Berlin is a gritty black and white city that throws bright colours at you when you least expect it. It shouts at you from street corners.
It’s not pretty but it is a visual feast. Street art flows in its veins. History stares at you. Endless gaping holes between buildings dares you to look away. Europe’s recent history, those never forgotten school lessons of recent wars are being challenged.
It was our bombs that created piles of rubble, our guns that left the scars we see in the buildings, and the ones we do not see in Germans’ minds.
Lest we forget.
This is 2014, 100 years after Franz Ferdinand, not the musicians although Berlin is music mad, but the Archduke. You know the one, they keep talking about him.
The start of that war to end all wars.
Oh and Sophie too, the wife, a forgotten name like millions of others.
It may be the following war that has stuck in most people’s conciousness, remembered in blocks of concrete near the Brandenburg Gate, a maze for children to play in, as children should always be able to do.
I was born 50 years ago.
25 years ago the Berlin wall came down.
I don’t like numbers but I like this series.
100, 50, 25, a perfect year to visit Berlin.
The most memorable birthday present from artist photographer and sister in law Lou, two friends and their cameras in search of inspiration.
What would we find, what would inspire us in the Berlin of now, where the war is remembered in vertical and horizontal lines, with all shades of grey?
Where East and West no longer have a wall to represent divide?
You can’t visit Berlin and ignore politics.
“What side of The Wall are we on?”
Asked an Indian woman standing on the river side.
We’re standing on the West Side.
“So which side did people want to escape?”.
East Side, the other side.
“Oh. thank you very much”
She smiled an absent smile, her eyes deep in thought and walked on along the wall, as if peering on the other side. I wonder what the woman’s history is made of.
Why each person wants to see the wall.
How does a city move on after almost constant war of some kind for near enough a century? Cranes are omnipresent, big L shapes turned on their head, moving metal lines in the skyline, scars of renewal on the horizon. Regeneration is everywhere and everything seems a fair canvas for street art. Graffitis are equally at home on derelict buildings as on new blocks of flats in what used to be East Berlin. German words I wish I could understand here and there on blocks of concrete.
What is the full story?
We know the story behind ‘The Kiss’ on The Wall.
You know, Brejnev and Honecker.
It was painted (twice) by Russian street artist Dmitri Vrubel. Less known is that the original image is a black and white photograph from French photographer Régis Bossu taken in 1979 during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Democratic German Republic.
A moment in time perfectly caught on film, faces skilfully painted on a wall, a free gift of visual stimulation that questions, the dexterity of street artists and photojournalists offered in one fell sweep. Cooperation between a Westerner and an Easterner.
How ironic that it was being captured via a red phone at the end of a contraption made specifically for selfies. We looked on, with slight disbelief.
Another two women visiting Berlin, also recording time and place.
Each to their own, it’s a free world.
Memories can be wide angle or macro,
portraits of locals
in 2014, selfies.
Images keep popping up.
Columns with dark bullet holes at the Neue Museum in the foreground are next door to a crane seen through a tall window against a white winter sky.
A perfect frame in my head, past and present in one shot.
More images still are handed on a plate by street artists.
A small cut out of Dali is stuck under a bridge, a painting of the Queen (the British one) is hidden by colourful deckchairs stacked against a wall, waiting for a Berliner to take a rest from the hustle of the city in Monbijou park.
Yellow fists appear in improbable places, at the top of tall new buildings that can be seen from the U-Bahn, under bridges, as many up yours from East German street artist Matthias Wermke (Kripoe). A touch of anarchy in a city that only 26 years ago was half an occupied island in a Communist country, half a capital city of a Democratic Republic. What do you expect?
And now it is one, the capital of one of the richest country in the world.
In time, will Berlin’s history, our current European history, disappear forever to remain only in museums and galleries with Greek columns and concrete structures for parents to take their children and learn from the past?
If the atrocities that Hitler imposed on German artists and homosexuals -among others more widely remembered- are the back bone of how I see this city in 2014, the mind boggling divide imposed by the Allies after the war is the flesh that paints the Berlin that I feel.
When The Wall fell in 1989, artists flocked to East Berlin, occupying buildings that East Germany had ignored since 1945. Imagine 44 years of neglect, buildings gashed open, from humble homes to grand residences. Imagine being an artist at that time.
If experimentation was your muse and creativity rather than money was your driver, the possibilities were endless. Imagine being an artist now and living in Berlin, or visiting Berlin. It is visually stimulating, it is constantly changing, it still has areas where rent is cheap, it is forever reinventing itself. Kreuzberg and Schöneberg are the new go to places for creatives that think Mitte has moved on and sold to the tourists. Maybe. It’s still incredibly cheaper than London or Paris.
Berlin is fighting to keep the past alive and striving for a better future.
Whatever that may mean to a Berliner.
Whoever the real Berliners are.
Mitte is a place tourists head to for a slice of what used to be East Berlin. In 1989 artists headed East the minute they heard The Wall had fallen. They squatted empty buildings, made homes out of nothing, created art out of everything including Russian tanks and missiles, used the streets as perfect backdrops to extravagant live performances.
A new era was starting.
Tacheles on Oranienburger Strasse was originally built in 1909, a huge extravagant shopping complex in the Jewish quarter.
Eighty years later it was taken over by artists with much history in between.
In September 2014 Tacheles was sold for 150 million euros to Perella Weinberg Partners, a New York-based asset management company.
What happened in between?
When the original shopping complex went bankrupt, AEG took it over (and broadcasted the Berlin Olympics live in 1936, a first). It served as a central office for the SS, a prison for the Nazis, French prisoners hoarded in the attic. Most of it got bombed, Russian soldiers used the statues for target practice and tore down large chunks of what was left in the 1980’s. When artists took over the building in February 1990 they quickly founded an association and succeeded in getting Tacheles protected by the Historic Buildings Authority. The ruined statues are still there, for now.
It seems to matter not it was listed, 25,000 square-metres of apartments, shops and hotel rooms will follow.
Tacheles is no longer.
The other side of the gentrification coin.
A city divided still. Restaurants open up in courtyards and brand new hotels offer luxury at a price London could not even dream of, for now. Friedrichstrasse has a mixture of cheap eateries where workers lunch for around a fiver and upmarket restaurants where you won’t get a table on a Friday night unless you have booked.
You’d think posh Berlin eateries are the same as anywhere else. Not quite.
For a start, many restaurants only take cash.
Weird in our card and credit Western society huh?
Take The Pantry, in Mitte. Big art pieces on the walls, huge leather sofas, Asian European fusion cuisine that sounds pompous but is spot on, fun and fine dining in equal measures, impeccable service most restaurants could learn from, it is a place you sink in and don’t want to leave.
As I went to get more euros from the cash point, the waiter explained to my friend:
“The banks did not want to lend to us when we set The Pantry up. So when they asked for 8% commission we said F off”.
Cash is fine.
“Oh no, I am so sorry your friend went to get cash, we could have given you a bill and you could have done a transfer”.
Trust people and fuck the banks.
Pardon my French, says the French woman, it was a German waiter that said it, in English, to my half Dutch British friend.
Europe in 2014.
We happened to visit Berlin during European Month of Photography, not planned, just lucky. With 150 exhibition spaces we were never going to see everything in one visit. So we scratched the surface and headed for Mitte and its concentration of galleries.
Walking along Tucholskystrasse Andy Warhol stared at us from behind his shades and the back wall of Galerie Hiltawsky. Pin sharp white hair up in the air and half of the face pointedly lit from the right, only the grey top of the rim of the glasses a thin line on the left. Greg Norman’s blacks drew me in like deep holes of emptiness, his whites made me stand back and open my eyes wider. Stunning portraits.
It was interesting to check the prices, from 3,000 euros for limited editions of 25, which having just popped into a snotty gallery where five abstract prints that woke nothing in my heart or stomach were on sale for 25,000 euros put things in perspective.
My favourite show was Berlin Wonderland: Wild Years Revisited, 1990-1996. Just outside, there were sleek galleries and inviting courtyard cafes. Inside was a room filled with gorgeous books published by Gestalten, beautiful and expensive designers’ objects, a long table and chairs where you could sit and read, a jug of fresh tap water with lemon slices a simple welcoming thought for the thirsty visitor.
At the back, the exhibition. Views of Mitte in the early years of reunification by artist photographers who lived in East Berlin at the time.
De Biel, Rauch, Recklinghause, Schilling, Schmundt, Trogish, Zöllner.
The images were not polished, the shots not always pin sharp. They were so much more. They informed of a time of change, they questioned, they inspired. They were beautifully printed on Baryta paper, in limited editions of 30. Starting at 300 euros for a 30×40 cm print, they portrayed a brief if intense history that shouldn’t be forgotten yet so few of us know anything about. Short lived movements can have a big impact in society. Bauhaus only lasted 14 years yet its influence on architecture, design and typography was substantial.
In Mitte, artists told me their story via black and white photography of a time that could not last.
This is where I learnt about the squatters, discovered Tacheles before stumbling upon the building on my way back home.
I’ll never know inside that alternative art space but at least I’ve captured the outside before it disappears forever.
Berlin is waiting for you now,
how will you see Marlene’s city?
Berlin Wonderland: Wild years revisited, bobs airport, published by Gestalten