When what you’re looking for is gone
To balance all of yesterday’s museums I limited myself to one today, and spent the rest of my hours pounding the streets in search of neighbourhoods and locations. When you’re visiting somewhere for research, I would imagine it makes you quite a strange tourist. People stop and look at what I’m taking pictures of; they probably want to point and say – there, look over there, that’s what you want to shoot. But I don’t. I want doorways and window frames, I want all the many trees and how they’re turning, one after another. And, of course I want photos of things that are no longer there – wasteland or a new high-rise, with the knowledge that once someone lived there, once a great church stood there.
This morning I walked east from Alexanderplatz, along the grand Soviet Karl-Marx-Allee into Friedrichshain. I took a number of pictures of buildings that would not have been here before the end of the war; Friedrichshain was hit particularly badly. The new buildings are wonderful. Light and airy blocks with courtyard gardens in the back, they are clad in the creamy travertine ordered and never used by Nazis. It was a marvelous walk, lightened with smart couples strolling, little kids learning how to stay on their bikes, chipper dogs, as I headed for the Sunday market at Boxhagener Platz, down the cafe-strewn Simon-Dach-Strasse. This is where the beautiful people in East Berlin come to drink juice. The market itself was marvelous, ripe with industrial light fixtures and 70s chandeliers, toy Trabants, Soviet pins, T-shirts. LP stands made me think of RPM friends back home. In fact, if I hadn’t just spent a couple exhausting days scouring the Braderie in Lille, I would have given these cast-offs more attention. But no. A train took me to West Kreuzberg for the world’s best vegetarian Turkish crepe, then I was off to North Kreuzberg and the Judische Museum.
You’ve probably read the reviews. I was really here to see the building, an aluminium jaggedy lightning bolt, often described as an exploding Star of David. It is purposefully disorienting. They have put small red dots along the floor, no doubt to assist hapless tourists like me, but the dots break off now and again, and you see an exhibit to the side and you don’t know if you’re supposed to look at it yet or not, and the whole movement of the thing makes you think you’re in the wrong place – but maybe that is Daniel Liebeskind’s point. The building and the permanent exhibition are about the absence of things. Whereas the Topography of Terror was all about proof and facts and evidence and details, at looking at what was and where, the Judische Museum is about who is missing, the space they have left. They are looking at what is not there, through voids in the building, views you cannot quite see through manipulated windows, and pedestrian artifacts left behind. My particular favourite was the audio installations in big black blocks. Wearing a wireless headset you move yourself, back and forth before the glass, to pick up bits of sound: conversations, music, static, sounds of industry. Like chasing a big box of ghosts.
The sun was setting, pink behind buildings, as I strolled past Checkpoint Charlie and into the stunning Gendarmenmarkt, the buildings lit up and glowing. My first night walk in Berlin. I was lucky to get a table at Lutter and Wegner, home of “sekt”, serving Wurst and potatoes to well-heeled Berliners since 1811. Perfect place to set a scene. Last stop on the “absence” tour was Bebelplatz, whose lit hole shows empty shelves; this was the site of the infamous Nazi book burning. The way home was easy – just follow the big ball on the knitting needle and wiggle your way round the areas of construction that still mark Berlin, a city still filling in its absent spaces. And so, I bid you good night to the dulcet sounds of German disco below me, in the Oktoberfest celebrations that go on and on…