Preferring to stand while talking, Sven Marquardt cuts an imposing figure at the door of the red brick cathedral to power generation that is Newport’s The Substation. It's an enormous edifice with vast arched windows that bears a striking resemblance to Berlin’s Berghain, the infamous techno club whose door Marquardt rules over with an iron will.
Wearing a dark green Alpha Industries bomber jacket, layered white t-shirts, rolled up jeans with his ankles on show and embossed black leather shoes, Marquardt’s dark grey hair is pulled back from his face, which is criss-crossed with tattoos of moths dancing on barbed wire. There are two metal loops pierced through his lips and a rod through his nose, heavy chains on his neck and wrists, and skull rings on almost every tattooed finger.
It’s hard to imagine, looking at him now as he grips my hand in a steely shake, but Marquardt was first drawn to the disco scene before becoming a self-confessed gay punk. “Obviously I changed,” he guffaws deeply.
Rather than follow the Berghain model, these days The Substation is a multi-purpose arts space, which will play host to Fotografien, an exhibition of Marquardt’s alluring photography, infused with raw sexuality and a queer punk aesthetic. Presented in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut, his work will also be displayed at Sydney’s aMBUSH Gallery as part of Head On Photo Festival 2016. The Sydney exhibition, Future’s Past, includes work dating back to the '80s, while Melbourne’s is a more contemporaneous, conceptual show.
Captured black and white analogue photographs taken in natural light, they pop against whitewashed walls. One long-haired, bearded man wearing a leather trench coat leans on the shoulder of another in a leather harness and matching half-face mask. A smoking man in a waistcoat is bound to a chain fence. Another holds a gun to his own head and there’s blood on his crisp white shirt. Two skinheads stretch their legs in the back of a car. Bowties blend with bomber jackets.
“When I first got into the punk scene I met these amazing people who just did what they wanted to do,” Marquardt says through his translator. “Artistic, interesting people and they gave me a lot of inspiration. We lived gay openly, which was very unusual in those days. So we were part of this group that was already on the edge of society, but within that, we were also on the edge of that group. That’s where my photography really started and it took off from there.”
Marquardt was born in East Berlin in 1962, almost 30 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “In those days we lived through a dictatorship but it didn’t mean that I got up and looked out of the window and saw military parades. We had a completely normal childhood, but what it meant was, when I look at photos from then now, it all looks a bit grey, empty and derelict.”
With no intention of settling into a cosy nine-to-five job, Marquardt went into photography as an assistant of Rudolf Schäfer, a luminary on the East Berlin scene, which allowed him to capture like-minded souls, often for fashion magazines like Sibylle and Qvest.
“The subcultures of the punk scene were pretty much the same in East and West Berlin, they used the same hairspray and dressed in the same things, but it was more improvised in the East,” he says. “Because we were so young, we weren’t afraid, and that also protected us in a way, but the dictatorship would probably have preferred it without us.”
“Because we were so young, we weren’t afraid, and that also protected us in a way, but the dictatorship would probably have preferred it without us.”
That’s not to say that he didn’t hear of people disappearing overnight or thrown in prison for no apparent reason. “Looking back now, I feel that sometimes we were incredibly lucky nothing bad really happened to us,” he admits. “Sometimes we would get up for breakfast and we’d be shoved into a police car. We’d be sitting there at the police station and they’d be asking questions like, ‘why are you dressed like that? Why does your hair look like that?’”
When the wall fell and East met West in the sweaty, makeshift clubs beginning to worship at the altar of techno that sprouted up in ruined pockets all over the city, Marquardt got distracted and his photography went on hiatus. “I thought maybe photography was the East, and now that I had it all, I didn’t need it anymore to interpret my dreams or visions. I was just partying and partying and there were my very important tattoo appointments.”
Money started to dry up and that’s when Marquardt became a bouncer, first at Snax, an early precursor to Berghain. It wasn’t until 2003 that one of the owners noticed his previous work and encouraged him to take it up again. When Berghain opened its doors the following year, he had the perfect models on hand in his door staff and behind the bars of the cavernous, vault-like space packed with darkly industrial nooks and crannies.
“Now that I work more and more conceptually I also give the people in my pictures roles so there is a story to each photograph,” he says. “This authenticity is very important to me. Sometimes I’ve worked with someone for two years and then one night I think, ‘ah, you might be interesting to photograph.’ Often it takes me a little while to make the connection.”
Back in the '80s, his eye was more often drawn to the female form, these days it’s the other way around. “It may have something to do with my role as a male, independent of my sexuality, which has changed and I am different now," Marquartd says. “For me, photography is a means of style and a part of my sense of living.”
He’s brought others along for the ride too, including one of his ruggedly handsome bouncers, Hardy Paetke, who appears in several photographs. “Berghain started as a venue for LGBTQI happenings and if you look at some of the photos here you see Hardy and he’s the classic bouncer. I think through his work with me, he has come to learn about tolerance and knows to give and take and he’s seen a different side of the whole thing.”