We arrived in Berlin on Friday, April 6 from New York. It was my first time in the German capital. I had been to Germany in the early 1990s when Bonn was the capital of West Germany. Then, I visited Cologne the city that at that time was the epicenter of German contemporary art. That visit also included time in Frankfurt a great city for art museums. But I always wanted to go to Berlin. It was the city for artists some 10 years ago or so as reunification allowed for new possibilities for cheap studios and flats.
That moment has come and gone and Berlin has settled now for more or less what it will be in the near future. It is a city with much to admire in terms of its public transportation, museums, infrastructure and a very pleasant and friendly citizenry. It also helps that English really is almost on a par with German here. We Americans are fortunate that the rest of the world bothered to learn a second language and for most it has been English.
Talking to some of the locals, however, there is a begrudging need to acknowledge its recent past. Specifically how to deal with what happened between 1933-1945. And then from 1946-1989, and then from 1991 until now. For these reasons it may be the most interesting city in the world. It was here that so much of what has happened of consequence in the recent history of the world was shaped. Our own empire post -1945 is due in large part to the catastrophic follies that emanated from Berlin.
Besides the extraordinary ancient art collections, (and some fabulous contemporary art museums), the Berlin story that is most vivid is in the one that centers around the Nazi regime. I have never been to a Holocaust museum in any city before. I still don’t think I have been inside one. But I did visit Daniel Liebskind’s Jewish Museum (2001) and there you experience not just a re-presentation of Jewish history but you finally begin to see why these events unfolded the way they did and you feel the powerful sense of loss in his novel use of voids and emptiness.
The narrative of history is told through a museum that is extremely interactive (in a good way) but whose ultimate power lies in Liebskind’s design—a meandering journey into the heart of darkness. The most moving part of the exhibit for me was a short 5 minute interview with an American Jewish lawyer now in his 80s who was involved in the Nuremburg Trials. He breaks down in tears recalling his profound disappointment 60 years ago at the clamoring of Germans already wanting to move on. It is powerful stuff. He concluded that they just did not care. In West Germany there was much foot-dragging around the issue of de-Nazificiation while in the East, much rhetorical fury was aimed at the Nazi past, but all was forgiven if one toed the Communist line quick enough.
The second space dedicated to the telling of this history is in the remarkable Topography of Terrors Museum (2010). The museum is sited on the grounds of the SS building where so much of the death was conceived. The stunning building by German architect Peter Zumthor is an updated Miesan pavilion caged in by a steel curtain—this is not a national gallery of art after all but a national gallery of shame. This museum was the museum that you could picture artists such as Martha Rosler, Barbara Kruger and Hans Peter Feldman among others making. There was little sentimentality, only lots of photos and text that told its story very clearly.
The final part of the trio of death was Peter Eisenman’s spectacular memorial to the “Murdered Jews of Europe” (2005). It is in every way as powerful as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial. If I could continue the comparisons to artists, whereas Lin’s work is a Serra, Eisenman’s work is Andre, Judd and Nauman. Minimal and Post-Minimalism have become the de facto style for these kinds of memorials (see Oklahoma City). From Judd he got the plain rectangular slabs, from Andre there regularization into a grid and the fact that you can touch them and step on them (though you are not supposed to but little kids and wannabee fashion models where poised atop). But what makes this work especially powerful is the parts he borrows from Nauman—that sense of moving through a space that now becomes fraught with dislocation, anxiety and disorientation. If you only do one thing in Berlin, I suggest Eisenman’s memorial.
The other “political” museum was one dedicated to the DDR or the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). This museum is what a Pop Art aesthetic would bring to an examination of the DDR. It reminded me of the space in New York’s South Street Seaport which houses the Bodies exhibition. This was the DDR for tourists and it was a lot of fun. Actual cars including the crappy Tarant were on display as well as a 3-D recreation of a typical East German apartment. On display were everything from the anabolic steroid pills given to East German athletes, East German blue jeans, interrogation rooms and cells, lots of pictures of nude East Germans vacationing (nudity being one of the unofficial protests against the shackling conformity of the Honecher regime). One object that did catch my eye was Eric Honecher’s beautiful hotline to the Politburo phone (see foto). After an hour in the DDR museum you come away with the universal understanding that East Germany was one big shithole. And that’s before you learn of how this supposedly earth-loving regime (they passed their version of the EPA ) polluted and spoiled everything in its path by the early 80s.
Berlin was the quietest big-city I have ever been to. The only aberrant street noise coming on exactly two different occasions as Arabs celebrating weddings honked their horns through the city streets. It was drizzling for most of the 5 days and that grey drizzle seemed to fit the mood of the populace.