Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Bookstore of my dreams

The bookstore landscape in Berlin has changed a lot over the past decade, with a number of smaller local shops closing unless they cater to a specific neighborhood clientele, most often children. By far the city's most happening bookstore is the massive Dussmann Kulturkaufhaus (culture department store) on Friedrichstraße just a block from the S-bahn/U-bahn station. Dussmann is huge (75,000 sq. ft. according to its website) and stays open delightfully late—10 a.m. to midnight every day but Sunday. This massive bookstore sports remainder tables, CDs, foreign-language books, gift trinkets, and all the chain-y charm of a Barnes & Noble. What it doesn't have is a particularly good selection of literary books. If what you want is poetry, fiction beyond the mainstream, and a good selection of books on philosophy, sociology and other "academic" fields, the best place to go is clearly the Autorenbuchhandlung at Carmerstraße 10 just off Savignyplatz. They have the largest selection of poetry I've seen anywhere in Berlin—shelves and shelves of it—and the staff is well-read and happy to chat books with you.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Silliest Holocaust memorial; loveliest

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe was preceded by over a decade of controversy. From the beginning it was clear that whatever got built on the tract of land reserved for the purpose just a block away from the Brandenburg Gate would become the highest-profile memorial in the country. (Originally a less prominent site had been chosen, but the government was soon shamed into upgrading the location by accusations that it wished to tuck the memorial away out of sight.) Many artists and architects competed for the honor of designing the memorial, but in the end so many different interest groups and political factions had a say in choosing the final design that it came as no surprise that the winning model was bland, a compromise. No one I know ever liked the sound of Eisenman’s proposal; but it was only when it was standing there as a fact on the ground that it became clear how utterly awful a plan it was. Basically, this block of dark-gray rectangular poured-concrete “Stelen” or pillars arranged on a grid crisscrossed by walkways is just a big fake-stone playground where you inevitably wind up playing hide-and-seek with people you’ve never seen before. Eisenman’s idea was that visitors to the memorial would get lost among its tall pillars and suffer the feelings of isolation and cut-off-ness
experienced by those interned in concentration camps. He wanted, he said in an interview in 2005 when the memorial was unveiled, for people “to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they had never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling.” Nothing of the sort is the case. Walking among these pillars, you are surrounded by the multilingual chatter of other visitors, and the constant danger of bumping head-on into someone else (there are intersections every meter or two) makes people walk with comical caution, peeping around each corner as they arrive. At least on a sunny day, it’s all a bit jolly, and anyone who manages to remember those who died in Bergen-Belson or Auschwitz while playing peek-a-boo like this does so only by an impressive act of will. In fact, it’s so difficult to preserve an air of solemnity while navigating this labyrinth that the government created a Besucherordnung—visiting regulations—to govern people’s behavior: no running, no singing, no climbing, as a somber plaque set into the ground instructs us. Last time I visited, the policemen guarding the memorial were making no attempt to enforce these rules. Just imagine what that would look like: German policemen attempting to impose discipline on frolicking children at a Holocaust memorial.

There was some grumbling when the plan for Eisenman’s memorial was unveiled that his design was a rip-off of the “Garden of Exile” that stands in the back courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind. These accusations are quite correct, the borrowing is obvious. And the original is infinitely more effective as a memorial. Liebeskind’s field of pillars is far more difficult to navigate than Eisenman’s: they’re taller, the foliage planted at their tops blocks out a fair bit of the sunlight (it’s a shrub chosen because it resembles olive branches but is hardy enough to weather a Berlin winter); it feels subterranean; and since you don’t have a clear view of the horizon from within the maze, the fact that the ground beneath your feet keeps slanting in unpredictable directions creates dizziness, disorientation. It can get hard to keep your balance, and by this effect Libeskind is asking us to imagine the disorientation of Jews who, fleeing the Nazis, went into exile, where they had to struggle to make lives for themselves while mourning the loss of their lost homes and worlds, loved ones and language.

Meanwhile, one of the most beautiful memorials I’ve ever seen can be found on Berlin’s Bebelplatz, next to the Staatsoper and across the avenue Unter den Linden from the Humboldt University. This 2005 memorial created by Israeli artist Micha Ullman to bear witness to the infamous book burning orchestrated there by Joseph Goebbels in 1933 consists of a subterranean library buried beneath the square and visible through a thick pane of plexiglass. The many empty white shelves gleam at night and are half-obscured during the daytime by the reflections on the viewing window. A plaque sunk into the pavement nearby bears a quote from the great 19th century German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose books were banned in 1835: “This was merely a prelude. Where books are burned, in the end human beings will be burned as well.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Alicja Kwade at Hamburger Bahnhof

The Hamburger Bahnhof, a 19th century train station that has been brought back to life as Museum for Contemporary Art, is one of the most interesting places to see art in Berlin. Its permanent collection boasts rooms of beautiful work by Anselm Kiefer, Joseph Beuys, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Andy Warhol, and its temporary exhibits tend to be memorable. The floor of the main hall of the museum houses two large sculptures by Kiefer, one a patchwork airplane made of lead sheets with large sprigs of dried poppy pods fastened atop its wings (the title “Mohn und Gedächtnis” [Poppy and Memory] is taken from Paul Celan); the other, Volkszählung (Census) takes the shape of an enormous freestanding library, some fifteen feet tall, whose huge books, made of lead, are pocked with hundreds of dried peas in reference to the bean counters (“Erbsenzähler”) responsible for the project of counting human beings that reduces them to numbers and thus, in Kiefer’s universe, makes them readily dispensible. The lead library is huge, you feel tiny standing amid its weighty volumes.
Currently the Hamburger Bahnhof is showing the work of a fascinating young sculptor who lives in Berlin, Alicja Kwade (born in Poland in 1979), winner of the 2008 Piepenbrock Förderpreis für Skulptur. Kwade specializes in turning ordinary materials and objects into beautiful, precious images. Her show features several “precious stones” made of non-precious materials, such as an outsized “diamond” made of coal which, the label informs us, dates back over 300,000,000 years; after all, diamonds are made of carbon too. A huge stone diamond the size of an armchair fills the center of a space at the far end of the exhibition defined by a quartet of speakers endlessly playing what sound like engagement scenes from a medley of movies. And she has also created a work called “Berliner Bordsteinjuwelen” (Berlin Curbside Jewels), an assortment of 100 stones found on the Berlin streets that have been polished and cut to resemble gemstones.
One of my favorite pieces in the show is a cone-shaped heap of what appears to be sand on the floor ornamented with some green sprinkles and crushed dried flowers. The cone shape mirrors the shape of the cut "gemstones" found elsewhere in the show; it's like a diamond buried in the floor. The work’s label, which offers the title “412 Empty Liters Until the Start,” also provides the surprising information that the work is made of 555 kilograms of champagne bottles including the labels. So on the one hand this work is made of valuable material (champagne); but wait, no, it's just the empty bottles; but then the green sprinkles atop the sand sparkle like precious stones; and what happened to all that champagne anyhow?
The show also features a reflective silver tray lying shattered on the ground as if it were a mirror, and several mysterious
clocks, including a sort of cuckoo clock with a convex mirror where its face should be and a series of audibly clicking antique clocks covered with mirroring metal with doors obscuring their faces, lined up like a row of toasters.
Kwade has made another punning piece out of coal, playing on the fact that “Kohle” is German slang for money: She covered a set of 666 coal briquettes with gold leaf and stacked them up like bars of gold. Of course, coal too can be precious, especially if one lives in an apartment in which a coal-burning stove is the only source of heat (there were still lots of these left in East Berlin in particular as recently as 15 years ago, though they are becoming increasingly rare); burning gold bars would hardly keep one warm in winter.
My favorite piece in the show, “Hier und dort blind und machtlos (Parallelwelt 1)” (here and there blind and powerless [parallel world 1]), consists of a row of eight
desk lamps arranged two by two with double-sided mirrors between them. No matter what angle you look from, you have the illusion that you are seeing the lamp furthest from you through transparent glass. The light from the lamps appears to be a sphere of light trapped between the two lamp shades as if between the halves of a bivalve’s shell. The project is beautifully simple, and yet oddly mysterious.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Got D-marks? Get euros!

It’s been over six years now since the German mark was replaced by the Euro. The year of the currency reform, you could walk into any bank with your stash and walk out with a handful of shiny new euro coins and brightly colored banknotes. That’s all over now, but it turns out there are still a lot of German marks lying around in private households, and people don’t always know what to do with them. A survey this spring carried out by the Association of German Banks suggested that one out of three Germans misses the mark and would prefer to be using it instead of the euro, which in the popular imagination is widely associated with inflation and price gouging. The C&A department store chain—pretty much the equivalent of Sears in the U.S.—has responded to this nostalgia by offering to allow customers to pay in marks at any of their stores in Germany. But for those ready to face the fact that the euro is in all likelihood here to stay, there’s a relatively simple solution: the Deutsche Bundesbank, which has branch offices in all larger German towns, will convert D-marks to euros weekdays between the hours of 8:30 and 12:00. You might have to stand in line a bit. When recently I visited the rather elegant Deutsche Bundesbank building in Berlin, I found over a dozen people crammed into a waiting area in front of a row of four doors, each of which had a red light shining beside it. A rumor was circulating among the people waiting here, emanating in particular from an elderly gentleman with a large suitcase who appeared to be a regular, that the machine that counts the cash is prone to breakdowns because the money people bring in to have counted and exchanged is "too dusty." Be that as it may, we stood there for a good half hour without anyone from the bank coming out to tell us what was going on even after I waxed impatient enough to start pressing the button on the call box helpfully located right in the center of the waiting area (no response). But eventually the red lights changed to green, and each of us bid farewell to his little stash.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Deep-Storage Archives

Recently I came across some little texts I wrote while living in Berlin during the academic year 2001-2002—far before I'd ever heard of a blog or blogging. But these little texts clearly are proto-blogs, and so I've decided to import them, post-dating them to January 2002, the approximate date of their composition. Thus you can find them at the bottom of this blog. I'm pleased to be expanding this body of texts in both directions at once. Let boys & girls with these old songs have holiday / If they feel like it (sez John Berryman, speaking of his own youthful sonnets).
As you will no doubt recall as if it were yesterday, January 1, 2002 is the date when the DM (Deutschmark, German Mark) went out of circulation and the Euro came in. This moment is duly recorded in these old texts.
I wrote these little essays while living in a furnished sublet on Kulmerstraße in Schöneberg, just two blocks west of the Yorck-Straße S-Bahn station. Kulmerstraße in those days (and probably still now) was a modest little street with a Turkish men's club at either end. This meant that at any hour of the day or night you would find little groups of men standing around outside smoking cigarettes, which kept the street quite safe. Directly across the street from the apartment was Café Savarin, believed by many Berliners to have the best cake in town. After watching enormous stacks of cake boxes being carted out of the place each morning for delivery to various restaurants, I'm inclined to believe it. In any case, their cakes really were delicious: I pretty much ate my way through their entire confectionary repertoire in the course of the year. Now, I hear, the café has become a haven for the smokers now excluded from most cafés and restaurants in Germany. I wonder whether the cake tastes smoky. If anyone passes by that way, check it out and let me know.