Sunday, May 30, 2010

Runners and Cyclists - A Love Story

The Czech auto manufacturer, Škoda announced plans last month to extend its partnership with Tour de France until 2013. This morning, the Škoda Velothon Berlin began at 9:00 am at the Brandenburg Gate. I knew something was up as I headed towards my new favorite running area in the Tiergarten. More than the usual number of Sunday morning cyclists whizzed past, dressed in jockey colors with numbers pinned to them. 


I generally run on the sidewalk, and a few cyclists ride along on the path specifically designated for them (also on the sidewalk). Sometimes, more bikers join me on the sidewalk because there isn't room for them on the bike path. If you add confused, ambling tourists into the mix, the situation can be quite perilous. I can't tell you the number of times I have nearly been run over. And then the cyclists have the gall to glare at you - the runner - when you have been making it a point to stay off their precious path! 


Well, not today. As I started from the Siegessäule, following the bikers eastward to their starting point, it hit me - now was my chance to take advantage of a rare situation! I realized that the participants in the 60K/120K Velothon had had their route cleared for them and of course, it was entirely ON THE STREET. This meant that I could potentially have the sidewalk all to myself. Sure enough, aside from the random, non-racing biker who happened along peacefully on the bike path, a few small groups of cheering spectators, and a few polizei posted along the way, the sidewalk was clear. As the first batch of elite riders flew by like a swarm of locusts, followed by successive waves of riders released from the starting point in intervals, I felt a little love for the cyclists and even wished them well. Tomorrow, though, may be another story...

Keystone Editions - Fine Art Printmaking in Kreuzberg

The art of printmaking is alive and flourishing in Kreuzberg. Last night, Keystone Editions celebrated the launch of its workshop on the ground floor of a historic industrial loft building on the bank of the Landwehrkanal. The range of work on view included prints by Jim Dine and William Kentridge, by Indigenous Australian artists and Kalahari San (Bushmen) of Botswana, and by other artists from South Africa, Ireland, and Germany. [I urge you to visit the Keystone Editions web site, which is one of the best I have seen; it explains who they are and what they do much better than I could hope to. There are also wonderful photos and images of the artists and their work.] 

Several artists discussed why printmaking continues to be a vital, exciting medium. The ancient machinery and processes used to create prints have not changed a great deal over time, so it is really the artists' innovation which keeps the tradition alive. Canadian artist 
Sarah Dudley and German artist Ulrich Kühle (master printers trained at The Tamarind Institute and founders of Keystone Editions), described some of their creative collaborations with international artists. German artist Thomas Eller, and American artist Nicholas Kashian (who has previously worked with the Keystone Founders) emphasized the relevance of the art form. Kashian recalled being fascinated by his footprints left in the snow. Perhaps we are all printmakers - whether footprints in the snow, a finger traced through a foggy window, words on a page, paint on a canvas, notes on sheet music, or graffiti on a wall, we are compelled to leave a sign that we were here. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Room and the Chair

On a quiet corner in leafy Prenzlauerberg, Cafe Hilde hosted former Washington Post journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Lorraine Adams, who read from her latest novel, The Room and the Chair. The story takes place in Afghanistan, Iran, and Washington DC, and follows the lives of strong central female characters -  Mary flies an F16 and Mabel is a Washington DC socialite and journalist who is married to a character based on Bob Woodward, with whom Adams has worked. The passages she read were compelling and I was also intrigued by her comments in the interview which followed the reading. Bookslut.com editor Jessa Crispin asked Adams why she had left journalism to write novels, to which Adams responded "...I wanted to write fiction so that I could tell the truth."

The turning point for this decision came during research for her first novel, Harbor, a story about an Algerian refugee living in America. Interviewing real Algerian refugees, she was so moved by their stories that she turned away from journalism to tell their story as she felt it should be told, outside the restrictions of a traditional newsroom. Adams said that the Internet has been a great leveler of information providers long regarded as the only legitimate sources of data (i.e. newspapers) and she advocated blogs. She expressed the hope that people would move beyond thinking in terms of non-fiction (as if only "facts" were of importance) and fiction ("made-up" stories). Novels should play a larger role in people's lives today, Adams stated, because it is often there that real truths emerge.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Henry and Virginia

On one of the loveliest mornings in Christendom, I woke up and decided to go jogging. It had been a couple of weeks and though my recent major walking sprees have been great exercise, I felt the need to RUN. I headed toward the Siegessäule, which is now caged within a latticework of scaffolding until the end of the year. I am glad I saw The Victory Column last month when it could still be seen in all its glory. 


The first 10-15 minutes of running for me are usually a big hurdle to overcome. One of our marathon coaches told us years ago that anyone can run a marathon - you just have to get your mind beyond the pain. And this is true. I have always hated running, and don't like it that much even now, yet I do it more for the mental rather than physical triumph I feel when I get past that first 10-15 minutes when it is so easy to give up. Once the engine warms up, though, it is another story and I can - and do - go for miles, thinking of many things or of nothing at all. Sometimes it's like a Boggle game of thoughts bouncing around up there until the words get settled. 


From Siegessäule, it was a straight line towards the Brandenburg Gate 2 kilometers away. As I ran, I thought of two books I had recently finished - Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, two books whose subject matter and authors couldn't be more outwardly different. Woolf was a staunch feminist and Miller was a misogynist, but maybe not entirely. They both lived more or less during the same years outside the States - Woolf in London and Miller in Paris. Both filled pages with wild words and fantastic imagery, both believed in living life to the fullest, and  - this is what got me thinking that they were really not all that different - they were both obsessed with food and shelter. Miller was hungry for most of his life and Woolf was anything but because of a 500 pound per annum legacy. But both of them described in detail meals they had eaten or hoped to eat. And they both strongly believed that having a stable roof over their heads was essential to the creative process.   


The colors were bright this morning and there was not much traffic. Just before I reached Brandenburg Gate, I had the strangest sensation and the area suddenly transformed before my eyes into the sepia-toned photo I like on one of those postcards of 1910 Berlin. Right then, all seemed right with the world, perhaps due to that bizarre visual experience or the endorphins that had kicked in by then. Six kilometers later and home again, I hoped that the exquisite weather would hold out for the rest of the day. May has been a rough month for Berliners.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, an American writer had the opportunity to be part of an art experience called Once Upon A Time (Campfire Stories), "...a walking and story-telling series by Heimo Lattner and guests, which [consists of] walk[ing] through the city in search of people and stories...and returning with them to the site of THE KNOT... [The] stories are collected and added to throughout the duration of The Knot in Warsaw, Berlin, and Mumbai, the three locations of The Promised City project. Relationships between the individual, the group, and the place of interaction are explored." 


On the U2 train headed towards the first meeting point at Eberswalder Strasse, the writer saw for the second time in two months the man who sells Motz, the Berlin newspaper produced and distributed by homeless people. This man has trained his dog to stand at one end of the car with the paper in its mouth, while the man stands at the other and explains what the paper is. The dog drops the paper at the feet of those who buy it. Each time I've seen this guy, he makes sales.


At Eberswalder Strasse, the writer met with several other participants and three of them went ahead to take the S-Bahn to Oberspree. On this train the writer, her two companions, and other passengers were "controlled" (checked) by two plain-clothes people whose job it is to bust people for riding without tickets - the penalty is  40 Euros on the spot and they have heard all the excuses before. On the previous night, the writer told a German friend that she sometimes rides without a ticket and for the past two months, has never been checked. However, after the conversation with her German friend (who has never ridden without a ticket and was amused at the writer's cavalier attitude), a general feeling that her luck might be running out, AND the fact that it was a holiday weekend, the writer was glad she had the good sense to purchase a ticket that morning. 


In all, ten people gathered at Oberspree station. The day was sunny and warm, and the group set off in good spirits, perhaps a bit unsure of what lay ahead, but not minding this. Heimo gave the group index cards and pens and instructed the participants to write thoughts as they occurred, with the only condition being that all of the thoughts should begin with the phrase "once upon a time." 


The first area explored was Adlershof, a Science, Technology, and Media Park. The group wandered through the campus and saw the Max Born Institute, buildings with multi-colored Venetian blinds, others with windows that closed automatically as people approached, an enormous 1930's era wind tunnel for testing airplane engines, and even an outdoor sound installation called Air Borne.  All the streets were named for famous scientists.


Immediately following this, the group came to Johannisthal, an experimental living community where the homes were made of organic and conventional building materials. Sheep grazed in an enclosed meadow, children played, gardens bloomed, and the overall effect was rather surreal. A protected nature conservancy was the neighborhood's front yard. Sign posts indicated the kinds of wildlife that could be found there - foxes, rabbits, birds, and schmetterlinge (butterflies), one of the writer's favorite German words. 


From the bucolic to the industrial - the group made their way to an abandoned factory site, entering through a break in the barbed wire fence. Buildings in various stages of decay were covered in graffiti, broken glass littered the ground, and nature had begun to reclaim its territory. Exiting this area by climbing a fence at the other end of the compound, the group then made their way through another peaceful residential area along a canal and then through Königsheide, a historically significant forest, which was the site of confrontations dating back to the 1600s. Today, it is important because of its plant and animal life. The group heard a cuckoo and saw some magpies and jackdaws (kafka in Czech). 


Through another neighborhood and crossing Hermanstrasse, the group entered a park with a Protestant cemetery to the south and an overgrown area to the north. The photo above was taken here. The weary group consisted of a German engineer, a German architect, a German artist, a French artist, a Greek artist, an English artist, two American artists, the Austrian artist, Heimo (who took the photo), and an American writer rather overdressed for a 20km trek.


At the end of the path was a vista that appeared to open into the sky - this was not far from the truth. When the group reached the end of the path, they stepped onto the tarmac of the Tempelhof Airfield. This historic airport was closed in October 2008, but opened again on May 8th as a park, the largest in Berlin. With thousands of skaters, joggers, walkers, runners, football players, and kite-flyers, it was one of the best uses of space the group could think of. Wunderschön! (another of the American writer's favorite German words) At the other end of the airfield was The Knot, which is where the group said its goodbyes after a most unusual and enjoyable day. [Click here for a 16-second video of a 20K walk that took six hours; it is courtesy of one of the participants who intermittently shot footage of the sky via a camera attached to his backpack.]
                                                               THE END                                                                        

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Angels, Boxers, and Cowboys

It's great fun to have nearly an entire 24 hours filled with a wide range of activities. German language class on Friday from 9-1 was first on the agenda, followed by lunch, and then a visit to a wine shop on the other side of Viktoria-Luise Platz. I was looking for prosecco. In conversation with the owner, a Persian gentleman who has lived in Berlin for 25 years, I learned that there was an apartment available in the building. I spoke with the owner, but for a variety of reasons, I decided it would not work for me. I was invited to have a glass of prosecco (which turned out to be a shared bottle), and sat out in the sun in front of the shop, speaking German for several hours, and feeling pretty good.


I had every intention to of staying in for the evening, but a German friend called and persuaded me to accompany him to a number of art events. At Freies Museum Berlin, we saw the exhibition, Umsetzen, and met several artists who either had studios in the building or had works in the show. I particularly liked the pieces by Nicholas KashianWill Kempkes (I called him "The Boxer" because of his former training and because of the subject matter of some of his paintings), Marlon Wobst ("The Cowboy"), and Dae-Cheon Lee.


We went to Cafe Einstein, a Berlin institution with two outposts. There is one at Unter den Linden where politicians and economists like to congregate because of the cafe's close proximity to the German Parliament, but we went to the location just north of Nollendorfplatz which is patronized by artists and journalists. There's a great beer garden in the back and the weather was perfect.


Next on the elevated U1 train to Kreuzberg (during which we had a great overhead view of the Carnival of Cultures in full swing this weekend) to visit the Forgotten Bar Project, curated by Christian Malycha. This venue is rather unique for having different group show openings every night. Nearby, we ate a very late supper at the excellent Via He Vietnamese Restaurant.


We poked our heads into the Hotel Bar and Color TV and took a walk down Berlin's own Brick Lane before deciding on a nightcap at Würgeengel ("The Exterminating Angel"), a bar whose name was inspired by the 1962 Luis Buñuel film of the same name.  

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mittwoch in Mitte

To vernissage or not to vernissage? That is the question. My answer - both in New York and Berlin - is usually no. Why? I don't like crowds, I'm claustrophobic, and I couldn't possibly care less about making whatever the "scene" might be. I am much more interested in having an unobstructed look at the art, speaking to the artist(s), the gallerists, and having the place to myself. I am selfish that way. 


With the exception of one event, a vernissage which I will describe later, a long-time Berliner and I spent the majority of yesterday visiting galleries whose exhibitions had been up for a little while. It helped that it was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, and so we had these places to ourselves. I can't think of a better way to spend the day. And of course, we had the obligatory pit stops for nourishment.


Our first stop was Galerie Christian Ehrentraut, a young gallerist whose current exhibition features the work of Leipzig artist, Tilo Baumgaertal. The gallery space is well-suited for his work, which is whimsical and fairy-tale like, yet has a certain menace which demands that the viewer step back and observe. Next was MMX,  a non-profit, artist-run space located in a former squatter's residence on Linienstrasse. The founders are Berlin-based photographer Jonathan Gröger, New York artist Rebecca Loyche, Canadian artist Daniel Wilson, and Philip Eggersglüß. There's an eclectic mix of art here that spans the spectrum of light, audio, and video installations. Esther Schipper, further down the street, featured the work of Matti Braun, a German-based artist with a Finnish background. Braun's batik-inspired work was illuminated by a mix of UV and flouresecent light. Still on Linienstrasse, we visited Edition Suhrkamp, an art book publisher. Next, we stopped in to the 15-year-old Bongout, an alternative art venue which offers an assortment of T-shirts, photographs, and books  by a range of avant-garde artists. On Brunnerstrasse, we stopped by 401 Contemporary, a gallery whose current exhibition of the work of Berlin artist Jakob Mattner and London artist Laura Buckley is an interesting inter-generational dialogue about light and dark and what lies in between. 


My colleague and I needed to revive with my favorite German tradition, Kaffee und Kuchen, at Hackbarth's, a classic Berlin establishment which provided us with the perfect break which for me included cappucino and rhubarb cake with cream. 


The vernissage we were invited to took place at the historic Riehmers Hofgarten in Kreuzberg. In addition to the exhibition, Creating Worlds, with the art of Isabella Gabriel Niang, we were treated to a tour of the lovely apartment/hotel complex purchased by Galway native Pat Costello. 


The evening ended with a lively conversation with a couple of artists at Grill Royal, which has its own showcase of the latest art in Berlin, a ring-side view of the Spree, and sometimes a celebrity or two.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ohne Titel (Untitled)

It's been overcast, cool, and raining off and on here for about a week now, yet I hoped for a little reprieve yesterday in order to do the "Bike the Berlin Wall" tour, but it was not in the cards for me. Instead, I read (finished Fatherland and Miss Julie and started re-reading A Room of One's Own), watched some great programs on one of my favorite channels, arte.tv, and napped. A perfect Saturday afternoon. But I needed to move around after all that relaxing, so I decided to walk to the gallery opening I'd been invited to at Fridey Mickel Art Berlin! (FMAB) in Prenzlauer Berg, a 7-kilometer walk from where I live. Fridey is an American curator I met in New York last year - she has been living in Berlin since 2003.

Potsdamer Strasse becomes Leipziger Strasse just after Potsdamer Platz. [If you have seven minutes to spare, you can watch this video of someone taking a journey similar to mine, but in a car - start at 4:40. Many of the buildings I describe below are on the right-hand side of the road and are noted on the video.] You enter Leipziger Platz and right about in the middle, you step over the double row of cobblestones on the sidewalk that signifies where the Berlin Wall used to stand. Although I am not a "Berlin Wall tourist," I confess to getting a sad little thrill all the same. Heading east, there is the Bundesrat (Federal Council), then you see the Federal Ministry of Finance (formerly the Nazi Air Ministry), which has some great Socialist murals. Further along, at #16, there is the lovely, historically-protected Museum for Communications (formerly the Reich Postal Museum and the Postal Museum for the GDR), which boasts the most famous stamp in the world, The Blue Mauritius. The first time I walked by this building, I thought I was hearing things. Then I realized that speakers nestled in windows at street level were broadcasting what I think were old German radio shows.

The severe-looking Bulgarian Embassy sits at the corner of Leipziger Strasse and Mauerstrasse (Wall Street). It has a rather grim sculpture by Tchapp in front of it. Next, an incongruous sight - an outpost of the American chain, Schlotzky's Deli - appears further along the street; apparently, it is a stop on the Berlin tours because of its close proximity to Checkpoint Charlie. Unfortunately, Galerie Thomas Schulte (housed in a beautiful space on the corner of Leipziger Strasse and Charlottenstrasse) had just closed for the day, but I was able to see some of the work through the enormous windows.

Looming in the distance was the Leipziger Strasse Komplex, a housing project whose concrete-slab dwellings are enlivened by what I can only imagine was paint store overstock of a particularly unattractive shade of blue. [By the way, I have seen this color used in combination with an awful maroon color - people, these colors should never be seen by themselves in public, let alone together!] Luckily, the reconstructed Spittelkolonnaden, the spires of Nikolaikirche and Fischerinsel, and the ruins of a Franciscan monastery at the end of Klosterstrasse (Abbey Road) provided some aesthetic visual relief. I skirted the raucous Alexanderplatz and took note of GDR artist Walter Womacka's fantastic Diego Rivera-inspired mural depicting the Socialist version of the good life. This is a protected work of art and is located on the Haus des Lehrers (Teachers' Association/Home). I finally arrived at my destination in Prenzlauer Berg after walking through centuries of Berlin history, one of my favorite past-times.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Helmut Newton and Modern Times

Native Berliner Helmut Newton's iconic photographs of fashion models and celebrities are instantly recognizable. Sexy blondes and brunettes with wild hair, red lips, and in various stages of undress gaze insouciantly at the camera, or gaze away entirely, or interact with others in erotically charged "scenes." June Newton said that her husband had intense, 20-minute relationships with all of his subjects, the time it took to create miniature fantasy worlds that drew out facets of a personality no other photographer was able to capture in the same way. With a minimum of fuss and lighting, Newton had the elusive gift of knowing exactly what he wanted and how to get it.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of SUMO (the limited edition, 480-page, 35-pound Taschen publication with a custom-made stand by Philippe Starck), the Museum of Photography is showing the 394 photographs from the book through this weekend. While watching an accompanying film in which June and other subjects were interviewed (e.g. Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer, Jodie Foster, and Sigourney Weaver), I began to realize why his imagery is so tantalizing. Newton knew that to create an atmosphere with the right sexual frisson, he had to incorporate not only his own fantasies but those of the model and the viewer/voyeur. The photos are a healthy mix of elegance, playfulness, and humor laced with a hint of danger. The main floor of the museum is home to a permanent collection, Helmut Newton's Private Property, which contains his personal books, letters, and photographs as well as the Newtonmobile and a replica of his working office in Monaco.

At Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie, the excellent current exhibition - Modern Times. The Collection. 1900-1945traces the timeline of these years through two world wars and art movements such as Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, New Objectivity, Bauhaus, and Surrealism. I especially liked Edvard Munch's classic frieze created for the lobby of the Berliner Kammerspiele Theater; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Potsdamer Platz; the work of George Grosz and Otto Dix; Klee and Kandinsky; the Salon-style portrait room; Emile Nolde and Max Beckmann; art by the Der Blaue Reider and Die Brucke members; and the room dedicated to the masterful work of sculptor Rudolf Belling. I found particularly moving the black-and-white reproductions that were hung in place of a number of actual paintings which had been declared Degenerate Art by the Nazis, and subsequently destroyed. On a lighter note, you can watch an early film about nightlife in Berlin at the turn of the 20th century as well as a portion of the 1936 Charlie Chaplin satire, Modern Times (for which the exhibition is named). Interestingly, many of the issues in the latter film are as relevant today as when it was first released.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On a Spree

This afternoon, my German friends and I ate our way through enormous pizzas at 12 Apostel, one of the many Berlin restaurants that are nestled under the elevated Friedrichstrasse train station. A distinct vérité accompanied our meal as trains intermittently rumbled overhead. 


We were disappointed at first to learn that because only three of us showed up for the Spree boat tour (a quorum of 15 was required), we had to hop another boat from Friedrichstrasse to the Jannowitzbrucke. On the way, we sailed past Museuminsel, Spree-side parks and bars complete with beach chairs, and other attractions of Mitte (the city center). Fortunately, enough people joined us at Jannowitzbrucke so that we could continue past the East Side Gallery, and under the Oberbaumbrucke Bridge all the way up to the Molecule Men (please see my previous post) before turning around and heading back towards Charlottenburg. Our guide told us about nearly every building and structure we saw - art centers housed in old warehouses, wonderful Bauhaus-style office centers and residences, the government buildings, and the many bridges we passed under. 


Berlin has incorporated its considerable waterfront into the cityscape in imaginative ways that other metropoli would do well to emulate. Walking paths lining the river were actively being enjoyed by humans and canines, and trees and other plant life reinforced the vitality of the Spree. At the end of our day, I felt as though my many miles of walking Berlin streets were pleasantly complimented by a "walk" along the river.   

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In East Berlin

I spent yesterday afternoon in Friedrichshain, a neighborhood in the former East Berlin. I wanted to do the following: see the squatter's buildings that line Rigaer Strasse; visit the Boxhagener Platz Flohmarkt; walk down the 90-meter-wide Karl-Marx-Allee (please use the volume on this link to hear the grand accompanying music); see the classical, 8-storey housing tenements - part of the 1951 National Reconstruction Program - lining both sides of the 2-kilometer boulevard leading to Alexanderplatz; check out the GDR splendor of Cafe Moskau and Kino International; visit the East Side Gallery and then cross back over the Spree into the former West Berlin via the Oberbaumbrücke, among other things, a former spy hangout. I managed to do and see all of these things and as a bonus at the end of the day, saw New York artist Jonathan Borofsky's 1999 sculpture, Molecule Men, in the Spree River.


Rigaer Strasse is lined with squatters' flats - the oldest at #78. It has been occupied for 20 years and is one of the many colorful examples on this street and some of the surrounding ones which boast DIY decorating, graffiti, political slogans, and other signs of people with anarchy on their minds. A struggle continues between the current tenants and the purchasers of the building, whose attempts to evict the squatters have been thus far unsuccessful.


As is the case with most flea markets, the vendors at the one at Boxhagener Platz offered what appeared to be (and in some cases, smelled) like flotsam and jetsam from attics, cellars, closets, drawers, cabinets, glove compartments, and pockets, hoping for the best. Loose buttons, mismatched china and glassware, pieces of gold chains, electronic gadgets that may or may not have been operational, porcelain gew-gaws, assorted tsotchke, mildewy clothing, 45s from the 70s... I was drawn to a table of what turned out to be rings that had been fashioned out of computer keys. I almost bought an old German language copy of Goethe's The Sufferings of Young Werther (Die Leiden Des Jungen Werthers), the book I am currently reading in English, as well as a German language copy of Faust. I decided, though, that my German needed to improve considerably beyond my flea-market haggling skills (we just learned numbers and some new, useful verbs in class) to tackle Goethe. A Polish poster vendor and an antique jewelry vendor's wares caught my attention, as did some nice-looking electric guitars and a mink stole in good shape. Nevertheless, I passed on all of these things.


Karl-Marx-Allee is a grand Soviet-style boulevard of classical, 8-storey housing tenements - part of the 1951 National Reconstruction Program - lining both sides of the 2-kilometer gauntlet with a view of the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm (TV tower) at the end in Alexanderplatz. Despite their rather austere facades, a number of these buildings have intricate mosaic work on the walls at the entrances which somewhat relieves the monotony. Particularly nice is the mosaic at Cafe Moskau. [If you have some time, please read this 2004 amusing blog entry about the Cafe Moskau and the surrounding environs.] I also saw a couple of interesting art galleries on this street - Wagner + Partner and Capitain Petzel. 


After visiting Karl-Marx-Allee, I took the train to Ostbahnhof and there I saw some of the art that had been commissioned for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Domino Project. Just outside the train station on Mühlenstraße is The East Side Gallery, the longest existing stretch of the Berlin Wall. In the spring of 1990, it was made considerably more beautiful by 118 artists from 21 countries who were invited to enliven the bare east side of the wall. Now 20 years later, efforts are underway to restore many of the original works which have been degraded by the elements. Still, it is impressive and quite moving.


At the southern end of the East Side Gallery is the reconstructed Neo-Gothic Oberbaumbrücke, the link between the former East and West Berlin that lies over the Spree River. While on the bridge and looking to the south, you can see the Molecule Men. These three aluminum men together weigh 45 tons and stand 30 meters high. They symbolize the three immediate districts - Kreuzberg, Treptow, and Friedrichsain. The artist Borofsky said that "[The sculpture is a reminder ...] that there are both the man and the molecules in a world of probability and the aim of all creative and intellectual traditions is to find wholeness and unity within the world."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

In Potsdam

Today is May 8th, the day Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allied Forces 65 years ago. Several months later, The Big Three met at Schloss Cecilienhof in Potsdam for the last of three conferences held during and immediately after WWII. The first took place in Tehran in 1943 and the second was at Yalta in February 1945. 


Potsdam is a 40-minute S-Bahn ride out of Berlin. It has been restored to its former glory after having been destroyed, like many European cities, during WWII. The presence of GDR-style architecture (as in Berlin) does not completely spoil the city's charm; in fact, I like the contrast. An example of this is in the Alte Markt, where the St. Nicholas Church is neighbors with the University of Applied Sciences - Potsdam, which I learned is to be razed. A marble obelisk that dates from 1753 was restored in 1979, and the Fortuna portal was rebuilt in 2002.  The Old City Hall and the Knobelsdorff House line the east side of the square, while to the west, the former stables of the City Palace now house the Potsdam Film Museum. Slightly to the north of the square sits a large, somewhat-hidden boulder under an apple blossom tree. Embedded in this boulder is a plaque with Dr. Albert Schweitzer's thoughts on the inhumanity of forcing people to leave their homes. 


After leaving the Alte Markt, I walked up Friedrich-Ebert Strasse to St. Peter and Paul Church. I then veered back to the main street and headed north towards (and then through) the Nauener Tor and then past the Russian Colony, which I looked at, but did not enter. Further along Alleestrasse, I read a plaque on house #10 which stated that Maimi von Mirsbach (celebrated as a hero by Israel) had lived there for a period of time. I then entered the Neuer Garten, at the southernmost part of the park that encompasses both the Marmorpalais and Schloss Cecilienhof. The approach to the palace is wonderful. There were not too many visitors when I arrived; I was alone for most of my audio tour and even had the room in which The Big Three met all to myself! At one point, I thought I detected the cigarette and cigar smoke of the room's former occupants and it all became a little eerie. 


Back down Alleestrassee, which changes to Voltairweg, which takes you right up the side stairs to Schloss Sanssouci, the summer getaway of Prussian Frederick the Great (Frederick the II). Sans Souci means "without worries," an attitude that certainly spread to Berlin, where an atmosphere of tolerance remains today. [Side note: I know that Berlin and Los Angeles are Sister Cities, but I think it might be more appropriate if New Orleans and Berlin were linked in this way. Knowing both cities, I sense a kindred laissez-faire spirit.] I loved the 35 Rococo figures on the front of the palace (see the photos in the previous link). Their faces are all different and they all appear to be at different stages of a worry-free state, whether because of wine, the opposite sex, music, theater, etc. 


I left Sanssouci, however, without visiting the inside of the palace. The entrance fees for all the different rooms were more than I wanted to spend and I was spoiled by having just viewed another palace without the burden of crowds. When I saw the lines of weary tourists heading in to some of the rooms at Sanssouci, I just couldn't bring myself to join them. Anyway, you can look at photos of the beautiful inside online, as I plan to do. I left this palace the way most people enter it and then I turned around to look up and see the terraced vineyards and steps leading up. It was breathtaking, so I'm glad I did it backwards. 


I was getting a bit hungry at this point. The delicious 1 Euro rotwurst and brötchen that I have come to love and that I had had when I got off the train in the morning was only able to fuel me so far. I walked back to the center of town intending to partake in that excellent German tradition, Kaffee und Kuchen, at the famous Cafe Heider, a former meeting place for upstarts, intellectuals, jazz musicians, and at one time, the Stasi. However, before I got too far, I was lured into a nearby Trödelmarkt (Flohmarkt), a flea market next to a church that was selling children's clothing, toys, and...cakes for only 50 cents. I helped myself to a tasty piece of pound cake with chocolate and headed towards Luisenplatz, which was filled with Deutsche Rote Kreuz trucks, ambulances, and personnel. At first, I thought something terrible had happened, but then I heard music and laughing and asked one of the guys what was happening. He said they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the German Red Cross. I said "Congratulations!" and he gave me a little packet of Bandaids. 


I have to admit that I like the Brandenburg Gate in Potsdam better than the one in Berlin. Perhaps it's the pale yellow color I find pleasing, or its smaller size, or the fact that it frames the street at the end of which stands the St. Peter and Paul Kirche. Walking down Brandenburgstrasse, I had fun poking my head into many different shops, including a great used book and CD store that also offered good coffee for 1 Euro. I am a big fan of things that cost 1 Euro, especially coffee, which seems to be the only thing in Germany that is more expensive than in the States. I visited another bookstore and cracked up reading Negative Affirmations by UK cartoonist Steven Appleby and George Mole. In addition to amusing negative affirmations, the book poses questions such as "Did you know that yoga spelled backwards plus "n" spells agony? Is it really necessary that we be able to balance in such poses called "fish" and "warrior?" [Forgive me, my former yoga teachers, but I laughed pretty hard at this.] 


I made my way to the Holländisches Viertel, noticing the distinctive Dutch architecture and signage. A door to one of these buildings happened to be ajar, so I looked inside and saw the characteristically steep stairways I remembered having seen in Amsterdam. Most of these buildings were either residences or businesses; however, there were three in a row that were boarded up and looked terrible. I wondered what those fixer-uppers would cost to renovate. At one time, they must have been as lovely as their neighbors and I was curious about what had led to the abandonment and disrepair of those three in particular. 


Nearing the end of my pleasant walkabout, I didn't have it in me to hike all the way back to the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof. Instead I hopped onto a tram, sat down with a sigh of relief, and realized that it was the first time I had been off my feet in six hours.

Friday, May 7, 2010

"What's Bred in the Bone Will Out in the Flesh"

It's an old English proverb and the first part of it, What's Bred in the Bone, is the title of a book by Canadian author Roberston Davies. I have spent ten days with this book and reluctantly finished it this afternoon.

I am certain that had I read this book when it was first published 25 years ago, I would not have appreciated it to the extent that I do now. My Master's degree in Art Business, familiarity with a little of the art world in New York and now in Berlin, plus both the film and the book, The Rape of Europa, have all given me a certain perspective.

What's Bred in the Bone is full of characters and circumstances that you have probably never encountered before and will probably never encounter again, unless you read more of the Cornish trilogy. Davies' draws literal and figurative portraits within portraits through the protagonist, Francis Cornish. The story made me cry a little, and laugh a lot. I recommend it not only for art lovers, but for people who like a tale you can sink your teeth into and spend much time reflecting upon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Minimalism at Haus Huth in Potsdamer Platz

Minimalism Germany 1960s, the current exhibition on the 4th floor of Haus Huth on 5 Alte Potsdamer Strasse, is the latest in a series that showcase art from the Daimler Art Collection. [Please click here to see Haus Huth, built in 1912 and constructed of reinforced concrete and steel, and take note that it was the ONLY structure standing on Potsdamer Platz after two world wars. Then please look at this photo, which shows Haus Huth as it is today, suffocated between the modern buildings that currently populate Potsdamer Platz and that contribute to the area's antiseptic, generic look. Exceptions of course are the inspired architecture of the Neuegalerie, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, and the Philharmonie.] It is fitting that this particular Minimalist exhibition is displayed in a simple, stately building that was also at one time, minimal in its truest sense amidst the wasteland that was Potsdamer Platz. The Constructivist, Zero, Minimalist, and Conceptual work of artists such as Josef Albers, Norbert Kricke, Herbert Zangs, Siegfried Cremer, and 21 others (hailing from Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Krefeld, Stuttgart, Berlin, Munich, and Switzerland) and the quiet dignity of the Haus Huth pay tribute to one another. This free exhibition runs until 30 May.    

Monday, May 3, 2010

My Berlin Gallery Weekend

It was busy in town for the past few days with Berlin Gallery Weekend from 30 April - 2 May. I didn't get to any of the galleries you'll see on the list, but I did see a lot of energizing art.  


On Friday, I attended the opening of Phantomschaltung, fittingly situated in the former Fernmeldeamt (Telecommunications Office) of the also former GDR. Although the building has been completely repurposed to house artists' studios, rumor has it that spy equipment can still be found in the depths of the building.


There are 14 artists in this show hailing from all corners of the globe. I had the great pleasure to moderate a talk with some of the artists yesterday as part of The Berlin Collective. Stay tuned for the video if you want to see my "TV talk show host" debut. I asked the artists Nicole Cohen, Anna Mields (who brilliantly attempted to "short-circuit" me during the interview), Stefan Heinrich Ebner (aka S.H.E.), Dalila Dalléas, and Katrin Kampmann about what motivates them and about their interpretations of the principle of Phantomschaltung. Some of the other artists -  Daniel Mohr, Gal.la Uriol, and Andrea Damp - were present in the audience as well.  


Also on Friday, I visited Measuring Potentials, curated by Marc Glöde. In this show, 11 artists created work that correlates with the theme of using unconventional spaces like the space in which this show is situated within the developing area along Potsdamerstraße. I especially liked the work of Sandra Peters, whose slide show piece captured the theme of the exhibition nicely. 


Saturday night - Atelier 5 in Moabit. A really lively gathering hosted by South African artist Christine Haberstock and Nigel Dunkley MBE. New York City ex-pat Saudia Young sang cabaret songs penned by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht and some of her own tunes as well. It was a great evening complete with art, music, food, drink, dogs, kids. 


After my talk with the Berlin Collective yesterday, I went to the lovely loft of jgb berlin to see the work of German artist, Adrian Lohmuller, who will be featured in the Berlin Biennale this year. In conversation with some of the guests, I learned about two other interesting spaces - Die Tankstelle and the Boros Collection - the latter is housed in a former bunker. Apparently, it is possible to purchase some German structures (like this bunker) for $1. Then of course, millions are needed to renovate the place, not to mention the amount of tenacity required to maneuver through Byzantine architectural/historical regulations.


My art-filled weekend continued this afternoon with My Dirty Little Heaven, the excellent show of Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu at the Deutsche Guggenheim. She is the recipient of the bank's Artist of Year 2010 award. The work is riveting - mixed-media collages that reminded me of some of the work of British/Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE, as well as the portraits of Mannerist artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  I found especially compelling Mutu's charity project, Ms. Sarah's House, which just last month successfully raised funds to rebuild the house of Ms. Sarah, whose home was destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans nearly five years ago. 


Beauty needs to be tempered with a little ugliness. Instead of walking back along the decidedly more pleasant Unter den Linden, I chose to walk along the parallel Behrenstrasse to nail down the nature of a building located directly behind the Russian Embassy at approximately #5. Luckily, a man was exiting this very building as I approached and I asked him (in a melange of German, Russian, Polish, and English) what it was. He told me that it is a gym for Russian diplomats. Completely unsigned or otherwise marked but for a large bas-relief of the head of Lenin, this non-descript brick structure with its creepy absence of windows (but for a few rather opaque decrepit ones) is my favorite ugly building in Berlin. Happily, I have many favorite beautiful Berlin buildings - more on those soon.