Art and culture have taken the place of coal and steel in Germany’s Ruhr region. Is the change too extreme? A road trip down the autobahn A40
People in the Ruhr region (aka Ruhrpott) don’t like the term “Pott.” It’s too negative for them. Is it really so ugly here? Well, it’s not pretty, but it’s getting there, fast. The Ruhr is recovering, the way it always has. Just give it a moment, and go for a drive on the A40, which cuts across the region. It’s supposed to be an artery and so it’s sometimes clogged. This gives me time to study the road signs: Bottrop-Boy, Rheda-Wiedenbrück, Castrop-Rauxel – names that connect you with the former mining region’s soul. Odes to honest work, exit poetry. We see the Gasometer rising 117.5 meters into the sky – a highlight. A point of reference, too, if you need to get your bearings when the cities overlap. This is Germany’s largest conurbation and the fifth-largest in Europe. The only place to truly understand this densely populated area is in the passing lane.
People here are very direct, which is right up my street
The A40 to Gelsenkirchen, then exit 28
Johan Simons looks like a rock star in his brown leather jacket stretching across a belly that any self-respecting artistic director needs. After staging shows for 40 years, he’s now center-stage himself, posing for the photographer in a wood near Gelsenkirchen with a don’t-mess-with-me look on his face. Simons is Artistic Director of the Ruhr Triennale, previously of Munich’s Kammerspiele and slated for the job at the Bochum Schauspielhaus theater (also in the Ruhr) in 2018. He clearly doesn’t want to leave the area. “I like it here. I’m Dutch, so this is border country, things are in flux, people are open. You have to be direct, which is right up my street,” he says, leaning against the van with the festival slogan “I embrace you.” The Ruhr Triennale borrows from Schiller’s poem to question Europe’s values. How, for instance, is the refugee crisis changing our continent? “The Ruhr Triennale must participate in the debate; I have no time for art without a cause,” says Simons. “To embrace is to clasp tightly – or crush. It’s all about ambivalence.” Starting in August, he will be filling 32 productions in 24 venues with ambivalence, and 900 artists from more than 25 countries will be involved. Simons’ art takes its inspiration from mines – and there are plenty of them hereabouts. Traditional surface mining has been shut down, but the festival goes digging for substance capable of artistic refinement. Culture, a mine shaft. We part with a firm handshake – thanks for the audience – and get back on the road.
The A40 to Dortmund, then the B54 to Ostwall
It’s been six years since Essen was declared European Capital of Culture – as a stand-in for 53 towns and cities in the region. This was primarily a salute to the scale of structural change occurring there. People didn’t despair when the coal and steel industries folded, they moved forward with a will, promoting art, services, science and education. The Pott survived, although it looked like it might not. But how does a region that has changed so fundamentally – and is still changing – keep its soul? Let’s go to Dortmund and find out (an absurd concept, really). It’s one or the other, Schalke or BVB, Herne-West or Lüdenscheid-Nord, but never both. Dirk Stürmer agrees. He’s a member of 1. Kioskclub 06, a club that has proclaimed 2016 the year of the refreshment kiosk. Known as Trinkhallen in the Ruhr, some 8000 still exist, Stürmer reckons. “There’s no economic reason why the kiosk should survive – but it does,” says he, a rockabilly in a bowling shirt. The club celebrates the anachronism, but also urges people to preserve it – to buy things here rather than at the supermarket. What good is a legend if it’s dead? The Trinkhalle was introduced in the 19th century to sell mineral water, expanded its range to cover daily necessities and became a meeting place for off-duty miners. You fell in love here, you split up: broken marriages, broken men, broken bottles. There was always someone there to hear you out, or tell you to shut up. Here, you bought ice cream as a kid, your first cigarettes as a teenager and your newspaper as an adult. “I believe in the renaissance of the kiosk,” yells Stürmer, and drives off.
The A40 to the A45 and the Dortmund-West intersection
Hunger hits outside of Dortmund. We could drive into town and find a restaurant, of course. Many Michelin stars are cooked up in North Rhine-Westphalia. But that would be the boring option. How about we go to the Grill-Store on the edge of town. This was once curry-sausage country. They’re quite happy at the Grill-Store to cultivate the cliché, but here’s the crazy part: To preserve their identity, they’re reinventing it. Kay Fräder and Torsten Gralla, big burly lads not afraid of hard work, decided to open a snack bar – because nobody does that anymore. What’s important isn’t turning a profit, it’s friendship. People around here don’t let their buddies down. The Grill-Store burgers (pulled pork, fried egg, and salsa) are well known around the neighborhood. Fräder dreams up the food – a gut feeling, of course. Over the griddle hangs a crucifix, engulfed in schnitzel vapors.
The A40 to the A43, then the A52 and exit 46
Potatoes of all things! Klaus Risse shakes his head in disbelief. Pop art, portraits, landscapes – he’s done it all, but his breakthrough came with potatoes. Comic tubers on the beach, out for a walk, holding speeches. Pretty bizarre, and a bit trashy, too. “You’ve no idea,” says Risse, “Americans love them.” He laughs his Sauerland laugh, a deep rumble like something echoing from the passages that run deep inside the Fürst Leopold coal mine in Dorsten, where Risse has his studio. No longer in operation, this mine is special because it’s owned by an investor and receives no subsidies from the German government or the EU. Risse fits in well because he’s special, too, and his story is a typical one: You labor all your life and just when you’ve given up hope, something happens and changes everything. He painted the potatoes as a joke and then a gallery owner dropped by. Risse now sells his art in the United States. In December, he will fly to Art Basel in Miami Beach, the wildest, most extravagant art fair in the world.
The A40 to Essen-Center and exit 23
Our trip ends at the Hotel Shanghai, the smallest, greatest club in the Ruhr and the starting point for a long night. Outside, the jute-bag crowd is lined up; waiting inside, Kay Shanghai, who’s really not the type to wait for anyone. He’s happy at the bar, a bottle of white in his hand. Shanghai, who shed his birth name, Kay Löber, when he opened the club 13 years ago and filled a nightlife void, a pleasure vacuum, with parties and music. Shanghai grins. Gold tooth, peroxide hair. A drink? Sure! He says: “For me, the hotel is the measure of all things. No one can touch us.” Mikroboy is about to go on stage. The musicians greet the boss. He knows them all and they all know him, and if you had to work out a formula for the success of the Hotel Shanghai, that would be it. This is where Deichkind invented Bierbong techno, where the young Peaches raved through the night, where DJ Kost is a house guest. Shanghai suddenly wants to take a look out front. We lose our way. Call each other on our phones. Yell above the crowd. Understand nothing. On the ceiling, sweat; on the floor, rapture. It’s too loud. It’s too hot. It’s exactly as it should be. You can feel the bass. Feel you’re alive. The Ruhrpott, too.
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