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Radical art at E-Werk Luckenwalde

Discover communism’s past and future at this sustainable energy arthouse hybrid in south-west Brandenburg

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E-Werk Luckenwalde is a 1910s coal power plant turned sustainable power station and art gallery. Photo: IMAGO / Eberhard Thonfeld

When artist Pablo Wendel could no longer afford his electricity bill, he had a radical idea: why not just generate the power himself? Years later, he and his partner, curator Helen Turner, brought this idea to life with E-Werk Luckenwalde, a 1910s coal power plant turned sustainable power station and art gallery. Their vision of Kunststrom – power generated by and for art – is at the heart of the project, which takes hold of the so-called means of production to create an avant-garde approach to both art and electricity.

First impressions

The spirit of the old E-Werk power station is visible immediately upon arrival in the form of an original stained glass window in the entryway: a raised fist, lightning bolts emanating from its centre. Helen explains that the authorities wanted to tear it down following the war, citing it as fascist iconography. It was the former factory workers who fought to keep it, pointing out that it is the left fist that is raised, a symbol of the workers’ power.

This feeling carries through into the exhibitions, which play with ideas of colonialism and industrialism, and their effect on the environment. The entire building, including all the multimedia exhibitions, is powered by E-Werk’s own sustainable energy, energy which is also fed into the grid and used to provide power to people throughout the region.

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Photo: E-WERK Engine Room, 2019. Copyright of Ben Westoby and E-WERK Luckenwalde.

The space

E-Werk is pleasingly industrial, with ceilings that will put your Altbau to shame and glimpses of antique pastel-green machinery throughout. The turbine room, which once hosted massive energy-producing turbines and now hosts large-scale exhibitions, is particularly impressive. There is a certain quietude to a room simultaneously so enormous and empty: you feel alone with the art in a way that’s hard to recreate in more traditional galleries. Be sure to bring your jacket, as a place this large is nearly impossible to properly heat. The two other rooms are both smaller and brighter, and all three spaces host a rotation of shows throughout the year.

Off the turbine room it’s possible to see a slice of the power station itself. One of the most important rooms in production, it used to transport coal down into the innards of the factory and now trans- ports wood chips sourced from wildfires and felled trees in Brandenburg, the raw material behind E-Werk’s electricity. The machinery glows in the light from the huge many-paned double doors behind it, and the ambience of the room itself is a mixture of rustling wood chips flying through chutes overhead and the sweet near-gasoline smell of fresh wood pulp and metal. In fact, an incoming “smell artist” (Sissel Tolaas) is planning to use this scent profile as part of her work.

A workers’ town

E-Werk isn’t the only architectural gem in town. Flat-hopping Berliners may feel pangs of jealousy over the wealth of beautiful abandoned buildings in Luckenwalde, many of them defunct factories built with a surprising attention to detail. The famed hat factory, which used to be Luckenwalde’s crowning glory back in the early 20th century, was designed by Erich Mendelsohn in the Expressionist style and sports its own “top hat.” The Bauhaus-style Stadtbad hosted the opera performance piece Sun & Sea (a joint work by Lina Lapelytė, Vaiva Grainytė and Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė) inside its empty swimming pool this past summer, presented by E-Werk.

After scoping out the remains of Luckenwalde’s industrial heritage, make Marx proud by stopping in at the Worker’s Canteen, a retro dining hall serving hearty DDR-style plates for less than the price of your BVG return ticket. The canteen is only open from 10–14 on weekdays, so if you’re passing through on the weekend then head over to klassMO, a small “culture café” serving coffee, cake, and lunch in large portions from 10–19. Round out the day with a sauna and a soak at the Fläming-Therme Luckenwalde, a no-frills spa that locals claim is frequented by Berliners in the know.

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Photo: Sun & Sea by Rugile Barzdziukaite, Vaiva Grainyte, Lina Lapelyte at Bauhaus Stadtbad Luckenwade. Photo: © Stefan Korte, courtesy of the artists

What’s on

January visitors will be able to see works in the POWER NIGHTS: Being Mothers programme. A collection of trippy, home-movie style films by the Karrabing Film Collective, an Australian non-profit indigenous group, is currently showing in the turbine room with The Family (A Zombie Movie) at its centre. In one of the smaller rooms, Himali Singh Soin exhibits Static Range, a multi-element piece inspired by the stranger-than-fiction story of a supposed nuclear power leak in the Indian Himalayas.

Keep an eye out this year for a special event: the unveiling of Super Duty, a 1969 American fire engine (purchased, of course, on eBay Kleinanzeigen) that Pablo plans to convert into a portable Kunststrom provider. You can also experience Kunststrom from home and support the project by switching to E-Werk as your energy provider, a relatively painless process de- scribed in detail on their website.

How to get there

Hop on the RE3 headed in the direction of Lutherstadt Wittenberg Hauptbahnhof. Disembark at Luckenwalde, then walk 15 minutes to reach E-Werk. The journey (including the walk) takes a little under an hour from Sudkreuz. Visits by appointment only. Email [email protected] to plan your trip. The gallery is free.

Coming up at E-Werk Luckenwalde

POWER NIGHTS: Being Mothers, A growing exhibition curated by Lucia Pietroiusti. Through July 31, 2022

Chapter Three: Opening February 5, 2022, Isabel Lewis & Sissel Tolaas and Revital Cohen & Tuur Van Balen

Chapter Four: Opening March 20, 2022, Tabita Rezaire and Cooking Sections