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Sven Marquardt, from various series, 1983-2020
Sven Marquardt, from various series, 1983-2020, Fine Art HM Baryta-Print© Sven Marquardt

Berlin nightlife icon Sven Marquardt captures the city’s subversive history

Here, the photographer and bouncer looks back on three decades of documenting the explosion of club culture

For more than 18 years, the photographer and bouncer Sven Marquardt has manned the doors of the Berlin superclub Berghain – the perfect vantage point to watch the evolution of the city’s legendary underground scene. “For me and my generation, it still serves as an interface to youth culture,” he tells Dazed, but his connection to the city goes much further back, to the years preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Training as a photographer in the early 1980s, Marquardt initially turned his lens on the citizens of East Berlin, with a selection of the resulting portraits featuring in a new exhibition at ArtsDistrict Brooklyn, titled DISTURBING BEAUTY. He recalls shooting the earliest of these black-and-white photos in a cemetery in the borough of Mitte in 1983, explaining: “Cemeteries were quite untouched by ‘dictatorship’ and already seemed [to have] a disturbing beauty to me.”

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, Marquardt laid his camera down for several years, caught up in the wild explosion of unified Berlin’s club scene. For several years, he worked as a doorman at the pivotal venue Ostgut, before its closure in 2003. With the opening of Berghain in 2004, he became the nightlife icon (and dreaded gatekeeper for Berghain hopefuls) that we recognise today.

“At the outset nobody knew how it would turn out, and how long it would exist,” he says of the club. 18 years later, though – and despite numerous challenges – Berghain is still going strong, not just as a venue, but as a space with a “strong connection” to Marquardt’s creative work, alongside that of countless other artists.

“For me, club culture has always stood for inspiration, for riot, new departures, free spaces, individuals... zeitgeist,” the photographer adds. As for his notoriously difficult door policy: “It is about protecting the safe space that is Berghain, which also means protecting club culture.” Marquardt notes that the strict entry requirements don’t apply to the subjects in front of his camera, but it’s hard to deny the presence of a sharp curatorial gaze in DISTURBING BEAUTY – a rarefied air that spans subjects young and old from across Berlin’s underground, and beyond.

Over three decades I have been fortunate enough to see thousands of interesting people,” he concludes. “At the club doors of Berlin, as well as in front of my camera. Looking at people is something marvellous, and an essential part of my life.”

DISTURBING BEAUTY runs at ArtsDistrict Brooklyn from May 18 to May 21, presented by Galerie Deschler. The exhibit is hosted in collaboration with Teksupport, the underground events collective founded by Rob Toma.