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At what point does the feeling of the sublime become that of horror? This is what I ask myself as I rushedly clamber through Siemensbahn railway, lost in the dark woods yet only a few metres away from residential Berlin. For a second, I regret not having gone home instead.


I arrived at Wernerwerk station around 5pm. I had heard lots about the abandoned Siemensbahn S-Bahn line, as it's one of the more well known abandoned locations in Berlin. Originally stretching 4.5 kilometres across the northwestern part of the city, the railway was active from 1929 to 1980, when industrial action lead to almost half of West Berlin's S-Bahn network shutting down. From 1984 onward, operations slowly resumed but due to low ridership prior to the strikes, Siemensbahn never reopened.

I circled the station to find a way in and found a gap in the fence. Unfortunately, once through I could not find a way into the actual station, which I needed to access to the elevated S-Bahn line.

Discouraged, I told myself I would come back another day after doing some more research. I hadn't initially planned this excursion, only deciding to visit on a whim after a fascinating tour of a destroyed nazi Flak Tower (anti-aircraft tower) earlier that afternoon. So I wasn't too upset about calling it a day. I didn't come with the necessary clothes, after all, and my phone was close to dying. But since I was here, I thought, I might as follow the line for a little bit to see if there's another way in... just to save it for later.

As if. The way in was almost too easy: as the railway entered a park, it got closer to the ground, allowing you to access it if you didn't mind getting your shoes a bit muddy. At the top, you're presented with two paths: either you could retrace your steps, wander above the streets and into Wernerwerk station or you could journey into a wondrous grove, wild and overgrown. As magical as that path looked, I chose to head the other direction, as the path was shorter and the station would make for better photos.

I hadn't considered how visible you are on this part of the railway. Though it is quite wide, I could clearly be seen by passersby below even when walking in the centre of the bridge. I'm sure people come up here just about everyday, but I still felt a bit exposed - and I did not want to deal with German police.

Once you get to the S-Bahn stop, the surrounding pedestrians are replaced by drivers racing home which was enough to reassure me, though I did keep an eye out for police cars.

Stepping onto Wernerwerk train station, my relation to space also became far more familiar. I imagined myself running up the stairs just to miss my train, checking the sign only to realise I could've saved by breath by waiting another five minutes and sitting down where once would've been a bench to read my book, in turn hoping the following train would be delayed so I could finish my chapter.

I'm reminded of the scene in Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away, where the main character Chihiro awaits a train in a stop that is surrounded by the ocean. This space is both familiar and liminal, allowing for a moment of calm to reflect on Chihiro's tumultuous journey thus far. If the streets below were to flood, would Siemensstadt station still be accessible? Would it offer solace, a familiar space, for those trying to flee?

I'm aware this is a bit of a trope, but I think of the German word for uncanny, "unheimlich", which literally translates to un-homely. Freud defines the uncanny as that which was at the border of familiarity and strangeness. For Freud, the uncanny blurs the lines of our own identity, disrupting that which usually feels stable.

Being in Germany for the first time, without knowing anyone and hardly speaking the language, train stations have been a particularly "homely" space, somewhere familiar where I can settle in while commuting between new and exciting places.

As an aside, I didn't realise how much I'd missed long rides in the metro, something I rarely experience since moving to Dundee. When I was a teenager, I used to take the metro to see my therapist who lived on the other side of town. (Funnily enough, though the Paris metro runs mostly underground, this was one of the few lines which was elevated, just like the S-Bahn.) This journey helped me relax and gather my thoughts, which in a way became part of my therapeutic process.

Whether going above or under, passengers temporarily leave the chaos and frenzy of everyday life to enter a space of familiarity. Though commuting can be chaotic in its own right, especially at rush hour, it also offers a moment of pause to collect yourself, to mentally prepare for new experiences or forget about the outside world entirely.

In terms of possible experiences of the uncanny, however, this definitely leaned more towards the familiar than the unknown. The lines were starting to blur, but it felt more like a distant memory rather than a breakdown of reality. The illicitness of visiting abandoned locations certainly gives them an element of eeriness but beyond that, this was quiet, peaceful. If anything, the fact that it was uninhabited and taken over by nature made the place more relaxing.

This relationship changes once you leave the station. Going onto the tracks felt like peeking behind the curtain, as you literally descend upon that which is usually forbidden. At the end of the path, I found a railway bridge. Originally, this took passengers across the river Spree to Jungfernheide station, connecting to the still active Ringbahn line. Today, this section of the railway no longer exists. This was my end of the line, but I still had my return ticket. (At what point does metaphorical writing become dad humour?) Either I could go home at this point, to return another day with better walking attire (and maybe a friend!) or I could enter the woods, despite the risks. As we already know, I unfortunately have poor impulse control and all things considered, it felt relatively safe. And so, with camera in hand, I ventured into the overgrown section of the railway...


At 17:xx, I journey down the sequestered path. In contrast, the path feels far more cloistered. Usually, an added bonus of urban exploration is the nature walk required to access these remote locations. And if you're asked to leave, at least you get to have a day out in the woods. In this instance, however, this journey and destination are both one and the same.

Paradoxically, the path is also surrounded by civilisation, with kids walking home from school, mothers scolding their children and commuters occasionally giving you the side eye if they happen to notice you behind the flimsy barrier that separates you. This is what I mean when I say that Siemensbahn almost feels too easy to enter, as the railway is essentially an extension of the public park it runs through. A forbidden path, one that raises suspicion from passersby, but just another path nonetheless.

As you head down the line, however, the vegetation grows wilder and the two train tracks guiding you slowly disappear behind foliage. All the while, the path grows wider, further isolating you from the world around you. Whereas earlier, it would be essentially impossible to miss other explorers (like the group of teenagers I attempt to communicate with in my very (very) broken German), it dawns on me that someone could now feasibly hide from me. And if that were the case, where would I possibly esxape?

At 17:58, I arrive at Siemenstadt station, my first checkpoint on this journey. In terms of the layout, this station is much the same, from the stairs (which now lead down to the entrance, through a narrow gap) and the two huts where commuters would've once bought pastries (the sign and bench are now entirely missing).

Yet an eeriness looms over the station, as the feeling of isolation creeps back in (even though, once again, you're only a dozen metres away from people's backyards). I'm struck by how alien Siemendstadt appears, an uncanny doppelganger of the previous station. Whereas the desolateness of Wernerwerk was complemented with few shrubs growing out the side of its huts, Siemenstadt is overgrown almost to the point of unrecognition, with only a narrow path for you to walk along the station. Wernerwerk was an towering plateau, overlooking the bustling city; Siemenstadt is a lost alcove, where one can forget about the world around.

The sight is overwhelmingly beautiful - eerie, but undeniably serene. Compared to the previous stop, however, the uncanny is far more powerful. Acting as a beacon of familarity, this clearing in the forest also accentuates how alien it all feels. And the feeling of being watched continues to loom over me.

Yet I'm still curious to go on. As I creep back into the thicket, chills run through my veins. It occurs to me why the colour green is typically associated with safety, as any other flash of colour, from packaging left behind to the early browning of leaves, intuitively signals distress in my brain, as a potential danger. In that moment, I ask myself: am I seeking the feeling of the sublime or rather this sense of thrills? And are they ultimately one and the same?

I arrive at the final station, Gartenfelt. To my dismay, the sun is setting at an alarming rate, due to Berlin's lower latitude when compared to Scotland. The energy goes from eerie to downright scary. Since this is the end of the line, the station is more built up than the others. At the back, an empty buildings looms over. I make my way into the dark and peak through the window. I see shapes reflected in the glass and briskly decide to head home. Only now, I don't know the way out.

I make my way across the hut, but it simply loops back on itself. I return to the other side and find a gap in the fence, hop across a ditch, only to realise I'm surrounded by a massive building site. Though I'm relieved to once again glimpse at humanity, there is something deeply unsettling about these rows of private newbuilds, extending hundreds of metres, without a trace of life. I'm unsure if they're inhabited or still under construction, but either way I'm already feeling stressed enough about the German authorities and would rather not trespass any more than I already am.

I return to the big scary station and consider my fate. My phone is dead and the only exit I am aware of is back at the previous station. I'm such an idiot. A typical cityboy, unaware of his own fragility. Unable to take even the most basic of precautions.

I gather myself and try to take it all in, just for a few seconds.

In this dark underworld, nature no longer represents serenity, but rather a test of my own vulnerability; and peaks into the outside world indicates both my potential return to civilisation and the possibility of being caught.

In spite of being surrounded by the city, I am eerily alone. And the comfort of a train station changes to symbolise the terrifying potential of not being alone. Meaning collapses into an overwhelming feeling of weightlessness, of not quite being here.

My mind oscillates between this pensive dissociation, and the profound awareness of my body, of its vulnerability and limits. In these moments of hyperawarness, all I need is to escape back to safety. Yet there's something oddly calming about the way it grounds me, reminding me to take life in and care for my own safety. Lost within an unknown Berlin suburb, I wander around, trying to find my way back to familiarity. Eventually, I find a U-Bahn - my escape hatch from this strange and overwhelming dream on the edge of the sublime, the uncanny and the abject.

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Before starting my project, I first wanted to find my bearings around Berlin. So I gave myself a week to do some touristy things I might miss otherwise.

On my first day, I went on a walking tour of the city. This was my first time going on one of these, as I've never traveled somewhere without a friend/guide before. Going into it, I had to shed the dumb pretentiousness I have towards these types of tours, and I ended up really enjoying it. I quickly befriended a girl from Belgium, after overhearing her speaking French. She's visiting for a few days with her Aunt and Grandma and has just arrived that morning. Though I'm unable to overcome my visceral awkwardness speaking French, we talk most of the tour and share contact details.

The guide take us around a variety of landmarks, some important for the historical significance and other because they particularly reflect an architectural style of the time. This offers me a first glimpse into how architecture can be the entry point into learning about the history of a place.

The next day, I visited the Alte Nationalgalerie, which was one of the first stops on the tour. It mainly houses 19th Century art so I knew I was going to enjoy it, especially since there is currently an exhibition on the Secession movement which includes work by Gustav Klimt.

Though I know a lot of art from that period, I had somehow never heard of Secessionism before. The Secession movement started in Munich 1892, making its way around Germany and Austria in the following years, and consisted of salons and exhibitions which opposed the authority of the academicism, similarly to France a couple decades earlier. I knew some of the exhibited artists in isolation, so it was fascinating to find out about the movement which held them together.

The exhibition also discussed some of the controversy regarding Secessionism. At the time, the movement was criticised for rejecting the work of certain artists, which was deemed antithetical to its anti-establishment claims. This raises some interesting questions regarding progressivism in art. When forging art movements which oppose the status quo, on what criteria can you reject artworks to curate a high quality and cohesive exhibition? At what point does the exhibition itself become elitist or conservative? And how does it avoid being reactionary? Is this even possible, or will art always be a reaction against what proceeded it?

A couple days later I visited Hamburger Bahnhof, a modern art museum in West Berlin. I had only stuck to the East so far, so it was exciting to see the differences in that part of town. The architecture in WB felt a lot more grand and exerted an imposing force as I walked along (though I also felt that in parts of Mitte in East Berlin, so it might have just been the area I was in). The museum, a former train station, was at the back of a serene garden where visitors sunbathed by the fountain. The collection on display felt surprisingly small, especially since some of the rooms were closed off when I was there. Some of the pieces were historically interesting, for example a series of photographs by a couple during the Cold War, but overall I was left with a feeling of apathy towards most of the work.

The temporary exhibition in the central hall, on the other hand, was an impressive installation of globular organic shapes by Eva Fabregas. There is currently somewhat of a trend in art schools of creating these sorts of shapes by filling tights with various types of stuffing. Fabregas takes these shapes and expands them to their extreme, filling the large hall with blobs of various shapes and sizes, some stretching out like taut skin and others forming a chain of tonsil-like orbs. The shapes would occasionally subtly bounce, creating an uncanny feeling of being watched by this organism. The colours varied from fleshy pink, to earwax yellow to a more cool lilac. Overall, they are very harmonious, and the lilac subdues the piece's fleshiness. I think this was intentional, to blur the lines between the abject corporeality and aesthetic image. It also makes a better photo op, though I would've personally preferred the artist to lean more into the abject.

I was also moved by Anselm Kiefer, of whom they had two pieces. I find that his assemblage of debris evokes feelings of nostalgia and alienation and his incorporation of loose narratives fascinates me. I was particularly touched by his piece on Lilith, Adam's first wife in the Bible who, in some versions, was cursed to eternal miscarriage. In Kiefer's composition, babies' clothes are displayed next to each other, as if placed on the ground or rising in mid air. Considering this ambiguity, I wonder if these children ever entered heaven, offering the eternally grieving mother at least some solace. In the centre, a long strand of greying hair hangs freely, swaying as visitors walk past. You feel Lilith's presence, mourning her lost children with the viewer. The hair also acts to make her story more tangible, literally incorporating decayed human matter into the piece. Perhaps Lilith is now with her children. I think about how the archetype of infertility as a curse reflects the very human experience of losing a child. Though these types of myths can be extremely harmful towards women, in blaming them for something they cannot control, they also reflect the unfathomable pain of child loss which affects so many.

There's not really a way to transition out of that. Though like seeing this work in an exhibition space, eventually you have to move onto the next room. Berlin is full of museums, so I still have plenty of exhibitions I want to discuss. Berlin Art Week also happens to be next week, so I will try to attend as many shows as possible. I will also start visiting abandoned buildings next week, so will have plenty to reflect upon.

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

I land in Berlin Brandenburg Airport around 6pm local time on Monday 4th September, with only an hour's delay. The ride was smooth and I managed to read a satisfying chunk out of Patti Smith's memoir. Getting off the plane, I admire the minimalist black columns which line the building. Most airports I've previously been to have had more of an emphasis on curve, veering onto public sculpture. The minimalism of Berlin's airport makes it feel more like train station or even a modern art gallery. I vibe with it.

After a mildly stressful encounter with the German border police, which starkly reminds me to ask for a French passport, I sit down at baggage reclaim. While anxiously awaiting for my suitcase to arrive with all my belongings (my anxiety is amplified when I realise oil paints are a banned substance), I watch from a distance as cartoons play on the kid's zone TV. I'm particularly entranced by an early 3D animation of a bug-eyed character getting chased around by a bee. Considering the airport opened in 2020, I find it funny that they deliberately selected a janky 3D render from the 90s. No Cocomelon for you, boys and girls - this is real culture!

After retrieving my suitcase, I search for the train into town and it quickly becomes apparent how little German I know. To be fair, this is an airport (in Berlin, of all places), so most staff could probably help me out in English. But out of stubbornness and social anxiety, I figure out my way by myself and make my way to Prenzlauer Berg.

I knew that my rental would be furnished, but entering the flat, I'm nevertheless surprised to see how much of the owner's belongings are still here. Among the decorations are a Buddha statue, an old serving platter turned into a vaginal shrine and photos of my landlady having fun with friends. I inspect further and find her bookcase - 'Ways of Seeing', '100 Contemporary Artists'...

I get glimpses into this woman's life, but I still don't have all the pieces. Is she an art student? A middle aged spiritualist? Either way, it's comforting to have her kooky decor watch over me in this new city.

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