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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

Essay about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’

22 Apr

by Rhea H.Boyden


Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1964, Hans Helmut Kornhuber, the chief physician at the department of neurology at Freiburg University, and Lüder Deecke, his doctoral student went for lunch in the beautiful and serene garden of the ‘Gasthaus zum Schwanen’ at the foot of the Schlossberg hill in Freiburg. Their discussion over lunch was about their frustration at worldwide attempts thus far to investigate self-initiated action of the brain and the will. They were inspired, no doubt in part, by the fresh mountain air of the Black Forest to push ahead in their research using the primitive (but most advanced for the time) brain imaging tools at the university. After many test cases and a lot of research, the EEG (electroencephalogram) readings showed that there is an electrical signal in the brain that proves we are going to move a body part even before we want to move it. They had discovered the ‘Readiness potential’ or ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and debates on whether or not we have free will continue to today in all disciplines from neuroscience to psychology and philosophy.

Now I am no scientist and my knowledge of neuroscience is limited. I have read articles about Alzheimer’s in an attempt to grasp a basic understanding of the disease which is rapidly stripping my dear mother of all sense and vitality, and I have read some articles in the past week or so to understand the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ the latest release by Automating which is the solo project of soundscape artist Sasha Margolis from Melbourne, Australia.


                                                Lüder Deecke- Bereitschaftspotential Brain Image Scan

I have listened to the piece several times through with my good headphones relishing in Sasha’s sounds once again, with my eyes closed in meditation dozing into a dream world and seeing where it takes me thereafter in my writing. I have thought long and hard about why he has titled this piece ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and what he intends with this title. I have come to the conclusion that it is a heavy and loaded title that has led my thinking and reading to some dead ends and frustration about what to do with all my notes that I have been frantically scribbling trying to make sense of it all from a neuroscientific perspective.

I have decided, therefore to not dwell too much more on the title and have a look at it from a more poetic and philosophical angle, for therein lies my ability to make sense of it. Here I quote Friedrich Nietzsche to send me in a better direction: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’

Nietzsche spent much of his time in the same stretch of mountains and woods not far from where Kornhuber and Deecke carried out their work, (more than half a century earlier)  and he found the fresh mountain air and peace most conducive to working in. He would take long walks in the woods stopping to take notes before returning to his room to continue working. Quite apart from his many groundbreaking philosophical ideas and writings, Nietzsche took a great interest in the human body.

I believe one reason I have become so frustrated in trying to write this review is because the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ forces me to think I should be writing about the mind, brain and consciousness when what I really want to write about here is the body. Nietzsche believed that what living things sought above all, was to discharge their physical strength. He also believed that knowledge was rooted in the body and that the whole of Western philosophy had a deep misunderstanding of the human body. It is little wonder that Nietzsche took such an interest in the body; he suffered immensely thoughout his life from various ailments, many of which were symptoms of the syphilis he supposedly picked up in a brothel during his student days. It is no coincidence that a large part of his philosophy contends that human suffering is inevitable and indeed, necessary to go though in order to achieve greater goals.


 Photo of Statue of John Henry by Ken Thomas

This idea of Nietzsche’s that living things seek to dispel their energy makes me think of the core of Sasha’s philosophy behind his work and I quote from his website: ‘Sifting through the sonic waste and discarded technology left by the roadside of a world speeding too fast into the future.’ It makes me think of the men who have been replaced time and time again by machines, rendering their bodies and ability to dispel their physical energy useless, in essence, emasculating them. We do have a lot of waste out there, both physical and sonic and I believe it is the duty of everyone to reuse it all in some useful way. If machines have all but replaced our physical work, then what to do with all the machines once they turn to waste but to turn them into art to provide us consolation as we gaze at these post-industrial wastelands. Sasha deals with found sound in his work, but many others work with found objects; turning industrial artifacts that were not intended for artistic purposes into art to make a point, among other things, about waste.

‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions, runs for a little over 20 minutes and it is serious food for thought. To me the opening sounds are entirely industrial and repetitive. It is evocative of a machine turning or a small animal digging, trying desperately to get some job done and then in frustration giving up. I hear an electrical generator trying to start and then failing. This failing is frustrating to the humans who are trying to use this generator perhaps, but the peace they can then enjoy is then ever more appreciated; an appreciation which is then heard in birdsong. Quiet contemplation is to be found in nature and not to the sound of a generator.

The idea of this sound being either an animal or a machine is very exciting to me because there are so many examples in which we can compare an animal or a human to its machine counterpart. One example that immediately springs to mind is the horse. It was largely replaced by the train in the United States as the great railway building projects began there. And as exciting as it was to have all these new railways going across the country, they were built at a great cost in men’s lives.

Construction of Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia commenced in 1870 and the work was treacherous for the many men working on this project. They would have welcomed today’s tunnel drilling equipment (and dynamite). At least one hundred men died digging the tunnel, many of them black men. There is a legend about a certain John Henry who has been immortalised in a ballad performed by many singers including Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. He worked on the railroad and was a ‘steel driving man’ and proud of it. One day however, a salesman came to town boasting that a steam-powered drill could outdrill any of the men. A race began, machine against man and John Henry won, beating the steam drill, but he eventually collapses when his body can take it no longer and dies leaving behind his wife Polly Ann and a baby. There is a constant beating of a drum in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which to me is the steady march of the working man before he collapses. To repeat Nietzsche’s quote: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’ Is this the battle of good and evil between man’s body and the uses and abuses of the machine?


 Photo of Thomas Bayrle Exhibit at Documenta 13 by Erin Reilly

A couple years ago at the Documenta Contemporary art show I was standing with a friend observing an exhibit by German artist Thomas Bayrle. It was a pumping piston, and as we both stared at it she suddenly said: ‘It’s so sexual’. I had to agree with her. Bayrle says that he believes machines are a reflection of the body and he draws inspiration for his artwork from the precision of machines and engineering. Indeed, what can we do but work artistically with all these wasteful things we have created? Bayrle’s was only one of many exhibits at Documenta that provoked commentary on the effect of machines and waste on our bodies and the environment. In our post-industrial society many men have been left unemployed by the subsequent collapse of many of the machines that once sought to replace them. For the first time in history women hold more jobs and more college degrees in the United States than men and the implications of this are serious indeed for those who still believe in and strive for traditional family structure. A whole reshuffling of gender roles continues to happen and many men and women suffer from confusion and anxiety at what role they should play and a general frustration at modern dating rituals and body image. I know that one of my biggest sources of solace is to get lost in reading and writing and collaborating on meaningful projects with others. In doing so I can escape from the fact that I am nearly 39 years old and single, and have not necessarily fullfilled a certain role that a large part of society expects of me by this age. Thankfully I have an open-minded family who let me do whatever I want and are supportive and don’t judge me, but many women, and men too, suffer from not fullfilling certain expectations; especially when it comes to getting married and having children.

Most of the time I enjoy my solitude and only rarely do I get lonely. The constant barrage of city noise, human noise and industrial noise is hard to escape, and I relish it when I can get away from it. There is a lovely part in ‘Bereitschaftpotential’ that seems to me to be the sound of engines being swallowed by birdsong which again says that nature is triumphant over industrial noise. It signals a retreat into nature where we can again listen to our bodies and give them the peace and rejuvenation that they need. For without a healthy body it is very hard to have a healthy and clear mind to produce new poetry, songs and stories. Indeed, there is a burst of birdsong in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which is evidence to me that the willful person or animal has happily found peace again amongst the elements. The piece ends very abruptly leaving you suddenly staring into an abyss of silence which is quite uncomfortable. As much as we humans seek silence, its suddenness and completeness can be disconcerting. Nietzsche also said: ‘if you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’


Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman 1882 (Princeton Archive)

I have spent considerable time gazing into an abyss and thinking about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and in the final analysis I can say that it has inspired me to think of our bodies, machines, animals, birds, walking in the woods, new creativity and then I think repeatedly about the horse. 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar and it is a great year to gallop ahead into new adventure and take some risk. As I mentioned earlier, it was the horse’s body that was replaced by machines. 2014 is also exactly one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One which showed the disasterous consequences of cavalry warfare mixed with modern machine guns. Again: Bodies against machines! And to conclude it must be pointed out that Nietzsche, in his madness, finally broke down and embraced a horse that had collapsed on the streets of Turin in January 1889 before he then went completely mad and was commited to a sanitorium. There have been various speculations as to what was going through Nietzsche’s mind at the time, but I like to believe the assumption that it was the philosopher who was most skeptical of showing compassion for human suffering finally showing it for himself (he loathed self-pity) and for one of the most beautiful of animals, in a vain hope that both their bodies can have the will to survive against the machines and noise that drive them both mad.

Featured image is artwork by Ieva Arcadia accompanying  ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions (courtesy of Sasha Margolis).

Link to listen to and purchase ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ by Automating on Bandcamp:

Miss Shine and Mister Black – Part Two

8 Dec

Ruby Mccoy image Juliet

By Rhea H. Boyden

Miss Shine hits the snooze button for the third time. It is a dark, cold morning in late November and she really does not feel like getting up for work. She stands in front of her wardrobe unsure of what to wear. She rummages through her many clothes and eventually pulls out her green mini skirt. ‘I should either throw some of these clothes away or wear them more often!’ she grumbles to herself. She puts on the skirt and admires it in the mirror. It is the skirt she was wearing the first time she met Mister Black five years previously at the Christmas market when the fat snowflakes were falling. ‘I like this skirt. I don’t think I have worn it in two years.’ She thinks, ‘and this is precisely the reason I do not throw clothes away, because suddenly they have new life and I feel like wearing them again.’ This is the only way she can justify having an overflowing wardrobe. She likes her clothes. Wearing the skirt brings back memories of Mister Black. He liked the skirt too.

She has not seen Mister Black in over two years and is finally putting the whole drama behind her. All the vodka she drank, all the misery. The endless phone calls and emails with Mister Black trying to show him and convince him that she loved him and could not live without him. But nothing helped. Nothing moved him. He would date her, he said, but he would not engage emotionally. She was a mess and he would do nothing to console her. Eventually she had to try and move on and make a life without him. Was her life good without him? Eventually it was becoming better and she was beginning to forget him despite not having met another man. She was sober and throwing herself into her career and was doing very well with it. As much as she would like a new boyfriend, her work was very fulfilling and she supposed at some point another man would come along and love her in ways Mister Black refused to.

She wishes she had gotten up a little earlier so she could do her hair and make up and look a little nicer to complement the skirt that she so loves, but her bed was so comfortable this morning. She has one glance in the mirror and notices that she has a bit of facial hair sprouting on her chin and the faint shade of a moustache growing. She really does not like being a hairy woman but what can she do. Is she full of testosterone? She is constantly using tweezers and hair removal cream to keep these annoying hairs at bay. They are not a big deal, loads of women get them, but they are so unfeminine, and just another vexing task one has to keep up with: hair removal. No one else really notices these faint hairs, but she does, and she doesn’t like them. She pulls on her purple hat, puts her headphones over them and skips out the door to work. The hat is not really flattering either but it is cold. No need to be vain.

Miss Shine is sitting on the train and suddenly she looks up sees Mister Black standing there playing with his iphone. He looks up and stares right at her, but does not see her and then stares back at the iphone. She sits there, stunned. ‘Is that really Mister Black standing right there or am I imagining things?’ She composes herself and then gets up and walks right over to him and says ‘Hello’. He just stares at her in amazement and eventually composes himself enough to say ‘I didn’t recognize you with the hat on!’ ‘How are you?’ she stammers. ‘I am fine’, he says. ‘I haven’t shaved!’ he announces uncomfortably. Miss Shine thinks again about her facial her and feels uncomfortable about that. All she can think is that at least he is a man and has a good excuse for facial hair, but she is feeling mortified about hers, which no one else really notices but herself. It’s not like she is Frida Kahlo, for God’s sake. Why are they both so concerned with hair right now? Is this all one can think about after not seeing each other for over two years. ‘Yeah, I just crawled out of bed too.’ This statement is presumably to put them both at ease at being caught unaware and unkempt. ‘I am working seven days a week at the moment.’ She says, ‘Work is full on and I don’t really have time every morning for hair and make up.’

When they were dating they always looked good for each other. Always dolled up and ready for their exciting dates. Now they are forced to look at each other in the morning, on the train, both disheveled and not as they would wish to be seen by the other. The air is tense between them. The chemistry is still there. It never dies. William Faulkner once said that the past was not dead and that it was not even the past. Miss Shine agrees with Faulkner because she is not good at letting the past go.  People are always telling her to forget the past and move on, but this is impossible for a writer. She also agrees with Noam Chomsky who said the following: ‘the highest goal in life is to inquire and to create; to search the riches of the past and try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you and carry that quest for understanding further in your own way.’ But she really has spent the past two years trying to banish Mister Black from her mind and now here he is standing right in front of her again and he looks even better than he ever did. She likes his facial hair. And they are actually really happy to see each other. She knows very well that she would run the other direction if she encountered certain other exes, but despite how badly it ended between her and Mister Black they are truly happy to talk to each other now. She proudly shows him the flyer to her book launch party. ‘What about the marketing?’ Mister Black quizzes her. ‘Have you got that covered?’ He was always questioning everything and provoking her and he has not changed, she can see that. ‘He is dealing with the marketing’ she responds. ‘Who is he?’ Mister Black demands of with her with great curiosity, staring searchingly into her eyes. ‘My boss at the magazine.’ Miss Shine responds, nervously. Eventually they reach Mister Black’s stop and he gives her a big meaningful hug and then he exits the train. He stands on the platform and they just stare at each other as the doors close. Miss Shine thinks of Emily Dickinson’s quote ‘Parting is all we need to know of hell.’

Miss Shine is happy, stunned, confused and of course, in hell. She is still in love with Mister Black, of that she is sure. Parting with him was always hell. And she can tell by the way he was acting towards her that he still has feelings for her, but she also knows that this is dangerous territory to be revisiting. She must also remember how cold he was at times and how he vexed her no end and how she drank and drank and was miserable with him despite their intense sexual relationship. How he rarely wanted to see her, how she pined for him and missed him and how she drove both him and herself mad with her over analyzing of the whole relationship. Her life has truly improved since she quit drinking and Mister Black is gone. This is the rational side of Miss Shine’s brain thinking. But then there is her heart and the fantastical and obsessive side of her brain that makes it impossible for her to forget this little encounter on the train. Mister Black is once again the leading man in her thoughts. What can she do about it? Everywhere she turns she thinks of him and sees some relevance to him. Once again she pines for him. The writer in Miss Shine is always searching for connections where they did not lie before. Connecting the seemingly unconnected and using her imagination to create stories and articles is what she does, day in day out. She writes down her obsessions and she follows her heart. It is what she is good at. Stories, articles, poetry and diary entries. She constantly writes. She is a big fan of Hungarian- British Journalist Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation that posits that the creative act is being able to link the unlinkable and create new ideas out of disparate ones that previously had nothing to do with each other. She lives and breathes this idea every day in her work, ever searching for connections. Most of the time this is a blessing for Miss Shine. Suddenly, however, it has become a curse.

She thinks again of the skirt. How strange it is that she should put on the skirt again that she wore the first time she met Mister Black and suddenly while wearing it for the first time in two years she runs into him. This is a crazy coincidence and for her. She writes Mister Black an email and tells him how happy she was to see him and how she still cares for him and that it was always her wish to keep dating him and that she is successful and happy in her job now and that she does not drink anymore and that her life is drama free. He writes back and tells her that he is happy that she has found something that makes her happy and wishes her the best with her book launch. He says no more. Miss Shine is disappointed and hurt. She knows he still feels something for her. It was so obvious after their encounter on the train. She has admitted her faults and said sorry for past drama and she has accused him of nothing. But he has not changed. Now was his chance to say he was sorry for treating her badly and he is not doing it. This drives Miss Shine completely crazy. She sits down and writes him a ten page letter telling him that she loves him and wants him to love her and why can they not start again and she forgives him. The letter is written from the heart and it is a good letter. She spends hours composing it. She then deletes the letter and is relieved that she did not send it to him. He doesn’t deserve the letter. She has already told him she misses him and she was happy to see him, there is little point in saying more. She puts the green skirt away and goes to bed and tries not to think about him. Tries not to see connections in everything. She is determined to not write to him again, banish him from her mind and go back to her happy, drama free life.

‘In the dark the mind runs on like a devouring machine, the only thing awake in the universe.’ Miss Shine reads this line from ‘White Noise’ by Don de Lillo and she relates to it completely. Her mind is like a devouring machine once again. Who was it, she wonders who said ‘The mind repeats what the heart can’t delete?’ The conversation with Mister Black on the train is on repeat in her head. The very tension of how she greeted him with a simple ‘Hello’. She repeats the word ‘hello’ over and over, remembering how it sounded and how he reacted to it. She could have pulled her hat down over her facial hair and ignored him and hidden from him but now the word ‘hello’ has come to bear so much weight and meaning. ‘It was the same weighty and meaningful ‘hello’ that he had greeted her with on their first date. She remembers the details. She remembers practically every detail of every word spoken between them on every date. Why does she remember this? Because their dates were so precious and so rare that every act and every word carries its own special weight and meaning.

She goes to an art exhibition to try and get her mind off of Mister Black. While sitting at a table with the curator of the show and some of the exhibiting artists the curator offers her a cookie. ‘The cookies are letters’ he says. ‘Each one will have a special meaning.’ Miss Shine takes a letter cookie from the box. It is an X. She says nothing. The curator then says ‘Oh you have an X! What could that mean? Anything to do with ex boyfriends?’ Miss Shine says nothing. She munches silently on her X cookie. She looks at the artwork in the exhibit and tries not to think of Mister Black. She sees a painting by an artist named Jade MacEwan. The painting shows a distraught woman with a knife stuck in her breast. ‘So can you tell me what you intended to portray with this painting?’ Miss Shine asks the artist with a smile. ‘Yes’ she says ‘It is based on Romeo and Juliet… It is Juliet’s despair at finding Romeo has poisoned himself, so she kills herself with the dagger. And it actually has another meaning behind it’ she says ‘about the general despair women find themselves in over men at times. That is why she is sitting in the poison. It’s symbolic. Pretty much all my paintings rely on symbolism.’ Miss Shine stares at the painting. She can see that the ‘poison’ is a bottle of spilled wine. She thinks of Mister Black again. She remembers how she drank a lot of wine to help her deal with her despair over Mister Black. ‘Arthur Koestler be damned!’ thinks Miss Shine to herself. The Theory of Bisociation is far more subtle than this. It talks about relating the unrelated in creativity. There is nothing subtle here. Everything she sees reminds her of Mister Black in a glaring and loud manner. She moves on to the next painting in the hopes it will reveal something different to her. ‘These paintings are by British artist Kyli John and they are named ‘Collision Series’’ the curator announces. These brightly coloured acrylic paintings portray the mash of feelings that are created when a couple collide. They portray energy and tension between men and women.’ Miss Shine can hear no more of this. She excuses herself and goes home through the wind and rain. She will go home and put on a cheesy movie, think no more about art and journalism. She will eat chocolates and try and forget about Mister Black. She arrives home and does just that only to discover within five minutes that the film is set in Mister Black’s hometown which is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Her heart sinks and she is lonely. The next night she goes on a press pass to the grand opera house to see ‘West Side Story’ which is another Romeo and Juliet themed story. It makes her think of the painting at the gallery and of the long love letter she wrote to Mister Black but did not send. Seeing the young lovers profess their eternally dying love to each other makes her think the love letter is a good idea after all. She loves Mister Black and she wants him to know it. She is reminded of a Mayan Sun King who loved his wife so much that he had both their tombs built just so: every spring and autumn at the equinox, the sun would rise in the east it would cast a shadow of his tomb that would fall on her tomb and then when it set in the west in the evening it would cast a shadow of her tomb back onto his tomb. This has been happening for the past thirteen hundred years and is meant as an everlasting symbol of their love. Miss Shine would love to rewrite the love letter of the symbol of her everlasting love for Mister Black and send it to him, but her pride prevents her. She needs to try and forget him. It is the only thing to do. She also needs to try and forget Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation when she is not working. It is useful for journalism, to be sure, but not in matters of the heart.

Featured image ‘Juliet’ by Jade MacEwan

Musings on Procrastination and Mixed Berry Waffles with Maple Syrup

17 Nov

Zucchinni Casket

By Rhea H. Boyden

This morning I got up just before 10am.  It’s not too early and not too late for a Saturday morning. I can still get a lot achieved if I don’t procrastinate too much and I am well rested to achieve it after a busy week teaching. I always set myself ambitious writing targets for the weekend. If I don’t write a whole article every weekend, I at least have to get a lot of reading done for an upcoming article.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine moved in with me for the winter, and now that I have a roommate I feel compelled to engage more in that other favourite hobby of mine besides writing and that is: cooking.  I joyfully announced to my lovely roommate this morning that I was going to make us waffles with mixed berries, vanilla and maple syrup. She did not object. After enjoying a delicious feast and a couple cups of coffee I finally sat down at my desk to work.

No sooner had I sat down, I felt irritated. There are many different articles and reviews I intend to write over the next few weeks and the question was:  Where do I start? Which one am I in the mood for writing? Which one is actually ready to be written? Which one have I gathered enough material for in order to even strike and begin writing? These and other questions flew through my skull. I did what I do when I am overwhelmed: I procrastinated and started on none of them. Instead I read articles about creativity and procrastination in the hopes that this act would heighten my creativity and end my procrastination.

My reading this morning immediately led me to a quote by award-winning blogger and artist Jessica Hagy who writes ‘How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter which sort, science fiction, science fact, religious texts, IKEA catalogues, telephone directories, comic books and diaries.’ Hagy reminds us that any sentence we read randomly in a book can lead us to new creativity and can open the floodgates to a thousand stories and bring up memories and connect the synapses to get the creative juices flowing again. If you pick up that random book and read a sentence you will find the connections. So that is what I did. I picked up Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ and flung  it open and my eyes fell on this passage: ‘The large round bowl in which a soup was served wasn’t a soup bowl it was a tureen. There were goblets, sherbet glasses, ice-cream glasses, wine glasses, green glass coffee cups, with matching saucers and water glasses. I had a glass to drink from, and it sat with Miss Glory’s on a separate shelf from the others. Soup spoons, gravy boat, butter knives, salad forks and carving platter were additions to my vocabulary and in fact almost represented a new language. I was fascinated with the novelty, with the fluttering Mrs.Cullinan and her Alice in Wonderland house.’

‘Well, there is the connection!’  I thought. This passage reminds me of two things. The restaurant review I am supposed to be writing today on an Alice in Wonderland themed meal I went to a few weeks ago on a press pass and: food. The passage reminded me of how delicious those berry waffles were, and of course that I have some ice-cream in my freezer that I can reward myself with after I have actually achieved something and stopped procrastinating. Thanks Maya Angelou!  I then remembered that it was also Maya Angelou who said the following: ‘You can’t use up creativity, the more you use, the more you have.’ Ok, fine, fair enough. But I am still waiting for inspiration to strike today. I grabbed another book.  ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace. I flung it open too, to a random page and I read the following passage: ‘For those who have never experienced a sunrise in the rural Midwest, it is roughly as soft and romantic as someone’s abruptly hitting the lights in a dark room. This is because the land is so flat that there is nothing to impede or gradualize the sun’s appearance. It is just all of a sudden.’ This passage reminded me immediately of the inspiration I got when I went to the Mies van Der Rohe Haus earlier this year and saw an exhibit by American artist Max Cole who grew up on the Kansas Plains. Her artwork is full of horizontal lines, bands and stripes that she says are a product of the flat environment she lived in. David Foster Wallace’s writing and life in general was also influenced by the vast Midwest landscape. He excelled at tennis and trigonometry which also demand one’s being comfortable with harsh, horizontal lines. I remember how I came home that day and immediately and effortlessly wrote the article about the exhibit I saw there. It just flowed out of me.  That is when writing is the most pleasurable and fun. There was no procrastination that day.

About a month ago I had a similar experience. I went to an exhibition at Haus am Lützowplatz entitled ‘The Living Dead’. I interviewed some of the exhibiting artists, the curator of the show and the artistic director of the gallery. I had intended to write a funny article about death and Halloween and the exhibit. There was one crazy image in the exhibit and a friend of mine said ‘Is that a zucchini casket?’ I looked at the image closer and realized the hilarity of this remark. Indeed. It looked like a zucchini with a skeleton in it. This was definitely more fuel for me to write a crazy article about ‘The Living Dead’ Expo but then, only two days later, I received the incredibly sad news that a childhood friend from home in Ireland had died in a car accident. He was a wonderfully talented musician and this was a huge tragedy for our small community. The tributes to him started flowing in on Facebook and everyone was united in mourning the tragic loss of such a beautiful soul. Naturally, out of respect, I abandoned my funny article about death. I also abandoned my restaurant review. While many people were sad and mourning I did not feel like posting an article about an Alice in Wonderland themed meal either.

Today, after much procrastination, I finally wrote the restaurant review. I also ate a delicious vegetable soup that contained a lot of zucchini to help fuel my writing. The review of the expo ‘The Living Dead’ will never be written and that is fine. I have moved onto new projects. Creativity and motivation flows in mysterious ways, but Maya Angelou has a point: ‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.’ We just can’t always control which direction it will take.  The best I can do is be aware of what is blocking me and take conscious steps to get the creativity flowing again. In this dark November I can also keep myself well fed with tureens of soup and ice cream. My lovely roommate has just returned the favour of the berry waffles and zucchini soup by bringing a huge bar of chocolate to me at my writing desk. It is after midnight and I am still writing. This has been a productive day after all.

(Featured Image by Micheal Wutz GLUE@ Studio Gallery ‘The Living Dead’ at Haus am Lützowplatz)

Impressions and Lessons from Kierkegaard Exhibit at Haus am Waldsee

13 Oct


By Rhea H. Boyden

May 5th 2013 marked the 200th birthday of the Danish Philosopher and Theologian Soren Kierkegaard who is known as the father of existentialism. There have been many celebrations around the world to mark the bicentennial, and The Haus am Waldsee which is a museum for contemporary art in the south of Berlin hosted an exhibit that ran all summer with several performances and lectures being hosted by the exhibiting artists in addition to the exhibit. The Haus am Waldsee is on the edge of a lake in a leafy and idyllic area of Zehlendorf and was originally built as a private villa in 1922. In 1946 it was turned into a museum and the first exhibit it hosted was work by the German sculptor and artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was the first woman to be accepted to the Prussian Art Academy.

The exhibit was based on Soren Kierkegaard’s seminal work ‘Either/Or’ that he wrote in Berlin between 1841 and 1843 and was entitled ‘Either/Or-Through the Mirror of Contemporary Art’. In his book, Kierkegaard distinguishes two personalities: the aesthete whose life is ruled by music, seduction, drama, beauty and sensuality; which is essentially the hedonistic life of a dandy, and the ethicist who values marriage, moral responsibility, critical reflection, political commitment and consistency.

Soren Kierkegaard Poster

The fifteen international exhibiting artists were divided into two groups, the first whose art represented the aesthete and the second the ethicist. The primary concern of the book ‘Either/Or’ was in answering the question posed by Aristotle: ‘How should we live?’ Kierkegaard believed that subjective human experience and the search for individual truth and faith were far more important than the objective truths of mathematics and science which he believed failed because they were too detached to really express the human experience.  He was interested in ‘inwardness’, people’s quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life. He was the inventor of self doubt in its modern form and his work and philosophy is more relevant today than he could have imagined. He believed that each individual had to choose for himself what constituted a life worth living, but that suffering was always going to exist because of regret. One main idea he put forth in ‘Either/Or’ was the question as to whether one should marry or not. His motto was ‘Do it or don’t do it, either way you will regret it.’ The many works in the exhibition especially depict these different major life choices that we must make and stand by. In a world of information overload provided especially by image sculpting in Facebook, it is especially easy to compare our choices to others and to be envious or to believe that the grass is greener. Indeed, how should one live? Get married and have kids, or lead the life of an artist, alone, unmarried, sensual and dreamy? As a 38 year-old single female writer, living alone in modern day Berlin, who sees more and more of my friends settling and getting married, I found the exhibit intriguing and thought provoking.


       Haus Am Waldsee

The biggest provocation of the past week, however, that has finally made me sit down and write this article was a conversation I had with a married father. I had told him that I had gone to the Kierkegaard exhibition and I had been reading a lot about it and that it had inspired me to write an article about it. He just looked at me and said: ‘I have no interest in art at all and find it a waste of time.’ I paused and then asked him why he thought art was a ‘waste of time.’ ‘Well’, he responded, ‘with all the other problems in the world that are far more important and serious why should one waste time with frivolous things like art. Look at the situation in Syria’ he said. ‘But wait’, I said, ‘Don’t you believe that art can help people find meaning and passion in life and and that art can help save people?’ I told him that a friend of mine was currently filming a puppet show to help refugee children in Syria deal with living in conflict regions and did he see no artistic merit in that? ‘I am married and have a family and have no time for art and exhibitions. You have too much time on your hands and spend too much time analyzing and thinking’, he told me. Well. All I can say is that I feel sorry for his children, who apparently won’t be getting any artistic guidance under him.

I found this conversation extremely relevant in discussing my impressions of the Kierkegaard expo, and of course I felt a great sense of pride at not having settled for a mundane bourgeois existence. I felt pride in the choices I have made in my own personal search for the truth and I think Kierkegaard would be proud of me too. Now, I am not implying that all bourgeois existence scorns art and the passion and inspiration that many of us draw from it, but one part of the aesthete section of the exhibit did investigate the question: ‘What place does passion occupy within the context of societal conventions?’ Danish artist Tal R’s exhibit asks this question with a whole room of phallic symbols which is not exactly a subtle metaphor for the existence of sexual fulfillment and passion within a marriage. This part of the exhibit challenges openly how sexually fulfilled one can truly be within a marriage. And of course it provokes the question of bourgeois sexual hypocrisy when one sees how much infidelity and adultery exist which seems to be made easier and more accessible by social media. Facebook, for one, is a huge cause of problems in marriages and relationships. Chats that start out innocently can easily become more emotionally entangled or indeed become full-blown cyber affairs. More and more divorce lawyers these days say that there is one word that keeps coming up in divorce cases and that is: Facebook. (I am not even going to begin talking about pornography on the internet. The problems it causes merits a whole article.)


       Soren Kierkegaard (source: Royal Library of Denmark)

German artist Birgit Brenner, who was also one of the exhibiting aesthetes, deals especially with relations between men and women. Her piece in the exhibit appropriates text from fragments of online chats and Facebook interactions and investigates dramas in cyberspace. She spends two to three hours a day researching, analyzing and reading chats from internet forums and her art pieces deal with ‘accidents on the internet.’

Why would an exhibit about cyberspace be important in a Kierkegaard exhibition? Kierkegaard flourished at a time when mass media was starting to take off and he was a big critic of it as he felt that individuality was impossible when being bombarded by the press. The press made it easy for an individual with no opinion to take on opinions that the journalists fed him and this was in stark contrast to Kierkegaard’s philosophy that each person should strive toward individual truth. Mass media he felt, made people spectators of life and encouraged a herding mentality. Kierkegaard was a contemporary of Karl Marx and their philosophies and views of life could not have differed more. Marx believed that only the objective mattered and that agonizing over individual concerns was unimportant. Kierkegaard disagreed and thought that any reformation that was not fundamentally aware that every single individual needed to be reformed was an illusion. He felt that the spiritual life of the individual was being stifled by communal political and religious illusions. Kierkegaard commenced an attack on the church and felt that Christianity which originally had intended every man to be an individual had been transformed by human meddling into exactly the opposite. He encouraged people to take a ‘leap of faith’ and form a personal relationship to God. He saw that the modern state was secular through and through and a church tied to it was a big mistake.

It has taken me a long time to sit down and write this article because I will admit that I was completely ignorant of Kierkegaard’s philosophy until I went to the exhibit this summer. But the more I read about him the more I like him because I relate to his life choices. Kierkegaard stated that one can really only become an individual by action and decision. Choice is everything and you become who you are based purely on the individual choices you make. I have been accused of being far too subjective in my writing at times and that I should really not talk about myself so much but should be more objective. It may be completely egotistical, but that is impossible for me. I have always taken my own emotions and feelings about something as a starting point for my writing and that is not likely to change. This is how Kierkegaard lived too. He wrote and published nine books about the possibilities of human existence using various pseudonyms, but his starting point was in writing about himself. Initially he had to justify why he had broken off his engagement to the young Regina Olsen, which had caused much scandal, and why he had dedicated himself to the writing life instead. He was faced with two major choices: get married and have an honorable yet modest happiness, or live the life of a writer and be a poet of the spiritual life, an outsider. Kierkegaard decided not to marry as he believed that the unmarried person could venture more in the world of the spirit than the married person.

Regina Olsen


 Regine Olsen painting by Emil Baerentzen

I relate to Kierkegaard because I have made similar choices. I also chose to leave a stable relationship which provided material security and a modest happiness to lead the solitary life of a writer. I knew that the relationship was stifling my individuality and I have not been in a steady relationship since I terminated it 5 years ago. I have dated since, but have chosen the life of a solitary writer. Am I content with this choice? For the most part I am. Naturally, it is hard to see more and more of my friends getting married and having children, but if that was a choice I really wanted to make then I would have made it. I feel at this point the writing life chose me as much as I chose it, so here I am, as always, sitting alone in my Berlin apartment, reading and writing. It’s what I do now and I have embraced this choice even though there are moments of loneliness and doubt. To quote Kierkegaard on writing: ‘I go fishing for a thousand monsters in the depths of my own soul.’ This is what I do too. I am most fulfilled when I look deeply into my soul and ask myself while writing the question posed by Aristotle: How I should live?

To go back to the main idea posed by Kierkegaard in ‘Either/Or’ which is ‘Do it or don’t do it, you will regret it either way.’ Is there any way we can possibly lead a full life and be fulfilled by the choices we make and not have any regrets? Very likely not. I am a big fan of the work of David Foster Wallace and one quote that was posted on the wall in the museum was ‘Hang yourself or don’t hang yourself you will regret it either way.’ Kierkegaard acknowledged that humans lived in a constant state of anguish and despair, and that the preservation of life was a tough one indeed. I can very easily find connections between the work of David Foster Wallace and the philosophy of Kierkegaard. David Foster Wallace hanged himself five years ago which was a tragic loss to the literary world. I would love to know what his thoughts are on modern social media and Facebook interactions. I may not know what he thinks of Facebook, but I have read enough about what he thinks of bourgeois hypocrisy and how he completely makes fun of the herding mentality in our culture, the same herding that Kierkegaard so despised and criticized. In his short story ‘Another Pioneer’ David Foster Wallace demonstrates society’s lack of individuality and herding mentality by telling us a ridiculously funny story of a primitive tribe that lives in the rainforest and worships ‘ Yam Gods’ without question. In the story Foster Wallace writes:

‘Has this villager ever in quiet moments closed his eyes and sat very still and gazed deep inside himself to see whether in his heart of hearts he truly believes in these ill-tempered Yam Gods or whether he’s merely been as it were culturally conditioned from an early age to ape what he has seen his parents and all the other villagers say and do and appear to believe, and whether it has ever occurred to him that perhaps all these others didn’t really truly believe in petulant Yam Gods either but were themselves merely aping what they in turn  saw everyone else behaving as if they believed and so on and so forth, and whether it was possible-just as a thought experiment if nothing else-that everyone in the entire village had at some point seen into their hearts’ hearts and realized that their putative belief  in the Yam Gods was mere mimicry and so felt themselves to be a secret hypocrite and fraud.’


      Image is a very large yam

To me, this is Kierkegaardian through and through. It is critical of religious herding and of bourgeois hypocrisy. David Foster Wallace railed against bourgeois life in his many writings and will always be remembered for his genius and insane sense of humour.

Another piece in the aesthete section of the exhibition was by Belgian artist Tom Hillewaere whose minimalist work exists in the moment and metaphorically shows us the impossibility of mapping out a certain future, try as we may. His piece showed a felt tip pen attached to a balloon with fans aimed at it to make it float around the place randomly while the felt tip pen draws an undetermined path on a raised platform. Ghostly music enhances the melancholy of the exhibit.

Another piece in the aesthete section was by Dutch artist IEPE and the anonymous crew who poured buckets of coloured paint all over Rosenthaler Platz in Berlin Mitte and then filmed it while cars drove through it covering their wheels in paint. This is supposed to celebrate wit, humour, laughter, surprise and spontaneity, but I don’t find it funny at all, I find it annoying and attention seeking. Soiling other peoples’ property in paint for your art project does not really impress me. This is the point where people will say that I am a bourgeois prude and I am too regimented and lack spontaneity and I am one of the stricter ethical people who thinks too much about right and wrong. One of the exhibits in the ethicist part of the exhibit was a film by American Kerry Tribe in which a father is questioning his daughter in depth about ethical questions such as ‘Does your existence depend on your body?’ or ‘Do you move in space or in time?’ It is clear that his 12 year old daughter has been well raised in the art of critical thinking and reflection as she is well able to give thoughtful answers to many deep questions. I likely won’t ever have kids to have such deep talks with, but I have plenty of younger siblings as well as a growing number of younger people who turn to me for guidance in learning English and writing. I have enough people I can mentor and support without having my own children.

Among the other exhibits in the ethicist part was a rotating mechanical shadow play of light that was shaped like a church and was covered in lace. It was a piece by Danish Artist Kirstine Roepsdorf. Roepsdorf was intrigued by Kierkegaard’s criticism of the church’s power, which he thought inhibited rather than nurtured the right relationship to God. There was also an exhibit that dealt with the Breivik massacre in Norway which, from what I gathered, showed the firm commitment that the families of the victims had to their political party, despite the tragedy. I found this to be a bit of an overstatement and quite a controversial thing to have in an exhibition to prove political commitment. I did not spend a lot of time pondering it and I have no further comment on it, as xenophobia is such a large issue that I dare not delve into.

Sitting in the beautiful lakeside garden after the exhibit I had to ask myself where I fit into this ‘Either/Or’ aesthete/ethicist spectrum and I concluded that I actually lie in between. I identify with both. I may not be married and I may not go to church, but I am committed to my writing and to maintaining sobriety after many years of heavy drinking which was a part my hedonistic aesthetic lifestyle. I also value consistency and routine and am not by nature such a spontaneous person. I am very punctual and like order on many levels, but I am also very chaotic, dramatic, sensual and in need of culture enrichment constantly to make my life worth living.

Kierkegaard acknowledged that to truly live the life of the ethicist you have to commit to something and there is a certain tragedy in commitment with the multitude of choices we have today. ‘He is such a commitment phobe!’ you will hear the young woman complaining of the latest guy she is dating. She hopes to marry and is having a hard time getting him to commit. I have moaned about men too, but I also have to acknowledge that I am also a bit of a commitment phobe. I have not committed myself to a steady relationship the past few years and, I suppose, I must admit, it is because I have not really wanted it. I have played more with the idea or fantasy of a relationship with long drawn out involved chats on Facebook with unavailable men who live in other countries. The last section of ‘Either/Or’ is ‘The Seducer’s Diary’ and in it Kierkegaard talks more about how the aesthete enjoys the idea and fantasy of something rather than the actualization of this certain thing. The seducer gains sensuous pleasure not so much from the act of the seduction itself but rather from engineering the possibility of seduction. The aesthete derives pleasure from turning boring, everyday humdrum life into something more interesting or poetic, artistic, or even melodramatic. He is accused then by the ethicist of living in a fantasy world. To this I can most truly relate. Settled or married people have told me many a time that I live in a fantasy world, and I can only concede that they are probably right. Still others have asked me how I can possibly go so long with no alcohol, sex or love life. Well, my writing has been my passion and my various long distance chats have more than sustained me since I quit partying. It is very true that I have been able to stay home every Saturday night for at least 50 weeks in a row and I have been more or less happy. The aesthetic fantasy world of chats and reading and writing has sustained me extremely well. Of course, being a lover of words, it is the eloquent Facebook exchanges with educated and intelligent men that have truly fulfilled me. I have been spoilt for choice and have had it all in Berlin and have experienced the typical anxiety that Kierkegaard warns about in his writings: too much choice leads to anxiety. My night life, heavy drinking, dysfunctional dramatic love affairs, which made a mess of me, were all part of my hedonistic, bohemian life. I regret none of it. Without truly getting it out of my system I would not be able to sit at home happily writing.

Zadie Smith

Photo of Zadie Smith by David Shankbone

I have lived and spoken many voices and many tongues, but I see the beauty in simplifying life and committing and narrowing my choices and experiences down to a few choice pearls as I mature. In her story ‘Speaking in Tongues’ Zadie Smith talks about the different accents she has taken on throughout her life; from cockney to Oxford English to then living in New York. Can one be true to oneself and have many different voices, many different choices or is it duplicitous to lead a many-accented life? This is a good question. I have my Irish accent and my American accent and I speak German. I can choose to wear any language or accent cloak that suits my mood or place. Committing to one of these is impossible for me and has in a sense led to my inability to commit to the solid life of the ethicist. Parts of me yearn to completely belong here, this is why, in part, at least, I attempted to commit to the solid German engineer boyfriend(s) who would have provided the security and status that cement me to German civil life. But the more colourful and aesthetic me balked at this. These many voices are a vice and a virtue and tragedy and a blessing. I am in the middle and I always will be. George Bernard Shaw’s character Eliza Doolittle was also a tragic character stuck in the middle, her voice was too posh for the flower girls and too redolent of the gutter for the ladies in Mrs. Higgins drawing room.

Must one completely commit to belong, or can one lead a mish mash colourful life in the middle and be happy? This is of course, the very reason that Kierkegaard’s philosophy is so hot on his 200th birthday, because so many of us want to truly ‘have it all’ these days even if this leads us to unhappiness. We may want to have it all, but we certainly don’t want to show it all or express it all. Kierkegaard challenged the reader to look for a second face hidden behind the one you see; to really see the truer deeper soul of the person and how he/she feels emotionally and perceives the world. In her story Zadie Smith talks of a Janus-faced duplicity if we do use all our different voices and do not commit to one (Janus being the Roman God with two faces). Tal R’s exhibit of a room full of phallic symbols shows these different faces nicely. The face one shows in honouring a straight up and dutiful life in society, and the deeper, darker, secret passions one has buried deep inside. The person you show yourself to be on your Facebook timeline versus the deeper more in depth chats you have within the safe confines of the lovely rectangular chat box. The box where you tell the person you have come to trust over the months all that moves you deep down; that second face, and those many voices. As Kierkegaard says: ‘Marry or don’t marry, either way you will regret it, hang yourself or don’t hang yourself either way you will regret it’. You have many choices, many voices. It’s up to you to decide. David Foster Wallace reminded us that we get to decide what to worship. This is a big decision. And we get to decide what to show to other people.


David Foster Wallace (Hammer Library L.A. 2006, Creative Commons)

In his short story ‘Good Old Neon’ David Foster Wallace talks at length about being a fraud in life and how there are ‘all the inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices and infinities that you can never show another soul’. This is why, he reminds us that it is good to break down and bare all at times, to speak in tongues to another soul and bear the truth, because you can only keep it all locked up for so long. Outbursts, revolutions and uprisings will always come to the fore. Long involved Facebook chats come to a head and the truth is told. David Foster Wallace speaks of dying as one of these moments when all your voices come out: ‘As though inside you’ he writes ‘is this enormous room full of what seems like everything in the whole universe at one time or another and yet the only parts that get out have to squeeze out through one of those tiny keyholes you see under the knob in old doors.’ Is this dying? Is this the lure of suicide? That everything you always wanted to say and express that was hidden in you gets to come out?

Before I die, (of old age hopefully and with not too much pain) I hope to refine what is true for me and where I fit into this spectrum of either/or aesthete/ethicist. A lot of my heavy drinking came from the typical self-pitying alcoholic stance that is: ‘no one really understands me, I am an outsider, I belong everywhere and nowhere.’ Kierkegaard also felt like this. He said: ‘People understand me so little that they do not even understand when I complain of being misunderstood.’

Now that I am 19 months sober I have left this self-pitying state behind me and have come to see that I can make these many voices and this outsider syndrome work quite well for me. I can write it all down. I can keep on writing it and keep on analyzing it. I can keep on searching for my truth and what best works for me from the multitude of influences that I have been blessed with. I have barely scratched the surface in my search for the truth and I have barely even begun to read Kierkegaard, but I like him a lot so far and I want to continue my study of him. It is a rainy October night in Berlin and I realize I am alone as another winter sets in, but I am determined to keep on searching, and keep on writing and keep myself open to the truth.

Featured images of Haus am Waldsee courtesy Press office at Haus am Waldsee

On Good Art, Bad Art and Creativity

24 Mar


                                                                                 By Rhea H. Boyden
There are two things I have learned in my mid-thirties that I really, really wish I had been told by a wise professor on the first day of my four year career at a liberal arts university that would have made my life a lot easier. Firstly: when you study liberal arts you have no idea where it will lead and what career path you will end up in, so don’t stress about it now. And secondly: when you are writing a term paper, relax; procrastination and messing around with your notes and ideas are part of the process, so learn to love it. I was a good enough student at university, but I lacked confidence in my own academic ability and I was always really stressed when writing any term paper.
Last year when I really started to get more into writing, a good friend of mine gave me a fabulous book by a woman by the name of Natalie Goldberg entitled ‘Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within’. I learned more from this one book about writing than everything I was ever taught at university. Goldberg uses perfect metaphors to describe different processes in writing. In her two-page essay entitled ‘Composting’ she talks of how all our notes and research need time to decompose through our subconscious mind before they jump out onto our blank page as beautiful poems and stories- as Goldberg says- like a bright red rose shoots out of the compost.
This essay resonated with me entirely and I have never stressed about writing an essay since. I have come to view collecting my notes and doing my research and reading as ‘composting’ and have come to enjoy it immensely as a part of the whole creative process from first idea to final draft.
The successful writer Neil Gaiman gave a commencement speech to graduating college seniors at a prestigious arts college and he gave them some good tips as they set out on their careers. He told them, that no matter what, and how hard life got, they should simply ‘make good art’. ‘People who set out on a career in the arts have no idea what they are doing’, Gaiman told the students. ‘And’ he elaborated, ‘This is great’.
I remember very well worrying a lot about my future in my last year of university. I did not know then, that within a year, I would end up teaching English at one of Berlin’s better language schools, a job I still hold 13 years later. It was a job I loved, and I learned so much from it in the first few years. Like most jobs, however it gets a bit repetitive. I still love it, and there are days of novelty and wonder, but it involves a lot of commuting, which is one of the most soul-destroying activities of modern life, so I have recently turned to writing as something that really and truly fulfills me and also gives me new energy for teaching and has made my teaching job better too as I am more happy and fulfilled. The combination of teaching and writing is a good one.  I get to be with my students during the day and then I get to be alone and get lost in reading and writing at night and on weekends. Each job feeds the other, and I feel, they would be
incomplete without each other. I had to ‘compost’ my experiences in Berlin teaching and partying for 12 years before I could even begin to write about them.
‘You never know where it leads and this is a good thing’. Neil Gaiman’s words make even more sense to me now than ever before. Writing for me is a magical adventure and I never know where it leads. I never could have imagined two years ago when I sat down to write my first short story as a mature adult that I would be enjoying so much success with it within two years. It has filled my heart with joy, gotten me published in three countries, helped me stay sober after hitting the bottle too hard because I was bored and frustrated, and has opened my life to a whole range of ideas and possibilities that I explore every day.
My magazine assignments have been varied and wonderful and I explore Berlin art, architecture, theatre and opera and write about it all either as previews, reviews, or guidebook assignments. When I see wonderful art I am alive, empowered and inspired.  Everything is great and I am on a roll. In the past few weeks, however, I have had the misfortune of experiencing bad art and disappointing performances which has left me feeling somewhat unhappy and lonely and with a feeling that I have wasted my precious free time doing these things when there is so much good culture in Berlin to experience.
Last week I went to the cinema to see a film, in German and set in Berlin called ‘Shark Alarm on Mueggelsee’. I had presumed that the shark bit was a metaphor for something else, but unfortunately it was not. There really was a shark in the Berlin lake. The characters were bad and clichéd, the acting mediocre and the attempt at humour mostly cringeworthy. I went home feeling disappointed and lonely.
Last Sunday was Saint Patrick’s Day, so I dressed up in green and went to the Saint Patrick’s Day parade on an internet date. It was freezing, the parade consisted of a few Scottish bagpipes, which for me, are not a symbol of the Irish national holiday, and a boombox blaring cheesy Irish country songs. To make matters worse the date was also a disappointment. Again, I went home feeling disappointed.
But the worst experience in recent weeks was going to see a play at the English Theatre Berlin a few weeks ago and the whole performance was dismal. I am not accustomed to writing scathing reviews of events and I like to keep my writing light-hearted and humourous. I had made a lot of notes to write a bad review but I was not quick enough. Another Berlin magazine got there before me. The woman who wrote the review slammed the performance and apologized in a public letter for having supported the project at all. I simply abandoned my notes, she had said it all already.
So after an exhilarating ride writing about wonderful cultural things I feel a little bored, lonely and uninspired by my recent experiences and I realize even more how important good art is for my emotional well being. If you work a full time job that is a bit repetitive then you hope for good culture and art to get lost in and inspired by in your free time.

My day job is at least full of the variety of companies, diversity of students and multitude of topics that keep me from getting too bored, but what if you really work a soul-murdering job that allows no room for maneuver at all? In his novel ‘The Pale King’, David Foster Wallace describes the daily life of an income tax rote examiner, who has to sit and process tax returns all day. When the examiner, whose skin is described as being the colour of wet lead, looks at the clock he is painfully aware each time of how slowly time is passing. Foster Wallace sums  up the examiners thoughts like this: ‘He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his
throat and he looked around quickly to see if any of the other examiners had seen him or were looking at him’.
Who doesn’t know the awful tedious feeling of being bored and waiting and watching a clock? Clocks run our lives and either we are running late, running out of time or we are waiting impatiently for someone or something to happen or appear.
Last summer I went to the Documenta international contemporary art show in Kassel in the centre of Germany. One of the most impressive exhibits at the show was a spectacular multimedia installation entitled ‘The Refusal of Time’ by the South African artist William Kentridge.  The exhibit portrayed society’s attempts at control over time and the mesmerizing ticking of clocks and music left me so enthralled and inspired that I went home and wrote an article about it which was then published in a New York online magazine. It was the first piece I had ever had published so I was naturally ecstatic. Kentridge’s clocks were not boring or excruciating, but inspiring and empowering. That was definitely a ‘good art’ experience that left me feeling whole and connected to the world.
So if ‘bad art’ leaves me feeling lonely and despondent, ‘good art’ has the exact opposite effect and shows me even more how vital it is to support and create good art. Good art inspires people to make more good art and then everyone benefits. And when you are feeling lonely you can strive to make good art to help you reconnect to the world ending your loneliness. Another of Natalie Goldberg’s essays provided me with this insight. Writing can be a very lonely pursuit but Goldberg says the following: ‘Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression- to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabyes.’

Morpheus and Iris

10 Feb

By Rhea H. Boyden

Iris knows that Morpheus will fly from her, just as the winged Mercury had done before. She allowed him to remain in his sweet slumber for long enough. The truth had to be spoken. It was no longer in a dream that she saw him, but she caught him shocked and awake in the land of rainbows. Iris, who sits in the middle of the dream like a rock, conscious at last, that she is the rainbow. Morpheus, mercifully saw her colours and heeded them humbly. Her wings are weak in the ice of winter, but they have not been stolen from her as she had feared. As soon as the ice melts from them, she will fly again, far, far away from that wet land of dreams, leaving Morpheus to wear whatever face he pleases.

Image is the painting ‘Morpheus and Iris’ by Pierre Narcisse Guerin

Excursion to Mies Van der Rohe House

6 Feb

                                                                                                    By Rhea H. Boyden

Last Sunday afternoon, after having willingly spent the weekend in complete solitude reading, I set off on a guidebook writing assignment to the Mies Van der Rohe House which is in the former East Berlin district of Weissensee. As I walked down my street, feeling rather lonely and despondent on this cold, grey February day, the first thing I noticed was that yet another building on my street had been recently renovated to its core. A large sign was advertising swank new apartments for sale. A not unfamiliar surge of fear welled up within me. How much longer am I going to be able to afford to live in this gentrified neighbourhood on my relatively meager freelance income? I wondered to myself. As I rode the tram through the greyer, drabber areas of East Berlin, ever further away from the neighbourhood I call home, the fear of having to move out here made me feel even more lonely. If I had to leave my current environment that I am so comfortable in, would it affect my work and my well-being? Very likely, I concluded. I very definitely thrive in my crazy, colourful, centrally located bohemian flat, and I really could not see myself living in a highrise flat in Weissensee. Am I being a snob? I don’t think so. I am already living in a foreign country which brings hardships and homesickness enough with it, but I am at least still in the neighbourhood that my mother and sisters lived in from 1990-2001 which has subsequently become my home away from home. This is very comforting. When I finally arrived at the Van der Rohe House and entered the front door, my spirits lifted instantly. Suddenly, I was in a motivated and inspired work mode again. The atmosphere of the house was an excellent environment for research, reading and contemplation. I sat at the one table in the gallery and started reading about Van der Rohe’s philosophy on architecture. This simple L-shaped house on the shore of the Obersee was Van der Rohe’s last project in Germany before he reluctantly emigrated to the United States in 1937. He was the last director of the Bauhaus school which the Nazis deemed as ‘ungerman’ and it was forced to close down in 1933. His quest was one of simplicity and truth in architecture. Indeed, the house demonstrates his genius in using a minimum of materials to produce maximum quality in order to satisfy the needs of modern living. His intention was the eradication of the superficial and unnecessary in architecture. Sound choice of materials and structure, rather than the superficial application of a classical façade were ideas that shaped his philosophy.  The house was built in 1932 for Karl and Martha Lemke who owned a graphic arts firm and printing company. After much protest from the neighbours, who did not like the design, the simple, one-storied, flat-roofed building with its brick facade was constructed. It has huge plate glass windows that overlook a terrace and a well-landscaped lawn and garden. The terrace is at exactly the same level as the indoor rooms and so appears to be an extension of the house itself. This is very deliberate, as Van der Rohe strove to harmonise nature and architecture. The terrace and the garden serve as a wonderful extension of and  transition between the house, lake and the park beyond the garden’s boundaries. The Lemke’s lived in the house until the Red Army forced them to vacate it in 1945. The Red Army and, subsequently the Stasi, all thumbed their noses at any notion that the building was aesthetically pleasing or should be respected. Between 1945 and 1977 it was used as a garage, storage room, canteen and laundry room and it fell quite into disrepair. Eventually in 1977 it was listed as an historic building and between 2000 and 2002 it was finally renovated and refurbished to its former beauty.  It is now empty of furniture and used to display works of modern art. The works which are exhibited in the house must match Mies Van der Rohe’s dictum of ‘less is more’ and must also strive to express truth, beauty, serenity and harmony of nature, architecture and art. One of the artists who has exhibited her work in the house, is an American woman from Kansas named Max Cole. As soon as I started reading about her I was amazed at the coincidences that were made apparent to me. She says that her artwork is very influenced by her environment. The flat  and vast horizons of the Kansas plains lead to the horizontal bands and stripes in her artwork. She says that a simple dash or a stripe can signify the individual in his or her world. I  again thought about how my environment affects my work and my writing,  and I thought of my loneliness and solitude in the world. Writing is a lonely pursuit in many ways, but it is also one that has saved me after a decadent decade of alcohol and parties in Berlin. In my writing, I also search for truth, beauty, serenity and a way of connecting to the world. Is this not the goal of any art form, be it music, art, writing, poetry or architecture? These all provide a medium for connecting and expressing truth and beauty to our fellow human beings.  The buildings we live and work in, and the nature we roam and grow up in clearly all have a profound effect on our well-being and our work. I have only begun to realize as I mature, how the building that houses an artwork is as important as the artwork itself. Both must be in harmony, that is clear. I have come to hold art curators in high regard for their all-encompassing vision when planning an exhibition. I have recently been reading a lot about and by the American author and social critic David Foster Wallace. As well as being a brilliant writer who wrote the crystal clear and unapologetic truth about how he viewed society, he was also an excellent tennis player and mathematician, and he especially excelled at geometry. He, like Max Cole, lived in a very horizontal America and he was influenced by the sharp right angles of the flat streets of his Illinois hometown. In his novel ‘The Pale King’ David Foster Wallace describes life inside a huge IRS Tax building. The building is described as being ‘battleship grey’ and the lamps on the examiners desks are annoyingly placed right there where a right-handed person would need to place his elbow to take notes. The heavily made up secretary who sits there all day with hollow eyes is described aptly as looking like ‘an embalmed clown’. The people in this building must have about the most boring and life- sapping job in the United States and there is no mention of any artwork adorning the walls. Their job is to look at tax returns and decide whether an audit is necessary, no more than that. The building they are in is designed precisely for this purpose, and they are not encouraged to think outside this box or be creative in any way. There is, then, naturally absolutely no need to make this building aesthetically pleasing. Any attempt at beauty would indeed, likely be counterproductive. Sitting back in my colourful, cluttered living room, I am spending a lot of time thinking about the Van der Rohe Haus and especially some of Max Cole’s quotes. ‘The goal is clarity’ she said. Or: ‘Art is exploring universal questions’. ‘You cannot possibly speak the truth’ she claims ‘unless you have made some attempt to understand what the truth is and without being honest you just have decoration’. Indeed, the whole exhibition program in the Van der Rohe House uses architecture as its starting point and the works exhibited therein rely on reduced and concentrated forms of expression. They must be minimal. Less is more. Many of van der Rohe’s ideas ring especially clear as a good metaphor and building block for my own life at present. I have successfully shed negative influences in my life the past year using writing as a tool in my search for the truth. Just as Van der Rohe shed superficial facades from his buildings, I have shed the superficial façade that was heavy drinking. I have also shed superficial relationships and am becoming better at being alone and not feeling lonely. I just recently put all my effort into finally getting to the core of truthful issues with a man I had had a somewhat superficial chat with online for many months. I had hoped for more from him, but he was unable to reciprocate it. I am happy with how the whole issue was resolved, however, as I cut to the core and spoke the necessary truth and he responded in kind. It has proven to be absolutely liberating for me.  My research at the Van der Rohe Haus has affirmed my beliefs,  and I will continue to search for truth, beauty and core ideas in my writing, and I intend to encompass and include the surrounding architecture, art, ideas and conversations that lead to new adventures and stories daily. It is all a magical adventure and I never know where it leads.

Image is the Bauhaus Signet courtesy of Bauhaus Archive

Orpheus and Eurydice

3 Feb


by Rhea H.Boyden

Like Eurydice she feels the sting, the bite of the snake. But she remains in the underworld with her. She is not ready to arise yet. The ice-encrusted wheel is spinning in the brook, round like a timepiece. It is not time yet, it warns her. The truth has been spoken, it was time for that. Somehow the stars were aligned on that night. Like a simple, straight, dark line that honours simplicity and serenity it was shot like an arrow. She still loves Orpheus and the strum of his lyre. Desiring truth she dares to pose the question. Can the irrational and the rational coexist? Or will they collapse? She is sure for one bright moment that they can coexist through the truth and beauty of art. Art, as it has done before, will save her for one day.

Painting of Orpheus and Eurydice by Edward Poynter

The Creative Timeline

17 Nov

The creative process

A friend of mine recently posted a nice illustration of the creative

timeline on my Facebook timeline. The timeline showed how one

typically goes through the creative process and it stated it like

this: Start project, mess around for days, panic, then do all the
work in the last minutes while crying as the deadline slaps you in
the face. I can definitely relate to this as a writer with deadlines.
I used to freak out even more about deadlines until I read a nice
little essay by a teacher of creative writing named Natalie Goldberg
who defines the ‘messing around’ phase as necessary and she calms
your nerves by calling this part of the process ‘composting’. She
says your thoughts, reading and notes have to decompose through your
subconscious for a spell before your ideas hit you and roll through
you like a tidal wave in a creative burst to help you complete the
project. This really helps to conceptualise the whole phase of
procrastination and indeed many people have pointed out that
procrastination is a very necessary part of the creative process and
there is no point in battling against it in agony. Ride with it and
let it take you where it takes you.

summer an artist friend of mine from Chicago arrived at my apartment
in Berlin en route to Kassel to present her work at the international
contemporary art show Documenta. She was very definitely in the panic
stage of her project. ‘I couldn’t manage to get my boot off when I
was going through customs.’ she said, recounting the story to me with
exhausted frazzled jet lag. ‘The boot was simply stuck to my foot’.
That, however, was the least of her problems. She had hired an art
student to cut out thousands of white paper spiders that were
supposed to be part of her project and she realised with horror that
the student had failed to produce enough spiders. She sat up half the
night, distraught, cutting out paper spiders in a frenzy. I was
little help to her as my mind had gone completely blank. I was trying
to write an inspired essay under pressure and I was getting nowhere
with it. ‘Why?’ I queried ‘Am I able to write something great and fun
when I have no deadline, and not when a deadline is given. ‘You
better learn,’ she warned, ‘If you really want to be a successful
writer.’ I was in bits. ‘How do you learn this?’ I asked. ‘With
practice and determination’ she said. She clearly had more practice
with with the creative process than I did.

we both got our projects completed to our satisfaction. She presented
her spider project at the show and I got my article published. We
joke about it now, and I sent her a message recently telling her that
I had found yet another stray spider that had somehow made it under
my couch. I keep it on my desk as a souvenir of that panicked
creative night that we agonised through last summer. On and on we
work to the next stage of procrastination, panicked work and
satisfied completion of a project. It can be terrifying at times, but
there is nothing I would rather be doing than writing and
understanding the workings of and becoming more comfortable with the
stages of the creative process.