Experiencing Berlin: A Transparent Reality

Molly Schmidt

Prior to my two-week visit to Berlin this past June I had purposely kept myself from having any expectations in order to experience the city as freshly as possible with no preconceived ideas of how the city might be. To my surprise I found myself in a city with an unbelievably rich integration of history, culture, and art. However the 6th annual Berlin Biennale entitled “What is waiting out there?” was one aspect of the trip for which I had high expectations. This theme became the contextual framework through which I experienced Berlin.

Artists from all over the world came together in the Berlin Biennale to try and make sense of reality. What is real and how does one’s everyday experience of immediate reality differ from what is really happening out there in the world? The works in this exhibition depart from art practices that address art-immanent concepts such as, art history, institutional critique and formal investigation, but instead focus on the world (outside of the ‘art world’) as it really is and explore reality, not merely as a concept but as the political and economic conditions of actual people and places. Mark Boulos and Renzo Martens, two participating artists in the exhibition contributed the most stringent and transparent works addressing the real. Both artists’ documentary style films deal with the affects of First World economy on Third World poverty. The transparency revealed in viewing the infrastructure of capitalism and the global economy seemed particularly relevant when viewed in a city whose own history of war and political corruption is treated with an equal level of transparency and criticism.

While the selected works from the Berlin Biennale approached reality with a harsh examination of sociopolitical crises, Olafur Eliasson’s solo exhibition at the Martin-Gropias Bau, Innen Stadt Aussen was an exploration of the real in terms of experiential subjectivity and the perspectival multiplicity of Berlin itself. The environments created by Eliasson are simultaneously magical and scientific by revealing the construction of the viewer’s illusive altered experience. His use of mirrors in several works is symbolic of the mind’s capability of self-reflection and evaluation that can be seen metaphorically in Berlin’s treatment of it’s own dark past and literally in the mirrors of the Reichstag dome.

What is most important in both of these exhibitions is the transparency with which reality is portrayed in the context of Berlin. In what follows I will discuss the two pieces by Boulos and Martens in the Biennale and how they relate to Berlin’s treatment of its own history. Then I will discuss selected works from Eliasson’s solo exhibition and their relationship to the self-reflectiveness and transparency of Berlin’s history in its numerous memorials and architectural accomplishments. All of which are considered in relation to the transparency, visibility, and invisibility of reality.

Mark Boulos’s piece All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a video diptych. In a large dark room there is a video projected on each wall. One side alternates between an aerial view of downtown Chicago and the trading platform of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. On the other side are various people of the Niger Delta speaking to the camera about the blatant raping of the natural resources of their land by Shell Oil Company and the Nigerian government, who have benefited from the oil wells but have provided hardly any indemnity to the people that experience the devastating environmental and economic consequences. Both groups on either screen are fighting for control of the oil although the fighting grounds are far from level. A group of armed Nigerian guerilla soldiers hide their faces with masks made of sock hats and seashells. They speak of the bleak poverty and pain their people suffer while the Shell oil wells guzzle up the exorbitant crude liquid that lies directly beneath them. However, the problem is not simply that Shell is taking their oil. The building of pipelines has destroyed precious farmland and uprooted villages with little or no compensation from the Nigerian government. Forty percent of Shell’s world wide oil spills have occurred in the Niger Delta and 95% of extracted natural gas in the Niger Delta alone has caught fire.[1] Footage of these fires is seen in Boulos’s piece. The flames arise just off the shore where families live. One would assume from the footage that the stink and pollution is unbearable. A man, while beating his chest with the flat side of a machete, rightfully claims that the oil belongs to his people who suffer daily from the raping of their land; only adding insult to injury.

On the other screen, the traders in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange frantically shout and gesture like monkeys in a cage buying and selling stocks in crude oil, among other commodities. Their feverish demeanor is a physical manifestation of gross commodity fetishism redolent of capitalism. The title, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a line from the Communist Manifesto. Marx wrote, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”[2] In displaying face-to-face these opposed realities, the viewer is forced into awareness of the undeniable truth of their inextricable relationship.

Artist Renzo Martens deals with a similar set of issues in his work titled, Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. This piece is shot in the Congo, one of the largest and most impoverished countries in Africa. It is from a series of films about how the destitution of peoples in developing countries has become a commodity in the global economy while questioning the role of politically motivated art that seems to exploit poor people rather than help them and the failed attempt of various aid organizations to attend to these issues. As a white man and a maker and seller of images he cynically acts as both perpetrator and observer, aware that he is an exemplar of the people and organizations that exploit in the first place. Martens tells the people how their own poverty and exploitation functions for the rest of the world as a “natural resource” and encourages them to pick up the camera and direct it toward themselves. For a people with little political or economic stature they should at least have the power to make and sell their own images (i.e. self-exploitation), which in turn creates a more intimate and subjective depiction of their environment and the conditions therein. Consequently, this piece leaves a more general question for the overall theme of the Berlin Biennale. How does sociopolitical art function on the gallery walls? And how does this kind of work differ if and when imagery is controlled and created by the subject and not mediated through an outsider’s perspective?

The footage captured by Martens’ camera cannot be fully described in words. The incomprehensible pain suffered by the people on film is abysmal, to say the least. There is footage of a man giving Martens a tour of his home in complete darkness, presumably because there is no electricity. All they have to guide them is a flashlight. They find a very young girl sitting up staring wide-eyed into the darkness with no expression on her face. Her father tells the cameraman (Martens) that she never sleeps because she is so hungry. He points out sores all over her body including her nostrils and anus. When he moves her body around she appears to have the bearing of a ragdoll because she is so weak and malnourished.

The pain one feels from merely seeing such a sight, which is mediated by the camera and then the projection of the image, is an infinitesimal fraction of the actual pain experienced by the subjects themselves. After seeing this so-called artwork I was appalled and disgusted that an artist could display such content on a gallery wall and call it art; art that people pay to see and have the luxury to criticize and analyze as an ever so distant and removed third party. Because the footage is so personal and so painful, I felt that Martens had perhaps taken it too far and that this type of imagery should not be treated as a spectacle by existing in a public art gallery. However, in retrospect the piece makes visible the harshness of reality that is a world apart from the lifestyle of a middle class American and it is precisely this kind of non-escapist realism that is necessary in order for us to raise social consciousness of global economic relationships. The truth of the world is that people are purposelessly suffering and knowledge of this means little if one is not exposed to the actual conditions of its cause and effect. When reality hurts people, it is denied as reality in order to escape the shame and discomfort in seeing the evil and neglect humanity is capable of. Acknowledgement of real conditions in the world and the dispersion of representative imagery may not provide an immediate solution but is sufficient in promoting awareness and providing information to those who choose to participate in an open and critical dialogue on determining prospective solutions.

The stringent realism of Boulos and Martens’s work was present in Berlin. With the rise and fall of both National Socialism and the Berlin Wall in the 20th century, Berlin’s recent history was conflicting and violent. The city’s history is a reality that is difficult to confront yet there are reminders of it throughout the city, both monumental and subtle. Of course monuments and memorials can be found in many places all over the world, but the sheer multitude of signs and statues is what makes the presence of history so integral to this city.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is one of the largest memorials in Berlin. One block away from the iconic Brandenburg Gate, it takes up 19,000 square feet of land and is made up of 2,711 concrete blocks in a grid pattern varying drastically in size, each block representing one page of the Jewish Talmud. On the outer edge of the occupied space blocks are flush with the ground. Toward the center they rise from the earth like a stagnant wave. From afar the blocks don’t appear to be very large because the ground lowers correspondingly to the increasing size of the blocks but once inside the grid one is dwarfed and humbled by their mass. Similarly, one feels the same reverence through the overwhelming multitude of monuments and memorials seen when traversing the city.

There are several smaller commemorations on sidewalks and buildings marking what were once the homes of Jews who were deported to ghettos and concentration camps by the Nazis. The book burning memorial in Bebelplatz, the courtyard near Humboldt University where the notorious Nazi book burning ceremony took place, is a small underground room lined with empty bookshelves visible through a glass-plated hole in the ground of the courtyard. It is accompanied by a plaque that bears a line from German poet Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people.” There is the Neue Wache Memorial; a small one-roomed building serenely lit by a single large hole in the ceiling directly underneath of which is a seated woman holding who is presumably a loved one killed by the atrocities of war. The Soviet War Memorial in Tiergarten is a mammoth sculpture of a Soviet soldier looking down atop a large stone gate. It is a reminder of what culminated at the end of World War II when Soviet soldiers fought in the Battle of Berlin and captured the distressed city. Stih and Schnock’s subtle and invasive memorial Places of Remembrance in the Bavarian Quarter of Berlin-Schoeneberg is another example, similar to the small plaques placed in and around the homes of murdered Jews that infiltrates the environment and forces past and present realities to be reconciled both by residents and visitors of the area. Chunks of the Berlin Wall are littered throughout the city in unexpected places. The Stasi Museum, once the headquarters for the Ministry of State Security in East Berlin before the fall of the wall is now a museum displaying rooms, documents and surveillance technology used to spy on the citizens of East Berlin during Soviet occupation. And finally, there are a few concentration camps in Germany that have been preserved for the allowance of public visitation and memorialization including Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Buchenwald.

All of the aforementioned monuments and memorials are only a fraction of the total number present in Berlin and there is sure to be more in the future. All of these visual representations of memory serve as a lens into the past. But rather than looking back into the past, the signs and statues are symbols of the past protruding into the present. One could argue that to put so much importance and focus on such a painful history is corrosive to present conditions and prohibits a society from becoming a more peaceful and successful political state. On the contrary, the conscious decision not to ignore the real problems and real history that brought a society to its current condition is far more productive than to forget a century of political and social turmoil.

In an earlier writing by Marx titled For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing he discusses the importance of criticism of all past and present political convictions in order to discover a more successful solution for future societies: “The reform of consciousness consists only in enabling the world to clarify its consciousness, in waking it from its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” Just as Berlin remains a conscious vessel of the reality of its past, the artists of the Berlin Biennale reveal the real relations of the global economy. It is through this non-escapist realism that “it will transpire that it is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of carrying out the thoughts of the past… To have its sins forgiven mankind has only to declare them to be what they really are.”[3]

The mirror is a fundamental metaphor for self-awareness and reflection. Olafur Eliasson utilizes the mirror in his solo exhibition to turn the city of Berlin inside out. In an untitled video a giant square mirror is mounted on the cab of a truck that drives around reflecting the city back onto itself. The camera keeps at speed with the truck forming a split-screen of actual and reflection. The city is seen from multiple perspectives at once. Driving in roundabouts the mirror completes several 360-degree turns that once completed reveal an amalgam of people and vehicles that are altogether different from before. The cruising mirror truck produces a poetic symbol of a city that is continuously rebuilding itself after recent and not so recent traumas, which in turn produces a kaleidoscope of past and present happenings.

In the center of the Martin-Gropius Bau is a large vertical tunnel constructed entirely of mirrors reaching up to the center skylight. Once inside one is faced with an infinite regression of reflections. Each individual inside reflects infinitely outward and is confronted with the reality of the collective whole. A reversal of this kaleidoscope tunnel lies inside the Reichstag dome. Inside the dome is a funnel of mirrors facing outward along which people are free to walk around without reservation. Each mirror is tilted slightly downward at the parliament meeting room to remind parliament members of their duty to the people of Germany. It is a symbol of political transparency that symbolically and literally involves the people of Germany as they look down onto the parliament floor.

Another important aspect of Eliasson’s work is the visibility of their construction. In the aforementioned video one is constantly reminded that the camera produces the illusory split screen effect as glimpses of the driver are revealed and the loud revving of the engine is heard. The bare construction of the kaleidoscope tunnel seen from the outside is just as much a part of the piece as the illusion of infinity on the inside. The illusion is made transparent, yet this does not deter from the magical feeling of the experience. Once again, the political and historical transparency of Berlin is manifested in art simply because the artist allows the viewer to see how the piece was constructed and the success of the piece does not rely solely on an illusory experience. One is reminded that there is little mystery in our experience of reality and most things can be explained or accounted for through scrupulous examination, deconstruction, and observation.

Another example akin to this sentiment is the reevaluation of the slogan on the façade of the Reichstag, which reads “Dem deutschen Volke” or “To the German people.” This phrase implies a national-racial identity of the citizens of Germany. German artist Hans Haacke installed a highly controversial alternative slogan inside one of the courtyards that reads, “Der Bevoelkerung” or “To the population,” which includes citizens from all nationalities. The letters sit in a large trough full of dirt and overgrowth that was taken and deposited by several members of parliament from their respective regions. The presence of contradicting past and present conditions is also present in the preserved Russian graffiti of Soviet soldiers from the walls of the Reichstag during its destruction after World War II. Pieces of the graffiti filled walls are melded together with the walls built during reconstruction. The past can be symbolically interpreted as the underlying structure of the present, that is to say that past events are the building blocks that form the structure of the present condition. By synthesizing past and present through public art and commemoration and architectural preservation denial and ignorance are not easily sustained, for the material presence of these structures provokes curiosity and encourages historical awareness and education.

While the documentary style of the pieces discussed in the Berlin Biennale differ strongly from the more poetic and interpretative style of Olafur Eliasson, each artist has confronted reality with the same stringency with which Berlin acknowledges its own reality. Like the harshness of Boulos and Martens and the elegant artistry of Olafur Eliasson, Berlin is littered with windows into the past as a reminder of its growth from what it once was and what it continues to become.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Dan Eisenberg and Ellen Rothenberg


1. Shell in Nigeria: What are the Issues? Boycott Shell. http://www.essentialaction.org/shell/issues.html

2. Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1969, pp. 98-137. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/

3. Marx, Karl. “For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.” The Early Marx. Trans. Dr. Ronald Rogowski.


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