Rory MacLean meets Mentalgassi

That's Them © Waldemar
That's Them © Waldemar
Art is a serious business, yes? In the search for truth and beauty, the artist must lock themselves in their garret, right? Only after years of struggle, a couple of courses of psychotherapy and much-too-much coffee can an artist ever hope to reach enlightenment, OK? Nope. At least not according to the boys of Mentalgassi.

Public Intimacy Series Part 3 Sofa © MentalgassiMentalgassi, a trio of young Berlin street artists, are perhaps the happiest, most happy-go-lucky artists at work in Germany today. The three friends – who keep secret their real names for legal reasons – met at secondary school around the age of sixteen. Like many urban kids, they became graffiti writers, spraying images on walls, buildings, U-bahn stations and trains, until a brush with the police tempered their productivity – temporarily.

‘It was around the time that we finished school,’ they told me when we met in a not-so-secret Schöneberg café. ‘We became interested in new media techniques - photography, printing, image manipulation – and wondered how those techniques might be applied to three-dimensional objects.’

Every Sunday – usually after an all-night Saturday party – the friends would meet to walk a flatmate’s dog, and let their minds wander.

‘In German one says, “Wir gehen mit dem Hund Gassi.” We’re taking the dog for a walk. So “Gassi gehen” became a euphemism for us talking about our art, for making a kind of mental journey. Hence the evolution of our name “Mentalgassi”,’ explained one of the trio.

Containerhead Berlin © MentalgassiIn 2007 the friends created their first three-dimensional work. With a digital camera, Photoshop software and a large commercial printer, Mentalgassi produced vast black-and-white portraits (usually of family or friends) which they then glued with wallpaper paste onto some of Berlin’s recycling bins.

‘We called it “Metalheads”,’ one Mentalgassi told me.

‘Why did we call it that?’ asked another.

‘I don’t know,’ responded the first Mentalgassi with a laugh, then went on, ‘In part we wanted to play with the idea of humans and machines, and of machines taking over, but mostly we did it because it felt good, and we wanted to work on the street.’

Fahrkartenentwerter Katrin © Mentalgassi‘Metalheads’ - which were part-street-art-part-sculpture-part-photograph - was followed by hilarious face stickers attached to U-Bahn ticket validation machines and then by ‘Public Intimacy’, a series of six fleeting Berlin installations: an early morning U-Bahn carriage quickly transformed into a twee and cosy living room, a photo booth converted into a lavatory, an U-Bahn driver’s platform mirror redressed as a domestic bathroom mirror with shelf, toothbrushes and deodorant. Many of the ‘Public Intimacy’ installations lasted for less than five minutes, until removed by authorities. ‘Or nicked by the public,’ recalled one of the Mentalgassi. ‘Within five minutes someone stole the deodorant stick.’

‘And it was a new one,’ said his partner.

‘Berlin is vital in our work,’ said the first Mentalgassi. ‘Berlin gave us the possibility to play with street art, something that would never have been possible in – say – Munich. Berliners are either very interested in our work, or couldn’t care less about it.’

Mental 06 © MentalgassiWith their growing success, the three friends began to export their work along with the anarchic, humorous spirit of Berlin. At Getxo Photo near Bilbao, in response to the festival’s ‘In Praise of the Elderly’ theme, Mentalgassi attached faces to two-metre-diameter balloons and set them adrift in the harbour. In Serbia at the Novi Sad EXIT music festival they launched smiling, illuminated helium balloons over the heads of the crowd. In Poland they transformed a Katowice city bus into a mobile ghetto blaster. They have worked with Amnesty International, Converse sports shoes and in Finland created vast ‘fence pictures’ as part of the Pori Art Museum ‘Street Art: the New Generation’ show.

‘But it’s great to have the chance to travel, to meet new people and to make something new,’ said another of the partners.

Public Intimacy Fernseher © Mentalgassi‘I like to think of us as artists working in friendship,’ concluded the first Mentalgassi. ‘We’re all tremendously excited about how our work has and will develop. Each new idea just seems to come out of us – out of the three of us. Sometimes the work is hard and slow, sometimes it comes together very quickly, but – do you know what? -- almost always the process is great fun.’  

Rory MacLean
February 2013
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions