Saturday, 5 June 2010

Lærke Lauta: Motion, Still & Dual Channel

Lærke Lauta [Laerke Lauta] is a Danish artist who works with video installations as well as still images, and her works have been exhibited in various settings from galleries to internet. The following are some of her video works. 

Hun Mødte Sig Selv (2006)
Super 8 transferred to video, 1 channel, 12 sec loop

Hamsterbegravelse (2007)
DV-cam, 1 channel, 1 min loop

Both Hun Mødte Sig Selv and Hamsterbegravelse combine still and motion images into one. Lightsleeper places two channels of videos adjacent to each other.

Lightsleeper (2008)
HD, 2 channels, 6:30 min loop

Lauta, L. [2010] Video. [Online] [05/06/2010]
MCASD [2010] Lærke Lauta. [Online] [05/06/2010]

Museum Calls for Walls

The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) is looking for sites, building walls, in the downtown San Diego to be used by artists for its exhibition Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape [, 2010]. MCASD will organise "a multifaceted exhibition that explores the dialogue between artists and the urban landscape" at its galleries as well as urban sites, as it claims the majority of the world's population lives in urban areas for the first time in history and "the urban setting and its corresponding lifestyle are major sources of inspiration in contemporary culture" [MCASD, 2010].
"This is an historic revolution in visual culture, in which the codes and icons of the everyday—found on the streets in graffiti, signage, waste, tattoos, advertising, and graphic design—have been appropriated and used as an integral part of contemporary art-making. The urban landscape inspires and serves as both a platform for innovation and a vehicle for expression for many artists. The city itself, its buildings, vehicles, people, and advertisements, are not only the surface where the art is applied. The city fuels the practice." [MCASD, 2010]
Shepard Fairey, Street Mural Miami, 2008, stencil and mixed media collage

MCASD [2010] Viva la Revolucion: a Dialogue with the Urban Landscape. [Online] [2010] Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Calls for Walls. [Online] [05/06/2010]

South Korean Election Result

"There is no winner if war breaks out, hot or cold," (a South Korean voter, in Harden, 2010)
South Korean voters are said to have rejected the hostile campaign against the North Korean government during the local elections held this week, and supporting dialogue offered by the main opposition Democratic Party (Harden, 2010, & Yonhap News Agency, 2010). The rhetoric pitched by the ruling Grand National party seemed too high-strung and sent voters to opposition Democratic Party, which ran a successful campaign. 

"Experience teaches South Koreans not to overreact" claimed a professor at the University of North Korean Studies Ryoo Kihl-jae, analysing "people here interpreted Lee's response to the Cheonan to be like a new Cold War... and that kind of thinking is seen as old-fashioned, as well as harmful to the economy and people's standard of living" (Harden, 2010)

Harden, B. (2010) South Korean Voters Opt for 'Reason over Confrontation' with the North. [Online] and
page 2 of the same article: [05/06/2010]
Yonhap News Agency (2010) (LEAD) (News Focus) Election defeat casts gloom over Lee administration, ruling party. [Online]

The Hankyoreh (2010) Military Leadership Adding to Cheonan Chaos with Contradictory Statements. [Online] [05/06/2010]

Thomas Hoepker

The Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker's work is being exhibited at Galerie Hiltawsky in Berlin. Hoepker "shaped the German magazine scene, working for the magazines such as "Stern" and "Geo", and "he was among the first with a special permit to travel freely between West and East Berlin, managing to tell the everyday life in the 'brother country' (East Germany) as realistically and impartially as possible" [Magnum Photos, 2010].

Below is a video by The Economist magazine, that shows Hoepker's still images alongside his narrative. 

EconomistMagazine (2009) Life behind the Berlin Wall. [Online]
Magnum Photos [2010] May 1 - June 19, 2010, Berlin, Germany Thomas Hoepker. [Online]

Galarie Hiltawski [2010] Thomas Hoepker: Cate. [Online] [05/06/2010]
Usuda, T. (2009) 2 Narratives by Thomas Hoepker of Magnum. [Online] [05/06/2010]

photo animation idea

Lemeh42 (2009) abcd. [Online] [04/06/2010]

Soviet Union’s forbidden art unveiled

St Petersburg’s first private art museum opens, showing Soviet underground and Russian contemporary art

John Varoli
The Art Newspaper
A private Russian collector is due to open St Petersburg’s first private art museum on 4 June. Novy Museum, the brainchild of Aslan Chekhoev and his wife Irina, is devoted to Soviet underground and Russian contemporary art. The museum is centred on the Chekhoevs’ collection of nearly 300 paintings, works on paper and photographs assembled over the past five years.
The couple has spent E1m renovating three floors in a 19th-century building on the historic Vasilievsky Island, not far from St Petersburg State University and the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. The collection features works by 69 artists—including Yevgeny Rukhin, Evgeny Mikhnov-Voitenko, Komar and Melamid and Oscar Rabin—and the inaugural exhibition features a sample work by each artist.
When asked why he embarked on this project, Chekhoev said: “We see this as something for history and for St Petersburg, because around 70% of our collection is comprised of important Moscow artists whose works are not well represented in our local museums.”
Chekhoev will rotate the exhibition around three times a year, and he also wants to collaborate with other collectors. The Chekhoevs have been active buyers at major European and US auction houses, spending around E5m to build the collection. Their most notable purchase was Komar and Melamid’s Yalta Conference: the Judgment of Paris, 1985-86, which they purchased at MacDougall’s in London in November 2007 for £184,400. The three-metre-wide canvas depicts the conference that divided Europe during the second world war in the guise of Greek mythology. The painting shows Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin as Greek goddesses and Hitler as the shepherd-prince Paris.
“Russian art of the second half of the 20th century is truly unique, but it is not appreciated in Russia and abroad,” said Chekhoev. “Underground art arose in extreme situations of dictatorship; never mind the censorship and repression, it was simply difficult to get materials. While this slowed them down, it also forced them to be more creative and resourceful, and this spurred an incredible level of originality.”
Varoli, J. (2010) Soviet Union’s Forbidden Art Unveiled. [Online] [04/06/2010]

Friday, 4 June 2010

Fighting Over the Past: Former Stasi Headquarters Provide Headache for Berlin

Wiebke Hollersen
Translated by Christopher Sultan
Spiegel Online International
The former Berlin headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi, are in a sorry state of disrepair, but no one can agree on what to do about it. Civil rights activists, the federal government and local politicians all have their ideas in a dispute that revolves around how to deal with the communist past.
Maybe the police will show up, says Jörg Drieselmann, sounding as if it might not be such a bad thing for the authorities to come and evict them, the people who, for the last 20 years, have been occupying the former office of Erich Mielke, East Germany's head of state security for more than three decades.
Drieselmann looks nervous as he perches on the edge of the old couch in his conference room in Berlin's Lichtenberg neighborhood. He glances at the window and the yellowed curtains. The curtains, the light switches, the linoleum -- all the furnishings, in fact -- are "all still genuine East German." Drieselmann, 53, is a gaunt man with a gray beard. As a teenager, he spent time in a Stasi prison in the East German city of Erfurt. Since German reunification, the office of Erich Mielke, the former East German minister of state security, has been his museum.
But now he is being asked to get out, and to take his exhibits with him. According to a letter that Drieselmann and his organization, "Anti-Stalinist Action" (Astak), have received, they are to vacate the building "immediately, by no later than May 31, 2010, complete with your personal effects." As of Thursday, however, Drieselmann had not been evicted.

The Right to Interpret History
The German government wants to take over the building where Mielke had his office, Building 1 in the former Stasi headquarters complex. The government plans to renovate the building and turn it into a national memorial.
The government's plans have civil rights activists and the Chancellery's culture specialists battling over every detail. Ultimately, they are arguing over who has the right to interpret East German history. Government officials are worried about things like water damage and fire safety, and they have threatened to shut down Building 1 if it is not renovated. Civil rights activists, on the other hand, are concerned about things like light switches and linoleum. They want to make sure that everything will look the same after the renovation, and that the building isn't turned into yet another slick, modern museum.
What should happen to the former Stasi headquarters complex? How much of it should offer a glimpse into history? Who should do the work? And what will happen to the many other Stasi buildings, most of which are now empty and dilapidated? Twenty years after citizens stormed the grounds in January 1990, the two sides are fighting over the past and future of the buildings that were once at the center of the East German surveillance state. The government no longer wants private initiatives to be in control of the monument to the East German state and its apparatus of control. But the activists are unwilling to allow the federal government to simply take away their life's work. A third group, in the form of local politicians in Lichtenberg, is anxious to finally shed the district's image as the home of Stasi headquarters.

Associated with the Stasi
The people of East Berlin associated certain street names-- Magdalenenstrasse, Normannenstrasse, Ruschestrasse -- with the Stasi. The organization's most important buildings were located between these streets, and Building 1, where the minister's office was located, was at the center of the complex. The office of Markus Wolf, the former head of the General Intelligence Administration, was in Building 15. At the other end of the complex was Building 18, with facilities catering to the needs of Stasi employees, including cafeterias, a supermarket and a travel office.
The headquarters complex consisted of more than 20 office buildings that housed the offices of Mielke's and Wolf's organizations, as well as another 13 auxiliary buildings. A total of 7,000 full-time employees worked there, where they managed the business of keeping all of East Germany under surveillance.
After reunification, Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway, took over the Soviet-era building once occupied by Wolf's foreign division. The federal agency responsible for the Stasi archives now uses Buildings 7 to 11 to store its files, and the Finance Ministry and a medical center now have offices in Building 2, the former counterintelligence headquarters. But now the biggest tenant, Deutsche Bahn, is moving out, and others have already left. The facades of many of the buildings are beginning to crack, and there are no prospective new tenants.
What should be done? This is the burning question for Jörg Drieselmann, the civil rights activist, for Helge Heidemeyer, an official who works for the agency that oversees the Stasi archives and who represents the government in the dispute, and for Andreas Geisel, the Lichtenberg city council member in charge of urban development.

Part 2: The Silent Terror of the Stasi
Heidemeyer is sitting in the high-end restaurant Borchardt in Berlin's Mitte district, wearing a dark suit. He is friendly and cautious, like a diplomat discussing a difficult part of Southeast Asia. He talks about the old Stasi headquarters, which, though less than half an hour away by subway, feels very distant.
Heidemeyer heads the Department of Education and Research at the Office of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives (BStU). His agency will be responsible for developing the new memorial in Mielke's office building after renovations are complete. "Building 1 will be the place where we address the subject of repression in the East German dictatorship," he says. For Heidemeyer, it is important to point out that the federal government and the German parliament, the Bundestag, have passed an official "memorial plan," and that Bernd Neumann, the German government's commissioner for culture and the media, is charged with implementing the plan. In a certain sense, Heidemeyer has come to this meeting at the restaurant as a representative of the entire German government.
The German capital already has a Berlin Wall museum at Checkpoint Charlie, a colorful museum of East German culture and sightseeing tours in the iconic East German Trabant car, all of which are privately run. Together, they make up a sort of East German theme park for tourists in the German capital. The federal government does not want to leave the task of interpreting history completely up to entrepreneurs and private associations, which is why it has introduced its strategy for the Stasi memorial. "No other place in Germany symbolizes the silent terror of the Stasi in quite the same way," the strategy paper states, referring to Building 1, and Heidemeyer says that this is the guiding principle for his work.
But neither does he want to be Drieselmann's adversary. No one does. He says that planning something in collaboration with Drieselmann's organization is "a great opportunity." He talks about "interactive elements" and says that the BStU has an exhibit that would be very well-suited for Building 1, as well as a wide range of education programs. Unfortunately, he says, Anti-Stalinist Action is currently unwilling to cooperate with his agency with the planning.

Another Government Agency
Drieselmann, sitting on his couch in Lichtenberg, laughs hoarsely when he hears this. He is convinced that the government wants to turn him and his agency into a mere appendage, possibly even part of its exhibition: the last civil rights activists.
He is skeptical about a documentation and education center created together with the BStU. "One government agency shouldn't be replaced with another," he says.
Drieselmann picked a fight with East Germany early in life. He went to prison at 18, and the West German government later paid for his release. Although he was no longer living in East Germany, he still considered himself an East German dissident, and he returned shortly after the end of the dictatorship.
Perhaps this is why he is so attached to the role of someone who opposes authority. If he had his way, nothing would change. He would simply like to continue running his museum, with the 34 people in his group -- but not with the government agency -- and continue to conduct tours of the building in his own way. Although Drieselmann lacks modern museum technology, he is a good storyteller. The "interactive elements" in his museum are the tours he and his colleagues conduct.
And they have been successful at it. In 2009, 100,000 visitors came to his museum. The numbers have been going up every year, particularly after 2006, when the Stasi-themed movie "The Lives of Others" was in theaters. Some of the scenes in the film were shot on the floor where Mielke had his offices.
Drieselmann bristles at the federal government and its "memorial plan." He has written angry letters, made demands and refused to comply with the order to vacate the premises. But the officials from the Chancellery have coldly reminded him of the parliamentary resolution. As of June, his museum will no longer receive public funding, which represents two-thirds of its budget.

Part 3: Alternative Plans for the Complex
For all too long, hardly anything happened in Drieselmann's quarrel with the German government. Meanwhile, the grounds surrounding Building 1 have become dilapidated, creating a burden for the Lichtenberg administration.
"A city needs to continue to develop," says Andreas Geisel. He is standing next to a snack bar across the street from the museum, wearing jeans and a blue jacket. This is his district. A member of the center-left Social Democrats, Geisel grew up in Lichtenberg and has been a member of the district council for 15 years. He is responsible for urban development, which to him means the future, not the past. He wants to see his district finally shed its old image of being home to "the Stasi, neo-Nazis and Soviet-era tower blocks," as he himself puts it.
The district itself has developed relatively well, he says. He points out that most of the old tower blocks have been renovated, there is a lot of green space and many families are living there. Then he looks at the surrounding Stasi buildings: 101,000 square meters (1.1 million square feet) of office space, with a 50 percent vacancy rate that is likely to soon rise to 90 percent. Things cannot continue like this, says Geisel, who points out that vacancy leads to deterioration and vandalism. "This affects the surrounding community," he says.

Bold Ideas
Geisel has already heard many proposals. Students from the Technical University of Cottbus, southeast of Berlin, have just designed plans for the site, which include turning the offices into apartments and putting in a park. Other ideas have included artists' studios and rehearsal space for bands. Geisel shrugs his shoulders, and says: "First you'd have to find that many artists and bands."
Geisel is more in favor of a large government agency using the space in the office buildings. Installing the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, as the Stasi's successor would be a bold and rather defiant idea. It is, however, entirely unrealistic: The BND is already building a new €1.5 billion headquarters complex in Berlin's central Mitte district.
Instead, a completely new way of thinking is needed. Geisel wants to have the complex declared an official redevelopment area. If all goes well and Berlin's Senate approves the plan, it could happen as early as this summer. One of the first steps then would be to hold an international architectural competition.
Geisel doesn't want to anticipate the outcome, particularly as the German capital, plagued by a high vacancy rate for commercial buildings, is having a tough enough time with investors at the moment. For this reason, Geisel could imagine entire buildings being demolished, leaving very little of the old complex standing. In his opinion, the best solution would be to simply tear down the entire, useless former Stasi complex.

Money Available
However, Building 1, which contains the museum with Mielke's office and which has protected status as a historic monument, will undoubtedly remain standing. Drieselmann and the federal government will have to come to an agreement soon, because the roof is leaking and the basement is already under water. Besides, money for the renovation happens to be available now, in the form of €11 million from the government's economic stimulus program. The construction work will have to begin soon, or the money will go to another project.
Members of culture commissioner Bernd Neumann's staff are now trying to reach a compromise. In a new "rough plan," they propose that Drieselmann and his group, as well as the BStU, each receive one floor in Building 1, and that the Drieselmann group manage the floor where Mielke's offices were. Besides, they have suggested that both sides work together to develop a new overall strategy that they can agree on. It looks like a relatively good offer.
But Drieselmann, the old civil rights activist, is still putting up a fight. Now he wants to see the construction plans and have a say in the renovation, "down to the last detail," as he says. He simply has a hard time trusting the government.
Hollersen, W. [Trans. Sultan, C.] (2010) Fighting Over the Past: Former Stasi Headquarters Provide Headache for Berlin. [Online],1518,698267,00.html#ref=nlint

East German Cinema

Heinz Leo Kretzenbacher
In the 40 years of its existence, from 1949 to 1990, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was widely perceived as "the other German state", the drab and dreary one, the poor relative. This perception was shared - if unacknowledged - by GDR officials whose constant self-praise of the "world class" of everything in the GDR just showed the size of the chip on their shoulders.
In hindsight, there were very few fields where the GDR could compete with West Germany, but one of these was the arts. Fine art, literature and film, in spite of having to deal with the censorship of a mistrustful bureaucracy, produced not only the mass of escapist kitsch and mandatory ideology that could be expected, but also many works of solid quality and a substantial number that reached international standing.
As a medium with mass appeal, the cinema played a special role in the art landscape of the GDR. Geography and politics gave it a running start: The Babelsberg studios of UFA, founded in 1917, former workplace of Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder and later the hub of cinematic propaganda in Nazi Germany, were situated in Potsdam in the Soviet occupation zone that would become the GDR in 1949. It was at these studios in 1946, three years before the separate states were founded, that the first German feature film after World War II was shot (Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers are Among Us). The UFA's successor, the GDR monopolist DEFA, went on to produce around 700 full-length features, around 750 animated films and more than 2000 shorts and documentaries before German reunification in 1990.
ACMI's Focus on East German Cinema gives a broad panorama spanning the time from Wolfgang Staudte's mentioned The Murderers are Amongs Us, shot in the stark landscape of post-war Berlin, to Helke Misselwitz's documentary After Winter Comes Spring (1988), which gave voice to the overwhelming atmosphere of stagnation and the hope for change in the dying years of the GDR. Between these extremes of the anti-fascist and humanist ambitions that marked the ideological and hopeful beginnings of the state that understood itself to be the "better" Germany, and the weariness and resignation of people living under a fossilized regime, the ACMI retrospective shows many different facets of GDR cinema. It is this diversity that makes the retrospective so attractive.
While many of the films in this program have found international acclaim, ACMI wisely refrains from showcasing only the most internationally successful films and also avoids the cringeworthy output of Stalin-era GDR propaganda. So while Solo Sunny (1980), Konrad Wolf's film about a young woman's struggle for autonomy in a rigid and boring society, represents the top level of GDR films, others of the same standing, such as Frank Beyer's Traces of Stones (1966), are not part of the retrospective, and neither are embarrassing communist hagiographies such as Kurt Maetzig's two films on Ernst Thälmann from 1954 and 1955.
A great variety of genres is represented in Focus on East German Cinema. While After Winter Comes Spring is the only example of the rich documentary tradition in the GDR, Frank Beyer's Naked Among Wolves (1963), set in the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Konrad Wolf's autobiographical I was 19 (1968), dealing with his return to Germany as a Red Army soldier in 1945, join The Murderers are Among Us as examples of anti-fascist films. And just as Wolf's Solo Sunny observes the struggle of a young woman to find her place in a rigid society in the year 1980, so does Herrmann Zschoche's Carla in 1965.
Kurt Maetzig's The Silent Star (1960) and Gottfried Kolditz's In the Dust of the Stars (1976) showcase the unique GDR take on science fiction. The former, adapted from a novel by Stanislav Lem, paints a bleak picture of a planet devastated by nuclear war - a prospect not entirely improbable at the height of the nuclear brinkmanship in the Cold War - while the latter is most remarkable for the ABBA-style clothing and hairstyles on show. Richard Groschopp's Chingachgook - The Great Snake (1967), based on James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Deerslayer, is representative of the GDR's considerable output of westerns, while Konrad Wolf's Sun Seekers (1958) deals with the Soviet uranium mining in Saxony after WWII - a chaotic period that has been described as the GDR's own "Wild West".
For the artists, producing films in a dictatorship often meant testing the limits of varying (and sometimes suddenly tightened) censorship. Sun Seekers appeared to question the leading role of the Communist Party and was not released until 1972, 14 years after it was made. Karla, along with almost all of the DEFA productions of 1965, fell victim to a sudden rollback in cultural policy after a short period of liberalization inspired by Khrushchev's Post-Stalin reforms in the USSR, and was not released until after the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years later. Even in 1988, the documentary After Winter Comes Spring, enthusiastically received and awarded a prize at the Festival of Documentary Film at Leipzig that year, was not released for broadcast by GDR TV.
For audiences, watching films in the GDR often meant reading between the lines for things the censors might have overlooked. So while we might enjoy the involuntarily comical futurist costumes and sets of In the Dust of the Stars, a GDR audience would be aware of its ambiguous ending, which does not conform to the rules of socialist heroism. The fact that in I was 19 a young German woman seeks the protection of the protagonist out of fear of being raped by Soviet soldiers was a daring breach of a taboo subject. Even the teenage musical Hot Summer (1968) owed its phenomenal success not only to the leading couple, played by the most popular singers at the time, and the fiction of a spontaneous group holiday on the Baltic coast (unheard of in the strictly regulated and rationed system of distribution of holiday accommodation in the GDR). The film was also a welcome relief from the dark reality outside the cinema: in the summer of 1968, the armies of "socialist brother countries," including the GDR, crushed the short phase of liberalization in Czechoslovakia known as "Prague Spring."
Although some East Germans tend to compensate for their problems in getting along in the competitive world of unified Germany by looking back at the GDR through rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, there is not much this 'other' German state produced that will stand the test of time. However, most of the art produced in the 40 years of the GDR's existence will remain valid and valued; including it's rich legacy of film.
Heinz Leo Kretzenbacher was born in Graz, Austria, and grew up in Munich, where he completed his PhD in German, English and Portuguese Studies. He is currently a senior lecturer and convener of the German Studies Program at the University of Melbourne.

Kretzenbacher, H.L. (2009) East German Cinema. [Online] [04/06/2010]

Acmi [2010] Focus on East German Cinema. [Online] [04/06/2010]

The View from the Wall

The View From the Wall

Huang et al (2009) created The View from the Wall, where the New York Times readers could upload their personal memories of the Wall before and after its opening. 

Huang, J., Tarchak, L., FANG, C., & Delviscio, J. (2009) The View From the Wall. [Online] [04/06/2010]


Amnesty International logo
"The symbol of the candle highlights perfectly the hope that Amnesty gives to so many people around the world by improving human rights." (Temperley, in Amnesty International UK, 2009)
Amnesty International adopted the candle logo which "continues to mobilise people of all religions, nationalities, cultures and customs to shine the light on the world's darkest corners", nearly 50 years after Diana Redhouse - a lifelong Amnesty member - designed an emblem based on a candle encircled in barbed wire. Peter Benenson, the organisation's founder, had the idea from a Chinese proverb, "Better to light a candle than curse the darkness" (Amnesty International UK, 2009).

Amnesty International (2008) Amnesty International Logo. [Online]
Amnesty International UK (2009) Amnesty International and Alice Temperley launch limited-edition Amnesty scented candle. [Online] [04/06/2010]
Rvf0elendil (2007) Schindler's List (theme). [Online] 

Baron, Y. & Baron, D. (2007) Obituary: Diana Redhouse. [Online]

German Short Films in Shanghai

Cartoon and Animation (2009) Das Rad (“Rocks – English Subtitles) Academy Award Nominated Film by Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel and Heidi Wittlinger. [Online] [04/06/2010]
Cibernautajoan (2009) Die Aussicht. [Online] [04/06/2010]

Kontrastfilm (2009) Edgar Trailer. [Online]

interfilm Berlin Management GmbH [2010] interfilm Berlin Enriches the 2010 EXPO with German Short Films. [Online] [04/06/2010]
Pine Tree Pictures (2007) Schwarzfahrer (with English Subtitles) [Online] [04/06/2010]
Shortstv (2009) Toyland - Interview with the director of the Oscar Nominated Short Film 2009. [Online] [04/06/2010]
aniBOOM (2008) Our Wonderful Nature - 1st Place Animation: Jury Category Aniboom Awards 2008. [Online] [04/06/2010]

East German artist encourages painting against the grain

As an artist in East Germany, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling painted himself out of "socialist realism" in the GDR. He and five other artists were pioneers in organizing an uncensored exhibition: the First Leipzig Fall Salon.

Author: Nadine Wojcik
Editor: Kate Bowen
Deutsche Welle
Hans-Hendrik Grimmling was practically born with a paintbrush in his hand. By 14, he and a friend had already set up their own studio in Grimmling's hometown Zwenkau, near Leipzig.
The two boys did not just have art on their minds, though. Although they painted, copied works by artists including Franz Marc, and even sold a couple of pieces, the studio served more as a sanctuary of freedom. They used the space to drink and throw parties, and would rent the room to young couples in exchange for a glass of beer. Everyone else kept their distance.
"It felt great," recalled Grimmling. "At such a young age, we had already carved a niche and tried to free ourselves from convention."

The soldier with the painting kit
Grimmling, seen here in his studio, is now an art professor in Berlin
After finishing school, Hans-Hendrik Grimmling joined the National People's Army (NVA), as all young men in East Germany were required to do. He later described the experience as the most terrible time of his life, full of humiliation and hidden tears.
During his service, Grimmling's painting kit was one of the only personal items he was allowed to keep. He retreated to his room each night to paint and avoid the problems he faced in the military. "There, I painted just for myself as an escape and to feel a kind of tenderness. Painting saved me from the reality I faced and helped me survive," he said.
Upon completing his military service, Grimmling was accepted to East Germany's most renowned university for artists, in Leipzig. He and his classmates gained a reputation for being wild - but also unbelievably productive. 

"Completely strange imagination"
Grimmling finished his basic studies with Werner Tuebke, one of the most famous GDR painters, and was accepted along with five other students for the advanced class called "Free Art." It was led by Wolfgang Mattheuer, another important figure in the Leipzig art scene. Mattheuer's class provided Grimmling with an important forum where he could enjoy artistic freedom.
However, Grimmling was prevented from graduating just before the end of his studies. The faculty cited his "completely strange imagination" and the influence of "imperialistic decadence" in his work as reasons for his failure. There was nothing of the proletariat to be found in his paintings, they criticized.  
Faced with expulsion, Grimmling accepted an assignment to paint two miners in a piece called "Working Heroes." He explained that he had not yet developed a radically alternative perspective and still wanted the official recognition that a diploma confers.
"Working Heroes" led Grimmling to graduate with the grade of "very good" and he was offered a position at the Association of Visual Artists. The job provided for his basic needs and offered opportunities to take part in state-sponsored art projects and deals.

  "Umerziehung der Voegel" (Reeducation of the Birds),
 by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1978

Catching the censors' attention
Alongside his official role, however, Grimmling was developing his own vision. He painted birds without wings or with contorted bodies turning in on themselves, while experimenting and testing boundaries with fellow artists.
His work began to draw attention from the East German censors. In particular, a line from a poem he and artist and friend Olaf Wegewitz posted above a gallery door raised concern. The line ran "The word ruins the way," and the censors wondered whether Grimmling meant to implicate the ruling SED party.
Government officials cancelled the gallery's planned exhibition one day before its opening date and ordered that it be taken down. The episode frustrated Wegewitz and Grimmling, who recalled, "We were humiliated, but, at the same time, we felt a sort of pleasure in being able to define ourselves differently and not belong to 'them.'"

Beyond the state's imagination
Another of Grimmling's exhibits was forbidden a year later, but the artist did not give up. He sought new ways to exhibit his work, and finally he had a stroke of genius.
Together with five other artists, Grimmling organized the "First Leipzig Fall Salon." The 1984 event became the first uncensored exhibition to take place in East Germany.
Due to their membership in the Association of Visual Artists, Grimmling and fellow painter Guenther Huniat were able to rent a space for the exhibit from a government agency in Leipzig. The state officials couldn't imagine that the artists were not planning to show official works from the Association, but their own independent creations.
Eventually, the Stasi - the East German secret police - caught wind of the group's plans and documented the work of Grimmling and his peers as hostile and negative. Security officials wondered, however, whether banning the exhibition would draw too much attention to the artists.
In light of these concerns, the exhibit was allowed to take place but with an important proviso: No more than six visitors could see the exhibition daily. Nevertheless, the show was a hit and attracted more than 10,000 visitors in the course of four weeks.

A threat to communism
Despite the exhibition's success, it proved to be a defeat for Grimmling. It became clear to him that the state would never permit a second installment of the Fall Salon. This conclusion led him to a significant decision: He filed an official request to be allowed to travel out of East Germany.
The Stasi file on Grimmling reveals that he was viewed as a lost cause who could not be won back for the good of society. As such, Grimmling's request to leave the country was processed and approved in an unusually quick manner.
In 1986, the artist traveled into West Berlin, together with his wife and young daughter. They lived with friends while Grimmling created a makeshift studio and began to paint with limited materials on packing paper from a hardware store. He was also able to sell a few paintings left over from his time in Leipzig.

 "Mauerbild" (Picture of the Wall),
by Hans-Hendrik Grimmling, 1983

Moving forward in Berlin
Gradually, Grimmling established himself more and more in West Berlin. He had begun offering painting courses by 1988. In 2001, he became a lecturer and later a professor at the Technical University for Art in Berlin.
He said of his work there, "Now and again, I try to explain to my students that it makes sense and can even bring a kind of joy to get mixed up in things that you think might be manipulated. And even after the fall of the Wall, there's still plenty of manipulation."

Grimmling, H.-H. [2010] Arbeiten: Auswahl. [Online] [04/06/2010] 
Wojcik, N. & (Ed.) Bowen, K. (2009) East German Artist Encourages Painting against the Grain. [Online],,4860853,00.html [04/06/2010] 

German Pavilion in Shanghai

Buntgrau (2010) Shanghai World Expo 2010 - German Pavilion unveils "Balancity". [Online] [04/06/2010]

The Cold War may be over, but it is still being fought in terms of its artists

Must the Americans once again show Germans how to handle a dual heritage?

Eduard Beaucamp
The Art Newspaper
In the new year, Germans will be looking to California with some excitement: at the end of this month the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) opens its comprehensive panorama exhibition, “Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Cultures” (25 January-19 April). The exhibition completes the three-part German series at the museum, designed by its curator, Stephanie Barron, following “Degenerate Art” (1991) and “Exiles and Émigrés” (1997).
Announcing the first exhibition since the end of the Cold War, she promises that it will look beyond western claims to sole legitimacy and polemic clichés, beyond commercial interests and political stigmatisation, to do justice to the intrinsic qualities of both traditions.
But this raises questions: must the Americans once again take the Germans by the hand and show them how to handle such a dual heritage, its duplication the consequence of the country’s fatal division that is nonetheless a source of great riches? Can the Californian exhibition help to resolve the intra-German artistic tension or will its Cold War theme reignite or perpetuate the Cold War?
It is a tragedy: nearly 20 years after the wall came down the two post-war art histories have still not been reunified. For nearly half a century the two art scenes went their separate ways. They hated, insulted and fought with each other. In no other sector of the arts world was the opposition so radical or so embittered as in the fine arts. Art was taken seriously as a weapon in the “battle of the systems” and was used for the purpose of mutual abuse and proselytisation.
Post-1945, the free art scene of the west was blessed: it was more diverse, varying and experimental than the eastern scene, which had to wrest itself more slowly and painfully from the clutches of dictatorship, circumventing or eluding its prescriptions and only gradually formulating alternatives. The first Stalinist decades were politically rigid: at this time the GDR sought to bend art to its aims of “re-education” and “agitation” and persecuted and banished artists who resisted.
This is the image that became fixed in the minds of the west’s opinion-forming art circles. The concept of “state art” is still invoked today to kill off discussions. Only the art of exiles and dissidents is regarded as free and self-determined. There is a refusal to acknowledge the different qualities and radical changes in the art of the east from the 1960s onwards.
The key year was 1965 when the Leipzig artists Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke articulated the contradiction with historical and parable pictures full of latent critical independence of mind. Their works provoked vigorous objections from the authorities and resulted in disciplinary measures.
The story of the misunderstandings and polemic confrontations is long and rather ugly. The first altercation, which set the tone for later conflicts, occurred in 1977 when the new art of the east appeared at that avant-garde showcase, Kassel’s Documenta, and the star painters of the west took their pictures down in protest against the competition from the east.
After the wall came down the eastern artists were easy prey for their western counterparts, who called for boycotts, and for a ruthlessly commercial art business that discovered political morality and claimed to have a monopoly on progress.
When West Berlin’s Nationalgalerie merged with its East Berlin counterpart in 1993 and incorporated 16 East German artists, right-wing politicians were outraged and threatened to intervene. Yet the museum stood its ground and ten years later, in 2003, presented a retrospective of GDR art that unexpectedly aroused great public admiration.
In contrast, a Weimar exhibition of 1999 with the title “Aufstieg und Fall der Moderne” (the rise and fall of modernism) crudely lumped GDR painting together with Nazi art, dismissing it as a phenomenon of decline and relegating it to the dustbin of history. The battle over the decoration of the new Bundestag (German parliament) in Berlin’s rebuilt Reichstag, from which the representatives of the east were to be excluded, has not been forgotten, either. After fierce disputes a highly dramatic narrative work by Heisig was accepted and consigned to the cafeteria.
The battle over two opposing belief systems and histories within German art was a conflict devoid of equal opportunities. Hardly any traces of the “other” German art are to be found in West German museums today. Even those institutions which inherited the best art from the GDR, like the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, continue to practise censorship today, rigorously marginalising these works and keeping them in store under lock and key.
The western public cannot form its own picture of the controversial east in its own museums. In the museums of the east, where western curators generally hold sway, the great painters are kept to a statutory minimum. These missionaries took their re-education drive seriously: they wanted to bring these institutions into line with the latest western standards as quickly as possible. Internationally the older art of the east remains almost unknown today, because after 1989 the art networks of the west conspired to keep a lid on the competition, excluding it from its cultural exports and its international cultural programmes.
This rather bitter summing-up would be incomplete without a mention of the helpful spirits. Alongside committed dealers, the collectors Peter Ludwig, Bernhard Sprengel and Henri Nannen should be named. Intellectual sympathisers were Golo Mann, Günter Grass, Helmut Schmidt, who entrusted Heisig with his chancellor portrait, Joachim Fest and the son of Max Beckmann, who recognised in the Leipzig artists the legitimate heirs to his father’s tradition.
Emphatic solidarity came from an unexpected quarter—from the churches. The spectacular renaissance of Christian iconography and altarpieces in the painting of the later GDR was not lost on them. And so the commission-less commission artists of the east found support from their oldest advocates, the churches. The important art of the GDR has survived attacks, boycotts, intrigues and harassment.
What its enemies so fervently hoped for after 1989—that the GDR’s decline would also dispose of its art, permanently—has not come about. The Leipzig School is still going strong, in its third and fourth generation.
Eduard Beaucamp is a contributor to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Beaucamp, E. (2009) The Cold War may be over, but it is still being fought in terms of its artists: Must the Americans once again show Germans how to handle a dual heritage? [Online] [04/06/2010]

Berlin Trilogy by Amelia Atlas

Amelia Atlas
Chloe Aridjis. Book of Clouds. Grove/Atlantic, Inc. March 2009.
Iris Hanika. Treffen sich zwei. Literaturverlag Droschl. February 2008.
Anna Winger. This Must Be the Place. Riverhead Books. August 2009.
The Berlin U-Bahn, like the New York subway, is a surprisingly easy place to feel alone. People avoid eye contact in the crush, and the German announcer’s voice has a lilting softness at odds with the language’s guttural reputation. For the year I lived in Berlin, the U-Bahn was where I spent time in my own head, easing into the day. A life-long city-dweller, I was used to the tacit communal pact of public privacy, a pact that made it okay to treat the worn vinyl benches like the armchair in my living room. It was unusual when, riding the U1 through Kreuzberg one day, my faux-solitude was interrupted by the onset of paranoia. I couldn’t stop worrying that people were appalled by what they were seeing over my shoulder. I was reading The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell’s ghastly novel of Nazi sadomasochism. The issue wasn’t so much the brutality of the novel—though it certainly didn’t help matters—as that I was reading about Nazis, in English, in Berlin. I was afraid of being taken for one of those tourist voyeurs, unable to see Germany for anything but swastikas.
Two recent novels by Berlin expats take up the outsider’s relationship to the city’s past: Chloe Aridjis’s quietly contemplative Book of Clouds and Anna Winger’s hopelessly pat This Must Be the Place. Published just months apart, both take as their subject young expatriate women in Berlin, unsure of quite how they got to where they are. When Book of Clouds opens, Tatiana has been in Berlin for five years, working odd jobs and test-driving life in the various trendy new neighborhoods of the former East. In This Must Be the Place, we meet the equally directionless Hope, a New York transplant who has followed her businessman husband abroad. For both characters, positioned at a break point from their own pasts, Berlin might as well be Narcissus’s pool.
That Berlin should start cropping up in novels is not surprising. With the wall now twenty years fallen, the city has somehow managed to stay the Next Big Thing for a near decade running. Rent is remarkably cheap—the city is still about a million short of its pre-war population of 4.4 million—and the range of readily convertible industrial architecture makes Williamsburg look like a hipster LegoLand. Gentrification, while certainly under way, has been slow simply because there was, and still is, so much ground to make up. The bohemian dream of the writer-artiste comes off as limitless, not only existentially but spatially: the occasional squatters-vs-Polizei skirmish notwithstanding, it’s easier to pretend development doesn’t mean rising costs like it would anywhere else. Everybody you meet is either a graphic designer or a DJ.
No article on Berlin is complete without the media’s favorite sound bite from the city’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, so here it is: Berlin is “poor but sexy.” It is, in fairness, a reasonable assessment of the city’s economy. Unemployment currently stands at about 12.5 percent, and that’s without the aimless expat populace for whom work is a relative term. Berlin has transformed its poverty into a kind of cultural capital—its rough edges keep the city at the artistic vanguard, a bastion of cool within a nation that has otherwise assumed economic leadership of the E.U. This is not, for obvious reasons, a sustainable situation: with art comes money comes development, and already the city has made way for new condo complexes. (One particularly egregious example, on the city’s famed boulevard Unter den Linden, calls itself “Upper Eastside Berlin.”) But at least for now, Berlin remains the best of both worlds—a playground with gravitas on its side.
Behind office buildings on side streets in Mitte, the grassy path of the divided city’s death strip—the stretch of empty land studded with menacing watch towers between the wall’s parallel ribbons of concrete—still slices through the cityscape, not so much a scar as a parenthesis. Cities tend to have their apex of glam, at least where literature is concerned—the Bohemian dereliction of 19th century Paris, Bloomsbury London, New York with its Jazz-Age sheen. History’s aggressive march through Berlin has meant that its moments of self-fashioning are always cut short; somehow, it manages to teeter always on the cusp of transformation, without ever quite arriving. The advantage of this suspended state is that the city never gets fixed in time, leaving its image available for reimagining.
Book of Clouds, the first of the two English-language variants on the “Berlin-Roman,” can feel like an essay disguised as a novel; there is little in the way of event. Aridjis’s interests seem to lie less in fiction-making than in exposing the ominous layers of Berlin’s history and how they hide in plain sight. Tatiana, inward and solitary and closed off to anything that might demand emotional investment, is Aridjis’s perfect set of eyes. A Mexican Jew freed of ties to her home, her only real relationship is with Berlin. She spends her days in a willful isolation, wandering streets and documenting the urban landscape with an attention that verges on anthropological. Her job as a research assistant to Doktor Weiss, a once-famous historian of war-scarred Berlin, only encourages her preference for the morbid.
Part of the pleasure of Book of Clouds (at least, admittedly, for the self-indulgent expat) is its catalogue of Berlin minutiae: the yellow tramcars of the former East; the looming orb of the TV tower at Alexanderplatz; the Prenzlauer Berg Altbauten, Berlin’s pastel answer to brownstones, which line the gentrified quarters of the city’s erstwhile cultural frontier. But these details are never without their ghostly counterparts. The converted water tower in Tatiana’s neighborhood, now housing condos, turns out to have been a torture site for anti-fascist prisoners of the SA. (This happens all the time in Berlin: I spent a summer living opposite a former Stasi interrogation center without realizing it.) For every cozy local bar in Book of Clouds, there is another space that can’t quite hide its latent creepiness. Tatiana’s only foray into Berlin’s youthful nightlife, a party in an abandoned post office, ends with her lost underground in a former Gestapo bowling alley.
History’s hold on the city is, as Aridjis has it, inextricable from Tatiana’s own stasis. “Ever since arriving in Berlin, I’d become a professional in lost time,” Tatiana muses. “It was impossible to account for all the hours. The hands on clocks and watches jumped ahead or lagged behind indiscriminately. The city ran on its own chronometric scale. Days would draw to a close and I would ask myself what had been accomplished, how to distinguish today from yesterday and the day before.” “It wasn’t,” she observes later, “an industrious kind of solitude … but rather a stagnant, infertile one which bred only more stagnation and infertility.” Hers is the quintessential expat experience: time spent on the spending of time.  
It’s a dilemma I sympathize with. It is easy, in Berlin, to find oneself in the grip of an uncommon inertia. The city’s topography, at once absorbing and alienating, makes for a distracting plaything. It’s hard to capture the physical strangeness of Berlin, but I’m confident that it’s the only cosmopolitan European capital where you can get lost in a sandpit for several blocks in the middle of the city on the way to a party. This bizarre openness—the feeling of expansive space in an urban environment—has the additional effect of distending time. There is none of the compressed bustle that keeps a city like New York moving forward.
For Tatiana, the city’s playful side holds less interest. In place of people and relationships, she feeds her obsessions with the city’s macabre shadows, abetted by Doktor Weiss. Into this gloom steps Jonas Krantz, a meteorologist from the former East, whom Weiss sends Tatiana to interview about some childhood drawings he’d done: ants crawling beneath the Berlin Wall towards freedom. Krantz is a stalwart representative of the Berlin of now. “Weiss dwells too much on the spaces that were,” he observes. “But Berlin can’t just be a museum of horror. There has to be a regeneration.”
In Aridjis’s novel, those who would have the city remain a museum of horror win the day. As Tatiana and Weiss make their way from Jonas’s remote apartment, two thugs attack them only to be cast into confusion by the onset of a mysterious fog—the clouds of the title come to ground. The cover of this strange weather prompts record-breaking crime in a city where bike theft is usually the worst threat. Journalists seize upon the fog’s symbolic potential, drawing, in Aridjis’s words, “the obvious parallels between the city’s past and this bizarre meteorological phenomenon.” (“Berlin in New Crisis of Erasure,” reads a heavy-handed headline.) And Tatiana? She moves away. She doesn’t overcome her ghosts so much as leave them behind.
Like Book of Clouds, This Must Be the Place wears its metaphors heavily. But while both books rely on German history to provide the scenery, Winger’s has none of Aridjis’s grace. Hope has arrived in Berlin, grieving after a miscarriage in the wake of September 11th. With her husband off running a pornography-meets-microfinance scheme in Poland, Hope finds herself, like Tatiana, in the company of the city’s phantoms. The novel opens with a description of a typical pre-World War I Berlin apartment building, whose history is that of Germany writ small.
Its architect had designed the apartments to be Villenetagen, villas on every floor, prime real estate, because Berlin’s future had been promising in those days. Although most of the building had since been blown up or burned down, ninety years later its balconies and trellises, mullioned windows and inner courtyards designed to provide views from almost every room still hinted at the optimism of its origins…In other places, such a building might have seen only the soft swell of progress, but here? Ninety years of drama, followed only by this.
What “this” is is not entirely clear, but given that these words close the prologue, one can only assume that “this” means the rest of the novel. And here begins the problem with This Must Be the Place: Winger presents German history (and September 11th) as if Hope’s arrival in Berlin represents the culmination of the city’s teleological destiny. She is in New York, hibernating in despair over her lost baby, when the planes hit. “When she came out of her downtown building to see people covered in white powder running for their lives, she had not been entirely surprised to find the outside world finally reflecting her inner chaos. Maybe Berlin was an opportunity to start again.”

A Berlin at peace with its ruinous past—this is how Hope learns to see the city. She knows little of its history when she arrives, and the filling in of these details can take on a didactic quality. Her neighbor Walter, a washed-up actor whose friendship with Hope gives the novel its center, doubles as a guidebook. “The city was divided into four zones: Russian, British, American, and French,” he lectures. Hope discovers that the walls of her home aren’t made of plaster but of Rauhfasertapete—a kind of white, textured wallpaper beloved by cheap German landlords—and that beneath the walls are layers and layers of old wallpaper, witnesses to the lives of past inhabitants, which Hope begins—wait for it—to peel away.
The problem with expatriotism is that it is, by nature, recursive. The whole point of the experience is to experience the experience. Ironically, it was I, and not my German roommates, who suffered from that famous German syndrome: Mauer-im-Kopf, or “wall in the head.” I knew the path the Berlin Wall had traced only two blocks from our Kreuzberg apartment; my roommates did not. They took their out-of-town guests to the natural history museum; I took my bewildered visitors to barren patches of park where the concrete Mauer used to stand. I got the distinct sense during my year in Berlin that the preoccupation with history’s physical imprint on the city was an Auslander phenomenon.
The strangeness of this paradox didn’t fully sink in until I got home, settled back into a world that didn’t beg for constant interpretation. I was reading a recent Berlin novel in German—a requisite exercise in nostalgia, perhaps—and kept noticing how much more organically history found its way into the pages. Held up against Aridjis’s and Winger’s novel, Iris Hanika’s Treffen sich zwei, makes for a study in contrasts. Writing from a local vantage, where the city is and has always been engrained in the texture of daily life, Hanika has a luxury her foreign counterparts do not: she can allow Berlin as metaphor to take a backseat to Berlin as setting. Unlike Tatiana and Hope, Hanika’s characters—Senta and Thomas—move through their Kreuzberg environs as if it were any other place. They are Berliners on the cusp of middle age, settled into their routines if not quite their futures. Senta is a gallery-worker with a troubled relationship behind her, Thomas an IT consultant absorbed by the latest developments at work. Berlin is present, but not as a conceit.
Still, history is not altogether absent in Treffen sich zwei—it can’t be. Of the border between Kreuzberg and Mitte, Hanika writes: “This was once the Death Strip, where there’s now a garden—the most vital bond you can imagine cementing together, perhaps forever, two parts of [the city] that knew nothing of each other for so long that they now face each other as strangers.” Surely there is more than a hint of metonymy here—this aside is sandwiched between longer descriptions of Senta and Thomas—but Hanika writes with an ironic distance that reminds us that her characters are only characters, with no real selves at stake. It’s her metaphor, not theirs.
To a certain extent, Berlin’s secondary role in Treffen sich zwei isn’t so much a function of Hanika’s being German as it is of her distinctly postmodern touches. The title—loosely translated as “When two meet,”—hints at her preference for the schematic. Where Aridjis and Winger work within a traditional arc of self-discovery, Hanika is dealing in archetypes: her characters are not individuals trying to construct their own self-image, but cogs in the cyclical machinery of meeting, misunderstanding, and reconciliation that are the sentence of every relationship. The novel begins with a scene cut straight from a slow-motion romantic comedy fantasy sequence: Senta and Thomas meet in their local bar, immediately fall for each other, and just as quickly mess the whole thing up. Senta has a melodramatic propensity for tears; the technologically minded Thomas is oblivious to her emotional highs and lows. Their relationship proceeds pretty much as you’d expect.
Hanika’s Berlin history also dares to venture beyond the familiar destruction of the 20th century. Instead of abandoned Nazi torture sites, the novel gives us the Landwehrkanal, the commercial shipping channel, dating from the 19th century, which cuts through Kreuzberg. Such historical asides are simply one of many formal games. In addition, we get song lyrics, a sex manual, a script, a disquisition on computer programming, and an overwrought impression of Elfriede Jelinek. Hanika’s experimental gamesmanship can be irritating; her riffs on stock forms of language may be deliberate in their hollowness, but that doesn’t make them more digestible. When Hanika describes Senta and Thomas imagining they’ve been struck by Cupid’s arrows—“lodged in their hearts with unsurpassable precision”—she’s still dealing with Cupid’s arrow.
As players in Hanika’s fragmented pastiche, Senta and Thomas read as linguistic vehicles, empty of past. Hanika on Thomas: “It had still never occurred to him that he had an exclusive place in the world.” And in a way, it’s because he doesn’t. Senta and Thomas are but two iterations of a pattern that will doubtless repeat itself. They lack the permanence that Tatiana and Hope try to claim for themselves by linking themselves indelibly to the city.
Of the three novels, Book of Clouds wins for literary merit. But there is something uncomfortable in the English versions of the “Berlin-Roman” that Hanika’s novel, with its aggressive playfulness, avoids. That Aridjis and Winger put a traumatic history at the service of an individual psyche—and an outsider’s psyche at that—raises questions of appropriation. Do they, and by extension the expat, get to make a claim on this particular history? Berlin is not Paris or Rome; it doesn’t have the romance of a dusky Montmartre or the faded glory of antiquity. The smoky demimonde of Isherwood’s Berlin came and went with the war and Bowie’s jangling counter-culture with the Wall—much as the city’s new artistic face may approximate them. What is unique to Berlin is how much its history is still living. It remains visible, and not merely as an artifact of times long past. There is, of course, more to Berlin than just history, but part of its contemporary image is the calculated interplay between past and present: the recently reopened Neues Museum with its preserved bullet wounds; strips of worn concrete Mauer along the Spree; the Holocaust memorial, just blocks from the former site of Hitler’s bunker, deliberately striving to isolate and disorient its visitors. The city asks us to remember what it was.
The Berlin of the present exists in a state of rare double-consciousness, hurtling into the future while keeping a steady grasp on its past. From a writerly perspective, the coexistence of multiple selves is inspiring—what writer wouldn’t want to summon so many layers of injury and experience when creating a character? Aridjis and Winger have both, for better or worse, written books representative of their expat brethren—the city is just one more instrument in the arsenal of their (our?) solipsism. It can’t possibly stay that way forever. As manicured greens and glassed-in apartment complexes crop up in all those empty lots, they need not represent loss or erasure, but simply the city moving on.
Atlas, A. (2010) Berlin Trilogy: New East Side Novels. [Online] [02/06/2010]