I’m in a trendy Berlin eatery. The chef has sat down at my table and is expounding on archeology, and everything he is saying is wrong.
The chef is Gordon W, a 48-year-old Canadian who is a founding member of the Klauhutte Bangzeit 200 (KBZ200), an artists’ collective cresting the wave of expat creativity that is transforming Germany’s capital into the coolest city on the planet.
The phony story that W is telling me with a straight face concerns the recent excavation of a tandoori oven from the ruins of the Roman Coliseum. Proof, he says, that the common horizontal pizza is predated by an exotic vertical pizza of the ancients. W’s restaurant, Der Imbiss, located on Berlin’s hip Kastanienallee strip, has a tandoori oven and cooks Indian nan bread which is transformed into the “vertical pizzas.” Every one of them comes with a heaped side dish of playfully warped myths and legends.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the KBZ200, a group of about 20 artists who explore a kitsch bent loosely based on the culture of Tiki — the mythical Polynesian man-god co-opted in the 1950s by Western restaurants and bars serving up quasi-Polynesian food, drink, music and atmosphere to swingers hungry for a taste of ersatz exotica.
A series of KBZ200 events throughout the year will celebrate a decade of the group’s often-delirious performances, which have been known to involve palm trees, daiquiri-dispensing coconut bras, volcano woks, and much, much more.
I met W as he was heading to a recording session for KBZ200’s popular lounge band Fuzzy Love, which performs schmaltzy cover versions (with farfisa, tablas and theremin, no less) of songs from a 500-strong repertoire that mixes contemporary favorites such as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the likes of the Carpenters’ “Close to You” and assorted hypnotic vexations. The fanciful trio (JJ Jones, Gordon Monahan, Gordon W) performs at Berlin happenings and international art fairs.
But for diehard followers, Fuzzy Love shows are mere teasers for KBZ200’s piece de resistance — the “Exotic Trilogy Manifestations.”
The “Trilogy” comprises three classics from the exotica subgenre of 1950s lounge music — “Taboo,” by Margarita Lecuona; Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”; and Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village.” KBZ200 events — which involve scores of performers and can last up to 24 hours — are developed upon the repetition of different versions, both recorded and live, of these three songs.
“This,” says W, “is what we like to call the withholding of entertainment value, or ‘irritainment’.”
KBZ200 performances are designed to invert expectations — once the audience realizes that the same three songs are going to repeat endlessly, they may first become angry or bored, but then decide to entertain themselves. This, says W, is when things get interactive and interesting.
W was thrown out of Central Art School in Hamilton, Ontario for a performance-turned-riot in which he recited Kurt Switters’ tone poems while throwing wet spaghetti at the audience. These days, KBZ200 is, in its own quirky and passive-aggressive fashion, working the same Dadaist trick of dissolving the barrier between performer and audience.
Other elements of KBZ200 performances include “Food Actions” in which the service is delayed as increasingly complex rituals are performed around a giant flaming wok. Not to worry, says W, as “hunger is the best spice.”
The visual centerpiece of a KBZ200 performance is, famously, the ceremonial processions of Tiki head statues.
Explains KBZ200 associate Sven Kirsten in the introduction to his “Book of Tiki” (Taschen, 2000), “Tiki [is a] man and god, deity of the artists, who, as is handed down in Polynesian mythology, possessed a sturdy sense of humor and irreverence that would certainly have made him delight in witnessing the extent of his influence in the Western world.”
I am introduced to Kirsten at the newly-opened Trader Vic’s Tiki lounge in Berlin’s Hilton Hotel. He is a quiet and unimposing man — only a Hawaiian shirt betrays his obsession with things kitsch. When the Trader Vic’s manager becomes aware of Kirsten’s presence in his bar, however, he arrives at our table, gushing. Soon three giant “Scorpion Bowls” (a rum cocktail served in a communal bowl with a number of 50-cm-long straws) are proffered, on the house. I don’t remember much from the rest of that night, except that Kirsten and the KBZ200 people are convinced that the West is experiencing a ground-shaking Tiki revival, and that Berlin is the epicenter.
“Tiki culture first peaked in the 1950s and ’60s,” explains W, “as modern man, faced with the dreary suburbs, was forced to invent an exotic world of escapism, reckless abandon, and attempts to go pagan. He could escape strict Christian morals through Mai Tai, and by ordering food with silly baby-word names, like ‘Pu-Pu platter.’ The food was based on Cantonese, but over the top in its sickly sweetness. And it was oily.”
Nowadays we have vertical pizza.
W, along with other KBZ200 members such as objet artist Laura Kikauka (who brought a slice of KBZ200 to Japan last fall for the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art show “Quobo”), are determined to live and evolve a new 21st-century exoticism — so long as they can have fun doing so. This is an art built not so much on galleries and museums, but on the revolution of everyday life.
“Tiki is escapism,” said Ray Buhen, celebrated bartender at the seminal Tiki club Don the Beachcomber which opened in Hollywood way back in 1934.”It’s not real, it’s ballyhoo, but oh, it’s the best time!”
And it is addictive. Says W — again with a straight face: “I have no longer control over my rational mind, I have become haunted by Tiki, as if in a feverish dream.”
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