Berlin is a divided city. Its inhabitants’ polarized reactions to the sudden influx of thousands of refugees—from acts of arson to massive volunteer campaigns—reveal a city torn between fear of change and a desire to embrace it. According to the curators of STADT/BILD (Image of a City), an exhibition that was recently on simultaneous display at four Berlin institutions, however, such ambivalence lies at the heart of every city.
On ViewKw Institute For Contemporary Art; Deutsche Bank; Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen Berlinische Galerie Kunsthalle; Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin
September 16 – November 8, 2015
The KW Institute’s group exhibition Welcome to the Jungle featured works that explore the fears, fantasies, and images of the exotic “other” that lie beneath the seemingly controlled and contained urban environment. For instance, Night Soil / Fake Paradise (2014), Melanie Bonajo’s video installation, depicted scenes of Western women, and a few men, tramping through the woods in “primitive” costumes or preparing for a staged photograph, all wearing a pastiche of Amazonian props like bananas and blue face paint. Throughout, one heard interviews with different women narrating their experiences with ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew used in spiritual ceremonies by some of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Each describes how the drug helped her explore her own sexuality and ultimately transcend the limits of her native culture and consciousness. While Night Soil / Fake Paradise confronted issues related to cultural appropriation, there also existed a skewed social and economic dynamic between the more privileged outsider (the Western woman) and the insider (the local shamans and their assistants) that neither Bonajo nor her informants appeared willing to acknowledge. In the end, Bonajo’s interviewees came across as cosplayers of the exotic, blithely unaware of the ways in which they exploit the exoticized people of the region to benefit their own highly
More distant in tone, even chilling, was Olaf Breuning’s Home 2 (2007), a film in which he follows Brian Kerstetter, a gangly, albino-eyed American tourist as he clowns his way around the globe. Speaking to the camera, Kerstetter narrates his impressions. After swimming in the ocean with locals, he pronounces, “So nice to be swimming with the Africans [. . .] I felt so alive, so free.” Later, in a hotel in Japan, he uses a fake gun to take hostages in his hotel room, going so far as to bind their hands and cover their heads with hoods. It’s all a game, it seems, and the fact that he is intensely sincere and eager to be liked makes the stakes all the more dangerous. One problem with the ironic tone of the film is that the laughter Breuning provokes by inserting Kerstetter into such comical situations inspires distancing and condescension rather than recognition, as if to say, “That’s not me. That’s what ugly American tourists do.”
While some of the pieces, like John Smith’s video installation Blight (1994 – 96), dealt directly with the social consequences of the reconstruction of the city in the name of progress, a good portion of the works featured did not relate directly to urban environments. Night Soil / Fake Paradise and Home 2, for instance, feature Bonajo’s interviewees and Breuning’s tourist returning home to cities at the end of their travels, but one has to ask if it would matter very much if these subjects returned home to the suburbs or to the countryside instead.
The exhibit at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Xenopolis (City of Foreigners), made such links more explicit, suggesting that cities are not only repositories of imagination, but also of the ills of capitalism and the massive inequities it continues to produce. The installation by Mwangi Hutter (two artists operating under one name), Proximity of Imperfect Figures (2015), featured casts of the artists’ arms surrounding a mysterious, hooded central figure. It was a striking juxtaposition, suggestive of the tensions between belonging and ostracism. Laurence Bonvin’s Blikkiesdorp (2009 – 14) underscored how the roots of social and economic inequality lie in the unequal access to vital resources such as housing. In a series of photographs and a film, Bonvin documents the boredom and longing, but also the small pleasures—listening to music or chatting with neighbors—that mark the daily lives of thousands of former South African squatters who have been living in a resettlement camp on the fringes of Cape Town since the government moved them there in preparation for the World Cup in 2010.
In contrast to Welcome to the Jungle and Xenopolis, the program at Berlinische Galerie, The Dialogic City: Berlin Becomes Berlin, was less an exhibition than a proposition or event. For the exhibit, the gallery set up—next to a massive shelf that spanned the length of the room—a station where employees inventoried the scores of models, proposals, and plans entered into various planning and architecture contests held in Berlin since 1989. Part of the idea was to invite visitors to consider the question of possible alternatives and potential missed opportunities for creating different built environments. Although one could not see the content of the proposed plans and models, the sheer volume of labeled boxes and file folders hinted at how much money and time authorities and experts have devoted to thinking about how to shape and control the urban environment. Such a concerted effort spoke to a post-unification optimism that felt remote from the more resigned, even cynical state of affairs that characterizes urban-planning policies in many cities today.
The Syrian refugee crisis and the recent events in Paris have threatened the veneer of order and control in Europe’s urban centers. They’ve also exposed the links between European cities like Paris, Berlin, and Brussels, and those of Damascus, Tehran, and Beirut, that perhaps used to feel remote from them. In the context of such direct confrontations to Europe’s self-image and stability, STADT/BILD’s interrogation of the contemporary city was as provocative as it was timely. Whether Berlin will remain divided depends in part on whether it can find a way to reimagine itself as more than a magnet for cultural elites and Europeans, to remake its physical space to accommodate a new, more pluralistic reality. Though flawed, STADT/BILD at least asked the right question: how might we begin to reimagine the contemporary city?