Build A Shelf
Falling and getting up and falling again from grace.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
I was walking through an unknown part of Berlin the other day. I was on my way to pick up a utility cart I had seen advertised online, and that I wanted to use as a cool, industrial-looking side table in my apartment. I had a space that needed to be filled, and I wanted something iron and heavy and sturdy-looking. This one looked vintage, it’s blue paint perfectly rusted, what looked like hand-hewn wooden trays as the platforms, steel frame. Built to last.
I found it on this thing here in Berlin, called eBay Kleinanzeigen. It’s like Craigslist in the US, or Le Bon Coin in France. I love finding stuff on these types of sites, because it’s a whole process: you browse browse browse, and when you find something you like, you make contact. You arrange to pick it up, bring cash. And it always requires a journey — to a new place, a new part of town, an encounter, and then a journey home. It’s like a home-made quest, only without the glory.
So I was on my way to get this industrial cart, walking through a part of town I didn’t know, on a summer Saturday morning, the sky grey and heavy with a coming storm. The air smelled like rain, the trees and grass rich shades of green, everything plump and pressurized and heavy in the damp air.
I passed a grammar school, closed for summer and the school yard overgrown. A warm, thick breeze passed through, rolling like a wave through the tree branches and bushes that bordered the school yard, a sweet warm breath that brushed across my skin and through those summer-plump leaves, in that quiet Saturday morning moment before the rain. It stopped me in my tracks, because it was…. delicious.
And because I knew it: It was a moment from childhood storms in the Midwest, from dusky late summers in Upstate New York, from early, early jet-lagged mornings in Paris parks. It was every moment, and the same moment, and this moment too, separate and all at once, past and present and future. And I thought yes, this is enough. This is what this quest is really all about.
At the A Plus gallery, a small, one-room gallery with a very high ceiling, in Moabit, there are only three walls to hang artwork from. It’s a storefront gallery, so one wall is windows, frosted over to protect the artwork inside. It’s located next to a hairdresser next to a casino next to a kebab shop next to a mosque, on a street called Stromstrasse. Strom means electricity in German, and I like to think of Stromstrasse as Electric Avenue. So maybe the frosted glass on the windows protects the people outside too.
Right now, when you walk in from the street, on the wall directly opposite the door, hangs the number 13. It’s a house number, white letters printed on blue enamel. It’s upside down, and it stops you in your tracks. What is that supposed to mean? Suddenly, you’re unsure what this quest is all about.
When I got to the warehouse where I was picking the utility cart up, the guy who was selling it reprimanded me for not calling ahead to let him know I was on my way — Germans love to reprimand. The location was a storage space in one building in a complex of old warehouses, and when the guy opened the door the air was thick and musky and hotly moist, like the corners of a body on a humid day. He led me down a long hall, constructed between caged areas packed full with all kinds of stuff — so much stuff packed in so tight, you couldn’t even see what it was. Bulging against the cage walls, pushing against the ceiling, a precarious balancing of things threatening to avalanche at the slightest touch.
If the number 13 is upside down then does it create a double negative?
Everything is high up on the gallery walls at A Plus. The gallery is small, so it’s difficult to step back and see the work, especially as there is only one installation on each wall. Instead you simply have to crane your neck, look up look up look up.
In Newcombe’s Mosquito, everything that rises must converge, but as each of the elements of Newcombe’s work climbs up the gallery walls, the convergence is on the floor. A tiny dead sparrow lays on its back, its wings spread out to either side as if crucified on a cross. It almost seems like it is floating on that smooth gray floor, even though gravity holds it in place — gravity is what brought it down from the sky in the first place. The only thing that is supposed to be high in the air has fallen. Newcombe calls this piece “Fluke”.
And that number 13 — it looks like a house number from Paris rather than Berlin — upside down on the back wall. This is called “Omen”. And I wonder, but can that be? If the number 13 is upside down then does it create a double negative, in the world of good and bad luck? Does it become a positive sign again? Is that even possible, since 13 itself is a positive number (in the world of maths), and a negative number is a negative number, but an upside down number is bad luck. What happens if you take bad luck and turn it upside down? Is it exactly good, or is there somewhere in between, telling us to beware like a… well, like an Omen? But, an omen so familiar, you can’t read it.
Very high up on the south wall is a shelf. On the shelf, a flower pot, with a small flower in it. It sits precariously close to the edge. In fact, it is so close, if it falls the crash will be spectacular — loud and messy and exploding in every direction: the soil, the life inside, the pottery shards that are also made from soil but that, broken and hurtling through the space of the gallery will hurt you, if you’re standing in the way. But the gallery space is so contained, how can you not be standing in the way? Only the person on the ladder who pushed the flower pot off would be unscathed.
But they would also be without a flower.
At the storage space, we finally came to stop at another unit chock full of stuff, and the man unlocked the door and pulled open the cage. He moved a biergarten bench out of the way, and then a long board. The stuff inside shifted a little, readjusted itself, breathing into the newly freed space. The guy looked at this massive stash of stored things, put his hands on hips, cocked his head to one side and said, “Now where did I put that thing?” And I understood why he had wanted me to call ahead. Nobody likes to be watched while they look for things.
* * * * * * * * *
There is an office just behind the gallery space at A Plus, and usually, for exhibits, one or two pieces of work are hung here too. The piece this time is called “Portal (object for death)”. It’s a small, ceramic oval, the kind that’s fixed to gravestones. Printed on it is a photo of the back of Newcombe’s head, and the upper back portion of his torso. He’s walking away, walking out of the gallery and you can follow him right out the back door.
Except you can’t.
There is a lyricism to Newcombe’s work, even — or maybe especially — in its sparsity, like single pure notes of music lingering in the air. Lingering, because each of these pieces has an ethereal quality to it, has a strange tendency to leave an impression, rather than actually be there. Which is remarkable, because they are there, you can touch them (although: don’t touch them), and you can see them plainly before you, but you can also feel their absence, the moment when they will no longer be there. Perhaps it’s the space itself, or the way so few and such small items are so tentative in the space, but they feel unstable, yearning to exist and threatening to disappear in the same exact moment.
The most remarkable things came out of this storage unit: the bust of a man; curio cabinets, coat racks. An old school locker. Some bottles of wine. Lead.otting map boxes, perfectly intact metal signs from the old DDR. A phonograph.
Pallets and piles of stuff were pulled out, stacked to either side of the cage, and eventually lined down the hall, and still the man could not find the industrial cart. What struck me as the strangest thing of all, though, was that at some point, the man had pulled the cart out to take a photo of it, so he could sell it online, and then shoved the cart right back into the middle of the cage, to be swallowed by all the other stuff and nonsense, that would adjust itself around it, disappearing it from view and forcing the man to dig for it once again. I guess his job is to find things, even if he has to lose them himself first.
A Plus gallery has this great thing they do with every exhibit — someone at the gallery writes a personal letter to the artist, a one-sided conversational prose piece of the author’s impression of the artist’s work, it’s meaning, and it’s place in the world. It’s always a continuation of an in-person dialog with the artist, the kind of after-thoughts that hit the author in the dead of night. But Hagen Schumman, who runs the gallery, told me that this time there were three letters and three letter-writers, because it was hard to get it right. I understand that — how do you put into words things you don’t need words for?
The one who finally got it right was a young Norwegian, Rassmuss. Maybe he could get it right because of his Norse heritage, his Scandinavian sensibility of lightness and dark, of dreamtime and twilight, like Cordelia’s cryptic response to Lear’s riddle. It’s an extension of the exhibit itself, and as poetic.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
At the warehouse, the cart was eventually uncovered, and wheeled out. I paid the finder in cash, and set off home. I passed by the grammar school again, looking for that moment in the trees, but there was no wind, and the morning was no longer quiet. I myself was making a lot of noise pushing that utility cart down the cobblestoned streets, back to the Ubahn and Moabit and Electric Avenue.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For me, when I entered the gallery at APlus, when I entered Newcombe’s work, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being came to mind. I don’t like the book, but I like the phrase, because it is instantly and profoundly understandable. The problem and beauty of our existence summed up in just five words — like the five pieces that make up Philip Newcombe’s Mosquito.
A bug that grows from tiny to monstrous when it keeps you up at night.
My favorite piece out of all of the works here is called “Cloud”. It’s a cardboard file box, fixed to the wall. Inside is a speaker that plays a phrase of music on a loop — music I instantly recognized, but couldn’t name, like an old emotion. The exhibition notes say this piece is to be installed first and uninstalled last — acting almost like the annoying persistent buzz of a mosquito you can’t see, a bug that grows from tiny to monstrous when it keeps you up at night, and music that changes from pleasant to earworm, the same few bars stuck in your head until they’re set free.
While this loop is playing, we can start with Newcombe’s work on the floor, and reverse engineer ourselves: there is the fallen songbird, the “Fluke” of death. In the office, midway up the wall, about chest level — where all our love and longing and grief and joy emanate from — is the “Portal, object for death”, Newcombe already out of reach and grasp and vision, leaving us nothing to hang on to, not even his face.
The work continues to climb up the walls, the next being the file box, the “Cloud” of looping music; and higher than that, the “Omen” that is bad luck upside down, good luck or no luck at all.
Finally we reach the flower pot on a shelf, high up near the ceiling, precariously positioned near the edge. And if it were to fall, it would land directly on the songbird on the floor, burying it in an instant grave, exploding color and chaos in every direction and the loop begins once again.
And you know this, when you see it. When you stand in one spot in the room and let the work be, descending and ascending at the same time, coming and going, in that strange twilight space where things are, and were, and are to be.
Newcombe’s work is the transient nature of our lives; it is the lives of flower pots and omens and fallen songbirds, our looping, swooping unbearable lightness of beings, forever beating against a cardboard box of our own making. Until we’re finally free only to fall to earth again, floating on the ground, unanchored in a room, losing things so we can find them again. And all the Biergarten benches and old map boxes and aging bottles of wine shifting, falling, filling that empty space we once occupied, leaving only an impression of ourselves behind.
A friend has been storing some stuff at my place for months — some books and files, office things and some art. I asked him recently to move them out; I needed my storage space back for my own files and books, and when he came for them, he took a bunch of white cubes that were here as well. I had been using them as side tables in my living room, between two chairs. I had grown used to the white boxes, and was sorry to see them go, but I could never feel like they were really mine, knowing I could get a call, any day, telling me they’ll be taken away, and there’s nothing I can do about it, I would have to let them go.
And then I would have an empty space.
We have these moments, when we remember the existing. These moments that are so beautiful, they stop you in your tracks, like hearing the sudden warble from a songbird. And suddenly, for that 30 seconds of birdsong, you know: Ah, that’s why I’m alive, that’s why I’m here. To hear this one bird sing, to witness the wind sighing through the trees, to feel my own skin, just for this 30 seconds. And everything else is absurd and meaningless and without glory and therefore glorious, all our efforts that mean nothing, meant to fool ourselves into forgetting these 30 seconds, our reason for being: we bury a cart, hide a song. We look for omens. We build a shelf.
Vocal clips in this episode provided by Abhishek Nhalimber and Philip Newcombe, with special thanks to Kimberly Laurent Bryant for content inspiration.