There and Back Again : An Art Odyssey
Artipoeus visits Malte Kebbel’s MONOLITHS in Potsdam, Germany
On a sort of sunny Sunday last November, I woke up in the mood for adventure.
So I called my friend Sam to see if she was up for adventure too. She was, and 30 minutes later I was out the door, church bells ringing crisp and clear in the late November morning, the smell of wood fires faint on the air. We met up at Tiree, our funky neighborhood coffee shop, and were sent off with warm coffees and hearty wishes to stay safe and have fun. And with that, we left the shire.
I mean Kiez.
Sam lives in my neighborhood, and is a singer songwriter from Australia. She’s an enthusiastic immigrant to Germany, up on all the history and local politics and language. She even taught me the gang sign for Moabit, back when our Kiez had gangs. 21 represent.
Moabit ist beste
Along the way, we were picking up my friend Julius, who was meeting us with a box of Bird’s Milk candy, a traditional delicacy from his native land, Lithuania.
Julius was in town on a short break from his medical studies in Vilnius. He had been having adventures of his own the night before, and well into the morning. Back in Paris where we both met, we used to call that a nuit blanche, but in here Berlin we just call it: Saturday night.
We picked Julius up at Zoologischer Bahnhof. And now, our little fellowship was complete. We jumped from the underground to the overground, and our adventure was finally, fully underway.
We were headed to Potsdam to see some Monoliths on the Bridge of Spies. I didn’t tell Sam and Julius much about our quest, but I figured: who doesn’t want to go on an adventure that involves traveling through a forest of ancient trees, exploring a beautiful palace, crossing a treacherous bridge and confronting a monumental symbol of power?
I mean… what else are you gonna do on a Sunday?
There are a couple of ways to get to Potsdam from Berlin, but I really wanted to start at the Glienicke Palace (because it’s a palace!) and walk over the Glienicke Bridge. I didn’t know it was the Bridge of Spies until Sam, who knows everything about Berlin, told me, so I wasn’t there to do any Cold War reenactments.
I wanted to walk over the bridge because the Monoliths were on the other side.
If you’re a long-time listener of Artipoeus, you may have noticed that every year I choose a theme, an idea to explore through art, in the hope that art can help make sense of this crazy world of ours. At the beginning of 2017, with Donald Trump about to start his term in office, with the largest number of US troops sent to Europe since World War 2, with Vladimir Putin tightening restrictions against his own people and Russian diplomats turning up dead, and with Kim Jong Un seeming to wake up from his long slumber now that he finally had someone to play with, the theme I was interested in exploring was the Art of War.
I wanted to see if art could affect world politics, and how artists were responding to the threat of war, and the realities of the wars some were escaping. But, like any good adventure, my explorations took me on a different path to learn a different lesson: I wound up exploring past wars, war memorials, displacement and integration, trying to remember how this all started.
It was such a long, long time ago.
The Monoliths that Sam, Julius and I were off to see are actually four massive segments of the Berlin Wall, that German artist Malte Kebbel managed to get his hands on, transform, and then deposit on the former Soviet side of the Bridge of Spies.
Monoliths are kind of scary, whether they’re geographical, like the Ayers Rock in Australia, arranged like Stonehenge, or alien-made like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. They never really seem to be harbingers of good news. Mysterious, ominous, they kind of only indicate large scale, rapid change we can’t comprehend and usually can’t handle: the Petermann Orogeny, Neolithic engineering, technology.
It was still pretty early in the day, and Sam was wide awake, full of energy and really excited. She was excited on the bus because we were on the top deck, in the front seats with nothing but a window separating us and the road below. She was excited at the “excellent reverb” on the PA system when the driver called the stops. She was excited at every. Single. House. We passed. She was the first one down the steps and out the door when we reached Schloss Glienicke.
Julius and I were a little less enthusiastic — Julius was struggling to stay awake, hoping there would be a cafe at the palace that served tea; I was hoping the palace would be open and warm inside and I could find a place to try my Bird’s Milk candy. Neither of these things panned out. The palace was built as a pleasure palace for Prince Carl of Prussia, but not for us — at least, not beyond walking around the grounds and enjoying the neoclassical casino, the follies and gilded… pretension.
Schloss Glienicke flaunts itself at Schloss Babelsberg across the Glienicker Lake, Schloss Babelsberg being the summer home of Kaiser Wilhelm the first, and therefore bigger and more serious, a Neo Gothic reprimand on the other side of the lake. Castle vs castle, old vs new, spy vs spy. All these castles, dramatic autumn lighting and crisp air was making me hungry for a roast. Julius was still searching for tea. Sam was ready to go on.
So it was Sam who led the way to the Bridge of Spies, telling us about the history and the significance of the Bridge during the Cold War.
Glienicker Bruecke, as it’s properly called, connects Germany’s capital city with the former residence of Prussian kings and German kaisers in the federal state of Brandenburg, across the river Havel and connected by a bridge in this spot since 1640 — although, not the same bridge. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt a few times. We’re on version 4 now.
After World War 2, Potsdam was part of the Soviet Occupation Zone, landing in East Germany but connected to West Berlin by that same bridge, Glienicke 4.0. But all of West Berlin was encircled — by the famous concrete wall that divided the city down the middle, and by the miles and miles of barbed wire and mesh that enclosed the rest of the Western part of the city, effectively creating an island of Western Democracy deep in the heart of Soviet East Germany.
Visitors to West Berlin from other parts of West Germany could use designated roads and entry points to get there, but after 1961, when the concrete sections of the Wall were constructed, Glienicker Bruecke was no longer one of them. It remained closed to both West and East civilians through the rest of the Cold War, but became a convenient point to trade Soviet spies for Western spies, and vice versa.
Glienicker Bruecke was nicknamed Bridge of Spies kind of as a joke.
Some clever German compared it to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, the final route for criminals before they were thrown into prison on the other side. For West Germans, a Soviet spy walking the bridge to Potsdam was giving up his freedom. For East Germans, a Western spy walking the bridge to Glienicke Park was being swallowed by capitalism.
Everyone’s a loser in the game of Spy vs Spy.
The current version of the bridge was built in 1907, with a similar approach to ironwork construction as the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Julius was annoyed with the workmanship of the bridge itself, impatient with the blockier filigree and the gaps in the plating, the repair-work to damage done after the war. Julius, however, has been spending time in Zurich, where the sidewalks never erupt and there is no garbage in the streets because the Swiss are rich and neutral and, according to French artist Christian Boltanski, have no reason to die.
Halfway across the bridge, Sam finds the line that defined the Soviet Occupation Zone, a white line painted right across the bridge. One flimsy painted white line that could take you from Soviet Socialism to Western Democracy, or vice versa, in a heartbeat — both sides convinced they were the savior of mankind. I mean, the Communist Manifesto was written less than 100 years after the US and French Constitutions were signed. They were both considered the great experiments of the 20th Century, the future. And all you had to do was step across. Sam and Julius stand on either side of the line, facing each other, the toes of their shoes only 30 centimeters apart.
On the Potsdam end, the bridge widens on each side to a sort of circular terrace where you can look out over the river. A freestanding row of Neoclassical columns fan out on either side as well, welcoming you to the splendor of Potsdam, I guess. And across the bridge road from us, we find the Monoliths.
There are four of them, and they are arranged in a circle, kind of like Stonehenge only it’s no mystery how these got here. Rectangular slabs of concrete, stood on their end — as they stood when they formed part of the Berlin wall.
But these segments are painted bright colors, with forms on the outward facing surfaces. We watch a small family pushing a baby carriage approach from the Potsdam side, stop and check the Monoliths out, interact with them for a little while. We are too far away to tell if the little family likes them or not, are inspired to contemplation or to play, are trying to understand them or if they don’t care.
At any rate, they don’t look very terrified. So that’s good.
I think it’s interesting that the pieces of the wall have been moved over to the Potsdam side, the former East German side. Pragmatic Sam pointed out that there is more room on this side of Glienicker Bruecke.
Julius finds steps and we descend to the river bank so we can pass underneath the bridge — troll free — and emerge on the other side. Now we’re right up against the Monoliths, circling them, four massive, towering objects that face outward and inward at the same time.
The pieces of the wall are huge — 3.6 meters tall, made of poured concrete and rebar. The artist Malte Kebbel, has painted over them, a glittering gold on the inside of the circle, and primary colors on the outside. In the center of the outer-facing surfaces are large, light-sensitive shapes, made of the same plastic used for those glow-in-the-dark stars you can paste to your kids’ (or your own) bedroom ceiling.
The shapes are vaguely humanoid. At night they glow, after soaking up the light from the sun all day, and are further illuminated up by a programmed light show of ultraviolet rays and atmospheric blue light. And when Kebbel visits, he is fond of tracing outlines on them with a light stick — a heart, a star, a sun and moon, as if they’re being tickled by their creator.
The figures, though, are one-dimensional, almost like shadows cast on the pieces of the Wall, and remind me on one hand of the shadows of humans left behind on the city walls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, souls trapped inside these remnants of past fascism, the ugly stains of brutal technology, like eternal flames to remind us how this all started. It was such a long, long time ago.
Living in Berlin today, there are remnants of the wall everywhere: a kilometer left intact by the old Gestapo Headquarters. Skeletal remains of rebar that march down Bernauer Strasse. Foundations embedded and engraved in the streets, marking the long line of that ridiculous wall.
But it’s hard to imagine what it was really like, to have a wall dividing a city right down the middle. To be living with it like someone else’s reality imposed on your own.
Of course, it is someone else’s reality, isn’t it?
It was the Allied Forces and the Soviets who decided what would happen to Europe after World War 2, carving up the continent like a Frankenstein monster, or a Golem, each taking parts they found useful for their own ideas and goals and without any say from the people actually living there.
It’s just so strange, this idea of building a wall through a city, or to border a country — especially when borders move, cities evolve and expand, populations shift, ideas, ideologies, power structures tower and fall. We are a migrating species, moving from hunting ground to fertile ground, across land masses, seas and planets.
Walls — city walls, border walls — are such puny structures compared to our determination to get around them, over them, under them, or through them. Because really, what’s the point of building walls except to break through them? And the stronger the wall, the more advanced the technology becomes to tear them down.
The monoliths that appear in 2001: A Space Odyssey are not walls, or even pieces of a wall. They are stand-alone objects, they are… well… monoliths.
Every time they appear, they are meant to encourage humanity toward further technological development. They accomplish this, but mostly out of fear. Nobody knows what they are, not the apes in prehistory, not the astronauts of the future.
As a result, humans react — by discovering tools, that turn into weapons, that they turn on each other. The technology itself — the monolith — in turn only absorbs: it absorbs the energy expended by the apes, the humans, and ultimately the astronauts, absorbing intelligence and experience and emotions until the Monoliths themselves become divine, and.. I dunno, maybe arrange themselves in a circle somewhere and just wait to be worshipped by creatures who don’t understand them, sacrifice to them, get possessive of them, restrict access, a build a wall…
On the bridge, the wind was picking up, the temperature dropping. Our merry little band wasn’t so merry all of a sudden, and we sought shelter in a nearby cafe — an old auto mechanic garage from mid-century turned into a French restaurant.. but preserving the vintage car theme. It was as if a little pocket of La Resistance had been barricaded here since 1945, holed up with a bunch of cars they couldn’t drive anywhere, caught in the No Man’s Land between the great experiments of Soviet Socialism and Western Capitalism, like VW or a Citroen. We sat at one end of a long wooden table — Germans love communal dining — a family with two little kids on the other end.
The family sized us up for a few minutes, and suddenly packed up and moved to another table. We couldn’t figure out what we had done to offend them, until one of the adults reassured us it was them not us — they were worried their rambunctious toddlers would annoy us.
We wondered if they were the same family we saw on the bridge earlier, if they had checked out the giant pieces of the Berlin Wall installed on this side of the Soviet line, while they sipped hot chocolate among the vintage cars, the technological feats of the past coming back for a visit.
A glimmer of the Socialist ideal in their logic… because a Capitalist family would expect us to make room for their ill-behaved children.
One of the things I really admire about artists is just how resourceful they can be. We think of creativity being applied to canvas, or music, or interpretive dance.
But artists also often have to be creative about how they create. For his Monoliths, Kebbel not only talked the city of Berlin into giving him pieces of the Berlin Wall as canvases, but then he needed a space to work on them. These pieces are big, and heavy, and they don’t easily fit through the doors of an atelier.
Kebbel secured for himself a public parking garage near Tegel Airport to use as an outdoor, public studio while he worked. From there, he had to figure out the logistics of getting these massive cement and steel pieces first to Potsdamer Platz, where they were installed as part of the Berlin Festival of Lights in December, and then to the Bridge of Spies. Artist as director, artist as engineer, artist as logistician. I wonder, in the aftermath of war, what kind of lines artists would have drawn?
Last year’s theme, The Art of War, started with an interview with Russian performance artist Leo Tsoy, who observed that the meaning of monuments can change — the statue of Liberty can become Lady Victory, the Berlin Wall — constructed as a means of separation and containment, protecting East Germans from the evils of Western capitalism, can become a symbol of unity and peace.
The space the Monoliths create, their simple circle, is meant to invite viewers in, to gather, talk, contemplate, commune — the direct opposite of their original purpose of division and disconnection. And the humanoid shapes on the outside also remind me of the rounded, fluid figures of Matisse, the joyful circle of dancers celebrating in primary colors.
They are inclusive, inviting you in.
These Monoliths do the same, as though the glowing figures on the outward facing side are there to protect you while you stand in the center, dancing around you like Druids while you think about, talk about, walls. And wars. And women and men and the future, all that we were and all that we can be. It’s like a Stargate, a portal to the cosmos in each of us.
Kebbel’s plans for the Monoliths are to travel the world, install them in cities across the globe and encourage interaction. They are meant to act as reminders, of the aftermath and outcome of war. After all, it was a world war — everybody was involved, and everybody was affected, not just the Germans.
But they also represent our better natures, our futures, our possibilities: a peaceful revolution, a chance to rebuild and reunify, a chance to connect.
Sam and Julius and I wandered through the pretty little town of Potsdam, past the fabricated Soviet parts and the original German parts, picking out the houses we would each live in one day. We were looking for a castle — Potsdam is actually full of them, but our destination was a specific one. We trundled along, determined, night falling, losing our way, trekking through mud and gravel and finally climbing to the top of a big hill and there it was: the great gilded rococo Versailles of Potsdam, Schloss Sans Souci — no worries — built as a retreat for Frederick the Great, who died here, alone with his dogs, as the last titled king of Prussia.
Plus ça change…
It was deep dusk by this time, and the terraced gardens were barren and dry. We picked our way down through the withered rose bushes and vines, the garden statuary coffined against the cold, the fountain turned off and bone dry. Full night fell quickly, but we found our way out of the royal park and back onto the cobblestone streets of Potsdam. A cozy pub on the corner was ready to welcome us with hot drinks, our adventure completed.
Before we went in to warm our hairy toes and check our smartphones, we looked at the sky. The night air had a bite to it but the clouds had cleared.
My god, said Julius, it’s full of stars!
Julius made it back to Lithuania in time for his first class in Vilnius, where Julius had invited me a couple of years ago to visit the KGB Museum, and aced his exams.