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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.


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Hallo, Berlin!

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.


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