Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!
– Former French culture minister, Jack Lang.
The incredible energy, bustling creativity, and insatiable desire to constantly reinvent itself makes Berlin feel like the freest city in the world. The old and the new, the cheap and the hip, the weight of history over laced with the impermanence of dreams… Everything is here – from the gorgeous palaces to the idyllic parks, inexhaustible art offerings and the most original city beats – and almost all is available for free. Ich bin ein Berliner. Sicher/for sure!
After walking 300km on the Camino to Santiago, I check into “the last oasis of capitalism” on Kastanienallee in the bohemian, countercultural neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg. Money has no character here in this international revolutionary leftist anarchist community. For a month, I couch surf on a hard seat sofa chez my libertarian expat friend, subsisting on free hot Berlinese summer air!
Wanna go see a show tonight? my friend asks.
Woohoo, what about? I inquire.
No idea. We shall see! he replies.
We head to the nearby bullet riddled heritage Ball Haus Ost where I imagine elegant Berliners donning dinner jackets and Charleston dresses dancing away wild nights in this once fashionable roaring twenties’ temple in Weimar Germany before history seals Berlin a different fate…
Recollection, Remembrance, Reminiscence. Felix Ansmann’s four-minute video asks what happens when memory is turned into consumable data. Next, two young sound artists occupy an abandoned military hangar and turn the once KGB headquarters into a Philip Glass sort of laboratory. What a perfect introduction to Berlin, definitely my kind of city, filled to the brim with history and mystery, awaiting every discovery!
Saturday morning. What else to do but join thousands of others in treasure strolling through Berlin’s signature colourful flohmärkte. Yes, this is an old and green city where your junk could be my gold (or, your heaven is my hell!). I inch through the thick crowd in Museum Island where lots of art – the good, bad, and ugly – is for sale before taking the S-bahn to Tiergarten to people watch along Straße des 17 Juni. Finally, I make my way to Treptow to the indoor Arena market, as if I were at an Istanbul bazaar, before repeating the same ritual the next morning in the sprawling Mauerpark where all kinds of trinkets are sold on the very spot where the Berlin Wall once stood tall and bold. How much is it, I wonder, not the oxidized Arabian tea pot right in front of me, but the historical triumph to which we all owe and without which I would not be standing there so freely, nibbling bite-size history?
First thing first: I take a free guided tour of the legendary Bundestag, zooming through a hundred years of tumultuous German history in an hour, as our guide whisk us from the underground tunnel to the Pritzker Prize glass dome. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Parliament survived the collapse of the German Empire and the proclamation of a new Republic from its balcony in 1918; Hitler’s seizure of power after the notorious arson in 1933; the battle for Berlin and Soviet occupation in 1945; and the bitter Wall division in 1961 before final reunification in 1990. What a remarkable “stony witness to German fate” indeed!
Today, one can walk through the Parliament filled with provocative contemporary art. After twenty-three years of plotting and pleading, Christo wrapped the massive building with over 100,000 square metres of fabric in 1995 and then, two weeks later, everything was gone, leaving only memory. Berlin and change, or change is Berlin! Four years later, another French artist, Christian Boltanski, created the Archive of German Members of Parliament by stacking 5,000 metal boxes bearing the names of all democratically elected MPs since 1919 including, oops, Hitler whose box is constantly being vandalized apparently!
From Norman Foster’s iconic dome, one enjoys a sweeping view of glorious Berlin old and new. This particular stretch by the Spree has become my favourite, because, rain or shine, Covid or not, one can come here to tango en plein air – even in sandals – till the wee hours. Letzter tango in Berlin, right behind the Bundestag!
How to photograph an object as charged with history and drama as the Berlin Wall that unfortunately has come to define the city? You’ve come too late, my friend teasingly says. I am not convinced. The Wall might be gone, but it will always be there, inseparable like an old acrimonious couple. Die Mauer as history and metaphor, reality and memory, constantly being reconstructed and always under scrutiny…
Exactly sixty one years after the first barbed wire and concrete blocks were laid, I walk along Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror, Bernauer Straße, and East Side Gallery, crossing the Oberbaumbrücke, once separating East and West Berlin, feeling speechless about the immensity of it all. The political calculations and immeasurable costs, risks taken and lives lost, hard won freedom and forsaken dreams… all in that one goddamned barrier! The former German President Horst Köhler says it all: The Wall was an edifice of fear. But fear we no more!
While one wall is gone, others remain. Still Present! scream the artists at the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art at Hamburger Hauptbahnhof. Algerian French photographer and installation artist, Kader Attia, curates a provocative show that resembles a grad seminar on the post-postcolonial. How can a decolonial ecology be shaped? How can restitution be reinvented beyond the return of plundered goods? Anybody has the answer?
It is free museum Sunday and I try to jam millennia of art in an afternoon, from the exquisite Nefertiti Bust to the jaw-dropping Ishtar Gate, passing through the famed Aleppo Room before reaching out to the mighty gods of Pergamon, all within the tiny but vast Museum Island. They certainly haven’t looked this good since ancient times, one reviewer writes, referring to the splendid sculptures of the Pergamon Altar. But the trophy discovery unearthed in 1878 and laboriously transported to Berlin, supposedly with the sultan’s blessing, has been a bone – stone – of contention ever since…
How much is a nation willing to pay for the sublime, one transplanted from a distant land? The sarcasm is not lost on theatre director, Ralf Nürnberger, who published a novel, Der Altar, on the intertwined fate between the monumental re-construction and the history of no less epic Berlin. The Altar has been under “open-heart-surgery” renovation for eight years and counting. Gods Zeus and Athena willing, it is supposed to reopen in 2023. For now, the masterful Austrian artist, Yadegar Asisi, consoles us with his spectacular Panorama, transporting us to Asia Minor, while the German Treasury scrambles to find millions more euros to piece together the legendary Satan’s Throne…
Six pm! Like Cinderella, I make a curtsy to the Antiquities and race back to modernity before the museum day ends. I arrive at the Neue Nationalgalerie where the setting sun casts slanting shadow on the foreboding Orwellian text in black, white, and red: If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face ‒ forever. The world is in dire shape according to Barbara Kruger, an American conceptual collagist, in her project Please Cry. Despite her passionate imploring, I am holding out on my tears as I dash off to enjoy just one last show on German enfant terrible Helmut Newton. Flashy nude celebrity photography is not up my alley, but his motto is mine: I was there – the camera does not lie! But hold on, Kruger might have a point: everything is just one big lie!
Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine!
– David Bowie
I have barely scratched the surface and there is still so much to see: the colourful neighbourhoods, architecture, and world class graffiti. From the Brandenburg Gate, I walk to the somber Holocaust Memorial before reaching Potsdamer Platz and Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin’s most elegant square, flanked by the Berlin concert hall and the French and German Cathedrals. In another late afternoon, I cruise along Karl Marx Allee from Frankfurter Tor to Alexanderplatz, surveying the massive Weberwiese tower blocks from the GDR era. In Berlin, in Berlin on the Spree/a stone giant grows on Stalinallee, a stone giant grows on Stalinallee/It is no castle in the air, it can’t be/And yet it grows high into the sky, the radio blasted throughout the 1950s when most of Berlin still lay in ruins. How chilling to see Cold War architecture!
Have you checked out Nazi architecture yet? my friend asks.
Um, architecture, ideology, and memory… It sounds like a perfect PhD dissertation topic! I think to myself. But visuals only…!
Hitler opened the Games at the massive Olympics Stadium in 1936 to showcase Nazi grandiosity to the world. In Fehrbelliner Platz and Hammarskjöldplatz, long, drab, uniform government offices and exhibition halls remain in use today. Pity those bureaucrats! The mind-boggling 12,000-ton Schwerbelastungskörper/heavy load-bearing body, a simulation of an eventual victorious arch, is a solid reminder of Nazi folly. Imagine a few of those in Berlin Mitte! I watch beautiful sundown in the former Tempelhof Airport, having a hard time visualizing Hitler speaking there in 1933, a chemical weapon factory and a Gestapo prison during WWII, and the frenzy airlift – a plane landing every six seconds! – delivering hope and thousands of packages of sweets in tiny parachutes during the 1948/49 Soviet blockade. Thank Universe for saving us all from what Berlin could have been!
The World’s Too Small For Walls.
– Graffiti on the Berlin Wall, by an unknown artist.
After my recent trip to Barcelona, I am curious to check out the graffiti scene in Berlin, dubbed the most “bombed” city in Europe. Though illegal, tags, lettering, stencils, paste-ups, and murals are a staple on the cityscape. Well, there was the entire Wall, all 140km of readily available canvas for a “middle-finger” kind of artistic licence. After the fall, the kilometre-long East Side Gallery continues to inspire artists from around the world to paint what freedom means. Hotbed countercultural neighbourhoods like Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg attract top-notch artists like Shepard Fairey, Victor Ash, El Bocho, Herakut, James Bullough, Don John, 1UP (One United Power) and many other collectives. The vibrant Legacy Wall in Gleisdreieck Park and the superb Urban Nation Museum for Contemporary Art show us street art is far from being dead in Berlin!
If a can of spray is not your cup of tea, an embarrassment of choices awaits you to satiate every possible fancy. You can sip tea all day at a leftist cafe like Morgenrot in Prenzlauer Berg, or indulge in baklava in multicultural Kottbusser Tor, while away a languid summer afternoon in a leafy biergarten before meeting your revolutionary friends and foes at billiard bar Nemo, “the pub from another universe”…
In this magical city, music flows 24/7, whether it is on the street or inside the ultra-chic Berlin Philharmonic and Opera. Electro-techno and Berlin are a match made in heaven. Or, if you prefer, enjoy Hollywood in the stars at one of the many plein air cinemas before serenading to the Spree to perfect your salsa or tangle steps. The night is still young and karaoke is on at Mauerpark where your friend arrives with a case of Berliner Weisse, at 50 cents a piece! After the Wall, everything – everyone – feels free!
I can remember, standing by the wall. And the guns, shot above our heads. And we kissed, as though nothing could fall. And the shame was on the other side. Oh we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we could be heroes, just for one day.
-David Bowie, Heroes.
For me, Berlin is Paris-Amsterdam-Barcelona-Tokyo all rolled in one and so much more. The head-spinning museums and elegant neoclassical and Bauhaus gems rival modernist Paris. The abundant network of bike lanes, rivers, and lakes – plus hip bistros – makes Amsterdam pale in comparison. Berlin has more bridges than Venice, bigger city parks than Barcelona, and a countercultural youth culture every bit as hip as Shibuya and Shinjuku! Within a (impeccable German) train ride, you lose yourself in the beautiful forests, castles, and palaces of Spandau and Potsdam, or the German Riviera in the Baltic Sea to get away from all that Berlinese frenzy…
No images or words seem sufficient to capture the chill vibes of Berlin that makes the city endearingly unique. Grand boulevards and funky art, hip neighbourhoods and anarchist enclaves, youth counterculture and multicultural chic, organic, fair trade, veganism and minimalist living… Since freedom requires no window dressing, the sexiest thing about Berlin is that you can simply be, and it’s absolutely free!
I still keep a suitcase in Berlin, Marlene Dietrich said. How I wish I could say the same! For now, danke for such a perfect summer and bis bald! I know already Berlin won’t be Berlin upon my return!
you can finally fly
like the wind that picks up
my regret and my sorrow
I walk endlessly behind the truth
and I will know what it is at last
– Nino Bravo, Libre
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan