Transform: The Wapping Project Berlin

By Jo Phillips

Zara Matthews is currently living and working in London. She was recently nominated for the Max Mara Art Prize 2016-17 and awarded the Wapping Project Residency 2015 – Berlin. She has written a lovely and intriguing piece on her experience at the Wapping Project Berlin and reflects on what it is like to be part of an artist residency. Artists in residence are programs that invite artists, curators, academicians and other creatives to have time and space away from their usual environment.

Last autumn I spent 10 weeks on a residency, as part of the Wapping Project Berlin, that encourages mid career artists not to do any work. Founded originally in 1985, by Jules Wright, in a beautifully derelict hydraulic pumping station in East London, The Wapping Project inaugurated its Berlin residency in 2015. The program aims to host four, ten week residencies, each year to artists and creative practitioners, in a spacious apartment in Kreuzberg – Berlin, and artists apply with the understanding that their time must be used as a period of rest, recreation and reflection. Located in an early 20th century Alt Bau block, the apartment is one of elegant simplicity. Alongside its bright living areas, 3 spacious rooms interconnect providing breathing space for the imagination to play in. No clutter, no distractions, no images, only a few books on otherwise empty shelves, a wall sized map, cleared white table, stack of blank paper, a pencil.


Outside the apartment is an extraordinary city. Berlin has lived through extremes of destruction and reconstruction during the past 100 years. The streets and people have born witness to a Berlin as capital of the Weimar Republic, as capital of the Third Reich, as a city ruined by Allied bombing, as a divided Berlin at the centre of the Cold War, and finally as capital of a reunified Germany. Just 15 minutes from Kreuzberg you can be on Museumsinsel and wander into the stunning Neues Museum a monument to the devastation of war and marvel at its breathtaking restoration by British Architects Chipperfield and Harrap. You can stand at the Great Gate of Ishtar from Babylon 575 BC, and wonder at both its scale, and 20thC reconstruction inside the Pergamon Museum. En route to the island you pass the site of the Gestapo and SS headquarters, walkover Hitler’s suicide bunker – now a car park, and locate The Wall’s route snaking through a divided Berlin.


You can stand on the foundations of a house, finding itself in the Death Strip because of a line ruled across a map, its inhabitants physically separated by the political divide. Nearby a tunnel runs beneath your feet through which people risked their lives secretly tunnelling from the Communist East to the Capitalist West, to be with those they loved, rather than be shot dead escaping over The Wall. In former East Berlin you can walk the vastness of Karl-Marx-Allee, a monumental socialist boulevard flanked by the palaces of the workers and imagine the East German military parades showcasing the power of the communist government. You can find yourself strolling past a bunker door of a former Air Raid Shelter, Prisoner of War Camp, Textile and Banana Warehouse, Techno and Hard Core Fetish Club, and currently the Sammlung Boros Private Art Collection.


I began wondering what had taken place within the walls of my temporary residence in Kreuzberg, who and what had occupied its spaces, the memories it had absorbed and how they might reverberate like an internal echo. The condition of the residency, that ‘NO work be produced’ feels counter intuitive to an artist, however this limitation is definitely its greatest strength. Whatever working practices you bring to Berlin, they become subject to the emptiness of the apartment and the agreement not to produce any work. This imposes real but transforming and liberating constraints. The Wapping Project Berlin introduced me to the complexities of a city constantly in states of change and provided me with a unique opportunity to refocus and take in information from unexpected sources. ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ by Isherwood begins ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.” Now, back in East London, I am fixing my experiences with a body of new work influenced by the Berlin residency.

Intro Demi-Bailey Paul
Text Zara Matthews
Images Zara Matthews

Find out more about The Wapping Project Berlin here.
Have a look at Zara’s website here.
Demi Bailey Paul

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