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.

What silence did for me

 

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It’s hot. My first of Germany’s intense and unrelenting Summers. I feel a silence within me that wavers between peace and ecstasy. It is the silence of lightning diffused by rain. 

I’m sat on a rooftop at sunset, watching the heat seep into the concrete. Up here, the angles of Berlin’s skyline can be observed in their entirety. I watch as the city’s shades of beauty reveal themselves slowly over the changing light of the evening. The buildings are stripped of their sheen; each prism of light revealing their imperfections. I could have been up there for days.

It is through lasting images such as these that we connect ourselves to a time and place. I close my eyes and envision rows of pristine white, post-war houses with gilded balconies; disused buildings anticipating reconstruction; metal tramlines; cycle paths bearing a range of cyclists, some clad in thermals, others with shopping piled high in their baskets; flea markets yielding goods of old boots; exotic handmade jewellery and books with torn pages; local bakeries stocked with crisp rolls and dark rye; underground clubs with graffiti branded across every entrance; elderly couples enjoying cups of coffee across red checked tablecloths. Berlin’s spirit of change and enterprise is palpable. You can do little else but internalise it. 

In six short months, I have nearly perished in Berlin’s deathly cold – never before has my skin been touched by such biting temperatures – and witnessed the lateness of Spring. With time to spare and a mind clear enough to contemplate my surroundings, I have seen the seasons come and go so fleetingly. Snow gave way gracefully to budding flowers, withered branches grew heavy with a sudden fostering of leaves, and I too emerged from spiritual hibernation. I watched as the city came alive. 

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Graefestraße, Kreuzberg

With the first flowers of Spring came the first fleet of tourists, scurrying about the city in any available site like ants near a fruit bowl. I hear you smirking at my confidence to exclude myself from the definition of ‘tourist’, but how long does one have to be resident in a country before identifying oneself as part of it?

From the rooftop, one can cast their eye over the landscape and imagine a city decimated by War and rebuilt from the ashes. Over the horizon, I picture Hackescher Markt, now a thriving scene of commerce, desperate and despondent in its post-war gloom; the crumbling buildings, broken streets and concrete slabs graced only by the life of tangled weeds; the beauty and violence beneath our feet. 

This is a city who still sleeps with one eye open. The legacy of war is what Berlin climbs into the sheets with at night. It is the monster at the bottom of the bed. The city has been constructed anew, with every last brick a tangible emblem of what they can’t forget. 

Yet amidst the rubble, this divided city became worthy of aesthetic attention. Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin allows its old to coexist with its new. It is a mass canvas of mixed material. Berlin’s task was not to cover and conceal, but to find a way of incorporating the past into the fabric of the future. Stagnation shifted, and reconstruction inspired a new way of seeing. 

In art nothing ever stands still, and Berlin proves it. At every street corner, workmen whistle as they emerge from newly constructed buildings, caked in plaster. The sad frames of disused warehouses brandish banners of images indicating what future form it will take. Baroque architecture maintains its majesty above street view, incorporated into newfound buildings that welcome commerce as a medium for change. Functionality collides with ornament; modernity with history. Art and architecture become the chisel with which Berlin carves itself a fresh identity. I see myself reflected in every new sheet of glass. 

Of course, places can offer you the illusion of feeling changed, or enlightened in some way. They absorb you in a swell of activity, addressing your feelings of anonymity with opportunities for communion with others. There’s a reason why backpackers return with a new set of values to match their post-travelling ponytails. They establish a new sense of self away from routine that reflects their surroundings. Liberation becomes woven into every last strand of dredlocked hair. 

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Sredzkistrasse, Prenzlauer Berg

 

There were nights when I could walk out into the city and forget I was anywhere. I had no shackles. But with an absence of responsibility came an absence of connectivity. Sometimes I felt like I could walk the streets and each house would turn their lights off one by one. No lamp would illuminate the glass allowing me to see my reflection. No flicker of a candle could offer me a nightcap. 

I was alone. The lack of light was just a tangible reminder. I could wade through a throng of people and not one soul would speak. I could be submerged in a sea of faces and still feel all alone.

These were moments where one solitary night can feel like permanent seclusion. I had to learn how to situate myself mentally in nowhere. I learned to inhabit loneliness.

It’s that time again: re-entering the job market

Perhaps it’s a dangerous thought, but I have to ask myself daily, ‘could I be anymore content?’ I get to spend my days walking the most beautiful streets, hanging out in cafes or parks; reading, writing, contemplating. I have time to myself. Time to enjoy not rushing from one place to the next. And yet, I have the overwhelming feeling that this is the most free I will ever be. 

It’s about that time again where I have to think about the direction that my life is taking me in. In two months I will be unemployed, again. I will have to face the depressing graduate landscape, where every organisation brandishes a banner reading ‘No room at the inn.’ I will have to face those feelings of inadequacy that I’ve dispensed of since being in Berlin. Reapplying for jobs means reentering the Rat race.

Yesterday I started going over my CV again, scolding myself for the fact that I haven’t spent a year as a journalist, civil servant, lawyer-in-training, or any of these other professional careers that I used to fancy for myself. I slept last night, badly, thinking about the nine-to-five desk job calling me, its wood scratching my fingernails and splintering my skin as I resist its pull. I’m holding onto Berlin and what it has symbolised for me personally – freedom, stillness, balance – with dear life. I fear that fighting the hoards of graduates just like myself for a single job will only derail me.

Not everyone can function on a hamster-wheel. While I have often tried to imagine myself climbing up the career ladder to reach the pot of gold of success, I’ve realised that I just can’t. I don’t have the stamina. So if not nine-to-five, if not working in administration or management or business, what else is there for me? The job market in England rendered me tired and disillusioned. I felt unskilled, worthless, betrayed by a system that propagates education as the sole ticket to success. I felt like I had nothing to offer any job, creative or otherwise.

For years, I have situated my future life in London. There’s a reason why this city is one of the most desired places to visit in the world. It’s vibrant, fast-paced, full of opportunity. It attracts the young and enterprising with its strong sense of individualism. It weaves each person into a romantic narrative of advancement: ‘young entrepreneur seeking success in the big city.’ It makes you feel part of a whole – a super-charged machine at the forefront of world advancement.

But its atmosphere is also oppressive. Floods of people get on and off the tube at ridiculous hours of the day, music booming through their headphones. Melody becomes a fugue to accompany the bitter march to their desks. Coffee becomes the taste in everyone’s mouths. Exhaustion permeates through office walls. People often seem tired, sickly. We are here for one purpose and one purpose only: to work, and to stay alive.

Perhaps this sounds dramatic. Perhaps I sound work-shy. But really, I am just trying to understand how we got here.

Coming to Germany has been a valuable experience in how other countries live. While Berlin, as a thriving economic capital of business and commerce, obviously has aspects of its working environment that are similar to London, it seems a little more free. A lot of my friends work full-time, but they have contracts that offer more flexible, sociable hours. It’s more common than not that I meet people who are freelance, who work several different jobs trying to pursue creative careers, or who work part-time and are still able to cover their bills. And this is deemed ok – normal in fact. Berlin’s prices, while rising, are significantly cheaper than London. People have disposable cash to build livelihoods. Artistic jobs are as highly prized and sought after as economic, or business-related ones. Naively, I suggest that Berliners have cracked it. People know how to enjoy working-life without the blood, sweat and tears.

For the first time, I’m realising that a life like this is entirely possible, and more importantly, justifiable. I no longer want to have to explain to myself and others that I don’t want to live my life enslaved by a desk. Despite the odds, I can’t help but suggest that there must be something more than this.

It seems that modern people have emptied themselves of their dreams. People frequently snigger at my desires to become a writer, or even to work in a job that allows me to practice creativity.

In an ideal world, I will have a job that’s varied and enjoyable, that affords me structure, discipline, the option to advance, but also freedom of mind and creativity. It’s about time that I returned to the job market, not to skin myself alive and plague my thoughts with encroaching feelings of fear or inadequacy, but to challenge myself to find a life that I want to live.

It is possible. I want to believe that this is so.

What People Don’t Tell You About Travelling:

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And where to find a friendly face

In a city I do not yet

Know how to love.

Some days are not that exciting:

Often you wake up and the clouds are heavy with rain. Sightseeing doesn’t seem all too appealing. You’re saturated with information from countless museums and exhibitions. You’ve met that same person for coffee twice already, and you feel foolish asking for a third. You’ve mastered how to spend time alone and are craving contact, but finding a friendly face in a large city is a task too overwhelming to bear.

Today is that day for me. Admittedly, I have wasted time this morning not knowing where to be or what to do. And the only rational answer is just to give in.

Settling into a new place is tough and it’s only today that I’m realising the gravity of that statement. Like at home, some days will seem like they are lacking in excitement and productivity. Often, I feel lazy. I berate myself for not taking complete advantage of my freedom to travel and immerse myself in everything, but then I remember that I am here for six months, not six days. Not every day has to be jam-packed with activity. Some days you will need to recharge.

Part of finding my balance, improving my mental health and opinion of myself, was taking the pressure off myself to constantly be achieving.

Tell yourself in these moments of self-doubt that time is in abundance. If today is not the day that you order your coffee in the native language, or learn to stand on your head in yoga, then tomorrow will be.

Not everything is always at your fingertips:

There is countless material online about what to do in your country of choice: classes to join, people to meet, things to see. The internet makes everything seem so accessible. You can type in a key word and millions of results pop up, beckoning you to click on them.

Being research-savvy is essential and takes practice. Admittedly I have not yet found the knack. I have spent whole mornings wading through a whole host of sites looking for yoga classes, language-speaking classes etc. only to find out that they are miles away, or perhaps not to my preference.

Some days, you will feel out of the loop.

Often, I have found word of mouth to be the most effective means of finding relevant information. Facebook groups such as ‘Free advice Berlin’ and ‘Girl-Gone International’ have become my best friend here. You can post any number of info requests from where to buy house plants, to how best to negotiate with a medical professional as an international person, to suggesting an idea for a meet-up in a specific area. I’ve learnt that people like to help and I have made connections as a result.

You are fundamentally the same person you were when you left home:

Travel brings perspective, and I’ve certainly had a large dose of that since temporarily moving to Berlin. I see certain aspects of myself in a new light, and have already conquered minor personal fears, but ultimately, I am the same person as I was when I left. I still have the same fears and anxieties, stresses and insecurities.

A change in geography does not relieve you of all emotional baggage. You may feel liberated, but parts of you will still labour with the weight of thoughts and feelings you had back home. This has been an important lesson to me.

An experienced traveller knows that, in any location, there will be good and bad days. There will be days where you have to affirm your purpose. Mine was to learn how to exist out of planning and structure, learning how to just ‘be’.

Don’t reduce this time by attempting to squeeze activity into each day. Just ‘being’, not ‘doing’, is important progress to make too.