To capture the magic of the Berlin residency, I use as a point of departure the “welcome dinner” boat cruise into the middle of the city on a June evening at the beginning of the trip. Drifting past well-kept blocks of socialist-era housing that line the riverbanks, we enjoyed a grilled meal prepared by our Greek chef – who also happened to DJ at the video-store/café/German-lesson classroom/late-night dance space that was the social meeting place of the “insider-Berlin” world of our excellent host, Nina. Our mood was exuberant – we were studying the philosophy of Kant and Hegel in Germany after all! The quiet suburbs made way for shiny glass-covered new buildings of a re-built city heralded in by a 100-foot perforated metal “Molecule Man” sculpture with a distinctly German techno-vibe. It was a great vantage point to see the concrete remains of the Berlin Wall – covered of course in art-full graffiti (which seems to be everywhere). The river cruise evening was telling of a city, once bombed to the ground, that is now vibrant, robust, and casual.
During the days, we shared our learning on the Third Critique, the Phenomenology, and the Aesthetics in the airy classrooms of the Arts Academy. The papers presented were interesting and varied – my favorite slide was of the water glass balancing on a floating umbrella in Magritte’s “Hegel’s Holiday,” since it was for me a revelation of just how much I had learned in the past year. Being together in person after a particularly brutal spring term – 18 papers since January by my count – was simply a pleasure.
The seminar centered on Kant scholar Howard Caygill’s paper on the Nolde/Liebermann exhibition of flower paintings held at the summer home of Max Liebermann on Lake Wannsee, a short drive out of the city. Quoting a line from a Baudelaire poem: ‘a volcanic crater artistically hidden behind bouquets of flowers,’ Caygill’s essay invited a deeper look at the wistful garden pictures. In a re-imagined gesture of hospitality, the curators brought together two artists notably at odds with each other life: in artistic style, personally, and across the unbridgeable wartime political divide. This complex set of factors was further complicated by the irony that the property is only a few doors down from where the Nazi ‘Final Solution’ was planned in 1942. After looking at flowers, we were asked to look directly into the crater of catastrophe of genocide. Now a museum and education center, information panel displays showing atrocities and human suffering blanket the cold building’s interior. It was by far the heaviest day of the trip, and none of us were up for the planned tour of nearby Peacock Island afterwards.
I do think I took advantage of every other offering, however. The people we met opened a window into understanding why Berlin is considered one of the best cities for artists in the world today. Notables were Karin, a doctoral student in sociology who took us to the Berlin Biennale and afterwards led a roundtable discussion on activist art; our walking tour history guide, Dmitri, an artist who has been living in Berlin for the last fifteen years who led a Debord-worthy derivé; a gallery entrepreneur who explained her choice of running an arts foundation specializing in Chinese video art; and painter Franz Ackermann who good-naturedly answered philosophical questions during a studio visit as 50 of his works were being crated off to a major show. I also met two Berlin-based computer gurus involved in big-business Internet ventures who are posing questions about what ‘post-human’ means. The low rents in the old East Germany districts afford bountiful opportunities for “erstwhile misfits, prodigies, castaways, artists, and adventurers” to live a free and creative life. I see now why Berlin is an artist’s city.
Visits to three important private collections (the Hoffman, Hamburger-Bahnof, and Boris collections) were revealing of changing tastes of top art patrons. On the day-off, four of us took the fast train to Kassel to see Documenta 13, a comparable global art experience to the Venice Biennale. Personal stand-outs for me include a devastating installation by Anselm Kiefer at the Hamburger-Bahnof of a grounded flightless airplane in front of a monumental steel-encrusted painting, the Eiesenman Jewish Memorial Plaza, Documenta’s presentation of art-as-research, a trek across the Tempelhof airfield in search of Olafur Eliasson, and a surprisingly whimsical installation of blue-chip art inside the Boris collection’s airless concrete bunker.
By all accounts, the inaugural Berlin Intensive was a topological curriculum adventure par excellence. It let me better grasp the elusive spirit of German Romanticism that I tried to understand reading German philosophy. Now, I see more clearly the artistic sensibilities of Mozart, Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner, Nietzsche, Kiefer, Richter, and Beuys. I also see why global art is finding itself at home in Germany. If only I could pour that boat cruise into a glass. It was a Hegel Holiday indeed.