From East Berlin to Downtown Dubai: a story of steel and OFWs

Jasmin Werner is an artist for our times – an artist for our place, too. As an artist her practice has focussed on exploring the architectures of power and objects of status. She’s a German-Filipina, so she knows about crossing cultures and the meaning of borders; and she’s made that explicit in her work Palast der Republik Burj Khalifa, showing at d3 during Dubai Design Week and then moving to the Manarat Al Saadiyat for Abu Dhabi Art.

Jasmin Werner

This is the latest iteration of a project she’s been working on for a couple of years, notably featuring in her first solo exhibition at Berlin’s Galerie Guido W. Baudache gallery. The portmanteau title compresses two the names of two iconic constructions; and from them she creates a hybrid ‘building’ that draws attention to transnational movements, a shared reality, and even the continuum of time.

That’s because elements of one building literally appear in the other – both physically, and in terms of the human component.

The Palast der Republik was built between 1973 and 1976 on the site of a former Hohenzollern palace in what was then East Berlin. Conceived as a Volkshaus in the tradition of the German labour movement, it housed two auditoriums, art galleries, a theatre, restaurants, and even a bowling alley and a discothèque; it was a place of popular pleasure, but also hosted the Socialist Unity Party Congresses. It’s end came in 1990, after the the fall of the Berlin Wall; asbestos levels were too high, but closure also represented a break from the past.

It was eventually demolished between 2006 and 2009, and the authorities cannily looked for elements to recycle – including, as it turned out, about 25,000 tonnes of reusable steel. That ended up in artworks, Volkswagen cars, building interiors, and new constructions … including the Burj Khalifa.

Jasmin Werner connects the journey of the construction materials from Germany to the UAE with the same kind of journeys taken by migrant labour, the sense of global trade overlaid with the imagery of architectures of power. She has done this by creating a ‘building’ in the form of a 6m scaffolded structure which incorpo­rates reused materials like construction mesh and canvas sourced in the UAE; semi-opaque images are printed on the mesh referencing the journey of the re­cycled steel from Germany through Turkey to the UAE, the same kind of journey that many OFWs have made.

Made at a scale of 45:1 compared to the original structures, Werner has chosen to remodel the base of the Burj rather than its spire. This solidity is quite deliberate; it’s the part of the Burj that most of us see most of the time, after all. It also suggests socialist and capitalist structures as mirror reflections, the solidity of the East German utopian ambitions contrasting with equivalent capitalist, neoliberal statements, the architectural exteriors masking the workers who have laid their foundations.

For instance, the Palast part of the sculpture is wrapped in a wide-angle zoomed-in image of a crowd of workers taken when the building was completed in 1976. The blurry image points to the human dimension that is lost behind constructions of such a scale.

The early version of Palast der Republik Burj Khalifa, from Jasmin Werner’s 2021 gallery show in Berlin

The Burj Khalifa section with its unmistakable stepped structure has a more complex sequence of images on the mesh – recycled steel beams in acid yellow and the Burj’s metallic facade, a hazy sky above Berlin and the bronze facade of the Palast, and a merged image of workers from both constructions. As Nadine Khalil writes: “Here Werner unites the micro-narrative of steel with the macro-narrative of labour flows in service of the state”.

She also brings the image of construction, its fabric and material, from its origins in Berlin to its Dubai destination.

Werner’s Schloss der Republik Burj Khalifa not only renders visible how architectural history is intertwined with political upheaval but also how materials can become migrating vessels of multiple ideological narratives. The work looks unfinished, and perhaps it is; history is still being made, and maybe the Burj Khalifa will one day be recycled itself. In the meantime it’s a story about “something that is still in construction, and always in the process of becoming”.

Palast der Republik Burj Khalifa shows at Saba Consultants for Dubai Design Week (8-13 November) and then moves to the Manarat Al Saadiyat for Abu Dhabi Art (16-20 November). On 10 November at 7pm Jasmin Werner talks about her work at Sole DXB, Dubai Design District.

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