“I have seen this, but not from the same perspective.”
— His Excellency, Ambassador Dr. Witschel
German Embassy, Ottawa
I have never been to Berlin but I feel like I know it intimately. Despite having never set a foot on Berlin’s soil, I have traveled there many times through art, architecture, history, music, politics, and remembrance. Powerful and dynamic, it has been a key location in the events and culture which shaped the 19th and 20th century. As Ambassador Dr. Witschel continued in his opening words, in Berlin, “History is close to the surface.”
Burned, bombed, built, rebuilt, bifurcated and brought together once again, Berlin is city which has suffered and survived. In spite of—or perhaps because of—its history and continual rejuvenation, it possesses a steadfastness and vibrancy which has made it a core for the arts and provides an unparalleled streetscape: old world jostles shoulder-to-shoulder with bleeding edge. Everything has an undercurrent of context and soupçon of history.
When I was invited to attend the vernissage for Berlin at Exposure Gallery, I was interested but wanted some background. When the preview to the collection by four Ottawa photographers arrived it held some striking urban landscapes: Libeskind’s Jewish Museum Berlin, bunkers defaced with gaffitti, the 1936 Olympic Stadium, and a forked garden path presented four vastly different views of this city. My curiosity as a photographer, architecture buff, and historian was piqued.
I arrived early at the beckoning of the gallery’s curator to meet the four photographers featured: Abigail Gossage, Barbara Bolton, Leslie Hossack, and Patricia Wallace. I admit I was surprised to discover four retired women who met through a digital print production workshop rather than a collective of edgy, urban infiltrators armed with Leica’s. All Ottawa residents, they explained how they met through class in digital printmaking at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO) led by Michael Tardioli. They are all extensive travelers and they soon organized a trip to satisfy their love of photography, printmaking, and travel. Berlin was their second destination (after a previous trip to France) and the photos in the collection represent works from that trip.
Initially I expected that the photography represented a mere rationalization of their travels, little more than a glorified travelogue or heavily-produced set of vacation slides. In speaking I discovered the opposite: the trip and their subjects were rigorously planned and researched in advance with each photographer shooting different subjects, locations, and approaching with very different intents.
Hossack’s interest lies in the monumental, self-aggrandizing architecture of the Third Reich and documents some of the buildings that still remain. Her photos mirror the propaganda style of the Nazi party and look as if they could have been pulled straight from Speer’s portfolio. Initially I was almost repulsed by their likeness, as if admiring them somehow condoned or made me complicit to the actions of the government that built them. They are more than buildings, they are testaments: these massive edifices are both beautiful but also tainted with the stain of history. Her studies of Werner March’s Olympiastadio, the track venue for the 1936 Summer Olympics, captures the striking scale and classical symmetry of the structure, but we’re left to consider how such a philosophically pure celebration of sport took place under the facist’s regime (and the redemption and humiliation provided by Jesse Owen’s spectacular performance on its track). Similarly, her photos of Berlin Templehof Airport – once one of the largest, most modern, and busiest in Europe – document its soaring canopy but belie its later role in the Nazi’s Luftwafe war machine and the Berlin Airlift.
Bolton calls herself a “street photographer” in the very literal sense: she trains her lens on the streets, often in the vacant, early hours. Berlin provided an interesting juxtaposition of old and new, with demolition, preservation, and modernization all boiling over against the tapestry of a city that exists as a historical and architectural jigsaw. The elevated S-Bahn rail line loom as oppressive and divisive as the Berlin Wall in one photograph, a small neighbourhood lying in its considerable shadow. This run-up to Berlin Hofbahnhof station, one of Europe’s largest and busiest passenger rail terminals, highlights the conflict between community and commerce, ancient cobblestone contrasted sharply against modern high-speed rail. Bolton’s serene pictures of Schrebergärten, shared urban garden plots in the midst of bustling cityscape for Berliners to exercise their green thumbs, evoke a bucolic serenity and calm against the memorials, modern concrete, and fascist remnants. But even here, nothing is quite as it appears: a gate or sharp divide in the road create tension.
Wallace tackles the Jewish legacy inexorably linked to Germany with a focus on Daniel Libeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. At once, an architectural expository: she captures the memorial like a massive concrete and steel scar cut through the the surrounding park. On the other hand, her lens presents us its totemic purpose, including the soaring interior Void filled with Shelechet (Fallen Leaves), an installation piece consisting of 10,000 rough-cut iron faces like a coin-box of sorrow. Her shots of The Garden of Exile, massive concrete pillars topped with a low garden offers brutal modern symmetry mixed with the wellspring of life and new growth.
Gossage provides us with some of the only interior shots: a recreation of Stasi offices, at once bourgeois, stylish, and orderly while holding contextual gravitas. Her photo of a massive, pock-marked concrete bunker reveals the layers of history and reinvention that is everywhere in Berlin. Once a Nazi bunker, then a banana warehouse, later abandoned and rediscovered as a literal underground techno club post-unification, and now as the home to the Boros Collection of modern art, it illustrates the constant renewal and recontextualization of spaces in Berlin. Gassange also offers us the sole figure study in a exhibition almost entirely devoid of Berlin’s vibrant citizenry: a single figure running through the shadows of The Garden of Exile gives the somewhat cold and impersonal exhibition a much needed touch sense of human scale and presence.
Individually the pictures are thoughtful, striking, reverential, and at times, powerful. However, together they feel disjointed and jumbled with no real narrative or common thread outside of a vague sense of geographic commonality. The photographers are not united by a common goal, style, or approach, but neither are these differences explored or contrasted. The hanging feels crowded and occasionally haphazard. Hossack’s massive The Wall, Niederkirchner Strasse, a panorama of manually-stitched exposures that documents one of the last remaining sections of the iconic Berlin Wall, hangs in a small stairway landing like an out-of-proportion afterthought. Despite the copious documentation for each of the pieces and individual artist statements available for reading, as I walked through Exposure’s small space I found myself searching for a path to guide me around the collected works and complete the portrait of the city the artists have created.
Perhaps Berlin, the city, is just too immense physically, culturally, and historically to adequately portray in such a small show by such a diverse range of artists. Because of this, Berlin suffers in its ambition: a city writ large, its grand scope impossible to cover by the quiltwork narrative of four photographers. In the photographs I caught facets of Berlin glinting in the light and heard whispers of its history, but never felt like I was getting the entire picture or story. But I do want to know more, and in that regard, Berlin delivers on its promise.
Berlin is showing at Exposure Gallery, 1225 Wellington Street West (2nd Floor, above Thyme & Again) December 9-January 18. For more information contact visit exposuregallery.info
David Hicks—Ottawa dweller. Marketing consultant. Dad. Dog owner. Handyman. Gadget guy. Photographer. Coffee Drinker. Scotch sipper. [Not necessarily in that order] Blogs at www.davidhicks.ca and spends too much time on Twitter