work > berlin drawings 20-22

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Berlin Drawings

When I moved here a year and a half ago with my partner who received an Humboldt research fellowship, I didn’t anticipate the practicality of staring up a big messy art studio, given that we’d only be here for a couple of years. So, I made the decision to stick to pen and ink on paper. That way, I could easily roll the drawings up, shove them in a tube and fly back home.

The drawings I have made thus far have been of people and the impressions I have had of Berlin, its political and social climate. We moved into a flat in Friedrichshain, which is located in the former east, and so the ambivalence towards pride of ownership, and the aggressive graffiti, much of it politically and not artistically motivated, have become dominant subject matter. And, admittedly, my ignorance and tendencies to generalize about the individuals I draw shape my interpretations.

Whether it is real or imagined, I see traces of the city’s post-war division, between socialist GDR (DDR) and capitalist FRG (BRD, or Bundesrepublik Deutschland) between 1949 and 1990, visible in the facial expressions, style, and mannerisms of the people who lived through it, and much of what I observe in day to day Berlin city life feels tainted by Berlin's radical history. The relics and scars of the Cold War mark the streets and parks, walls and sidewalks, and they are imprinted in the hearts and minds of its citizens. There is a particularly rough edge to not only Berlin's street art, but also to its curated exhibits in museums and galleries.
An interesting combination of attributes has evolved from Germany’s past—a love for rules and procedures, yet a distain for authority and autocracy, the latter especially and going back many centuries in Berlin. Back when there was a GDR and the Wall still separated the city and all of Germany, politically aware punk rockers, mostly in the west but also in the east, raged against authority of every kind. This attitude still lingers —particularly in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg. The police in the former east, once the safeguards of a dictatorial, centrally-planned economy charged with suppressing dissent, today are seen by many political activists as defenders of corporate corruption and crooked politicians.

The German government is notoriously bureaucratic and precise, and German people have a reputation for being orderly and disciplined, and yet, anything predictable and rigid can be undermined and broken. Vast areas of Berlin are covered in graffiti- creative vandalism of private and public property, which might be seen as an transgressive critique of power and the ownership of property by a politically engaged counter-culture. Besides graffiti, the sidewalks are littered with broken glass, defunct furniture, broken bathroom fixtures set out on the sidewalk, and dog trappings. Berlin is famous for its messiness- the never-ending construction projects, sex shops, the weekly demonstrations, the clashes with police, the occupied houses, people getting drunk and high in parks and on playgrounds, and homeless people sleeping rough.

The German education places a strong emphasis on learning from history, and there are reminders of the darkest chapters in their past scattered throughout the city of Berlin. There are monuments and museums, ruins and Stolpersteine (stumble stones), in memory of the Holocaust and WWII.

A very thin border separates the people of Berlin and its ghosts. The Wall hasn’t entirely vanished—it has been dissolved into invisible pieces and scattered throughout Berlin. Most of our neighbors in the former east, close to Ostkreuz, rarely, and some never venture west, particularly those who grew up in the GDR, or in Eastern Europe. Unlike most Germans you meet in the west, the teachers in my son’s school speak no English. Their second language, if they still remember it, is Russian, which most claim they learned reluctantly, and forcibly, under a socialist regime. Conversely, my sister in law and her husband hailing from West-Berlin were among the first generation to live in an occupied house in the former East after the wall fell, and yet today, she and her family live back in Western Schöneberg, and come to the eastside only rarely to visit us. In this sense, east and west are in many ways parallel universes, connected by trains, cars, newcomers, tourists, and a troubled history.