“Mehringplatz is a rocket station for time travel. It connects past, present and future.”
In Hanae Utamura’s (*1980, Ibaraki/Japan) The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be (2017), I am taken on an audio walk around Mehringplatz. I am given the instructions: “Go to the underpass at Hallesches Tor and touch the old photograph displayed on the wall.” (It shows the destruction of the area after World War II.) “Go back up and take a look at the freedom statue situated in the centre of the circular housing complex. […] Stand in front of Uschis Kneipe. […] Walk to Theodor-Wolff-Park, a playground a little further away, and look at the mural on the wall.” (I see the giant colorful head of an elephant, above it floats the Earth.) The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be consists of a video and an audio walk. Using interviews that Utamura conducted with the inhabitants of the area, she combines reality and fiction, creating an alternative narrative, one that is extremely subjective and plays with breaking any sense of temporality or territory. Her stories are fragments that seem as real as they seem fictional, reminding me of how history is a construct, one of many possible narratives, but at the same time also making the myriad of the plaza’s potential futures evident.
Mehringplatz, the temporary venue of the group exhibition Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat (1/09 –15/09/2017), has continuously undergone changes. In its more recent history, after having faced extreme destruction in World War II, it was entirely redeveloped and transformed into a pedestrian zone with a large social housing complex situated in the middle. Its circular structure is reminiscent of a rocket station—a reference that reoccurs throughout the exhibition. The redevelopment plan was conceived in the 1960s by Hans Scharoun and later executed by his student, Berlin architect Werner Düttmann. Located at the southern end of Friedrichstraße, an affluent shopping and business area, the social housing project at Mehringplatz stands in stark contrast to the neighborhood that is only a few minutes walking distance away. Contrasts—it seems to me—permeate the entire space: it appears as a calm anchor, self-contained and isolated from the noise of the close-by main streets, almost like a little village in the middle of the capital. At the same time, there is an eeriness about it, its closed-offness prompting a feeling of exclusion. To a stranger, the plaza can feel purposeless, a place of transit that one passes through only to get elsewhere.
Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat (WtHSaB), however, invited visitors to stay, to explore the area and to get to know the inhabitants. A large part of the works performed and exhibited – with more than twenty participating international artists – were conceived for the project and evolved around themes closely linked to Mehringplatz. Through workshops, performances and an exhibition the artists as well as the curators Marenka Krasomil and Gislind Köhler negotiated rituals and cultures of hospitality by transferring them into artistic processes. Housed in the shops and bars around the plaza, the exhibition transformed the business owners of Mehringplatz in to hosts for the art works: for fifteen days, the nonresident artists were invited to present their pieces in the resident shops and bars; the owners giving up a part of their space, the artists and their respective works becoming their temporary guests. What does it mean to be a guest? What is it like to let a stranger into your home? What is expected of (you as) a guest?
Shira Wachsmann’s (*1984, Tel Aviv/Israel) Kaktus-Territorium (2017) is a circular cacti-sculpture, located on the inner circle of Mehringplatz, and is reminiscent of the cacti that were traditionally planted as protective fences by Palestinian farmers. In pre-1948 Palestine, they were used to differentiate between territories of neighboring properties. It is the cacti’s characteristics of being hardy and spreading only when cultivated by humans that make them suitable for building fences. After the eradication of Palestinian villages in 1948, the cacti grew again, graphically outlining former family homes and plots of land, turning sites of erasure into sites of remembrance. In many cases, the cacti are the only remaining traces of the Palestinian communities. In her works, Wachsmann often deals with themes such as land, territory and homeland as well as their relationship to culture. How is our culture embedded in and entwined with territory? Which cultural traces are left behind when one is forced to leave? Kaktus-Territorium tells the brutal story of the Palestinian farmers peacefully, almost silently. At the same time, to me it also recalls the area’s troublesome past, the many changes the territory and soil have undergone. Who knows, maybe Wachsmann’s cacti-sculpture will remain and evolve from a temporary guest at Mehringplatz to a long-term resident, becoming a kind of memento mori of the exhibition.
Migration also plays a fundamental role in Miriam Yammad’s (*1979, Freiburg/Germany) video work Mimesis IV. The protagonist is a young man who fled from Lebanon. Similarly to the methods employed in family constellations, he has—in an act of ‘mimesis’—reconstructed his family according to how he sees and feels towards each member by attributing a white plastic garden chair to every one of them. The chairs are organised in a circle, the young man is sitting amongst them. One by one, he explains where the respective family members live, when he last saw them and what they mean to him. It transpires that apart from his brother he hasn’t seen any of them for years. Towards the end, he expresses how much he misses and loves his mother. White plastic garden chairs, the kind that are very common—at least in the West—, representing humans that are so dear to someone make the scene banal and tragic at the same time. This is only enhanced through the choice of presentation: I had to squeeze through big freezers and high shelves stacked with food, until I reached the far end of the grocery store called Bagdad, where the small screen showing Mimesis IV sat in a shelf surrounded by kitchen utensils. Yammad’s precise, documentary-like camera shots give the impression of a real account, providing insight into this young man’s difficult fate. At the same time, close camera shots and an abstract, anonymous surrounding emphasize the staged elements of the scene. I leave Bagdad thinking about what hospitality might mean to young men or women with a similar fate to the protagonist’s.
The photograph Does Infant Jesus Sleep Like Maitreya Buddha? (2017) by Ayami Awazuhara (*1985, Nagano/Japan) deals too with transfer, though in terms of its long-term effects on culture. The image shows the window of an antique shop in Portugal, shot from the inside, the street outside forming the backdrop of the photograph. Displayed in the window are Chinese porcelain, Christian idols and decorative European objects. The small figure in the centre facing the viewer is a statue of the infant Jesus, though not portrayed in any of the traditional Christian positions but instead in a pose typical for depictions of Buddha. Superimposing a famous Japanese statue of Buddha floating, almost ghost-like, beside Jesus, the correspondence becomes even more explicit. The hybrid figure constitutes an uncanny new form of visual language, one that seems familiar, yet is not, and therefore is impossible to categorise. With Does Infant Jesus Sleep Like Maitreya Buddha? the artist draws attention to the reciprocal influence cultures can have on each other. It is a reference to the Portuguese colonisation of India during which a large number of Roman Catholic missionaries arrived and thus prompted a high demand for Western art, which local artists were taught to reproduce. Jesus sleeping like Buddha is an ambiguous object that cannot be reduced to either culture. Supposedly a mass-produced statue it also reveals the effects that global production chains have on cultural symbols. At the same time, this object reveals a state of in-betweenness, showing that there is a gap in which overcoming traditional lines of thought seems possible.
WtHSaB brought together artists, curators and residents, collectively exploring the various meanings of hospitality. Issues of territory and identity, migration and refuge, cultural influence and appropriation were raised, often questioned through alternative narratives. Hospitality as such was put into practice, quite literally, by turning the business owners to hosts and the artists and their works to temporary guests. Mehringplatz formed a very suitable backdrop to the project, the site itself embodying many of the discussed issues: After having undergone enormous destruction as well as reconstruction, it carries the traces of its past. It is the crossroads of former East and West, Mitte and Kreuzberg. Today, it is still an ever-changing site, at times an area of social conflict but also at times a place where people come together as communities to discuss the future of their neighborhood. Through WtHSaB, I too got to know the area and some of the residents. I interacted with the various business owners; I sat at HairLine, the local hairdresser, as if waiting for a haircut; I went to Uschis Kneipe and visited the Turkish restaurant Yildiz as well as the local pharmacy and the optician. I too, just like all the other visitors, became a guest and was hospitably received.
Selection of works
Hanae Utamura, The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be, 2017, audio walk
Shira Wachsmann, Kaktus-Territorium, 2017, cacti, cement, soil, barbed wire
Miriam Yammad, Mimesis IV, 2013, HD video, 4 min.
Ayami Awazuhara, Does Infant Jesus Sleep Like Maitreya Buddha? (2017), C-print
Anna Siebold is an English/German art historian based in Berlin. After studying arts and culture at Technische Universität Berlin and University of Copenhagen, she completed her MA in art history at Freie Universität zu Berlin. She has been involved in a series of projects, most recently as an editor of the documenta 14 publications in Kassel and Athens. Before she worked as project manager for Hatje Cantz, Berlin. Her research interests concern non-linear histories of art that question the canon and common narratives in (art) history.
Featured image: Miriam Yammad, Mimesis IV, 2013, HD-Video, 4 min. Bagdad Lebensmittel, Mehringplatz 6, © Joseph Devitt Tremblay