Should We Let Go?February 20, 2013
Every Wednesday we will present an article from our past or current residents. To start with the series, we chose an essay from Dunja Rmandic, written for the publication of the exhibition ‘Letters from the Field’ shown in Berlin in August 2012. The article adresses questions about identity and memory in the city of Berlin.
Should We Let Go? by Dunja Rmandic
“This can’t be the Potsdamer Platz” – Homer, the old poet, Wings of Desire
And so here we are, in Berlin. As many say, in a city where the twentieth century happened; the good, the evil, the progressive and the ugly. Rather than having a classic beauty that defines most European cities, Berlin stands as a collage of aesthetics, a collage of histories, and overlapping landscapes, all omnipresent at once and all simultaneously canceling each other out. Here history is everywhere and it is nowhere.
What is it that keeps us holding onto ideas, objects, moments, and the past, giving us a sense that this is what constitutes our identity? What if we never held on to those in the first place? We naturally navigate through history, as well as spaces, with the help of symbols. But Berlin seems to have embraced a type of amnesia that defies historical fetishes in a way that denies a one-dimensional experience of the city and refuses to prioritize one history over another. It leaves us in a state of limbo, in the in-between where everything is possible and nothing is special. There is no nostalgia, there is no homecoming. Even the remnants of the Wall – the most recent and remembered history for most of us – seem abstract. I watched the wall come down live on TV, and the emotional experience of it has profoundly shaped my attitude to politics, suffering, and symbols, yet being here, living ‘in the East’ and close to the wall, I am left empty. Do we really move on from history so fast? Outside looking in, Berlin has its Kirchners, Dietrichs, Langs, its Brechts, Benjamins, its Bauhaus, Plancks, and Einsteins, its Reichstag, the Jewish Museum, and the Wall. Once in the city, all of those symbols collectively dissipate, and what is left, what is felt, is a potential to have – or to be – all of those again. The city has learnt from its destructive history that anything that is created is soon destroyed; we are here to create, live, love, forget, be and do – we come, we go, but there is no central axis here anymore and this is how it remains invulnerable. Welcome to the matrix that is Berlin.
What do we retain in the form of a city and as a nation, and what do we retain as our individual history? On the one hand history teaches us but on the other its effects can be stifling. Stine Marie Jacobsen’s practice takes us straight to the core of the relationship between memory, violence, and history, on both the individual and the broader social level. Working with theories of memory and contemporary psychology through performance, her focus becomes material, dialogical, and most importantly, ethical, and she keeps us holding our breath for how her pieces will resolve. Contemporary Germany seems to be a perfect context in which to scrutinize these questions, and Berlin as a perfect platform to experiment within.
How do we construct history and how do we construct memory? Megan Cotts’ archival research into honeycomb paper – those fun shapes that fascinated us as children – patented by her family and then subsequently revoked by the National Socialists in the 1930s, has gone beyond a recovery of history. Through reenacting the physical process of making these endless patterns, playing with the scale, and shifting the emphasis from the original, mass-produced combs to handmade interpretations of shapes, Cotts discreetly questions legacies, authority, and memory while simultaneously constructing her own. Yet despite this questioning, her impetus and our collective unrelenting attachment to material objects remains in question.
But what if we rejected every ounce of what constitutes an identity, every structure that contains it, every value that informs it, every symbol that defines it? How can we construct an identity without history?
An identity devoid of history can only exist after the apocalypse. Rebecca Smith’s childhood was defined by the visions of biblical apocalypse and devoted preparation for its immanent arrival. Exorcising those narratives from her personal life, she has formalized them as nostalgic symbols in her series Beast (2010). While removing herself from that formal lifestyle, she has not discredited the impulse behind those tendencies that seek to immortalize the present, wishing the ‘now’ to be the climax of humanity. Perhaps a desire to rid humanity of history altogether is a more acceptable contribution of doomsday cults, and one that art is well placed to engage with.
Of the myriad of images of Berlin, one that makes sense to me the most is that of it as a pre-historic swamp. Serendipitously, the Immortal Neobiocosmonaut, the hero in Ylva Westerlund’s comic book-inspired manifesto, comes out of a swamp and presents us with an image and experience of a utopia. Only when he dematerialized could he know of it and only when he rematerialized could he communicate the possibilities he saw for our future. But in order to attain this future, we need to change our relationship with language: “impossible” says his opponent; “not at all” says he, “…you just switch the ‘possible’ for ‘mortal’… .”
Reminiscing about knowing Berlin when it was a swamp, Damiel and Cassiel – our guardian angels in Wings of Desire – also reminisce about learning language from humans. We exist through language, we move through language, we own through language and we create through language. While standing in the middle of the field, as in her Untitled (monochrome) (2010), Sharon Houkema isolates us in language and forces us to feel it instead of relying on knowing it. She wishes that, as we taught it to the angels, maybe we can un-teach it to ourselves and try to experience form outside of language; try to experience art – and ourselves – anew.
So here we are, still in Berlin, where the vulnerable has been replaced by the immortal; where art critic Karl Scheffler’s remark in 1910 that this “is a city condemned always to become and never to be” is as true in 2012 as it was when it was first written.1 In another century the same statement might still resonate, and in another century we just may manage to experience ourselves anew.
The Psychology of Rumor by Gordon W. Allport, page 56: “In general, people skeletonize their memories rather than elaborate them.” Two of the shapes are from a memory test in the book. One of them I drew from memory during our conversation.
I am standing in the middle of a vast landscape. I tell you I am “in the middle”, to give you an idea, a picture in your mind. But the truth is, I have no idea, if where I’m standing, is the middle. There is nothing for my eyes to hold onto, nothing to determine position, nothing to determine scale. I am surrounded by endless white, not black: white. White as far as I can see, an unhindered, unbroken white.
Sharon Houkema, Untitled (Monochrome), 2010, printed paper
Check Letters from the Field online publication