Thursday, September 11, 2014

BERLIN: Stumbling Stones & Street Art

                                                       The Holocaust Memorial

You stumble over the plaques in the concrete. Like small stones, they slow you down, force you to look twice. And that’s the point. You stop & crouch to read what is inscribed on the brass plaque:

DEPORTIERT 27.11.1941
ERMORDET 30.11.1941

There are five Stumbling Stones, or Stolpersteine, outside my friend, writer Kenny Fries’s apartment. As I stare down at them, Kenny & his husband Mike wait patiently for me to grasp the import.

“Today it’s a printing press,” Kenny informs me, “but they kept the sign & the original design.”

In St. Petersburg & in Gdansk, I saw wounded buildings, slashed with horrors of war, & bandaged with colorful new facades, but somehow the bloody past always leaks out (see my previous post on Gdansk). In Berlin, the Jewish Museum & the Holocaust Memorial provide interesting switches. The Jewish Museum, with the broken Star of David on its punctured  facade, works with the senses to recreate the terror of Jews in Germany during World War II. The ground shifts beneath your feet, white noise accompanies you, & walls close in, leaving you dizzy & claustrophobic. The Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of coffin-like gray pillars lining narrow corridors & abrupt Escheresque twists & turns, makes you doubt the faint light at the end of the tunnel … as if you’ll wander down these dark corridors like Kafka’s Joseph K for the rest of time. At every corner, you stumble over memories & ghosts, & “Jew” whispers in your ear.

“When Americans try to speak German, they always sound so harsh & guttural,” says Kim, a young British-educated German guide. “They exaggerate every sound. That’s not how we talk.”

For Berliners, the defining moment of history is not World War II, but the Berlin Wall being torn down 25 years ago.

Kenny, Mike & I stand in front of the Tacheles—which sounds like a Hebrew prayer, but is the last standing Squatters’ House. When the Wall came down, East Berliners immediately evacuated their homes & escaped to West Berlin. Struggling young West Berliners sneaked into East Berlin & occupied the abandoned houses. Some remained for years, but most were eventually kicked out. At night the Tacheles looks raw & gaping, black orifices plugged by posters, slogans, spray paint—the new language of art.

The following day, Ben, a street artist who calls himself El Kapitano del Karacho (Brazilian friends informed him it means: Captain of the Penis), takes us to Friedrichain, a shady neighborhood known for drugs & danger, & its graffiti. “Don’t buy your drugs from pushers here,” he advises. “And don’t get drunk in bars here.”

He leads us to an old train station—a dizzying whirl of spray paint, rollers, posters, & wall art covering decay, poverty & disintegration. After a few hours at the Black Market Collective, a large warehouse where I created my own version of street art—a stenciled portrait of John Lennon—digging my Exacto-knife, spraying pain, shaking it dry—I understand the excitement. It’s like being a kid let loose in an art studio, only the entire city is your canvas.

“We’re criminals,” says Ben gleefully. “The fine for graffiti is 463.60 Euros, & with a court case & lawsuits, it can go to 2,000 Euros. But there’s no thrill like painting a wall & running to hide a second before the cops drive by.” The street artists travel in packs: the artist, checkers on the next corner with walkie talkies—no phones because they may be tapped. Black hoodies & face masks, & they carry knives & baseball bats to look intimidating. Sometimes a film crew because they want to be documented. Ben points out the work of known artists like Sobre, El Bocho, & Jimmy C known for social criticism & conspiracy theories.

“Ah!” I jump in here. “so you want to be known, but not caught. Is that what it’s about?”

“Yes…. Street art began with writing your name on a wall, but look at a group like 1UP.”

In the train station an art exhibit is devoted to an internationally known street art group that moves from city to city, films their work in documentaries, puts together (expensive) volumes of their art, & signs themselves: 1UP. No personal signatures, just 1UP, which comes from Super Mario Brothers, & can stand for 1 United Power. Street artists know their work will be plastered over, repainted by the city & other artists. That doesn’t concern them. What’s important is the thrill, the moment. Street bombing, murdering a wall, the explosion of art—a happening. And then, moving on. The next wall, the next challenge, the next city.

After Ben leaves, I walk along the remaining parts of the Wall, known as the East Side Gallery, possibly the largest outdoor art gallery in the world. The Berlin Wall—painted, graffiti’d, layer upon layer, smeared 
& sprayed to the last inch. Street art at its ultimate power: the voice of the people speaking out, protesting, creating beauty (however you define it) in the face of repression.

                                                 the famous kiss on the Berlin Wall

I stumble as if the Stolpersteine are under my feet. Later, I learn that they are an art project for Europe by Gunter Demnig, commemorative brass plaques set in the pavement in front of the deported person’s last address of choice. Demnig was inspired by the Talmud: “A person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” Each stone begins: HERE LIVED …

“One ‘stone’,” he writes. “One name. One person.”

Standing at the Wall, I close my eyes & see artists madly painting over bloodstains, punctures, gaping wounds… & running in the night. And others carving a broken Star of David, tilting the ground beneath our feet, hammering in brass plaques, & forcing us to stumble. To remember.


1 comment:

Kit Grindstaff said...

I'm here now! Missed you by a mere 15 days...a lifetime, in travel terms. Staying in the Mitte area,and about to go and explore. xo