Tuesday 15 May 2012

Berlin notebook: on the Berlin aesthetic

Crossing Eberswalder Straße, I saw an American tourist looking around, perplexed, clutching his camera as he surveyed the street in search of something that might be worth photographing. The woman beside him said cooly, 'I mean, they have buildings here with all the wires hanging out.' 

In other European cities the past is always visible. You visit Rome or Prague or Constantinople to see what the past looks like. In fact you could visit those cities almost without noticing the existence of the present, since the present is less solid, less tangible than the continuing presence of the past. But in Berlin there is no past; or rather, the past is visible only as ruins and decay. 

The city was reduced to rubble in the Thirty Years' War, and again, three hundred years later, in the Battle of Berlin. 'In other European cities, the past was glorified, the architecture spruced up for tourists to the point of caricature. But here, nobody seemed in a hurry one way or the other. Buildings had been bombed and the city had been ripped apart, but years later holes remained all over the place without explanation or apparent concern. The city moved forward with a lack of vanity that she found relaxing' (Anna Winger, This Must Be the Place).

Berlin is a city founded, time and again, on its own ruins. Urban decay is the Grundprinzip of the city, and the secret to the Berlin aesthetic. In Berlin there is no history, only art. Those bits of the past that remain visible are fragments that have been picked out and arranged for aesthetic and artistic purposes. The city is a gigantic lovely mad assemblage of found objects. 

This explains the importance of photography as an art form in Berlin. Photography eschews the sentimental Christian ideals of narrative, history, truth-telling, tradition, and time. Every photograph is only a fragment, a piece of rubble retrieved from the debris of time. 'Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt' (Susan Sontag).

At a gallery in Kreuzberg, I saw the exhibition of a young Berlin photographer. He had photographed sculptures made of urban debris – old brooms, crumpled newspapers, plastic bags, advertising signs, cardboard boxes, broken electrical goods. The objects had been assembled in front of walls and buildings; the sculptures look like random piles of rubbish, but the shadows cast on the walls resemble classical figures from Christian art. The distinct shadowy figures of Christ, St Nicholas, St Sebastian. In this series of shadow photographs – obviously inspired by Plato's theory of forms – one sees the strange distinctive contours of the Berlin metaphysic. Human culture and religion and tradition are shadows on the wall, the beautiful insubstantial images cast by objects more solid, permanent, and original. Except that here the eternal Platonic forms have been replaced by the most transitory, pointless thing in the world: a heap of urban debris.

The Christian myth of primordial harmony is the organising theological principle of most European cities. (That is what separates European cities so markedly from the colourful polytheism of urban India, and from the steel-and-glass Pelagianism of the cities of America.) But in Berlin, the Christian creation-story has given way to a mythology of primordial originary decay: 'In the beginning was the rubble…'

The Roman might well feel that she is living in an eternal city; but the Berliner dwells in the ruins of time. And the ruins of time are beautiful. That is the Berlin aesthetic.

1 Comment:

Jota said...

Spot on. Love to read your posts!

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