PRINT November 1990


IN EARLY AUGUST I had to accompany a large painting by Pellizza da Volpedo, entitled Fiumana (Crowd, 1895), from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan to the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, where it was included in a historical show dedicated to Bismarck. In these days of German unification—and here Berlin reunification—it was perhaps ironic that Bismarck, who first unified Germany and mollified the proletariat through a series of social reforms as well, was the cause of my trip. Fiumana is the first version of Pellizza’s most famous work, Il Quarto Stato (The fourth estate, 1901), which became in Italy, but also, I think, in other parts of Europe, a symbol of social utopia. In this work, the artist represented the proletariat on the march toward its own emancipation. When I asked the curator of the Bismarck exhibition why she had chosen a work of Italian art, she answered that this piece had become very famous in Germany, ever since it had been reproduced on posters for Bernardo Bertolucci’s film 1900. She wasn’t kidding (“Are you joking?” “Why should I?”), but bearing witness to the obsolescence of symbols, at least certain political symbols.

Like Pellizza’s great socialist painting, the painted ceramic frieze by Max Linger that decorates the House of Ministries (on the other side of the former Wall, in the East, but now just a short walk from the Gropius-Bau), and that depicts the happy throng of East German workers, no longer carries a punch. It is no longer a regime’s propaganda piece but a kitschy, amusing, and even beautiful find from the past. Icons are recycled easily in the market of signs, when reality changes too quickly and takes unexpected directions.

Berlin, after the initial excitement, is experiencing the trauma of reunification: the sudden collapse of the Wall has brought economic, social, and psychological problems that no opposing discourse seems able to confront—neither the official style of Socialist Realism, nor the authentic utopianism of Pellizza. I thought of this when I returned to Berlin to see “Die Endlichkeit der Freiheit” (The finality of freedom), an exhibition conceived by Rebecca Horn, Jannis Kounellis, and the East German writer Heiner Müller (who speaks of the new German unity, coming a long time after the unity achieved by Bismarck in 1871, as an “explosive mixture”), which was composed of site-specific works created for various and disparate locations in both the Western and Eastern sectors of the city. Perhaps, the show seemed to imply, it is the discourse of art that will succeed in capturing the dramatic complexity of reality, particularly because, unlike official discourse (the political one, i.e., Helmut Kohl’s), art, as Kounellis states in the catalogue, seeks to heal wounds rather than to hide them. If a tragedy occurs, it is necessary to confront the tragic in order to overcome it, as opposed to removing it, and in this sense the show served as a rite of passage that made concrete the change that is taking place in the collective conscience of Europe. This change isn’t restricted to the end of ideology, however, as some have argued. One might just as well begin to theorize a new utopia and wonder what language would be adequate to express it.

I began my visit to this exhibition with that frieze on the House of Ministries (formerly the Ministry of Aeronautics), but wasn’t able to find it, for the artist Via Lewandowsky had superimposed on it an enormous canvas that bore an illegible image of the frieze itself, rendered in frottage so as to appear corroded and faded with time. He repeated a similar action on the Siegessäule (the victory column), the monument in the Tiergarten built to commemorate Germany’s victory in the Franco-Prussian War; while a strong searchlight placed atop the column virtually united the two parts of the city in its beam, here, too, an act of negation had been practiced—a triumphal image decorating the base was canceled out. Thus what we had was a double negation of the emblems of power—of any power—shown by current events to be inert metaphors.

The projections of Krzysztof Wodiczko also addressed the discrepancy between the symbolic value of the monument and the reality that it no longer manages to represent. In the Leninplatz, in the East, the artist projected the image of the body of a contemporary Everyman, wearing a striped rugby shirt and standing behind a shopping cart loaded with consumer goods, over a statue of Lenin sculpted in an obviously heroic pose. In the West, the artist worked on the Huth building, one of the last houses in the Potsdamer Platz, upon which he projected the ambiguously aggressive image of the German eagle, here taking flight from a treasure chest. But if the commemorative discourse has lost meaning in banality and in obscurity, this is not why the institutions of power are ceasing to function. For his piece, Die Freiheit wird jetzt einfach gesponsert—Aus der Portokasse (Now freedom will simply be sponsored—from petty cash), Hans Haacke restored a watchtower in the so-called “death strip” in Kreuzberg, a desolate area where many escaping East Berliners met their death. On one side of the tower was a piece of militaristic writing, “Bereit sein ist alles” (Readiness is everything); on the other side, a quotation from Goethe, “Kunst bleibt Kunst” (Art remains art), both, not coincidentally, used in Mercedes-Benz ad campaigns. The latter also appeared on the poster for a 1974 show in Cologne for which Haacke made a work, Manet—PROJEKT ’74, that the curators rejected. Now that statement, “art remains art”—it doesn’t, for example, ever mix with “politics”—has been chosen by Haacke as the ironical esthetic credo of the new unified Germany, the symbol of which can be identified in the logo of Mercedes-Benz that looms above the tower, mocking the matching logo atop the Europa Center on the Kurfürstendamm, long a symbol of Western capitalism.

The theme of social control on the part of institutions, which in the final analysis determines “the finality of freedom,” and which is addressed so explicitly by Haacke, was also present in the installations of Ilya Kabakov and Christian Boltanski. In the enormous open space of the Potsdamer Platz, once the nerve center of the city, which looks even larger since the collapse of the Wall, Kabakov built Zwei Erinnerungen an die Angst (Two memories of fear), two long, narrow corridors formed by nine-foot wooden walls. The visitor walked down each claustrophobic alleyway beneath three iron wires hung with found objects scavenged from the Platz—crushed soda cans, rusting metal wire, and so on—and small cards printed with text (in German and English on the Western side, and in German and Russian on the Eastern side). The writing, the fantasies of East Germans as to what was on the other side of the Wall, spoke of “us” and of “others” who want to annihilate us, of imprisonment, of danger, of war, of madness. For Kabakov, the very thought of the new direction toward which society is moving cannot be divorced from the memory of horrors barely endured. the Nazi camps as well as the Stalinist persecutions.

In the East, Boltanski evoked the memory of The Missing House, the middle section of a house destroyed during the war and never rebuilt. On the inside walls of the right and left halves of the building he placed plaques with the names of the families who once inhabited what is now a gap in the urban fabric. He then researched and retrieved traces of their existence—photographs, identity documents, letters, and objects—and deaths—he discovered that at least 20 were Jews killed by the Nazis—and brought these into The Museum, that is, enclosed them within glass showcases placed on the ruins of the former Berliner Gewerbe Ausstellung in the West. Here, too, a sense of destruction and abandonment dominated: a disconnected stone staircase, uprooted gates, the humidity that entered the vitrines and misted over the glass. History, when it is not the official version, is reconstructed with difficulty among the ruins.

The memory of tragedy is mixed with the thought of a new phase; this, basically, is the premise of the Berlin show. The city itself is an emblem: of the tragic past to be overcome, and of an ambiguous, double, divided present. Barbara Bloom chose two museum locations to reflect precisely on the theme of the double, a reality that pertains both to nature and to cultural elaboration. In the Museum für Naturkunde, in the East, the artist simply opened the showcases containing butterflies, replacing the exhibits with small photographs of German architecture, folded in half to form wings and attached with pins, the way insects are mounted. The butterflies themselves had been moved to tables or desks at the center of the space. In the Gipsformerei, the studio of the state museums in the West that is responsible for manufacturing plaster casts, she exhibited pairs of new casts made from old ones. On two other walls, images of famous Siamese and birth twins were displayed above shelves of open books—natural histories of butterflies or studies on twins—prompting the viewer to infer relationships of meaning between the different exhibits. The double signifies symmetry, and for our culture, it has become an object of esthetic perception. Yet, as Primo Levi says in an essay, butterflies existed millions of years before man, and the symmetrical designs of their wings have nothing to do with our sense of order. In mythology, the double is often the origin of conflict and implies disaster; in nature, the complex psychology of twins finds a disquieting counterpart in the Siamese twin, which brings to mind monstrosity. Symmetry may be a basic rule of architecture, but power seizes upon this rational language for its own ends, as documented by the Nazis’ buildings, which are as mournful as they are orderly.

This profound ambiguity, which Bloom studies with an almost scientific objectivity, finds its principal representation in Berlin, double city, unified but still divided. In an installation by Horn, Raum des verwundeten Affen (Room of the wounded monkey), the shadowy room of an isolated house at the border between the two sectors was filled with signs that allude to this not-yet-accomplished unification: two metronomes beat out two different tempos, electric discharges were emitted from copper wires running overhead, there were traces of coal dust on the floor and a piece of old-fashioned rusting machinery—the wounded monkey. Nearby, outside, along the wall that still separates the Gropius-Bau from the former Prussian parliament, Raffael Rheinsberg arranged 100 enormous cabledrums—50 from the West, 50 from the East—an impressive alignment of structures that, intended to facilitate communication, here formed a barrier: this “joint venture,” a notion the artist always addresses in his work, has been imagined but has yet to occur.

The possibilities for communication, connection, equivalence were hypothesized by Giovanni Anselmo through strategies of removal and a reduction to essences. The removal of the distinctive features of spaces: the room of a gallery in the West and the room of a private apartment in the East were made bare, stripped of their connotations of public or private space and treated instead as neutral. The essence of the artistic intervention: the word “particolare” (detail) was projected randomly on the walls of the interiors and on entering visitors, like so many centers of energy redefining the space, connecting it to the totality, the exterior, elsewhere, according to new possible relationships of meaning.

In contrast, Mario Merz worked on a real communication site, choosing to install his piece inside two stations of the elevated line traversing Berlin, Marx-Engels-Platz in the East and Lehrter Stadtbahnhof in the West. After 30 years of separation, the two stations are once more linked, and they constitute an emblematic site—again the double—for the artist’s simple-seeming interrogation. Written in neon in German are the words Was machen? (What’s doing?), which were hung beneath a supporting structure of the ceiling in each station. Located within a public space, among the passing crowd, the writings functioned as devices of Brechtian alienation, encouraging reflection.

For his part, Kounellis chose a power station that, like all the buildings in the lee of the Wall in the East, was abandoned and is now part of a no-man’s-land that, even more than the Wall, underlines the differences, the duplicity of the city. The artist’s intervention consisted in his making the power station functional once again; the railroad line that united the two parts of the building was reactivated, and slowly, one might say laboriously, it transported a platform bearing sacks of coal from one part of the space to the other. Thus Kounellis introduced into the dead space an activity, a dynamic sign, that refers metaphorically to the return of life and, directly, to the collective work of reconstruction. In fact, it is a signal that explicitly addresses collectivity, carrying the meaning of that project which, born from tragedy, is capable of overcoming it—healing the wounds, not hiding them.

Giorgio Verzotti is a writer who lives in Milan and contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.