By Jessica Wagner, Cohort ’21
The spring 2023 residency in Berlin began with Professor Howard Caygill’s lecture, which described Berlin as “a city of becoming” and said, “The city is never what it appears to be.” As we walked around Berlin in the coming days, I thought about these statements and the city’s actions in destroying, conserving, and concealing the past. A couple of specific days stand out in particular: the first was the walking tour with Professor Caygill, and the second was visiting the Neue Nationalgalerie to see Hilma af Klint's Series VIII.
On May 29th, we set out on an all-day walking tour with Professor Caygill that took us along Lake Wannsee, into the Grunewald forest, and ended at Potsdam. Being an animist—a person who believes that objects and the natural world possess souls—I feel that the trees, native plants, water, and paths that have managed to elude destruction and concealment contain the most vivid histories. Walking along Wannsee Lake and entering the Grunewald Forest, seed pods covered the ground for future generations to grow, and the wildflowers showed a spring blooming in Berlin. I thought to myself that (for once?) something is what it seems—Berlin's natural world animating its history. Moving further into the forest, we came across the remains of the Jagdschloss Glienicke, a late 17th-century hunting lodge, a moment when that natural world unveiled hidden voices from the past. This was the Berlin I had been longing to see, one nestled between the trees that are rooted in the history of the soil.
After moving out of the forest and passing Schinkel’s Glienicke Palace, we arrived in the charming town of Potsdam, where we walked past Hegel Alley, a moment that made me envision him walking along the same streets. We continued our adventure through Potsdam and ended at the Sanssouci Palace, where an ancient Copper Beech tree held ground at the foothills of the palace, bringing us back to the notion of an animate history held in her roots. Exhausted and filled with the day's magic, we reminisced over sushi in Potsdam and boarded the train for a long journey back to the hotel. As if the day couldn’t have been more magical, an IDSVA sing-along happened on the train, and as we sang out Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares to You;” the words animated an experience I will never forget. When Sinéad O’Connor passed later that summer, all I could remember was this day and the unconcealed Berlin present in the trees.
A few days later, my feet still recovering from walking 13 miles on the tour, I ventured to see the Art of Society at the Neue Nationalgalerie, which included Hilma af Klint’s paintings No.1-5, Series VIII. Before the residency, I was extensively studying Klint’s work; this would be the first time I saw any of these in person. Klint’s Series VIII is a series of five paintings of concentric circles that lead perception to a center point, creating the action of looking into something that is more than it seems, similar to the idea of Berlin being a city where nothing is as it seems. I spent an hour looking at the series from left to right and left to right, studying every curve and layer of the color spectrum and moving inside and outside of the object to a place beyond the material. With her series of concentric color spectrum circles, Klint hopes to accentuate the power of the invisible spirit world, directed through material (inside) and acting as a portal into the soul that animates matter (outside). Thus, the vibrancy of life is resurrected from an object with a past, present, and future of its own, highlighting the force of unconcealment within a surrender to the power of hidden realities. After parting ways with Series VIII, I felt an even deeper connection to a world of invisible phenomena that continues to remain in question.
Hilma af Klint is an artist whose work challenges us to look beyond what we see and notice the colors and shapes alive within their vibrancy, like trees that hold voices of a different time. The paintings are more than circles. They are oracles showing an evolving world that is always open to interpretation. The metallic paint that outlines the outer circles ushers in moments of reflection, often passing us by and summoning a rediscovery of things we thought were completely understood. From Klint’s concentric circles, which tell the stories of a world beyond material, to the trees that hold Berlin’s history, this residency unveiled the forces of an objective and natural world wherein voices of the past are no longer concealed but rather animating the present.