Through the looking glass: women and art at MeCollectors Berlin

Permanence and transience. Can art represent both of these simultaneously? These questions of time and history are just what “The Moment is Eternity”, an exhibition starting September 26th at meCollectors Room, aims to explore. 

Comprised of some 300 images from over 60 artists, “The Moment is Eternity” illuminates the photographic works of the Ollbricht Collection, and shows them in conjunction with a range of weird and wonderful historic artefacts from the Wunderkammer, or “Cabinet of Curiosities”. 

Considered to be one of the most extensive private collections in Europe, the Olbricht collection is filled with artwork ranging from the 16th century to the most recent contemporary work of artists and photographers.

Through an interplay of art forms, the “Moment is Eternity” looks at the theme of transience in a series of single fleeting moments – the only “perceptible slice[s] of eternity” – as captured through the lens of a camera. As meCollectors suggest in their accompanying press release, “Lending duration to the moment is inscribed into the very medium [of photography] itself.”

“The Moment is Eternity” is diverse in terms of medium and epoch. This is a collection of harmony and incongruity: where images of defining moments in history are placed next to erotic scenes of young lovers, where bodies meet with objects, colour meets with negative, and the passing of time persists despite all human effort to prevent it. 

It is this juxtaposition of the past and the present, the conventional and the absurd, that gives us a peripheral view of identity across the ages. 

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When taking my first steps into “The Moment is Eternity”, I was aware that this was an exhibition with a clear purpose. With the many sheets of information I’d been given in hand, I began looking at these images with preconceived ideas.

These works were about timelessness and eternity and about collecting and preserving, interrogating and reporting, the moment. 

These images were a tangible memento mori, a symbol of transience, mortality, life and death, mapped, at least for the first half of the exhibition, onto visceral representations of the body. 

I glanced from image to image of the human frame. Next to the exposed, elegant physique of the model Kristen McMenamy was an anatomical print of a dissected frog, a quirky reminder from the Wunderkammer of our long standing, human interest in anatomy. 

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Helmut Newton, Nude of Kristen McMenamy, 1995

It seemed odd to have a sexualised portrayal of a woman next to an obscure, even grotesque, image of a dead frog. But perhaps this was the aim: presenting incongruity to inspire new ways of seeing. 

Around the room were shameless depictions of the female body. Women were clothed, or not, arranged in a variety of positions, shamelessly projecting their identity and reflecting the aesthetics of the age from which they were captured.

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I thought of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s dictum of the ‘decisive moment’ that meCollector’s had referred to in their accompanying press release.

To capture the ‘decisive moment’ is to capture the essence of a transitory moment and the “form that corresponds to that essence” simultaneously. 

But as I looked from image to image of women stood gazing either in the mirror at themselves, or outwards towards their viewer, I thought that these weren’t, perhaps, what was meant by ‘decisive moment.’

These didn’t appear to be fleeting moments, caught in time, but moments captured, pinned down and perfectly contrived for the viewer’s pleasure. 

Russ Meyer’s ‘Eve in front of Fireplace’ seemed to confirm my view. A woman lies partially clad on a fluffy carpet, looking seductively out at the camera. The fire glows in the background as a glass of wine sits within reach of her hand – all the indications of cosy lovemaking. The artist calls her ‘Eve’, the first woman who deceived Adam and the biblical figure who has been identified for centuries as a wily seductress. 

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Russ Meyer, Eve in front of Fireplace, 1955

A person’s history is always brought to bear on an image they see before them. Mine was informed by the readings of John Berger in his essay, “Ways of seeing”, which takes a critical look at the way we perceive art. 

Berger discusses the disparity between nudity and nakedness and the rhetoric surrounding it in a chapter of his book. He says, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.” 

In an an examination of the European oil painting tradition, he says that only twenty or thirty nudes in the entire collection depict a woman as herself rather than as a subject of male idealisation or desire. After reading “Ways of seeing”, I could no longer look at the naked female frame and not question whether it was indeed nakedness, or nudity, that I saw before me.

These images of women didn’t appear to be caught in time, but purposefully arranged for artistic consumption. Was the ‘decisive moment’ here, one that had been artfully put together, rather than spontaneously captured?

The images represented female identity, their roles and rituals, throughout time. But was it their own self, or one created by another, that was being presented in these images? Was Russ Meyer’s Eve naked or nude? Did she arrange herself this way, or was she arranged? I looked to the next image. 

In a black and white photograph, Cindy Sherman is captured looking into a mirror. She poses, clutching a towel around her and looking over her shoulder with a provocative gaze, as if decidedly arranged this way, perhaps even by a male photographer. The moment here was certainly ‘decisive’, yet not spontaneous. 

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Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 

Through this image her identity is obscured. We see her face, but only through a secondary source – her reflection. Here, the woman doesn’t show us her real identity, but an assumed one. Her body does not relax into its natural shape, but stands perfectly poised for a photograph.

Women, mirrors, make up, masks, are historically tied up with issues of identity, authenticity, beauty and vanity. Paul Outerbridge’s ‘Nude at a dressing table’, not only depicts a woman gazing into a mirror,  but presents her applying makeup – an action seen by the Elizabethan stage as a concealing of the self. Does the woman portrayed looking into the mirror mask her identity, or accentuate it? And if so, then who for? And why?

Andre Gelpke’s ‘Christine mit Spiegel’ presents a woman behind a handheld looking glass, her face completely hidden by the mirror – her arm raised as if applying makeup to the visage she hides from view. And then there is Gerhard Richter’s, ‘Betty’, a woman captured, but looking away. Her identity unable to reach the viewer at all.

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Andre Gelpke, Christine mit Spiegel

The identity of these women, as represented by these images, reveal something about how they are, and have been, perceived, and how they perceive themselves. They are a double image, with a double purpose. A reflection in a mirror. 

I stood looking at a courtly handheld mirror, dated back to 1650, encased in a glass box near these images. Staring at this tangible emblem of “womanhood”, I wondered how many women had looked into this glass through the ages and had truly seen themselves.

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Questions of time and history returned as I wandered through the rest of the exhibition. Historically charged pictures of the first test of an Atom Bomb in New Mexico, the explosion of Mount Vesuvius and a static image of the KKK juxtaposed naked lovers on a back seat of a car and Ed va der Elksen’s photograph of a passionate, cinematic kiss. 

The ‘decisive moment’, one momentarily suspended in time and hastily captured by the lens of a camera, was here, urgent and unrelenting. Whether nude, naked, premeditated, spontaneous, for the self or for someone else, these images have something in common: they are moments in history that cannot be replicated. 

Photographs can capture, as well as distort, reality. They can confirm and conceal the self, but the ‘decisive moment’ remains the same: one that can only be captured by the swift click a shutter. 

‘The Moment is Eternity” is open until the 1st April 2019 at the MeCollectors Room Berlin. The gallery is open every Wednesday to Monday, from 12-6pm.

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” at C /O Berlin ★★★

Stefanie Moshammer’s “Not just your face honey” documents a narrative of infatuation. Through a series of photographs, Moshammer aims to discover more about the “sinister stranger” who arrived, completely by chance, on her doorstep. Using images captured from real life and some produced from her own imagination, she powerfully explores the fine line between romance and delusion, love and obsession.

Upon first entering the exhibition, I got taken up by the swell of the romance of it all. A guy named Troy travels across the continent to say hello to his ex and, upon opening the door to you, falls instantly in love, “not just with your face”, but with “your heart”. He sends a letter declaring his love for you, describing how his life has led up to this moment and how he couldn’t possibly forget the “honey” that he saw filling up the doorframe like a portrait. What more could a girl want?

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C/O Berlin, in their accompanying press release, describe this story as a “bizarre declaration of love from a stranger”, a “fleeting, banal encounter” that lasted no longer than five minutes. Moshammer’s exhibition is a visual curation of this encounter – a story only images could capture. She aims throughout the exhibition to “answer his image of her with her image of him”.

To me, however, it seemed more like the staging of an inquisition. One of the most striking examples of this was the display of Troy’s letter in three different forms. Each time the letter was further zoomed in, the words became clearer on the page. It felt to me like Moshammer was questioning how we would handle such a powerful declaration of love, or perhaps whether it was ever “love” at all.

As individuals who are all susceptible to the daily deluge of romantic culture, Moshammer’s exhibition questioned whether romance of the kind she experienced, the kind that we see in movies, is really what we desire. The image of a gas station and a Motel – a literal emblem of Moshammer’s journey across state lines to learn more about the stranger who sought to steal her heart – was particularly powerful to this end. In scenes of American romance films, the Motel is iconic – a stop off point for travellers, a temporary love nest – perhaps even an imagined life where all you know is the road.

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Using phrases from Troy’s letter to form themes or ideas for each image, Moshammer gives them new power by isolating them. The line “the almost new special car to feel special and appreciated” for example, (taken from Troy’s promise to buy her a new motor if only she would come back to live with him) seemed on the surface to be a man’s humble bargain for affection. But after dwelling on it a little longer, the words take on a sinister quality. This kind of monetary exchange sounded something like prostitution: the giving of oneself for money or possessions. Was this, in Moshammer’s eyes, the ultimate promise of comfortable living, or ownership?

An image of perfectly arranged postage stamps – their neat rows obstructed by an image of a naked woman packaged in bubble wrap as if for sale – seemed to confirm this idea.

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As I continued round the exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel like Troy was trying to silence Moshammer with promises of the perfect life. Troy spoke assertively, not speculatively, in his letter, almost removing her ability to reply. I began to understand Moshammer’s photographs as a visual answer to his letter. Her images became her agency.

Through images of suburbia and domesticity, possessions become conflated with affection. An image of a hotel room and a perfectly laid out bed placed next to each other seemed sinister in their simplicity. I thought of the typical budget hotel bed sheets, steamed stiff with starch, that were strict and imprisoning, unable to be moulded to the body. This seemed the perfect metaphor for what Moshammer thought of a life with Troy. Below the caption read, “Happily married, or want out”.

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Pictures of the landscape, seemingly desolate and infertile, were juxtaposed with images of supposed happiness and unity: a demonstration of the fine line between dreams and reality;  the discrepancy between what we are told we should want, and what we actually want.

Towards the end of my visit, I thought back to the picture of a woman with her face blurred out that I had breezed by at the start of the exhibition. Perhaps it was Moshammer’s own identity that she was uncertain about. Perhaps Troy had unearthed uncertainties within her about her own dreams and desires.

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Another interesting element of the exhibition was the fact that each accompanying title could not directly explain what was going on in each image. It occurred to me that sometimes words are inadequate to convey experience. At times, we need demonstrable evidence. I enjoyed the gap that was left between words and images, feeling that, like Moshammer, I too was having to piece together fragments of a puzzle to form meaning.

A title reading “Duck Sick” caught my eye. It accompanied a picture of an old school motor with “Suck Dick” elegantly printed onto the back of its bumper. A perfectly contrived image, perhaps, of Moshammer’s rebellion against Troy’s offering and an assertion of her own power and identity. His perfect aesthetic arrangement from a movie: the car, the house, the woman, wouldn’t ever, it seemed, quite make the cut.

“Not just your face honey”  is on show at the C/O gallery until 23rd September 2018.

 

 

 

‘Put Me Back Together Again’: Florian Schulze’s Homeless Aesthetic 

Poverty exploited by the Privileged: how Berlin Fashion Week revealed the industry’s dark side

The 3rd – 7th July of this year saw Berlin’s annual Fashion Week take to the streets. Vogue voiced how ‘logomania and streetwear were alive and well’, and how ‘wild prints’ and effortless ensembles were ‘perfectly complemented by Berlin’s eclectic architecture.’1 In accordance with Berlin’s eco-spirit, sustainable fashion took to the stage. And then there was Florian Schulze’s collection, ‘Put Me Back Together Again’.

Schulze’s collection ostensibly ‘revisits romanticised ideas of homeless women dressed in shabby layers of discarded clothing.’2 Taking inspiration from the ‘bag ladies of New York City’, Schulze has created garments that reflect their ‘beauty of imperfection.’ Through his collection, the clothes of these women, drawn from ‘dumpsters’ and found in the streets, were showcased in all their glory. Using ‘detailed handwork’ and ‘precise processing’, Schulze supposedly applied intricacy to their ‘shabby’ aesthetic. His website reveals how his homeless muses received a ‘well deserved upgrade regarding their appearance’ in exchange for the inspiration they so willingly provided. Now this is just offensive.

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There is something quite incongruous, or perhaps even unsavoury, about using the clothes of the homeless to inspire a collection for a multi-billion pound industry. Simply put, this is poverty exploited by the privileged.

The ‘bag ladies’ of New York City do not carefully select their fabrics for aesthetic purpose as fashion designers do. They look this way because this is all they have. Their ‘fashion choices’ are based on accessibility, not taste. Their ‘craftmanship’ derives from necessity, not free will. Florian Schulze takes their scraps of survival wear and ‘puts [them] back together’ again for his own artistic purpose. And was their uproar on the runway? In the name of ‘Fashion’, not one critic batted an eyelid. With very little stir in the press, the incident seemed to slide under a perfectly woven rug into insignificance. This kind of exploitation is clearly nothing new in the underbelly of the fashion world.

I wonder what Schulze’s first thought was when walking the streets of New York, gazing intently at the outfits of homeless people with an artist’s eye. He looked at the homeless women of New York and saw an aesthetic worth replicating. He saw inspiration, rather than desperation. I slightly winced when I scrolled to find a comment from a friend on his instagram reading, ’I told you, you were going to be famous.’3 Amidst the showers of compliments lies a moral problem obscured from view. The homeless people of the streets of New York do not profit from their ‘shabby’ aesthetic, but fashion does.

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This is symptomatic of a wider global problem in the fashion industry. Schulze’s decision to replicate the garments of the homeless and ‘upgrade’ them using high quality materials fits into a wider framework of ‘ cultural appropriation’ – a controversy that is woven into the fibres of many designer’s work. Gucci’s Fall 2018 collection, for example, came under fire for producing looks for white models which were inspired by the turbans worn by the Sikh community. Schulze’s negative appropriation of poverty commits the same crime, placing high fashion over cultural sensitivity.

A quote on Schulze’s website reads ‘Fabrics sometimes need to be destroyed before they show their real beauty and become a part of their actual usage.’4 His artistic vision involves denigrating before creating: ‘putting things back together again.’ Whilst this is an interesting philosophy – it’s not entirely original, nor something that should be applied to real people in real circumstances.

In what perhaps began as a noble artistic pursuit to take inspiration from destruction, Schulze’s collection turned quickly into a patronising reimagining of the homeless ‘aesthetic’. Schulze used the shabby scraps worn by the people of the streets to exhibit his own artistic skill and provide a collection worthy of Fashion Week’s scrutinising eye. In doing so, he chose style over moral substance.

 

1 http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/berlin-street-style-spring-summer-20192 http://iamflorianschulze.com/ma-graduation-collection/
3 https://www.instagram.com/iamflorianschulze/
4 http://iamflorianschulze.com/about/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Romantics and the shackles of Modern Life

‘Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains’ – Jean Jacques Rousseau

We’ve all heard scientists talk about how sickness is epidemic in the modern world. The ills of technology, social media, processed foods and oppressive schedules affect each part of our physical and mental wellbeing. While a lot of this can be considered scare-mongering, I think there is some truth to the warnings. In some ways, we are the sickest we have ever been.

We are somewhat fortunate in the West that our culture propagates a strong work ethic as the key to success. People climb higher than ever before. The ascendance of individualism, however, has its costs. Humans are wired to always be on the run. Rising stress levels cause us to produce fight or flight responses to small inconveniences. We rely on substances to wake us up or put us to sleep. Chronic stress,  high blood pressure and strokes are more prevalent than ever before.

We are the generation of immediacy. We expect quick results, and everything in society must attend to this purpose. Technology provides shortcuts and brain-power where ours has lapsed. It is the clock that makes us tick. Time is of the essence, and our health suffers because of it. We have cultivated a society that attends to our needs, and doesn’t. Our quality of life has been impaired as much as it has been improved.

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Literature has long chronicled the illnesses of modernity. The words of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl suddenly spring to mind. His harrowing image of ‘starving, hysterical, naked’ automatons, the otherwise ‘best minds of [his] generation’, ‘dragging themselves through the streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix’, can only resemble the long queues of people waiting in line at the doctors for their magic pill: the elixir of life that will charge them up enough to face the mound of paperwork at the office the next day.

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Ginsberg often used natural imagery in his poetry as a point of contrast to the encroaching threat of modernity. He visualised a world that rejected the oppressive conformism and materialism of American society that had produced the sickness he saw on the streets. Like the early Romantic poets, Ginsberg saw industrialism as the disease of the modern condition.

Ginsberg’s generation, the Beats, were liminal figures. They expressed their cultural marginality by being everything and nothing, and belonging nowhere. They were the nomads of the American streets. The poets of early nineteenth-century Romanticism pioneered this interest in the figure of the ‘wanderer.’ Wordsworth, writing against a backdrop of rapid industrialism and the casualties of the French Revolution, fought against the changing order of society that modernity had brought along. He wrote of ‘thou wanderer in the wood’ – a person who wilfully chose to escape the reign of inequality being produced by a hierarchical, industrial-led society, into the recesses of nature, ‘the guide, the guardian… and soul of … moral being.’ Nature was still pure, untouched by human influence, and therefore a place to receive spiritual consolation.

Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the sea fog’ (c. 1818) captures a lone man stood on a summit, absorbed in quiet reverence, overlooking the catastrophe of the modern world. Framed by nature, he stands objectively, disconnected from the ills of modernity. Wandering was to the Romantics a way of submerging oneself into Nature and into a world with infinite and unlimited potential. Gazing out into the immensity of modern life, one should learn that it is, at times, okay to ‘wander.’

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Casper David Friedrich: ‘Wanderer above the Sea Fog’, (1818)

I now realise how Wordsworth felt composing ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, sat peacefully on the banks of the River Wye. Nature and writing, I have found, have an interesting alliance. I have learned enough about myself to know how susceptible I become to claustrophobic environments, and how much this can stifle my creativity. Sometimes sitting alone on a park bench amidst a cluster of trees truly can, as Wordsworth said, allow us to ‘see into the life of things.’

As Rousseau observed as early as 1762, man may be born free, but in the 21st century, our chains, obscured by the flashes of our mobile phones, may not be visible. We are inescapably tied to an overcharged sense of responsibility to perform at our best, reach success, make as many connections and as much money as possible. We may just not realise it.

Perhaps what our society needs most is a Roussean call to ‘get back to Nature!’, for it is Nature that can provide clarity to an unintelligible world.

The Romantics felt that life was not always something to be analysed, but felt and experienced. Nature, in all its majesty, was an apt setting to contemplate how one could strive for something greater.

Of course, it is too late in the day for us all to flee to the mountains, but all humans do need an outlet. For the Romantics it was opium; for my generation its the hyper-escapism that digital connectivity, recreational drugs and binge drinking can afford. The antidote for the stresses of modern life shouldn’t have to be a rejection of responsibility, or a substance-induced oblivion, but a carefully planned, structured, period of escape. 

Allow yourself time, stillness and flexibility. Cultivate an environment where only your own thoughts pervade. Shake the pollution of the city and embrace the fresh air of the country. Plan a day where events can be unplanned and spontaneous. Turn off that bloody phone.

Accepting uncertainty is not surrendering. It is choosing to relinquish, if only momentarily, the planning, structure and insatiable drive that lies behind our success. 

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Portraits of the Past: the House of Bertolt Brecht

‘Hungry man; reach for the book: it is a weapon.’ 

They say you never really understand a person until you see where they have lived.

The house of Bertolt Brecht seemed wholly unremarkable from the outside. Tucked away on Chausseestraße in Mitte, a stone’s throw away from the Berliner Ensemble that Brecht and his wife Helene opened in 1949, I almost missed the house as I approached it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German theatre practitioner, playwright and, I recently discovered, a poet. Marxist and mastermind behind the genre of Epic Theatre, Brecht addressed contemporary issues through a didactic form of theatre that employed techniques to distance his audience from emotion and steer them towards analysis of his political messages.

During the period of World War II and the rise of Nazism, Brecht fled first to Scandinavia and later to the United States, returning to East Berlin after the end of the War. He spent the last three years of his life in this house. But this did not appear to be the home of an exile. 

Brecht’s house is arranged exactly as if he still lived. His possessions are minimal, but significant. Everything looks as if it had been placed there intentionally. A living museum.

Brecht and his wife Helene lived here together, albeit in separate apartments. After Brecht’s serial affairs, this is how they agreed to make it work.

The first of Brecht’s rooms acted as a space for reading. Brecht’s bookcase displayed literature on Communism, Fascism, Ancient philosophy, Confucianism, Buddhism, writers from around the world like William Faulkner, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare – a confluence of international influences arranged in the shelves and manifested into the space. On the wall is a portrait of Confucius himself gazing out at Brecht’s reading space – a visual anecdote for how Eastern philosophy often touched his plays with its influence. On a wooden table, a picture of Lenin, the most potent symbol of Brecht’s beliefs, resides.

A selection of three antique masks are displayed proudly on an adjacent wall, vying Confucious with their steely gaze. It’s said that these were some of the few possessions Brecht travelled with while in exile. When fleeing a country, you would suppose that you would travel light with only a few important items. Brecht considered these items essential, for what reason we don’t know. The unsolvable mystery behind the mask.

Brecht’s days were evidently coloured by travel, exile, political activism, but artistic promise, concepts that are vividly mirrored in his apartments. Brecht was a visionary. An individual that trusted art to make society a better place.

In contrast to the intimate domain of his reading room, his second study was a wide open space filled with light. I imagined it strewn with paper; Brecht pacing up and down the wooden floorboards, pipe in hand, gazing out at the magnolia tree. Pictures of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels occupy his writing desk, while the back wall is occupied by two biblical figures; their identity obscured by erosion. Every possession seemed to fit into a harmonious collage of influences – ideas and concepts that coloured both his life and work – occupying space in both his mind and his home.

In a corner of the room, a wooden table with various chairs and a sofa made of horse hair stood majestically. Brecht’s guests would be seated on this throne beneath the weighty stare of another, much larger, portrait of Confucious, while he would recline on a rocking chair. In Brechtian theatre, the physical level of an actor on stage could visually determine the status of their character. The poor would be on hands and knees at one with the dirt, while the rich would glide across the stage with importance, chins up, eyes raised. This image of Brecht stooped on a rocking chair before his guests reminded me of this. Brecht honoured his guests, their minds, their skills, and seemingly remained humble in their presence.

Brecht’s sense of minimalism, of only having important objects occupy his space, extends to his bedroom, the smallest of the rooms in his apartments. It looked, to my surprise, like a monk’s cell. A bed, not too comfortable, with three objects placed above its head, and a single Chinese portrait. A doubting man absorbed in thought. I felt like I had discovered a dimension of Brecht I never knew. A man who was almost monastic in discipline and contemplative in mind.

His wife’s bedroom downstairs suggested a contrast between their two personalities. Her life was arranged chaotically around her bed: heavy scripts laden with dust, pin cushions, pictures of her children, wild plants that loomed over the sheets, a television straight in front of the bedstead. Work and rest collided. It had a kind of minimalism, coloured by traces of the actress within her. The windows were framed by gilded wood of gold and green and weighty curtains resembling a proscenium arch stage.

Brecht and Helene’s garden was always green, square and trim, unoccupied by flowers or a vegetable patch, a symbol, perhaps for how everything in their house had to have a use, a sense of importance. Like the lifetime of influences Brecht chose to incorporate into his plays, Brecht and Helene chose their possessions with care, arranging their rooms with images of their life. Two people’s spaces in one home. Two parts of a whole. Two people that could not live together all the time, but made things work based on mutual artistic admiration.

So what brings us to the houses of the dead? Its simple, we seek to understand the context, the history, behind the great minds of literature. We seek to piece together their narratives and understand the influence that life and experience had to bear on the words they wrote.

Brecht’s house, now a ghosted vessel filled with emblems of the past, is a space where his presence is made palpable. I entered this building, sceptical of what a sparse collection of possessions could reveal about his person, and left feeling like I had climbed into his skin.

 

Germany & the Anxiety of Remembrance

I was walking in the vast forestland of Grunewald the other day, accompanied by someone who grew up in East Germany in the days of DDR. She spoke of how she was taught Russian in school but has now forgotten most of what she learnt. After losing the ability to remember her Russian education, she vowed to retain her English vocabulary. She remembers Germany as a country that, in her childhood, was divided by the territorial interests of foreign invaders. World War II (1939 – 1945) arguably set the stage for the Cold War (1947-1991), and the construction of The Berlin Wall, set across the landscape like an ugly scar, made Germany’s dissolution a tangible reality.

It was during this conversation that I realised how events of the last century still retain so much prominence in the lives of German people today. Forgetting is unimaginable. Treading through neat rows of trees heavy with leaves, my companion pointed out that they had all been planted, tall and straight like soldiers in a row, decades ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that much of this land had been obliterated in the Second World War by the Allies who littered the land with bombs: tearing out the trees by their roots and sewing seeds of destruction in their place.

Seventy years after WWII, it is estimated that more than 2000 tons of unexploded munitions are uncovered on German soil per year. Casting my mind back to a century ago, it is easy to imagine the curves of the Havel River shrouded in mist; the barks of the trees and the foundations of buildings reduced to ash and cinder.

To me, this newfound information was remarkable. Somehow I had never contemplated the probability that of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Germany by Allied aircraft, at least some of them would have failed to explode. It hadn’t occurred to me that while I was taking a pleasant afternoon walk in the forest, I was actually ambling across a minefield.

The discovery of bombs, and their safe detonation, is, I’m told, standard procedure in Germany. People will be digging in their gardens and will come across munition lying unsolicited in the ground. Being asked to leave your home in such an event is a daily menace – more of an inconvenience than a weighty cause for alarm.

While the East and West of Germany rose from the ashes of a ruined Reich, layers of unexploded bombs lay beneath its surface. An apt metaphor, I think, for how the legacy of the World Wars is still embedded in the soil, the foundations, of German society.

Berlin’s visual culture of remembrance is almost suffocating in its excess. Memorials to victims of National Socialism crowd the city. Each Museum inscribes guilt into the description of every artefact. Statues pertaining to power and national pride are, unlike other places in the world, notably absent. New reconstructions of buildings have in common an architecture that inspire little emotional response in their simple design. It all seems like one huge apology. This is a city who cares about the lessons of its past, and has its moral and educational mission inscribed in every last scrap of its stone.

Peter Eisenmann’s National Holocaust Memorial is emblematic of this mission. Placed strategically between the central crossing of Potsdamer Platz and Tier Garten, it is nigh impossible to ignore. One does not merely stumble upon it, but is accosted by its harrowing shapes that tower above street view. Constructed of 2711 large concrete slabs reminiscent of coffins, it demands to be interacted with. When walking through its narrow aisles, the coffins engulf you the deeper you go in. Children play hide and seek in this maze, their voices lost, like those of the dead, to the impersonality of stone.

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But how does a country truly repent for the heinous crimes of its past, and for how long? While the generation of individuals who survived Germany’s 1933-1945 Nazi era is dwindling by the day, Germany’s youth have now been passed the baton to bear the burdens of its past. And while the legacy of the Holocaust is still, as in Eisemann’s Memorial, at the forefront of everyone’s imagination, guilt is epidemic. Germany’s contrition is enshrined in law and written into the ‘federal government’s funding objectives.’ The World Wars take centre stage of every classroom history lesson. Education about more recent German history, like that of DDR, is forfeited in lieu of the remembrance of the deaths caused by the National Socialist regime.

This constant apology, this inability to forget, has seeped, I’m told, into current politics. After Hitler, the ‘you know who’ of the past century, the man who ostensibly cannot be named in conversation with anyone of German origin, all parties now choose to languish comfortably in the centre. Politics has become diluted, as neither Left or Right dare to express any views that may be considered ‘extremist.’

What does seem to be a consensus though is Germany’s willingness to talk about it. Far from labelling its past as taboo, Germany admits to its prior aggressive war politics, its responsibility for the World Wars and the crimes of National Socialism to such an extent that generations from now may still feel the weight of its legacy.

In February of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the nation’s guilt after Poland imposed a law that criminalised any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. This is ultimately just a war of words played out on the international stage. A petulant blame game. It’s not enough that Germany must apologise visually and rhetorically again and again. In the current view of the world, no reparation can be made.

But what is the future?

Germany must remember those who fell victim to the World Wars and to the Holocaust, as all countries should. The past should not be eradicated, but understood. Guilt should not be absolved, but transferred to its actual perpetrators – the last generation of Nazi criminals who will soon be lost to history.

While the young should have no guilt, they must, at least, have a view.

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Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin’s old coexists with its new. The city is still largely under construction, torn between its opposing agendas: commemoration of the past, and innovation for the future. The city centre, while laden in concrete, retains its beauty in a complex collage of remodelled pre-war structures and baroque architecture. Functionality collides with ornamentation. Berliner Dom and the Reichstag, recently reconstructed, maintain their pre-demolition splendour. On the East Side, creativity flourishes as artists continue to move into industrial spaces to practice their art. Older buildings lie in disrepair as vessels for rain and canvases for graffiti. Berlin’s monuments to the dead are located in the beating heart of the city, forming a part of Germany’s past and future.

To visit Berlin is to feel a part of the current of history. In language, in architecture, in memorials, this place seeks to repair the damage of the last century. While bombs may lie dormant beneath its surface, Germany’s sense of cultural responsibility, however, does not. How long must this country continue to repent? Only time will tell.

Language as Witness: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on his Kenyan heritage

“Thought for despair? No! I am part of a living struggle. And without struggle, there is no movement, there is no life.’

I was reading in the Guardian recently about the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Admittedly, I had never heard of him. Ngũgĩ was imprisoned without trial for a year in 1978, during which time he wrote his memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil.’ Quoted in the article is his longstanding belief that, ‘The theme of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal.’[1]

Ngũgĩ’s initial ‘crime’ was language. He wrote and staged a play, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (‘I will Marry When I Want’) in Gikuyu, his mother-tongue, choosing to employ local people with little money or experience as his stars. Scratching his memoir into the folds of prison toilet paper, Ngũgĩ outlines how his oppressors were ‘seeking some kind of confession’ of his guilt against the ruling order; an admission of his political ‘sins’ that were subversively inscribed in his memoir.

In the article, Ngũgĩ is quoted discussing his reasons for writing in Gikuyu and ceasing to write in English – a question often raised about his writing.

What Ngũgĩ describes is an exile from his own language, dating back to when Kenya was taken over by British settlers in the late 19th century, and a desire to reclaim it. He suggests how Africans have, throughout history, been colonised in every sense of the word: in life and in language. Ngũgĩ describes the slave trade, where individuals were forced to surrender their language, even their own individual names, by their white colonisers.

Words inscribe identity. One’s own language is connected to an origin. Relinquish language and we relinquish our sense of self. While Ngũgĩ wears his own language like a badge of honour, he discusses how some Africans view it as a shroud of shame.

It’s clear to me even now that English is a colonising force, with a lot of countries seeking to resist its pervasion into their native language. Even in Europe, I am viewed to many as a coloniser, seeking to pollute language with my English tongue. Whether we like it or not, we still hold the weight of our colonial history in each word that we speak.

Writing in Gikuyu was Ngũgĩ’s statement against enforced colonisation by other languages. Only his mother tongue is apt to bear witness to his persecution.

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Language inescapably ‘bears witness.’ It becomes infused with the authority of history and experience. Terms become loaded with associations, fraught with connections to suffering. It is for this reason that Theodor Adorno (German philosopher and sociologist) said, and I quote in translation, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’

This is a difficult phrase, even more so in German, even more so taken out of context. But my interpretation of this is that language becomes loaded; impressed upon by people and cultures held at ransom. Adorno thought that language after such periods becomes inadequate to express such horror. To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of ‘monuments’ (in this case, poetry) is to participate in the perpetuation of that ‘barbaric’ culture. But what does this mean for language?

If to write is somehow to participate in barbarism, then is not to write to abstain from guilt?

In another article from The Guardian, Ngugi wa Thiongo’ describes the sight of ‘men, women and children in a convoy of barbed-wired lorries being forcibly relocated from their lands to make room for white settlers. They sang a sorrowful melody, but one that described their love and solidarity in hardship.’[2] He was ten years old.

History lives in language, in song and in melody. Inscribed in the barbed-wire lettering of caged men, women and children and the gates of Auschwitz.

A writer engraves his or her own identity in their words. Choosing to write in Gikuyu was the beginning of Ngũgĩ’s conception of himself as differing from the white writer’s self-image. Embracing his African origin is testimony to how language, used in the right conditions and for the right purpose, can be an assertion of power and agency.

Ngũgĩ writes: ‘I return again and again, in person, and in my writing, for the same reason that I have clung to my Kenyan passport, like a religious relic, that reminds me of the unfulfilled dream the caged men and women once sung about.’[3]

Words can, literally, get lost in translation. I will be reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil’. Perhaps not in its authentic language, but with authentic empathy and interest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Information and quotation informed by this article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/12/ngugi-wa-thiongo-wrestling-with-the-devil-interview
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/09/exile-kenya-home-moi-dictatorship
[3] Ibid.