Sunday, November 29, 2009

Pictures, Words, Breath

For the last time I am in a cafe in Berlin on a Sunday morning writing. My stay is quickly coming to an end. The day after tomorrow I board a train for the UK. Of course, things feel like they are just coming together as always happens in a new place just when its time to leave.

I know people and am meeting new people in the randomest of ways. Like yesterday. I was walking down a street I have been down many times taking pictures of the new graffiti, or things I had not photographed before. This was at the end of a day spent in Museums seeing exhibitions of the ancient world, both here in Eurasia and in the New World. The light was waning and so my camera decided it needed to use flash to get a well realized graffiti saying “brew art” on either side of the doorway of a local watering hole.

The flash surprised me. I did not think it would go off, but it did, and when I looked in the camera’s screen I realized the flash was visible as a bright star in the bar’s window. Yikes. I was embarrassed for the people inside who got flashed straight on and I did not like the picture. So I stood to a side and tried again, hoping this time the flash would not be an annoyance to whomever was in the bar.

Afterwards I went across the street to document some tags, before crossing back to look at the pieces of representative art scattered among youth scrawls on the wall next to the bar. As I was getting to the sidewalk, a blond man with a crew cut and intense look looked at me and said “hello”. I answered him and he asked tensely what I was doing photographing the graffiti, my flash had shocked the people in the bar, and he wanted to know what my purpose was.

OK. I was nervous. I know I did not like it when I saw the Google Earth people outside my house taking pictures nor when I have seen other strangers drive up, get out, and photograph houses on the street. I take note. The behavior seems purposive and the purposes are not those of ordinary people living in the neighborhood.

I was going down the street systematically documenting the tags and wall art for me with a thought to maybe develop a lecture for my 1010 class on the issue. The stuff has come to fascinate me. I have searched online for material and found a lot. For example this neighborhood, that around Helmholzplatz, decided to commission art for store fronts and walls from prominent graffiti artists some four years ago. These are people who are making a career out of their history of graffiti and have moved into a kind of mainstream. They even give workshops for children on graffiti making. Some of them have their own websites. The community proudly documented the art online and spoke about how it gives character to the neighborhood and has a website on the project.

This bar front was not listed as being part of the project though. And it is surrounded by scrawled writing with small, occasional representations. Yesterday I found a manifesto on a wall challenging representation and wall art. It said to write. That it was better to be a writer than a sprayer (evidently those who do representation). While I doubt these terms are fixed, the manifesto showed a tension in the community between those who do “wall art”, i.e. representation, and those who write. I also see another tension between those who consider themselves artists and produce work they wish to display for some advantage, often profit, and those whose tags have a motive that is less aesthetic and more one of claiming space and publics, recognizing themselves and their friends, their crew.

This complexity is what I saw on that wall. And this is what I said to the man. I told him I was an American who was fascinated by the culture and complexity of graffiti here in Berlin. That here it was not just an illegal art, but had been institutionalized. He asked me what I meant and I pointed to his bar entrance.

He then told me that he has had that for several years and that over time it was damaged. If I understood right he acquired the bar with the entrance art. So he spoke to the woman across the street and hired her son to fix the art. He did a good and careful job, the man said. It is so different from all the tags on the other walls. Every six months the neighborhood requires people to paint their walls, thus removing the “mess”. He said there was a big difference. What he had on his bar entrance was “graffiti” the rest was just youth gangs smearing the wall.

Wow! It’s just as if I was doing ethnography, which I really am not but I guess habits die hard. Without meaning too, I had found an informant and an entree into a community. I told him my name and asked his. He said his name was M. (I am not going to put that up because I posted the photo with this post and so it becomes public and I do not have his permission to use his name. )

M. then continued telling me that if I was really interested in graffiti I should go to a street paralleling that of the East Side Gallery, which he said was nothing as he quickly went on to tell me I should check out the street. Those people are really good and they often hold workshops. M. said I should come back and visit his bar. I will give you some really good Bavarian beer, he said, as we shook hands and I walked home to download my pictures.

Here I am getting ready to leave Berlin, trying to tie up in my mind a very complex experience and my feelings about a wonderful city with a labyrinthine present and a troubled by amazing past. I cannot do so. Instead new doors appear and open, showing me more.

No matter what, my fascination with graffiti which is far more than a Berlin art-- it is a global art with a peculiar Berlinish way of embedding it in society -- will be a big part of my memory. I did not have to pay attention to it. My stay in Berlin could have focused on so many other things. I feel that I have not spent nearly enough time getting to know the very large and diverse Turkish community. Berlin holds one of the largest segments of the Turkish diaspora. Every day I have interacted with Turks, and have almost always liked them.

They have mosques, community centers, art, poetry, music, most of which I have only been briefly exposed to. I would love to explore their community and its ties across the world more. There is a global Turkish diaspora and I had friends in graduate school who were part of it and another friend who wrote her dissertation about Turks. There is a festival coming up celebrating Berlin as the hot bed for creating art that has an impact in Istanbul. This was a theme of the outstanding display of Islamic art at the Martin Gropius Bau that I visited earlier this week.

The Martin Gropius Bau is along side on of the last remaining stretches of the wall. Yeah, that wall, though there are many wall nearby keeping people in and out, including walls around Turks in a diasporic community. Though walls often have portals, controlled crossings, and even broken spaces where people can go past them.

I read online about anarchist Turkish youths rioting with German youths in celebration of May day. Evidently rioting is a Berlin tradition, another thing I have not seen and do not know.

The Bau is a magnificent, ornate building that was heavily damaged during the war and has been restored to its splendor. It contains various exhibitions of art. I went to the one on Islamic art. It focused on contemporary art, although it located it in Islamic tradition.

I saw a small film of women fully veiled taking pictures of the group of blue covered women, one by one, until everyone had their picture of blue cloth around mounds of women. A brilliantly realized piece, it challenged notions of representation in art and posed the question, at least I took the question, of why we photograph and what we expect to carry away when we take pictures. There were no faces, no eyes, only hands and veils, but in the taking of pictures, I saw friendship and love of which the women were making documents as they, in turn, snapped.

Another film was about a Turkish transsexual or transvestite (I was never clear which if it even matters) who makes her living on the streets of Geneva but who misses her mother and hasn’t seen her since she was a boy from a town in Turkey. The film portrayed her strongly mixed feelings of love and memory, longing for her mother’s love, not finding that but a stranger when she spoke to her mother after decades, and the power of the new family she has built in Geneva of similar Turkish residents of the city. The film was less about gender than place and family. It called standard definitions into question as it portrayed being Turkish in a different land.

On one wall, lines from Orham Pamuk, the great Turkish writer and professor at Columbia University, were written in various languages. They said:

I tend to think I am a picture, when really all I am is words, because when I am letters I think I am a picture, and when I am a picture I think I am letters.”

I was very moved by these lines and read them over and over, especially in the context of Islamic art, where there are complex feelings around representation because of a ban some claim on such from God, while there is also a while history of pictoric art. However, there is also a great tradition of script. Letters mean more, they have mystical meaning, than simply a means of representing speech. They tie into the origins, and especially the words of God spoken to Mohammad by the Angel Gabriel in a cave.

The guide to the show says the following about the display: it “refers to the physical gesture connected with the first letter of the alphabet, ‘Alif’. The Alif constitutes the breath that precedes all speech, a letter that has no sound of its own, and yet determines all vocal, articulatory activity, Mystic tradition associates the ‘Alif’ with the breath of the Eternal One, before the latter created the world.

I loved the circularity in Pamuk’ words. They resist any essentialism, even that of the Alif, though they make room for that Alif that is prior to speech and pictures.

There is so much to learn in Berlin. I have only begun, and my time is almost over.

My nature is not one that combines easily with museums or any panoptic view for that matter. I tend to run into something, be captured by it, and not see anything more, even if I discipline myself to look at everything. My mind is gone. My back starts hurting. I want to walk, for a long distance, preferably through a cool breeze, and let my mind absorb what captured it while my feet churn and my skin stings.

Because of its Imperial past, Berlin is a maze of museums. They are great museums with some of the most impressive collections on earth. They are also troubled by their story of war, conquest, power, colonialism, romanticism, exploitation, and so on. They carry in their guts the destruction and rape of World War II and its denouement. The collections carry pain and violence in every bas relief, every pot sherd, every Adonis.

But I made myself go. After going to the Martin Gropius Bau, I bought a three day pass for the State Museums and started going. Despite the shrieking in my head from too much dissonance, the collections are amazing and I recommend them. I shall not detail them. Having my camera, and being allowed to photograph--without flash--the exhibits helped me, as did watching people look at the displays and trying to take their picture in low light.

Highlights: Turning a corner and seeing a marble head so well executed that you want to take it to coffee and hope its breath will return and it can tell you stories before you sign on to friend it and start emailing back and forth. A temple wall from Jordan whose stone carving is so similar to the slightly later baroque carving on various church facades in Bolivia I had to scratch my head and pinch myself, because this was Jordan and not Bolivia and it was from a long time ago, though the German Emperor got permission to remove the temple walls to a museum in Berlin. Massive walls placed in new worship and yet witnessing to the powers of many earlier globalizations. Seeing a part of the original stone work at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and realizing how tightly Catholicism is tied into the ancient world and its art and style.

I saw scrolls, even ancient papyrus scrolls, a bust of Cleopatra that could almost speak, next to a green bust of Julius Caesar whose eyes were white and frightening. But I had to leave the museum to find breath, though the museums are temples of the transcendent that tie so deeply into state power. Ouch.

My feet trod Berlin’s pavement and my eyes looked at people, living people with pounding hearts who would not stay still for my eyes. I tried to take pictures, but could not get as close as to Cleopatra. They did not stay still. A composition would appear before me and then change before I could snap.

Between the bridge over the Spree that goes to Museum Island and Hackescher Markt I suddenly saw two young men standing before me, not unlike the statues posed in the museum, yet they moved. They were staring at each other in that way that shows a connection that is not that of words. I reached for my camera. They were in public and I could take a picture though I never could capture what was going between them. The breath of the first letter.

They moved together, before my camera came to my eyes, and kissed, delicately, intensely. I put my camera down. I could not snap the picture. But I wanted their picture, so I turned back and took pictures of them standing there, smoking, looking at each other with no words passing.

I took pictures of another man, standing in front of a dump truck pouring asphalt onto the newly emptied bed of the street. I snapped again as another man came into frame from out of a bookstore nearby, As if drawn to each bother by invisible threads they hugged, pelvises to the side. I snapped. They separated and talked. I snapped. It was not the same.

I walked to the train station, and under the tracks saw a group of young people, dressed in a rough, punkish edge. I snapped. I was going to move on, but I snapped once more as two friends shook hands, with their girlfriends around them, a bright look of warmth in the one young man’s eyes that shows in the picture.

He must have seen me snap, because I walked down by the side of the station and left them. Later they came by saw me taking pictures and made a point of flipping me off. Yes, it was violent, but was it any more violent than my taking their image at a deeply personal moment of acknowledging friendship, even if in public.

How am I any different than the Rom boy who goes through the train car, followed by his sister or mother playing a melody on the accordion and accompanying it with the only chord she knows in a dirge like harmony that keeps going and going with no change until fresh again. He went person to person to ask for coins. They made a minimal offering of music, far different from the two man by Alez’platz who performed a Bach prelude and Fugue with professional aplomb and panache as a duet on accordions. I snapped them too. But the boy grows up learning to ask for coins, requiring a petrification of so much. I snapped him when I left the museum and he was the one with the accordion on the bridge, but he wanted two Euros for me to take another picture of him, so I did not.

It is now after noon. People are coming into the street. I think I shall go check out the street Martin told me about, before finding a cafe to write on my book. But before closing I want to write about Friday night.

Susan and Frank asked me to come to dinner. Susan made fondue and they invited their friend Anne who had accompanied us to a jazz concert a couple of weeks ago. The concert, in the majestic and angular philharmonic hall left me hardly able to sleep that night from its grandeur and majesty. It never ceases to amaze me how musicians can take a relatively simple riff and improvise on it for thirty or forty minutes at a time, producing something akin to one of the grandiose symphonies of earlier musicians whose works are still performed in this hall and for which it was built, also as part of a state celebrating itself.

We sat around the small table in Frank’s living room, dipping bread and sausages into the cheese over the small flame. We talked. We laughed. We philosophized. Frank told about his experience in yoga and his work as a coach helping people. He believes strongly in the need to find a way between materialism and spiritualism.

As the hours grew past the first hour to later small numbers, we looked at each other and realized how much we enjoyed the evening. “Why haven’t we done this before?” was the question in the air.

The answer was obvious. It takes time to know people. Time to build trust. Time to make friendships. We are not two dimensional tags on walls, nor fractured busts in the museums, we are letters, pictures, and Alif. It takes time.

The time has happened. We ate breakfast together this morning, dark bread, butter, plum jelly, cheese, salami, and tea, as we talked about how they are helping a friend move today and what I need to do before i can leave. They have welcomed me into their world. Time has happened.

And I shall leave. Frank asked if we would see each other again before I leave, along with the other question will you come back. Anne and Susan had said the night before, you must come back, that is far easier than all of us getting together in the United States. They have their meditation group Monday night and Frank will not be home until late. I asked where I should leave the key when I leave Tuesday morning and he showed me the nail to hang it on. And, I promised to be there Monday evening to say my good byes.

I shall leave, but I carry Berlin inside. Whether fate brings me back or not, I have been touched by this eternal city and it will always be part of my future. Unlike Mr. Kennedy, speaking at the Schöneberg Rat House in a divided Berlin, I am not a Berliner; Berlin has taken up residence in me.


A.S, Bruckstein Coruh, taswir pictorial mappings of islam and modernity: comments on the exhibition rooms. Berlin: Martin Gropius Bau.

Roma Boy

Prelude to a Finger

Hello My Friend

Postlude to a Kiss

No comments:

Post a Comment