Fall 2016 Newsletter

Appealing Structures: Impressions of Berlin

Erin Gleason
Cohort ’15

Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Erin Gleason.

Berlin Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Erin Gleason.

"Anything we imagine as logical, we are just telling stories. According to Kafka, everything is by accident.”  

“Kant is always trying to ensure certainty and security. How do we secure our judgments?”

These two propositions from our kick-off seminar with Prof. Howard Caygill stuck with me the entire week, framing my experience of Berlin, the numerous art exhibitions and collections we visited, and conversations traversed. The first city visited in our second summer of Topological Studies, Berlin was a continuous unfolding of formal structures giving way to often emotionally intense encounters with humanity.

IDSVA student at the Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Gabriel Reed.

IDSVA student at the Holocaust Memorial. Photo by Gabriel Reed.

Our days began with 2nd year student presentations and seminars led by Prof. Caygill, Prof. George Smith, and Prof. John Rajchman on Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Kafka, and Foucault, followed by afternoon explorations of museums, galleries, and graffiti. Throughout Berlin, we witnessed different philosophies spanning hundreds of years played out in the formal aesthetics of the city’s architecture and art, from the imposing edifice of the Reichstag building to the Modernist buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee; from the monumentalism of the Soviet War Memorial to the contemporary graffiti in Kreuzberg and the market forces of the Biennale.

Experiencing the formal aspect of the city’s monuments and architecture often tapped into an underlying emotional reservoir, historically and personally. Similarly, the structure of IDSVA and the respectful, easy form of collegiality this structure encourages, allowed for a deep level of reflection and intimate expression throughout many of our conversations. Life’s ‘accidents’ and personal tragedies of many in our cohort were revealed in the midst of philosophical discussions, tempered by regular doses of humor and laughter. I found myself grateful for the form of IDSVA and the open space it creates, and for the sites we visited which, for many of us, tapped into that emotional reservoir in unexpected ways. Together with our readings, these experiences made me wonder, “Do we need to feel secure in a form in order to give ourselves space to tap into difficult emotions?”

Experiencing the relationship between the form and emotion was particularly acute for me in three places we visited in Berlin: the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, the Holocaust Memorial, and the Jewish Museum. The three places have a modernist aesthetic, using form as a means of instilling certainty and a type of gravitas both to the site and the subject. In spite of the gravitas, the simple beauty of its design lures you in and encourages you to linger. In the act of dwelling for a while and contemplating the materials, light, and spatial proportions, in each place I experienced different waves of emotions lapping over the soul, each time beginning with almost overwhelming feeling of the sublime, to an unsettling sense of loss for the victims and humanity, to a personal sadness, then to acceptance and calmness. Daniel Libeskind’s design for the Holocaust Tower at the Jewish Museum struck me especially in this regard, not least because the door to the Tower was one I accidentally encountered. The space is hauntingly beautiful: a sublime tomb of concrete and slivers of light, unsettling in its certainty, compelling in its emptiness, and absolute in its effect. Seduced by the beauty of form and structure, I dwelled in that space for what felt like hours, increasingly opening up to the unstructured world of difficult emotions; facing history, uncertainty, and life. Perhaps this seduction of form is what art, and IDSVA, does best.

Howard Cargill leading a group of IDSVA students on a Berlin tour. Photo by Milos Zahradka Maiorana.

Howard Cargill leading a group of IDSVA students on a Berlin tour. Photo by Milos Zahradka Maiorana.