Painting Berlin

Berlin is a geometric concrete powerhouse of triangles and squares. The stickers that adorn every Soviet surface advertise grunge bands, art shows, quasi-philosophical and geopolitical ideas. I feel like I should be wearing some sort of double denim, listening to Bowie on a walkman, and stomping amongst the hypodermic needles and trash strewn streets in Doc Martins. But these are all things which the East Germans wouldn’t have had in the 1980s unless they bought them ‘under-the-counter’. I thought Berlin would feel rich and prosperous, but it didn’t. Yet, they’re obviously aware of their city’s ugliness, as you cannot take a picture without a crane in shot. Slowly, it seems, they are demolishing the agonies of the past and rebuilding in humble glory.

The East Side Gallery is what remains standing of the original Berlin Wall from 1989. It stands in situ, covered in paintings, with messages of harmony and peace daubed upon it in bright colours. Many murals now feature an almost obligatory ‘Fuck Trump’ message. Understandable given the American President’s ‘build a wall’ campaign, which was a particularly cruel barb to press upon a freshly healed wound – scabbed in concrete. 

The wall could be seen as a metaphor for hate (albeit nuanced) that has been transformed into a monument for peace and tolerance. But personally, any message about The Wall or conveyed by The Wall, cannot be simple. Or indeed any message about the war or the split wrought on the country by British, American, French and Russian forces or the conflict of communism vs. capitalism. For whilst the paintings in their simplicity may speak of reunification – they cannot truly monument a period of history so difficult to categorise or describe. Perhaps the plain grey of the concrete would have been a better tribute – a more melancholy mirror for the city. This monolithic surface could stare in ambiguity over the capital. But a lot Berlin’s architecture is unvarying concrete. So perhaps you can forgive the garish murals. Art, after all, is it’s own therapy.

The greatest architectural mishap (according to those that apparently know) is the Sputnikesque T.V. tower at Alexander Platz. It is referred to as ‘God’s Revenge’ because it was built in East Berlin after the destruction of so many churches (there’s little space for religion in communism). But I have a bit of a soft spot of the disco-ball come barbershop pole design. There is, after all, a revolving restaurant at the top and whilst I didn’t have time to visit, I promise, next time Berlin, I will. And I’ll use it as the East German’s obviously did – to spy on others.

Yet Berlin can be beautiful. We took a walk one indigo evening, a friend and I, to hunt out authentic German cuisine. To the west, the clouds bubbled clementine like a bucks-fizz and eastward the skies deepen to a velvety black. Stars frittered to life like sparks from struck flints. We walked amongst sculptural fountains raining clean water, and small parks hemmed with silver railings.

Eventually, we spied our destination of beer and pork and spatzl. The portions were huge, and devoured enthusiastically. The couple beside us told us there was only one way to finish the evening and that was with schnapps and caraway. So we eagerly ordered up and downed the fiery liquid with a speckle of seeds. Afterwards, we tumbled down a grand arcade and looked for ice cream.

Perhaps looking wasn’t quite right, we’d seen it on the way – but you can never just order ice-cream, you always have to peruse the flavours first. I chose Apple strudel and salted-caramel ice cream and we perched on the cast-iron chairs outside the gelato parlour to devour our prize. Above us, the glow of pink light reached us from a wedding-cake apartment on the fourth floor. The light revealed the back of a wooden chair and a few abstract paintings hung on the wall. The balcony door was slightly ajar, and a soft human humming could be heard from within. It was night and all I could think of was soft sheets and bedtime stories. Berlin could be beautiful.

Later we had currywurst. This ubiquitous street-side snack is, to my surprise, nothing like the British curry and chips. It is instead, a sweet tomato sauce dusted with a fine coating of curry powder. Usually, it is also served with mayonnaise. There is one thing about cuisine in Berlin and that is: if you want to eat traditionally, you’ll have a hard time avoiding pork.

Unfortunately, the European apocalypse of the second world war means that a tour of Berlin’s museums is a tour of pain and horror through its murky past. Berlin’s orchestration of the treatment of Jewish people throughout Europe means the Jewish Museum is one of the most visited in the city, and quite rightly. Aside from the impressive curatorial team, the Libeskind designed building is one of the best examples of space curating subject. And what I mean by that is: that the building itself communicates messages of displacement, fear, and murder – just as the items do. Space itself tells stories of The Holocaust, of prejudice, of ghettoisation and the constant displacement of people. It is a journey of claustrophobia which plays with light and dark.

The building is technically broken into three distinct strands: the Axis of Holocaust, Exile and Community. I add community to the end of that list as if it is a salve, but really it is the heart of the museum; it’s the kosher matzo-balls and chicken soup of pass-over, the red-thread that stretches back millennia; it is love and family. It creates a continuity of stories that thrive from desert to diamond district.

The Void Room’s floor is littered with iron faces, contorted as if tortured. This is the thought-piece of Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman who says it represents the victims of war. The metal clangs and clacks underfoot, like trains on the track to Auchwitch, or the chains of slaves dragged across a concrete floor. When you visit, your first impulse is to walk forward, towards the darkness, over these faces, but this very movement makes you question your actions. Is the forward projection of your physical body a metaphorical comment on those that disregarded human life in times of cruellest war? Did Kadishman manage to turn us into the criminals he criticised? I stared at the faces trampled under my feet. Even if I walked carefully, their clanging screams still rang out beneath me.

The Holocaust tower (the first two pictures above) is a quadrilateral void in the museum space. It consists of an extreme acute angle into which the viewer can walk and experience its claustrophobic embrace. Above from which, a slither of light glares into the room like the harsh beam of a Gestapo interrogation light or hope in the darkness.

What does it feel like to be Jewish? This is the question much of this exhibition seeks to answer. Before the creation of Israel, after the Second World War, they were always a people dispossessed of geography. The Garden of Exile shows us how this might feel. Indeed, there are many playground like features to the garden: the sloping ground, the towering concrete posts, the thrill of exploring. But the atmosphere is quiet and thoughtful. Where shadows don’t reign, the hot sun dapples the ground – dispersed by olive trees far above. You feel uncomfortable, lost, claustrophobic and yet there is peace.

The Story of Berlin is another fabulous museum which charts the history of the bear city from it’s founding 800 years ago, through its numerous wars, to the fall of The Wall. There was almost no-one at this museum unlike the DDR, although they were both equally as interesting and well curated.

Overall, I was exhausted by the city. Never had I felt museum tiredness like I did in Berlin. Am I getting too old? Was I just trying to see too much? I lay on my bed back at the hotel reeling in fatigue and glancing through the fabulous mini-biographies of Berlin inhabitants by Rory McLean. I should have read this book before I left, but I didn’t. But I know I’ll be back. Berlin has so much to offer.

Berlin Map
The East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery
Stickers on highway sign
The Skyline by the East Side Gallery
The East Side Gallery
The Berlin Wall
Alexander Platz
Alexander Platz
Upper West Building, Berlin
The Upper West Building in Berlin
East Berlin
East German Market
Jewish Museum Berlin
The Holocaust Tower
Jewish Museum Berlin, void room
The Void Room
Jewish Museum Berlin
The Jewish Museum
DDR Museum, elderberry soup with dumplings
The DDR Experience
The story of Berlin, tribant
The Story of Berlin
Museum Island

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