In a public park where families take their children to play on the swings, in what was, just a few decades ago, East Berlin, is a wall of relief sculptures. The sculptures date from the Communist days. They depict children who are happy and healthy, adults who are industrious and kind. There is work, play. There is life. Monuments like these — the remnants of the dreams and aspirations of a lost civilization — can stimulate that most disconcerting emotion amongst Germans: ostalgie (literally, east-stalgia, nostalgia for the old East Germany). It is not the first thing you expect to encounter in Berlin, ostalgie, until you realize that nothing in Berlin is settled, no aspect of the recent past has yet been laid to rest.
Just up the block from the park is a square, in the center of which is the Zionskirche (Zion Church). The Zionskirche itself is a church in the form of a ruin. This was once the church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Do you know that Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for a little while? This was in the early 1930s. Then, Bonhoeffer went back to Germany where he set up the Confessing Church. He was going to stop Hitler with that church. In fact, he ended up in a concentration camp and was hanged by the Nazis in 1945.
The Zionskirche fell on hard times during the Communist days, what with it being a vehicle by which to deliver opiates to the masses. Over time, it became a haven for dissidents to the East German regime. They met there to quietly oppose something rotten to the human spirit. The church still vibrates a little from the intensity of former days. The stripped-down interiors and peeling paint, the full-length black-and-white photos leaning against the walls, give it an air both serious and melancholy.
All this within a few blocks of one another, in a neighborhood not generally considered a focal point for tourists. Then again, this didn’t feel like sightseeing. More like memory exploring, or walking through a living museum.
I was thinking about this walk when I went to the Temporäre Kunsthalle the next day. The Kunsthalle is a temporary space for art installations in central Berlin. John Bock, a German artist, curated a giant multilevel installation containing art by 50 or so contemporary artists. He calls it the FischGrätenMelkStand and it is so inherently restless that it pokes and prods even at its own institutional constraints. It doesn’t want to stay put. In one section, the installation rips right through the walls of the museum. One of the ramps busts out of the side of the building, creating a small balcony, big enough for three or four people. The same thing happens at the top of the installation. A wooden ladder leads to the top of the Kunsthalle where there is a hole in the roof and a small room. The walls of the room are clear plexiglass, giving you a view of the outside. There, in the context of an art exhibit, you are confronted with the city itself. Berlin.
It is a shocking experience to be inside an art installation at one moment, and then gazing at the center of Berlin the next. The FischGrätenMelkStand seems to be claiming the city of Berlin as part of itself. Look, the Berliner Dom just across the way. It is amazing that one church can look Lutheran, Baroque, Italian, Neo-Classical and a few other things I can’t put my finger on, all at once. And there, just past the river at Alexanderplatz, is the all-seeing tower of the Fernsehturm. Built as a television tower by the GDR in the late ’60s, it still watches the city from another age.
But it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t feel right. The works of art within the FischGrätenMelkStand can be contained by the installation. Berlin, the city, cannot. The experience of walking around the rooms and passageways of the FischGrätenMelkStand felt both intimate and expansive. Each room has its own feel, which leads, in turn, into another experience, seemingly ad infinitum. But when you poke your head out into Berlin itself, a crisis of scale and context overwhelms the work. Berlin simply has too much content, too much meaning.
Perhaps this feeling of being overwhelmed was particular to me. I find Berlin overwhelming. I experience the city as one giant gaping wound, a trauma. You are walking down the street and there, at your feet, are two cobblestones that have been replaced with tiny memorials to people once living there, who were shipped off to Auschwitz and killed. Here’s a memorial to Peter Fechter, the East German kid who tried to get over the Wall and was shot dead by border guards. Here are bullet holes in the side of a building from street-to-street fighting that doesn’t seem all that long ago. Here’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church far in the former West of the city, bombed to smithereens by an Allied air raid and left that way as a memorial. See the empty hole where the rose window once stood? Is there an emptier hole, a more desolate monument to destruction, in any city on the planet?
Every street in Berlin is ghosted. Every memorial is plastered in 20 layers of tragedy, heroism, and shame. To spend time in Berlin right now, to live here, takes a skill for living in the moment, for bracketing the past, that I do not sufficiently possess. I walk around the city in a daze, waiting for the next historical shock, cringing at the prospect of what memorial might be waiting for me around the next corner. I admit, of course, that it is possible to experience the city of Berlin in a less traumatized way. People do it all the time. Good people. Just not me.
Walking around Berlin, I simply did not feel a great need for art. When I poked my head from the FischGrätenMelkStand installation and gazed out at the sights of Berlin, the installation couldn’t measure up to the meaning and impact that was being achieved on every street and in every square. Reality was a better and more meaningful work, here in Berlin, than anything contrived by the cleverest of artists.
I felt the same visiting the Hamburger Bahnhof contemporary art museum. Here were collected some of the more iconic works of contemporary art from the second half of the 20th century. From Dieter Roth to Robert Morris to Neo Rauch, this is work I genuinely care about. But much of the current collection at the Bahnhof was donated by Friedrich Christian Flick, grandson of Friedrich Flick, an arms manufacturer who supplied the Nazi war machine and whose factories employed slave labor from the concentration camps of the Third Reich. Friedrich Christian Flick (the grandson) is not a Nazi and the controversy around the endowment does not directly taint the art, but it is hard not have these facts in mind when looking at the Minimalist sculpture and videos of Bruce Nauman. Friedrich Flick, by the way, died one of the wealthiest human beings on the planet, having argued until his dying day against any compensation for the victims of his slave labor schemes. How do you look at art with a feel for its formal play and purposelessness in that kind of context?
That wasn’t the worst of it at the Bahnhof. If you wander, as I did, outside the museum and into the wastelands behind, you stumble on a strange and forlorn scene. Behind a badly kept fence is a chunk of the Berlin Wall standing alone in the middle of an unused parking lot. Covered in the graffiti of its time, it is slowly being worn away by the elements there, in its final resting place with the weeds, amongst the ruins of a dying neighborhood. How can any work of sculpture, how can any installation created within the Bahnhof museum compete with that? I stood at that fence looking at the old chunk of Wall for a longer than I spent with any work in the museum.
I could be forgiven, I suppose, for coming to the conclusion that art simply pales in comparison to the real world. But this cannot be the conclusion. It cannot for the simple reason that human beings have been producing art for at least 30,000 years and don’t look ready to stop. Art supplements our immediate relationship to our surroundings. Sometimes it even comes first, influencing how we see the world, understand ourselves. Art’s success and longevity as a practice is its own explanation. The world is not enough. It never has been. At the same time, art does not replace the world, it cannot compete with it in terms of pure immediacy. Those two facts sit uncomfortably together and probably always will. The feeling of tension is heightened in a city like Berlin because the city is so intense. Berlin creates its own artworks out of the stuff of history and experience. The streets of Berlin, its architectural monuments, are already installations. Work that might be powerful and interesting in another city, another context, becomes flimsy and thin when you bring it to Berlin.
On the return trip from Berlin to Belgium our train was cancelled. Someone had jumped onto the tracks in a successful suicide. We were forced to stay for one night in Cologne. My wife (the unexplainable Shuffy) and I were traveling with our cat. He was dying and needed our care. We stayed up with him late into the night. The light on the great cathedral of Cologne was indescribable that evening; a cloying mist hung on the city that could be felt more than seen. In the morning I took a walk over to the Cathedral and stood in front of the stained glass windows for a little while.
Here was another approach to the problem of art and the world. The Cathedral was badly damaged in the war and the rest of the city was almost completely flattened. Gerhard Richter, the great postwar German painter, was hired to make new windows for the Cathedral. The work was unveiled in 2007, to much controversy.
Based on his 1974 painting, “4096 Colors,” Richter chose to work in abstraction. The window is a series of glass “pixels” in a random order generated from 72 different colors of antique glass. The use of old glass makes the window look, at first glance, like it might be something original to the Cathedral. A second glance brings the realization that there are no figures. There is nothing but color, shape, and light. Here is our best shot, now, today, at beauty and truth, Richter seems to be saying. Here is our gesture to the absolute.
That window, Richter’s window, does not solve anything in the difficult and ongoing story of how art relates to the world. It doesn’t tell us exactly what art is. We don’t know that in exact ways. We won’t know it. I was so very glad for Richter’s contribution though, that morning. Looking up at Richter’s beautiful glass made me want to be part of this story we continue to tell ourselves, about ourselves. He did just manage to grab on to the absolute there, in that glass. And, he didn’t. Just as it should be. • 24 September 2010