The Hamburger Bahnhof is not a train station now, and never was in Hamburg. It’s a museum of contemporary art in Berlin. It’s also a good metaphor—in name and in content—for this city where nothing is quite as advertised. Though a very fine layer of general German Ordnung covers everything here, it gives way easily to a jumble of rules without regulation, a mass of juxtaposed and unlikely objects of which I am also, and only, one.
On the ground floor of the Hamburger Bahnhof museum there are huge, rough stones scattered about one gallery, though not without effort: moving equipment is still in view, metal lifts wedged under stone as if the process of installation were abandoned halfway through, out of exhaustion, or a sudden, collective realization that the whole project was a waste of time and effort. It is Joseph Beuys’ big fuck you to the art world, perhaps, or more likely, solid indication that he’s mastered the game. Elsewhere, down in the museum’s long, dark underground tunnels, is a note left sitting in the carriage of a typewriter owned by Dieter Roth: “das ist ein [sic] kunst ! ist das ein [sic] kunst?” [“this is an art ! is this an art?”] I wonder, Was ist Kunst?
It would be hard to recognize any of this as art, if it weren’t for its hallowed place in the museum. But the museum imbues its content with aura, and one so enchanting, so well suited to this city, that I can’t stop coming back.
56. The inside of Richard’s car looks just like his studio. Things overflow everywhere: hammers, nails, old containers, bins. Richard drives tensely, he often brakes which makes all the things go mad, they push and shove, trying to get out. The front of Richard’s car is stuck all over with little pieces of paper with German words written on them with the articles der, die, das heavily underlined. That’s how Richard learns German.
‘Was ist Kunst, Richard?’ I ask unsticking from the widescreen in front of me the piece of paper with the German words ‘die Kunst’ written on it.*
Upstairs in the museum, a perfectly decent Warhol is disfigured by the iridescent glare of a Koons bouncing off the glass of its frame. Outside of this gallery chock full of Warhols, Koons, Rauschenbergs, and Twomblys is a white wall with words on it praising the collection for its impressive representation of (white, male) “world famous artists of the second half of the twentieth century.”
The words are lustrous in grayish-silver on white. The words are an island on the wall and the wall is an island unto itself: it can be circled. A few steps round offers a different view. On the backside there are no words on the wall but a black collapsible stool leaning against it, and a long metal rod, a sponge, and some Styrofoam on the dusty wood floor, also a crumpled paper towel and white cord, bits of trash and paint chips.
The aura of this museum comes to die on the backside of this white wall. But there is no reason to be back there in the first place, so whose fault is it to find these things? What is to blame, my voyeuristic urge to go where there’s nothing “to see” or the cleaning staff’s neglect of this space at which the visitor is not instructed to look? I am poking about in an irrelevant corner, photographing what was not intended to be seen.
In the Berlin zoo, beside the pool containing the live walrus, there is an unusual display. In a glass case are all the things found in the stomach of Roland the walrus, who died on 21 August 1961. Or to be precise:
A pink cigarette lighter, four ice-lolly sticks (wooden), a metal brooch in the form of a poodle, a beer-bottle opener, a woman’s bracelet (probably silver), a hair grip, a wooden pencil, a child’s plastic water pistol, a plastic knife, sunglasses, a little chain, a spring (small), a rubber ring, a parachute (child’s toy), a steel chain about 18 ins in length, four nails (large), a green plastic car, a metal comb, a plastic badge, a small doll, a beer can (Pilsner, half-pint), a box of matches, a baby’s shoe, a compass, a small car key, four coins, a knife with a wooden handle, a baby’s dummy, a bunch of keys (5), a padlock, a little plastic bag containing needles and thread.
Being in Berlin is like being in this belly. Berlin is an accumulation of things, of people, of histories. The contents of its famous flea markets with their boxes full of old postcards, Polaroid pictures — the clothing and hairstyles of the people residing within their frames marking them as residents of East or West, beer glasses, just barely chipped, proudly purporting to have been made in the German Democratic Republic, and Russian nesting dolls amount to a surrealist collage that is an apt homage to this unlikely capital’s torrid history.
The highlight at the Hamburger Bahnhof right now is a large-scale collage of sorts, a massive installation called Moby Dick by the Berlin-based artist Michael Beutler. This, more than any of the museum’s other cabinets of curiosities, embodies Berlin’s hoarding ethos. The main atrium of the museum is dedicated to what Beutler calls a “museum workshop”: an intricate network of scaffolded arcades, massive stacks of crinkled paper, television sets and wooden benches, metal, string, more Styrofoam, on and on. It is the mess the museum intends you to see.
The first week of every month, Beutler comes to “work” on his installation, right there in the massive gallery, in a space that the website for the exhibition describes as “a place of continuous production.” On these weeks, added to the other list of materials in the belly of the beast are the backpacks, shoes, water bottles, and coats of the artist and his assistants (majority female). They discuss in hushed tones where to move various screens and wire formations, in ardent debate until the thing is decided, the object moved, and settled in a seemingly random place. A fan to keep them cool in their labor stands next to flimsy walls constructed of wire woven with tissue paper. Is the fan an art too?
In other words, Ist das eine Kunst?
61. ‘Was ist Kunst?’ I ask a colleague.
‘Art is an endeavour to defend the wholeness of the world, the secret connection between all things…Only true art can assume a secret connection between the nail on my wife’s little finger and the earthquake in Kobe,’ says my colleague.
All the things I see in Moby Dick are somehow connected. Everything within the spatial confines of the installation is by its very presence within the exhibition, too. If the artist’s shoes on a dolly can be integral to the thing, than the artist himself cannot be interloper. That means the museum guard taking our tickets, checking our bags, sitting on a bench and watching the transformation of the exhibition when he thinks no one is watching him, is art. When I visit, I get to be an art, too. All us visitors are a part of the whole, animating the space with the presence of our bodies as we watch the various televisions on “display” and sit in a make shift ship. All around us moves and floats. I feel seasick on solid ground.
The visitor stands in front of the display, more enchanted than horrified, as before archeological exhibits. The visitor knows that their museum-display fate has been determined by chance (Roland’s whimsical appetite) but still cannot resist the poetic thought that with time the objects have acquired some subtler, secret connections. Caught up in this thought, the visitor then tried to establish semantic coordinates, to reconstruct the historical context (it occurs to him, for instance, that Roland died one week after the Berlin Wall was erected), and so on and so forth.
In the Hamburger Bahnhof is a café and restaurant, called the Sarah Weiner. On its website, it proffers the following sentence as a gift: “Hedonism can best unfold in a conducive environment.” Berlin, with its excess of fanciful objects like those in Moby Dick, and a collective will to simultaneously remember and forget a “difficult” past that manifests itself in “post-Wall club culture” and street art is a conducive environment for hedonism. But I have mostly been miserable here.
29. ‘I’m lonely,’ I tell Zoran.
‘It’s not surprising, everyone in Berlin is lonely,’ says Zoran. ‘And, for some reason, no one ever has any time,’ he adds.
I flew into Tegel one sunny September day last year, circled its Foucauldian panopticon with my wheely suitcase, overstuffed duffle bag, and little dog until I found the bus out of there, and thus embarked on a year to be characterized as one mainly of discontent. I read Dubravka Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender—about forced exile and exploration during the Yugoslav civil war, and which takes place largely in Berlin—as my primer. In chosen exile here, I am uncomfortable nonetheless. I sleep too long, exercise too little, make collages from scraps of paper I have collected well into the night. Like Roland the walrus I retain too much: museum brochures, free postcards found in restaurant restrooms, train tickets and theater stubs, old abandoned books, luggage tags, bits of twine and fallen leaves, prints from flea markets. I cut these things up, glue them together, and sometimes add a lot of glitter.
38. ‘Do you have some time?’ I ask Jane.
‘No. Why do you ask?’ says Jane.
Jane is an American who likes Berlin and knows everything about Europeans.
[…] Jane once visited me. She was wearing a splendid suit covered with tiny, shining circles.
‘I don’t know what to say…’ she said.
After she left, I kept finding little shiny circles, very like fish scales, all over the flat.
Soon, I will abandon this city, and all the things I have collected here. But bits of glitter will remain in the floorboards. And Berlin, I imagine, will continue its collection, of fine art representative of a majority male and white tradition, various versions of how the Wall went up and how it came down, different trash bins for different kinds of refuse I never before knew could be recycled, all overflowing, nevertheless.
And in my mind I will miss this place, where I was able to sit in the middle of a Tuesday inside Pequod and fancy myself adrift with the tide. Floating, for sure; with what purpose or to what end I might never know. But if I were really asked to answer the question “Was ist Kunst?” I think I would say that this is all it: not just Berlin and its collage of objects but all the people and places, clustered together and fractured apart. I’d like to say we are all of us an art, no matter what might be found inside our bellies, or in whose belly we might be found.
*All block quotes are from Dubravka Ugrešić, “The Museum of Unconditional Surrender,” trans. Celia Hawkesworth (New York: New Directions, 1999).
All images are the author’s.