Archive | July, 2014

Review: Berlin Biennale 8

26 Jul


by Rhea H. Boyden

It is a hot Saturday afternoon and I am standing in the middle of Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes’ exhibit at KW Institute of Contemporary Art entitled ‘A secluded and pleasant land, in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am alone, thankfully, because I am in a bad mood. I have just walked down Auguststrasse in the centre of Berlin Mitte and entered this room of hanging hemp ropes, silk yarns, twirled and hanging bamboo sculptures and what appears to be a giant checkerboard on the floor. The rope makes me think of a noose, the checkerboard a maze. Hmm. I ponder the second half of the title: ‘in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am in the middle of a long goodbye to Berlin and have firmly decided that I no longer want to live in this land, and this exhibit is now irritating and depressing me. Gentrified Auguststrasse in 2014 depresses me too and makes me very nostalgic for the good old days of Berlin. I have many reasons for leaving now.


‘A Secluded and Pleasant Land…’ Leonor Antunes. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale, Canadian/Columbian Juan Gaitan at least got something right with his curatorial aim when he stated his intention to hold the exhibition in already existing cultural venues because he says ‘continuing to seek out seemingly abandoned or derelict spaces for exhibitions no longer reflects the reality of Berlin.’ Indeed. Aside from the venue I am now in – KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Biennale (which is the exhibit for contemporary art in Berlin) is also being held at Crash Pad on Auguststrasse, Haus am Waldsee and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Dahlem. It seems a rather large stretch of the city to traverse to see a relatively small number of exhibits. It takes at least forty-five minutes to get from Haus am Waldsee to KW Institute and who feels like commuting in this heat? Work from only a little over 50 artists has been commissioned and some critics are not too impressed with what they are finding. Art Slant Magazine, for one, says that the pieces on display in Haus am Waldsee are merely a ‘copy and paste curatorial approach’ to the work on display in Dahlem and do not really fit into the venue.

There is also no coherent or central theme for this year’s Biennale which the curator says is intentional. He wants the connections between the exhibits to remain tentative and for the pieces to be fully open to interpretation in order to ‘enable the development of the viewer’s autonomy in her or his own encounter with art.’ Ok, well, I suppose that can be liberating. I can think what I want and I can take what I want from it, which is lovely, in a way. Is he perhaps suggesting or requesting us to get whatever we want out of it because most of us can no longer just get whatever we want out of Berlin as it becomes more gentrified?


‘Stealing one’s own corpse…’ Julieta Aranda. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

I move onto the next exhibit: ‘Stealing one’s own corpse’-(an alternative set of footholds for an ascent into the dark) by Mexican artist Julieta Aranda. I sit on the blue-carpeted floor next to what looks like a piece of a meteor. A few feet in front of me there is a white bear trap. It is set and ready to snare its prey. On the screen in front of me there is an image of a rat being mutilated with a knife. On the screen I read snippets about rats. ‘The rat as currency. That would be interesting. Stockpiling of dead rats causes inflation. Britain converts to the rat.’ The screen then shows an image of outer space. To the left of me, hanging on the wall there is a space suit. I glance at it. I glance back at the screen and continue to read the text: ‘Space being carved up and owned because capitalists and bureaucrats have failed to solve their antagonisms on Earth.’ I am starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. Is it the result of the infernal heatwave we are experiencing in Berlin? When I think of space being carved up all I can really think about right now is the Malaysian Airlines plane that has supposedly just been shot down by a Russian missile. Who owns that airspace? It also makes me think of the astronaut who took a photo from the International Space Station of Gaza Strip at night, aflame with bombs and missiles. He tweeted it and called it his ‘saddest photo yet.’ It is time to go and get a cold drink.

bb8_angelidakis_installation view III_foto uwe walter_300dpi

Andreas Angelidakis ‘Crash Pad’ photo by Uwe Walter Courtesy of Angelidakis and The Breeder

After downing an expensive lemonade at the sweltering courtyard cafe I wander over to the Crash Pad which cheers me up a bit. It is the design of Greek/Norwegian artist Andreas Angelidakis and was the first commissioned work for the Berlin Biennale 8. It is an inviting carpeted room with a library. The first book that catches my eye is ‘A History of Philosophy’. I am happy to sit down and relax. Angelidakis designed this lovely room in the style of a Greek salon to serve as a meeting point for visiting artists to exchange ideas. Right now, I am happy to just sit here in silent contemplation and try and shake the dark mood I am in. This is day two of my Biennale experience and I was hoping to get more positive inspiration than this but my hope is fading. It is nearly time to go home and have a siesta. 

Haus am Waldsee

Haus am Waldsee

The day before it was not quite as hot, however, and I was in a better mood. The suggested route of this year’s Biennale is to first go to Haus am Waldsee, then to Dahlem and then to KW Institute of Contemporary Art and the Crash Pad. So that is the route I followed. There is little point in trying to do it all in one day so I divided it into two days. The one ticket gets you access to all venues. And so I set out on Friday morning with my new neighbours, artists in residence, Charla Wood who is a photographer and sculptor from Austin, Texas and Joseph Amodei an artist and lighting designer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I am very happy to have such lovely new neighbours to do nice things with in my last few weeks in Berlin, and considering that it takes an hour to get to Haus am Waldsee from our building in Prenzlauer Berg I am happy for the company. They are both new to Berlin and I tell them that Haus am Waldsee is one of my favourite venues for contemporary art and I have written reviews of the art on display there before. Haus am Waldsee is in a leafy and idyllic suburb of Berlin- Zehlendorf and it was originally built as a private villa. It exhibited the work of Käthe Kollwitz in the late 1940’s- the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Art.

Charla and Joseph

Artists in Residence Joseph Amodei and Charla Wood in the garden at Haus am Waldsee

When we arrive, the first exhibit that catches my attention is one by Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou: ‘3 pairs of handmade shoes, shoe boxes’ He has made the shoes into shoes from leather purses and they occupy the floor on the left hand side as you enter the room. Ah, transformation. Purses made into shoes. This makes me think of all the things I have at home that I still need to get rid of or ship back to Ireland. Just the night before, in fact, I had stumbled upon an article in the Huffington Post that showed a photo of a walk-in wardrobe with dozens of pairs of shoes. The article suggested the best way to approach purging extraneous things and living a minimalist lifestyle. This is one reason I have come to this exhibit today: because it is too hot to sit at home panicking about what to do with all the things I have collected. I would much rather be in an air-conditioned museum contemplating contemporary art and transformation. 


Christodoulos Panayiotou installation, courtesy of Dieresis Collection, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The day before, I had had a discussion with Joseph Amodei about his work and how sculpture occupies public spaces and how to use public spaces well for art. He showed me one of his works ‘Worked Space: ft. Glue Chains’ and our discussion also revolved around looking closer at something and seeing more. That is the core of his philosophy in his piece ‘Glue Chains’ and I found this fascinating and spoke to him about Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin and the quote from it that has formed the core of my philosophy of living with my eyes open in my last few weeks in Berlin. The Isherwood quote being the theme of my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open.’ Joseph and Charla and I observed what seemed to be a stack of logs in the corner of the garden at Haus am Waldsee: upon closer inspection, however, we discovered that it was not a stack of logs, but in fact, hollow on the inside. The joy of looking closer, the joy of being ‘a camera with its shutter open’.


Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

One exhibit that spoke to me at Haus am Waldsee was a two-channel colour film and sound installation by German-born artist Patrick Alan Banfield. The pieces in each venue, according to the curator, are meant to reflect their surroundings. One screen showed enticing upclose shots of nature and woods and the other screen low-rent apartment blocks in Germany. This made me think of leaving my German apartment and moving back to Ireland. A return to nature and my rural roots. The piece was accompanied by very soothing music which made me relax and forget the hot day outside.

screen patrick

Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

By and by we continued on our way to the Dahlem Ethnological Museum. When we entered the museum we had to ask where the exhibit was because it was hard to find, hidden as it was between the permanent exhibits of Polynesian house boats and Inuit Kayaks. This is intentional. One is supposed to compare the permanent exhibit to the Biennale pieces and see what that provokes. It pushes home Gaitan’s curatorial message of the exhibit: to place it in already existing cultural venues. To compare Berlin collections of the past and Berlin contemporary art. What has disappeared? What remains? What is still to be discovered? How to come to terms with an ever changing Berlin? I know and feel very strongly as I prepare to leave Berlin, that the Berlin of my memory, the one of the past, its best and most interesting days are the ones that I wish to hold in my imagination. On this note, the first exhibit we came across by Egyptian artist Iman Issa, demands use of your imagination. There were various sculptures by her spread along the side of the gallery wall. The descriptions on the wall next to each piece describe something completely different and not the pieces. They are descriptions of paintings which are not there. The one I found most enticing was entitled ‘Seduction’:

‘A 1982 oil on wood painting depicts a man and a woman against an off-white background. The figures are sparsely dressed and are facing opposite directions. The man reaches his arm forward to grab a bird flying towards the edge of the picture plane. The woman is seated below him with her eyes fixed straight ahead. She is playing with her hair with one hand. Aside from a perfectly round sun at the top, and the distant figure of a bird at the bottom, the background is free of illustration. Overall, figures are grotesquely disproportionate, features are abstract and style is childlike. The width of the painting is 37 cm. Its height is 55cm.’

So what do I get out of this? Plain and simple: Berlin has lost its allure for me. What used to seduce no longer does. Maybe it is just because I am getting older? The seductive Berlin of my past remains a description and a memory. I think one of my biggest regrets is that I did not own a camera when I first lived in Prenzlauer Berg in 1993. But I can’t change that now and it is not so bad, really. The memories of my love for Berlin are burned into my brain, just as the memories of an enjoyable seduction get burned into ones’ brain and that is satisfying enough.

Fusion x64 TIFF File

Rosa Barba ‘Subconcious Society’ Photo by Anders Sune Berg

As I wandered into another room of the exhibit I saw these words on a screen: ‘It was the time of the objects crisis.’ This was an installation called ‘Subconscious Society’ by Italian artist Rosa Barba. Well there is only so long I can hang out in air-conditioned museums when I am having my own ‘objects crisis’ at home. It is time to go home and continue sorting through and getting rid of all the objects of my 14 years in Berlin to enable me to move on and move to Dublin at the end of August. I will carry my Berlin memories with me and hope to be in a better mood with renewed energy when I next get a chance to visit a large art exhibit. The Berlin Biennale has, all told, not really given me a huge amount of joy as I prepare to depart. Maybe it is just me and the headspace I am in, but I get the impression that others are also a little underenthused by the disparate nature of the exhibition.

Featured image is of Leonor Antunes piece by Anders Sune Berg

 Images courtesy of Biennale Press Office

Goodbye to Berlin

12 Jul

Rainbow Berlin

by Rhea H. Boyden

Last December a friend of mine offered me a beautiful secondhand pink couch from IKEA, delivered to my door. Did I want it? Yes, please. My old couch had been in my family for at least 15 years. My mother had gotten it secondhand delivered to her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg probably in 1997 or 98. Where it had been before that and how old it actually was is a mystery to me. ‘We need to carry the old couch downstairs and chuck it out’ I announced to my lovely Swedish flatmate. She looked at the couch and then looked at me and said ‘I think we need to tear it into little tiny pieces first. It will make things easier.’ I looked at her and said ‘Ok, but how?’ She showed me how: by upending the couch and pulling off the thousands of staples and layers of cardboard that were holding it together. I was amazed at how shoddy the interior was. Cardboard? How the heck had the thing held up through all the years of my family and friends sitting, jumping and sleeping on it. It had actually been a fairly comfortable couch. ‘It’s definitely an old GDR couch.’ my roommate said.

GDR Couch 

 The old couch-Christmas 2000- with some of my siblings sitting on it

Now six months later, I have decided to leave Berlin after 14 years and am in the thick of preparations to vacate my apartment and move back to Ireland. I certainly can’t stay in Berlin much longer than the lifespan of the cardboard GDR couch, can I? When my flatmate was ripping the couch apart however, I had no such plans to leave. It was only after I got back from my trip to New York after Christmas that the idea started creeping into my subconscience that leaving might, maybe be a good idea. But it was a scary thought and definitely not one that I was comfortable with yet or even decided upon. Berlin is my home. Why go anywhere else? I have a good life here.

donkey bridge lights

In the middle of January I met up with an Australian friend of mine who was visiting. I took him to a bar I like in Prenzlauer Berg called Eselsbrücke. I like it because it has managed, over the years, to retain a vibe I liked about Prenzlauer Berg before it became gentrified, and so going there puts me in a nostalgic mood. We were sitting at the bar and I told him that I was considering moving back to Ireland. He looked at me and casually said: ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ This scared me because I most definitely had not made up my mind and was very unsure about whether this was a good idea or not. But it proved one thing to me: sometimes others understand things about you sooner than you understand them yourself.

The choice of the bar we were in was also very significant to me making big plans. One main reason to leave Berlin is to begin a new job, learn new skills and start fresh. And as fullfilling as English teaching has been for me, I am ready to quit it and do other things. The bar was called ‘Eselsbrücke’ and the direct translation into English is ‘donkey bridge’. An ‘Eselsbrücke’ in linguistics is a mnemonic or a memory hook: something to help a student commit something to memory by comparing it to something else. I think I have been a fairly good English teacher showing compassion and patience for my many hundreds of students over the years, but the one question that has been asked of me repeatedly by so many German students is this: ‘Gibt es dafür eine Eselsbrücke?’ which means ‘Is there some easy way for me to remember this vocabulary, some memory hook?’ and usually I have no clue how to answer this. I generally just say that I am sorry and they will have to just make the effort and learn the vocabulary without any ‘Eselsbrücke’ to guide them. I really don’t have the heart to tell them the true meaning and origin of the word which is Pons Asinorum in Latin (the bridge of donkeys) which is the name given to Euclid’s fifth proposition in the Elements of geometry. The term comes from the fact that learning the fifth proposition was a bridge to learning all the others that come after it and it was a test to see who was intelligent enough to master it, or who was too stubborn (as is a donkey) and slow to get it. I am afraid I cannot provide a ‘donkey bridge’ for my students. I am a freelance English teacher. The students have to learn the vocabulary themselves and that is where my patience runs out. My suggestion to them: read as much English as possible and then you will get the words in context. I want to push myself over the bridge at this point and learn new things and move onto a new job. I am ready and I am determined to not be stubborn and closed-minded.

Flag vines

A little later in January I was sitting on the beautiful, secondhand pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt reading ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed. It was minus ten degrees outside and I read how Strayed sometimes froze at night while camping and hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington and is the more challenging and lesser known sister trail to the Appalachian Trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. ‘Wild’ is a delightful and inspiring memoir and Strayed is a smart and sassy lady. Her story was hugely inspiring to me and really pushed it home to me how a long, long hike spent mainly alone in the wilderness is a great metaphor for life. The uphills and the downhills, the bears and rattlesnakes, the people she meets who feed her, guide her and nourish her. But ultimately, she is alone and she has chosen this. She has sold and given away all her things and she is out on a hike to find herself. I sat on my couch both afraid and inspired. I was warm and snuggly on the couch. I had hot tea, nice snacks, my notebooks. Everything was cozy and comfortable, but I was wracked with indecision. ‘It sounds like you have already made up your mind.’ I couldn’t forget what my Australian friend had said to me at the bar. I had not made up my mind yet but a voice was growing stronger and stronger inside me: ‘You need to leave Berlin and shake things up a bit. It is time.’ I battled with this voice, fought it bitterly, told it it was being irrational and to please just go away and leave me alone. A few days later my Australian friend came back to visit me and as he was sitting next to me on the pink IKEA couch I made up my mind. All at once it was crystal clear: I had to leave Berlin and move back to Ireland. I am sure that his presence aided me in making the decision. It seemed he really had sensed my decision before I had made it. I told him at the time that he was one of my ‘angel people’ as writer Natalie Goldberg likes to call them: people who come into your life and guide you, inspire you and nourish you right at a time when you need them most. In ‘Wild’ Cheryl Strayed also writes of ‘trail angels’: the people who come and camp for the summer right along the Pacific Crest Trail. They are there to greet the hikers who emerge from the woods after weeks alone in the wilderness, who having eaten nothing more than oatmeal, rice and trail mix, are ravenous. Strayed says how she really tried to eat in a civilised manner when one such trail angel put a plate of potato salad, green beans and a big juicy burger in front of her. After she had wolfed down the entire plate of food her host wordlessly placed another burger and another helping of potato salad onto her plate. He knew she needed it and appreciated it fully. He had come into her life when she desperately needed nourishment.

When I read the last sentence of ‘Wild’ I put the book down and thought: ‘Wow! What an incredibly brave woman and what a crazy adventure she had’. I glanced around my living room and looked at all the junk that me, my family and my friends had managed to amass in my apartment over the past decade. ‘Where did all this crap come from?’ I gasped, and I knew what I had to do: start sorting through it all and getting rid of it, and I knew it was going to take awhile. Strayed got rid of all her stuff and went on an adventure and that is what I want to do.

Within a few days I realised that I had not one, but two copies of Christopher Isherwood’s ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ on my bookshelf. I have two copies but I have only read the book once. I love the book and so I flung open the first page of one of the copies and started reading it again. This is why I knew it would take time for me to say goodbye to Berlin: I have multiple copies of the same book in my library and I won’t be able to get rid of them until I read at least parts of them again. A sentence on the first page of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ conveyed a powerful message to me. Isherwood writes this: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all of this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.’ It occured to me that no matter how much I take my life in Prenzlauer Berg for granted, and no matter how much it has all become daily routine involving me walking down the street with my eyes shut, as is the habit when you have lived somewhere a long time, it is now imperative that I wake up to my surroundings and pay attention to the details. I must, as Isherwood wrote, be a camera with its shutter open, really absorbing the details, taking notes and photographs for my future writings about Berlin, for if I don’t really pay attention now, I will regret it later.

mauer park

middle of street

One afternoon when I finished work early, I consciously took about half an hour to walk from the train station to my apartment. I photographed the buildings and the plants, the skies and the shadows. I walked down the middle of the street to get a new perspective. I stopped and scrutinised things I hadn’t seen before. I tried to really take in my whole street with all my senses open and alive. When I got home, I made a cup of hot peppermint tea and I sat on my balcony and took in the fantastic view. I really do have a great balcony and a great view. I can, just as Isherwood did, observe my neighbours and the activities of the street. It is a colourful and interesting view. The swifts fly and chirp and hunt bugs on a summer evening and the sun reflects back onto me from the windows on the opposite buildings. I can look over the old border and see former West Berlin from my former East Berlin apartment and I can reflect on what that view has meant to so many people over the decades.


‘But you can’t leave Berlin, you ARE Berlin!’ one of my long term American friends in Berlin said in dismay when I announced to him that I was leaving. Yet another said ‘But your place is an institution! Are you SURE you want to leave?’ I have been fielding comments like this for months and as flattering as it is for people to say that ‘I am Berlin’ I am choosing to really listen to the people who have faith in my plan which is slowly taking shape: Find a room and a job in Dublin and move there with about twenty percent of what I currently own and start over. My fear of change is slowly turning into excitement and anticipation. I feel very strongly that radical change is essential for further growth right now, and it seems that as I continue to pull books off my shelf and read excerpts from them before either giving them away or packing them into a box to be shipped to Ireland, that every book is conveying some powerful message to me. In the wake of Maya Angelou’s death I grabbed my copy of ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and reread the whole book. Angelou writes: ‘The need for change bulldozed a road down through the centre of my mind.’ I can most certainly relate to this. She also writes: ‘There is a time in every man’s life when he must push off from the wharf of safety into the sea of chance.’ This adventure through my library is proving inspiring indeed for my upcoming leap into the unknown.

dappled light

I realise now what the problem was last January: I really was cozy and comfortable sitting on the pink IKEA couch wrapped in my pink and purple quilt. In fact, I was way too comfortable. It was the sort of comfort that is stifling and blinding. It is the sort of security that terrifies me. This is not the first time I found myself sitting on a comfortable IKEA couch in Berlin and realised strongly the the comfort and security of it half scared me to death with suffocation and that I simply had to escape and live on the edge again. Exactly five years earlier on a cold January night I was sitting on a more expensive white IKEA couch in the lovely, clutter free living room of my then German boyfriend. He had a great job and was willing to spend a lot of money on me and on him for all sorts of material comforts to make us happy. My English teaching job was merely a hobby in his eyes, one that I would naturally quit once I had his baby. And as much as I am ready to quit English teaching and change careers now, it was an insult to me that he considered my job merely a fun kind of pastime until I get married and become a German housewife. I left that lovely comfortable white couch and I left that boyfriend and returned to my old cardboard GDR couch and continued to support myself alone on my English teaching job which has been my very real career for the past 14 years and not just some fun hobby. I felt alive again, like I had shaken things up and had returned to my life and who I really was. Has the loss of the cardboard GDR couch somehow really been instrumental in me wanting to shake things up yet again? What is it about the comfort of IKEA couches that makes me want to run away, give everything up and start a new adventure?

flower pots

Ernest Hemingway once said that you can only really write about a place when you have left it behind you and have some perspective on it. Some friends of mine say: ‘Oh but won’t you really miss Berlin, you have been here so long?’ and I tell them that of course I will miss Berlin, and there will be nostalgia and I will have moments of regret and uncertainty about the choices I have made, but it has been said over and over that the happiest and most successful people seem to be the ones who listen to and follow that inner voice. It does seem very true that you will always regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do, so I will follow the inner voice as well as the voices of the many writers I admire who provide me with constant wisdom and guidance every time I pull a book off my shelf and look for the guidance. I trust the voice of Ernest Hemingway when he tells me I will write better about Berlin when I am removed from Berlin and have some perspective on it. And so I continue, day by day, to sort through my books: taking them off the shelf, flinging them open and finding solace and guidance in them before deciding whether to put them into a box to ship to Ireland or a box to donate to charity or give to friends. One book that is definitely going into a box to ship home is my Norton Anthology of Poetry, for it is the book that provides me the most comfort when I am overcome with fear or insecurity. Moving is stressful and it is taxing emotionally and physically, but I am reminded in the poetry of W.H. Auden that all will work out and my moments of distress will pass, as time passes:

In headaches and in worry

Vaguely life leaks away

And Time will have his fancy

Tomorrow or today

O look, look in the mirror

O look in your distress;

Life remains a blessing

Although you cannot bless

If I have any distress about leaving Berlin for the unknown, I remind myself that my choice to leave is purely my own and no one is forcing me to do it. I have my support network and I have faith that it will work out. W.H. Auden also had a close friend and mentor, none other than Christopher Isherwood. They set sail for the United States in 1939, on the eve of war, on temporary visas, which was a controversial move. I think of the adventures and trials they must have faced, but knowing that they had their literary muses and writing to keep them going. I will also write my way though my adventure and embrace uncertainty. As for the two copies of ‘Goodbye to Berlin’ that I posess? Well, one is going in my hand luggage the day I leave, and the other is going to the flea market.

Rhea Balcony

And so, in my last weeks in Berlin, I continue to do as Isherwood says: ‘be a camera with its shutter open’. My neighbourhood is so familiar and only fails to be interesting to me when my eyes are closed. Last week I took a leisurely walk over to my mother’s old street in Prenzlauer Berg. It was a beautiful, hot day and along the way I stopped at one of my favourite ice cream shops. I usually just say ‘Oh, I will have a scoop of raspberry sherbet please’ because that is my favourite flavour and I order it on autopilot, just as I walk down my street on autopilot. This time, however, I paused and I ordered a flavour I had never sampled before: Waldmeister, which is the German for sweet woodruff. It is the same flavour that they put in the popular Berliner Weisse beer. As I strolled along my mother’s old street to go and stand in front of and photograph the apartment that she and my sisters lived in from 1990 to 2001, a very drunk old German man approached me and said with despair ‘Everything used to be better here, you have no idea how things have changed here, no idea.’ I looked at him and said ‘In fact, I do know how things have changed here, some things are better and some things are worse. I have been here a long time too.’ I stood and chatted to the drunk for a few moments discussing life and change in Prenzlauer Berg. We were bonded, momentarily, by nostalgia. I will never know exactly what he was thinking and what he missed about the past, but I do know where my thoughts were: they were on the time I first walked up the stairs to my mother and sisters’ apartment when I first came to Berlin to visit them in 1991 with my younger brother from our father’s home in Ireland when I was 16.

I said goodbye to the drunk man, wished him a nice day and walked away, not looking back, knowing that this was a final goodbye to my mother’s place. I see no reason to return there again. I would like to honour the rituals of departure: once you have taken your leave from something or someone it is unpleasant to have to do it again. And to the people who say I can always return to Berlin if I am not happy elsewhere, I can only say that is highly unlikely to happen. Why would I come back to a city that I have spent half a year taking my leave from? There are endings and there are new beginnings. With my departure I am very aware that I am closing not only my own sojourn in Berlin, but also that of my family’s: when I leave I am ending nearly a quarter of a century of my family living in Prenzlauer Berg. It will truly be the end of an era.

Donkey bridge Ayse

 Die Brücke by Ayse Domeniconi

When I arrived home, I made a cup of black tea and sat on the pink IKEA couch once more. As I sat there, deep in reverie, my eyes settled on a painting that I have on my wall that is the work of one of my mother’s oldest friends in Berlin who she met nearly a quarter of a century ago. The painting is acrylic with deep shades of blues, reds, black and forest green. It is a rather unreal painting with the colours fading together. In it you can see a bridge with a donkey halfway across it, pulling its load in a cart behind it. Hovering over the bridge and the donkey there is an angel. I suddenly sat bolt upright on the couch in amazement. ‘A donkey, a bridge and an angel? Wow! How crazy is that?’ I was going to give away all my paintings, but suddenly this painting has too much meaning for me. I think I am going to have to splurge and have it shipped back to Ireland. It truly is amazing, this phase of living, as Christopher Isherwood says, like a camera with its shutter open. I wonder if I can continue to live like this as I start the next chapter of my life. It certainly makes all of life more rich, vibrant and whole.


Apartment Gallery

5 Jul

As I prepare to say goodbye to Berlin and about eighty percent of my belongings, I have taken my camera in hand and photographed all the artwork, posters and maps that are hanging in my apartment. I thought putting them all in a little gallery here would be the best way to preserve them. Some of the artwork is by two old friends of my mother’s, Shirin Begum and Ayse Domeniconi. I also have work by my friend Michaela Faber, plus a Tara Brooch that was given to me by one of my ‘angel people’ (angel people, according to writer Natalie Goldberg are people who come into your life when you need them most). There is a photograph of the waterfall near my family’s house in Ireland and a poster for an exhibition that was ripped from a lamppost by a visiting artist friend- ‘Reclaim Your City’. She ended up putting it on my bedroom door. These images tell some of the story of my life and my family’s life in Berlin and elsewhere. The first image is of the good old map of Berlin that hangs in my hallway:

Berlin map

shirin beach

‘Arid Hills’ by Shirin Begum. This painting is based on the beach at Gumusluk, Turkey where our family spent many summers.

Reclaim your city  Haight Ashbury

 ‘Reclaim Your City’ claimed aptly, from a city lamppost and put on my bedroom door. And a poster I bought at the Haight Ashbury street fair in San Francisco.

 shirin naked girl

 ‘Waiting for You’  by Shirin Begum. This painting has hung over my bed for the past decade!

Tara brooch

Glass Engraved Image of Tara Brooch given to me by a very special angel guide

Ayse pastel      Donkey bridge Ayse

Pastel flowers by Ayse Domeniconi and acrylic on canvas ‘Die Brücke’ (The Bridge) This painting holds special significance for me and is described in my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’.

shirin horse

Shirin Begum

Waterfall Coomhola

Photo of Coomhola Waterfall near my home in Ireland by Marc Holden.

ayse woodcutting Ayse lamp

More beautiful artwork by Ayse Domeniconi: ‘Bathers’ and an Egyptian couple in a lamp

shirin boat

‘Tropical Hideaway’ by Shirin Begum (based on Gumusluk, Turkey)

Anna Remann

Painting of Gallery on Kopenhagenerstrasse by Anna Zur Nieden

shirin twins

‘Only to See You’ by Shirin Begum

Slow Travel Poster   Soren Kierkegaard Poster

Slow Travel Berlin Guidebook Launch Poster and Soren Kierkegaard Exhibit poster at Haus Am Waldsee

Shirin flowers

 ‘Red Blossoms with Aloe’ by Shirin Begum

michaela faber lighter

‘Lighter in Red’ by Michaela Faber