Let’s meet in Berlin.
You fly in from Athens and I’ll fly in from Toronto and we shall see if four days in this city of creative expressionism and tumultuous history will leave us as inspired as the thousands who come to live. Freedom, is what one transplanted Berliner told me. This is what I came for. Freedom to be whatever I want to be.
So went mom and daughter, she now grown and working in another historic city. This is our way now, these brief interludes of togetherness, and I shall learn the notes soon enough, if not the goodbyes. Travel buddies we are, with sneakers and trench coats for melancholy weather, weather that seems a good match for sombre sites like the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe: giant abstract blocks erected in 2005 covering an entire block near the Brandenburg Gate.
These clear and present memorials are hardly hidden: my excellent free walking tour with Sandemans expressed this amply. In the Topography of Terror, erected in 2010 on the historical site of the main organs of Nazi terror between 1933 and 1945, we (and several tour groups) walked through fifteen comprehensive stations detailing the horrors of the SS. In the Jewish Museum (the largest Jewish museum in Europe) we watched in stunned silence as visitors were invited to walk noisily over ten thousand faces made of steel in the Memory Void; created by Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman in one of two buildings designed by Polish architect Daniel Libeskind(whose studio is based in Berlin)—Torontonians will recall that name from our own infamous ROM crystal. Also at that museum, a moving exhibit (continuing to April 2019), Welcome to Jerusalem, an immersive experience using film and audio clips, art, maps and more, all highlighting the many contradictions of a sacred city.
Next door was the Berlinische Galerie.
Sleek and clever, housed in a former glass warehouse, here was one of my favourite exhibits on this visit: a permanent collection of art produced by Berlin artists from 1870 until the present. These artworks are presented in chronological order with a helpful dotted route on the floor to lead visitors into each historical period from Expressionism to Dada to Art under the Nazis…and so on.
Art spills out of every corner in this city where museum hopping could saturate any schedule: we also saw Nefertiti at the Neues, Dietrich at the Berlin Film Museum (you knew I wouldn’t miss that one), and a bevy of nudes at the Helmet Newton Foundation.
According to the German culture secretary Tim Renner, the majority of the artists featured in the 2016 Venice Biennale live in Berlin. The city resides continuously on the brink of action. The tension between policing and anarchy, uniformity and debauchery, rules and social unrest, as well as a bristling right wing intimidation is also tangible. This makes it a fertile space for activism, creativity and agency that artists record and channel into their work. Many also come to Berlin for the (still) affordable studios and space that allows them to nurture their practice.
Hodge podge architecture lends Berlin’s avenues a storybook sheen, but we know none of it is fiction. If museums daunt, walking throughout the city’s boroughs would offer too its own lessons. Most visitors (three million a year to this site alone) find their way to the East Side Gallery, a series of murals painted on a remnant of the Berlin wall; explosive art that make up the largest open air gallery in the world.
Walking makes us hungry. Shall we go to the market? Which market first?
Perhaps the Turkish market?
Or delicious Reubens at Mogg…
Or wine at Café Jacques…
Or twenty miraculous offerings at Ernst (once we discovered the secret door)…
None of it…none of this heady activity prepared us for The Long Now, the closing event of MaerzMusik Festival. Held in the magical moody setting of Kraftwerk Berlin, this wildly popular event includes concerts, performances, electronic live-acts, sound and video installations to form a study of time and space.
Here is what we were told going in:
“Embracing musical worlds from early Renaissance polyphony to the musical avant-garde, experimental electronics, Ambient and Noise, this fourth edition of “The Long Now” allows for sonic and bodily experiences of an exceptional kind. Visitors are welcome to spend the entire duration in the powerplant, sleep over, or come and go. Beds will be provided. The Long Now is a place for the enduring present. A space in which time itself can unfold and the sense of time can take uncharted paths. With a duration of more than 30 hours, the project invites visitors to detach from the clocked pace of the present and indulge in the chronosphere of “The Long Now”.
Here is what we knew going out: we want to, need to, MUST go back. No, we didn’t live out our wristbands allowing us to stay until 8am—packing loomed for flights the next morning—yet stretched out on a cot beside hundreds of others of all ages, all shapes, listening, no, absorbing the strangest music—beautiful, sad, enthralling music—we locked arms and floated on this surreal pillow of possibility…this here, this long now is all we have, this place, this is Berlin. All of it pushing forward in relentless modernism…No posturing here. This surely was the absolute expression of freedom.
And this too…my cab driver en route back to the airport. My wife knits, he told me.
What a city!