless’ is currently on-view at the Friedrichstadt-Palast as part of EMOP, occupying the otherwise vacant halls of the theatre.
Staging the Unstageable
Installing ‘Stageless’ in the halls where they were shot became a priority, as the theatre was not only a quintessential part of the process, but also now perfectly symbolises the darker side to the themes Sven has captured. After the COIVD-19 outbreak, theatres in Berlin closed their doors and the dancers, normally performing, were left without a space. This turn of events inspired the name of the exhibition.
Rather than installing in a traditional gallery, the large, bright halls of the theatre have been transformed. Dark curtains hang over the wide hallways of the main entrance, metal structures support the giant canvas photographs, and an ambient, haunting sound installation resonates throughout the exhibition. Walking through the rows of images, the viewer is encountered by the intense stares of the dancers, all poised in their black and white portraits. The large space feels both empty and overcrowded by the penetrating gazes, the darkness.
Although the transformation was ultimately successful, the curatorial team encountered many challenges. Felix explains, “There is no hanging space. There are cloakrooms and a bar and a staircase, but no hanging space. And then we decided to bring in a proper exhibition structure and to develop a special atmosphere.” The resourceful use of the space creates a very unconventional ambiance for an exhibition, which is typical of Sven’s work. Felix describes the way they were able to transform the theatre halls into a space to perfectly accentuate the photography. Felix made the curatorial decision to, “make everything dark, because normally there is a lot of daylight and I think it transports a different feeling. And you have the staircase so you have the feeling that it’s an empty Grand Hotel where someone switched the lights off, the people are gone, there’s no life anymore, and what is left are the pictures.” Not only does this eerie emptiness mimic the atmosphere of the ‘offstage’, but it also has poignant echoes to the situation both the theatre and the global community were left with in the beginning of the pandemic. What remains are the raw gazes of the dancers, in-between performing and not, haunting the halls of the theatre.
There is this moment ‘after the show’, the moment after their appearance when they wipe away this glamour and get rid of the stage elements. - Sven
The curatorial decisions invoked more than just the hauntedness left after the pandemic. Sven’s signature style was also accentuated by the large-format canvas prints that were installed throughout the exhibition. Felix articulates that the large print size is always a priority for Sven. “That’s always the size Sven works with. He tries to avoid these small framed, matted photos. He always likes to have it, I would say fluid. There is this metaphor about walking down a boulevard in NY. You have advertising on the billboards, it’s not permanent…He really likes these kinds of transformations.” The nod to more glamorous, aestheticized advertisements or placards, mixed with the raw emotive power of the images themselves create an important tension within the installation.
Sven’s work in this particular installation resides in-between concepts. The dancers are suspended in-between the gazes of both the audience and the camera, they are in-between states of being a performer and an individual, the theatre is suspended in time – the palpable tension of being uncategorizable, transitioning between states perhaps reflects the life and work of the artist himself.
The Intersecting Layers of Sven Marquardt
Although many people know Sven as the intimidating bouncer from Berghain, he has been a photographer for decades. ‘Stageless’ marks his second exhibition in collaboration with Felix. His first being ‘No Photos on the Dancefloor’, an exhibition exploring club culture in Berlin.
His iconic status with the club scene, however, only tells part of the story. Sven’s background in photography began in the 80s and took a hiatus until recently. His artistic interests have always shown an affinity for capturing the subcultures that color and shape this city. “There are different layers because a lot of people know Sven as the bouncer from Berghain, but he started very early in the 80s as a photographer. And not many people know this, but he is really a photographer coming from the punk scene in East Berlin, growing up in the DDR. My aim has always been to promote him as an artist,” says Felix. Sven’s background and his big personality both contribute to his photographic eye. Felix elaborates, “He is really someone where a lot of layers are coming together. There is the personality, there is the biography, and there is the artist, Sven Marquardt. We’re trying to make this visible in the exhibition.” His current exhibition certainly speaks to a performative, behind the scenes Berlin that has always fascinated Sven and his broader audience.
The concept of ‘Stageless’ seems simple enough; portraiture of dancers offstage during their more personal, intimate moments. But much like Sven himself, there is more here conceptually than meets the eye. The process from start to finish for this shoot involved subtle manipulations and decisions that add some seemingly contradictory elements to the portraiture, individualizing the dancers in their own objectivity.
When asked where the idea for the exhibition came from, Sven is quick to say that it wasn’t his alone. Both his assistant and the Friedrichstadt-Palast had large roles to play in starting the process. What Sven brought to the table was his uncompromising style and his unique way of looking at the world. “It came from communication with the team here at Friedrichstadt-Palast. They wrote to me in summer 2019 because they had seen some of my photos and they asked if I would like to photograph the dancers in my style of seeing people, of portraiture in the style of program booklets, placards, glamour,” says Sven. This stylistic gaze, mixed with his idea to photograph performers offstage creates another important tension in his work. He is essentially stylising the unstylised, putting those offstage back on, this time without masks and full costumes. He’s giving the dancers a more personal, individual, unchoreographed way of performing.
Sven himself states that in his work the idea of movement and performing for an audience are important elements. He found that the idea of working with the dancers fit well with his past works, despite some differences between the scenes. “It seemed like a really interesting idea, a completely different world. Of course both involve an audience, but club culture is something completely different. But they are sometimes surprisingly similar.” The performative, glamorous elements of Sven’s work certainly come across through the subject material, but maybe less obvious is his use of the body and movement.
You have the feeling that it’s an empty Grand Hotel where someone switched the lights off, the people are gone, there’s no life anymore, and what is left are the pictures. - Felix
Although there were some parallels to past projects, Sven’s experience of working with the dancers added unique elements to his body of work. He describes the feeling after just having seen the dancers perform in the show. “I was completely moved. It was the light, sound…And when you leave, you leave with such a beautiful feeling. It was a great night, full of illusion.” The emotive power of the performance, the feeling of being dazzled, of illusion seems to have played a strong role in Sven’s artistic choices.
When asked about the process of the shoot itself, Sven has a very straightforward answer. He describes the scheduling challenges they encountered due to the regimented lives the dancers live, “We only had a very little amount of time. One and a half hours for him, one and a half hours for her, because they all had a very strict schedule. They had to go to rehearsals, they had to sleep, because they also had the show.” That process combined with Sven’s lighting requirements of only shooting during daylight made the whole process of shooting the dancers difficult, and a bit mechanical.
Despite that being the case, one of the most important elements to his work was that the dancers were individualised in his portraiture. Taken offstage, when they are no longer choreographed anonymous bodies, each individual personality has to come across for the work to make sense. “The intent was also to show their personalities,” says Sven. Interestingly, Sven found that in order to really convey each dancers’ personality, some traces of the performance often had to remain. Smudged makeup, hairnets, and props from the show were often used to further interrogate the space between the self and the performative.
It felt very raw, very me. It’s probably me in my most raw state. No hair, no makeup, just my face, my soul. - Thea
Sven worked to develop the different looks for each dancer. “For some of the dancers we had their looks developed and had them bring their costumes from the show. We had everything already planned.” Although some of the looks were themselves choreographed and manipulated, the dancers seemed to have a very relaxed, natural experience on the shoot.
One member of the international ensemble, Thea, went so far as to say that the way her style was developed actually helped to reflect her most raw state. She remembers, “The makeup artist saw my face and decided to give me these white lashes…” Thea is the dancer chosen for the cover of the ‘Stageless’ book. After she shared that piece of information with me, I was surprised that the person I was talking to was also the person on the cover because of how different she looked. Still, she found that the look that Sven planned for her, mixed with his process during the shoot made her feel at-ease and natural. “Working with Sven, it made me want to be very natural. It didn’t make me try to show any particular emotion, it just made me want to be in a natural state and just present.” The outcome for Thea was more than just a reflection of her personality, but also of her sense of self. “It felt very raw, very me. It’s probably me in my most raw state. No hair, no makeup, just my face, my soul.” Through his stylising techniques and making the dancers feel comfortable and natural during the shoot, Sven seems to have captured something internal and personal while keeping the stage and performance imminent, if not present, in his works.
Ultimately, the exhibition, which plays with the spaces between performing and not, the internal and external, on-stage and offstage, provides an intimate, backstage look into the world of the dancers. Mixed with the vulnerable position the art world finds itself in at the moment, the exhibition’s aesthetic and themes seem all too relevant, if even a bit haunting. Sven hopes that his work and installation can provide something positive during these difficult times. “To have this other context in the theatre, it is a positive signal that things are moving forward. And this is my homage to the dancers and to the house.”
Sven’s exhibition is on view at the Friedrichstadt-Palast until November 29th.