Sven Marquardt on Berlin’s art scene, techno and Berghain

Article image by Ole Westermann

Sven Marquardt looks like a terrifying dude, with his face full of heavy piercings and snaking tattoos of vines and barbed wire. But the celebrated photographer and infamous doorman at Berlin’s techno temple Berghain is actually a super friendly, personable guy, as people who know him will tell you.

They’re not exaggerating. When inthemix catches up with Sven at our office for a chat, in the middle of his first ever visit to Australia to exhibit his photography with the cultural Goethe-Institut, he’s got a big grin to offer and a warm shake from his bearlike hand. But he also has that crucial personal brand to maintain: when we’re shooting portraits at the end of our chat, Sven goes straight for his intimidating bouncer look – all serious scowl and hands laden with chunky silver rings gripping his lapels – and refuses to crack a smile.

Marquardt’s had a fascinating life – one worthy of his own autobiography (which came out two years ago). He came of age in East Berlin in the ‘80s, behind the Berlin Wall where access to western culture was minimal. Still, he got in with the nascent punk and new wave scene around the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood and kickstarted a successful career in photography until the ‘90s arrived, bringing with it democracy, techno and ecstasy.

Most of the ‘90s he spent celebrating – taking drugs and dancing – but he also ended up working the door of his brother’s parties. Two and a half decades later, he’s got two careers on the go: his weekend gig as the internationally recognised gatekeeper of Berghain, and his day job shooting portraits for fashion brands like Hugo Boss, fetish brands, and his own art portfolio. In 2016, he’s a cultural icon in his home city: locals call him the Karl Lagerfeld of Berlin.

We spoke with Sven (through a translator) about his early life in Berlin, from the Soviet days of punk rock through to the techno revolution, as well as the inspiration and ideas behind his striking, gothic photography, and – of course – what he looks for in punters when he’s working the door at Berghain.

You set the scene every night at Berghain – what do you look for in someone to ensure a good balance at the party?

Yes, that’s it exactly – I want to make sure it’s a good party. And getting the feeling of what that will require early on each night is [my] main motive. I always dislike parties with big groups of the same people, for example at the art gallery exhibition opening yesterday, there were too many of the same people: artists, photographers, intellectuals. I find it’s the same at parties full of models, or where everyone’s loaded up on coke – if everyone’s doing the same thing then I get bored very quickly and want to leave.

“At parties full of models, or where everyone’s loaded up on coke… I get bored very quickly and want to leave”

Do you get bored easily?

I’ve just already seen a lot… I’ve worked for 20 years at the door of Berghain. I’ve never been bored on a night at Berghain, though. Sometimes on Fridays in the morning [the club] won’t be that full anymore and the party will be smaller, but even then I like it.

What really bores me is when there’s a lot of people with inflated egos. Maybe that’s because my ego is too large as well, I don’t know. At art exhibitions, for example, it depends on what kind of energy is in the room. I was at one in Italy where the vibe was really bad and not very friendly, and my attitude also changed to ‘not very friendly’. I like it when things are different, because otherwise I get bored really quickly.

So friendliness is the most important thing?

Not necessarily – a tolerant atmosphere, I think that’s a better word.

What do you think it is about Berghain that’s made it such an international symbol?

A lot of it’s about the music! It’s been doing unprecedented things with music for many years, like the project with the state ballet’s classically trained dancers. Of course that’s just an individual example.

Image by Rolling Stone

Your brother was putting on parties in the early days of Berlin’s techno scene – did that scene have an influence on your photography, or did they evolve separately?

Back then I just danced and didn’t take photographs, I was completely immersed in the celebrations as everything was so new, things that I thought had not been possible before. I felt that a part of me had come to an end and a new part of celebration had started. In Berlin, it was a complete change. And my brother was the organiser of a lot of parties, so eventually I ended up on the door because he asked me if can keep a look out and choose the right kind of people. Since I was on the dancefloor so much, I didn’t find it difficult to decide who I’d want to have on the dancefloor next to me, so that’s how that began.

Where do you find the subjects for your photos?

Everywhere! Of course, usually they’re from my social life, which for most of the week is Berghain, so I photograph a lot of my colleagues and many of my friends. The two [photography and Berghain] feed into each other. For my conceptual photography, I will put people into a role – it works better with people you already know.

Do you always carry a camera with you?

I never travel with my camera, basically the only thing I shoot while travelling are images I take on my phone, but that’s more of a diary. I have never had a camera with me, nope! I saw a light installation near my hotel two days ago which I quickly photographed, and I could imagine recreating the same in Berlin. So of course there are things that I see that affect me; ideas that I take back to Berlin.

“I was uninvited to a fashion show in Berlin because nobody wanted to sit next to me in the front row”

For example in Rio de Janeiro there was a black guy with his big dog and torn dirty sweatpants, all muscle and black skin. That was an image I think about a lot, if I recreated it again as a photo… I’m determined to someday. He was the king of the road at ten in the morning, I wanted to get to the supermarket but I crossed to the other side of the road because that wasn’t my territory.

Do you get that often, do people cross the street away from you, because of the way you look?

Do people cross the road because of me? There is a story like that, actually… I was uninvited to a fashion label’s show in Berlin because of some gossiping pussy fashion bullshit – nobody wanted to sit next to me in the front row. But then I said, really it’s not so bad at all because for 35 years no one’s wanted to sit next to me on the tram. The thing is, in Germany, when there’s one sitting place left it’s always the one next to me. So I’m aware of this thing with proximity to other people.

Images by Sven Marquardt

You’re very friendly though?

I also think so, yes! But of course, I also like a distance. If people recognise me somewhere and approach me, whether in Sydney or Singapore, maybe someone who was in Berlin and saw me at the door or has read about it and seen my face, [I’ll be] friendly, yes…that’s always a bit tricky. If someone asks me kindly, I am also like, why should I not be?

Who inspires you in your photography? Whose images do you look up to?

Quite early in the ‘80s, what impressed me the most were the pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe and also the German photographer Herbert Tobias, who eventually died of AIDS. From an earlier East German generation, there’s a photographer called Sibylle Bergemann, who died a few years ago and who, I think, influenced me a lot in terms of melancholy and portraiture. And there are international names now who are not my style, but…Steven Klein, for example, I think is great. So yes, American, very zeitgeisty and modern.

You never met Robert Mapplethorpe?

No, at the time when I had just started to take photographs, when I was just 20 or 21, I was in [Soviet] East Berlin, and he was already dying in a New York hospital, I’m not sure when he died but sometime in the 80s. I love the story from Patti Smith’s Just Kids, it’s like a parallel world that could have happened in East Berlin, in Prenzlauer Berg, but happened in New York instead.

So you identified with Patti Smith’s stories about her and Robert Mapplethorpe’s struggles to survive in New York and make art at the same time?

It was like us, quite exactly… In my autobiography there’s actually a chapter called “Just Kids” that describes my relationship with Undine [Oswald], who’s made great music. Of course we’re light years away from their genius and reputation but I find the story, which is also full of the love between the two and what they created and what they fought, it reminded me very much of the spirit of what we in East Berlin also experienced. She’s my best friend today, Undine.

How hard was it to come by this kind of art in East Berlin in the ‘80s?

It was not easy, but it was possible… So at the beginning of the ‘80s there was a circle of artists in Prenzlauer Berg, and of course we had a lot of contacts in the West, and people who were in the West before and knew what we longed for and what we wanted to absorb, because otherwise we’d never get to see it. So there was always someone who could go on a book run, and we’d sit there and scroll through photography books and think, wow – it was inspiring. We would have made our own thing even without the books, but it was great to see what was happening somewhere else.

But sometimes the laughter would get stuck in our throat, so we’d say, of course, we’ll just make our own New York: where we are is New York. We had no choice because we couldn’t go there, so we tried to achieve what we could within the boundaries around us. And I think, considering that we lived in a dictatorship, we managed quite a bit.

Images by Sven Marquardt

We naturally also had a generation before us of actors and intellectuals in East Berlin who opened doors for our later generation. Of course, they often had to leave the country for political reasons and had a lot of struggles to deal with, but they opened things up for us. At the time, I also felt a kinship with [German Godmother of Punk] Nina Hagen, who was going to LA and New York and it was one scandal after another, and it was just, ‘woah, what the older generation has managed’…

There’s still a connection even today, for example, with Rammstein, who are exactly my generation, when I see what they’ve achieved internationally. Whether you like the music or not doesn’t matter, but I’m always proud of those East Berlin guys who’ve built a big international career. I think that’s great. I think it’s an issue of socialisation, because if you grow up and become big in one place, what’s it like if you then no longer live in Germany? Do you remain connected to the place where you grew up, or do you one day cast that off? For me, Berlin has always been a very important aspect [of my work].

So back to the first question, on my travels I never take pictures, but I do think about it. Mostly, I’m not anywhere long enough to decide, ‘could I work here? Could I work here [in Surry Hills] in a small room in daylight with a white background and make portraits?’ Maybe, if I saw enough interesting people.

Do you feel Berlin is still a good place for artists to live in 2016?

There have been a lot of new people coming – it’s become very international, which is logical. It’s a new generation, and now I’m a little bit older. It’s so broad and there are so many [new people]. I wonder, sometimes, on Sunday nights, when the whole of Berghain is speaking English, where do they come from – do they all live here or are they just visiting or here for study? I think it’s been tough, as it is in many cities – certainly in Sydney – to survive within the arts scene.

Sven Marquardt: Fotografien

28 April to 31 May, The Substation, Melbourne

More info over here

Sven Marquardt: Future’s Past

 May to 5 June, amBUSH gallery, Sydney

More info over here

Sven Marquardt’s exhibitions, Fotografien and Future’s Past are presented by The Goethe Institut as a part of the Urban Subcultures program, a curated series of exhibitions and concerts showcasing the intense flurry of cultural activity of subculture in the 1980s and now, in Berlin and across Germany.

Nick Jarvis is an editor at inthemix. He’s on Twitter.