When Berlin Becomes Too Canny
For the moment, Potsdamerstrasse still has a curious charm, the charm of the Berliner Bratwunder (Fried Wonder), the Ave Maria religious knickknack shop, the Surprise Club and Disco, the Pushel Pub. Tatau Obscur neighbors Harb Import-Export and the Turkish outdoor supermarket with its oversized cabbage heads across the street from LSD (Love, Sex, Dreams). It’s the kind of charm that sucked us all into the vortex of Berlin-Mitte many years ago (minus the cabbage heads), the very same vortex that now incomprehensibly sucks flocks of Italians and wheelchair tourists through the bottleneck of the Hackescher Markt, so full of passersby one cannot pass by. Next thing you know they’ll be holding audio guides to their ear with images of the area displayed on their smart phones. But why is that area so beloved by strangers to Berlin? Because it offers them the familiar: the skinny peppermint mocca. Potsdamerstrasse, on the other hand, is the garden-variety of delight. Potsdamerstrasse is uncanny.
I would argue that it is the uncanny that yoked us into this city in the first place, Freud’s uncanny, familiar things made strange, Berlin’s uncanny horizons for the most part, things seen from the level of the street.
To explain: Berlin is a horizontal city. Rather than piling high changes—i.e., the verticality of New York City, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong—changes in Berlin take place along the horizon. Changes are not stacked (1, 2, 3) but rather lined up in a row (A, B, C), without the row being a row. This is what makes these changes so noticeable, no arching of the neck required, nor elevators to scratch the sky.
Recently, I stood in front one of Berlin’s new horizons, Annika Eriksson’s Shop Front Coherence (2011) in the window of the newly relocated Krome Gallery on Potsdamerstrasse. It’s a shopfront window that looks like an objet trouvé, perhaps a window Eriksson found somewhere down the street and transplanted to the gallery. It certainly looks “coherent” with the neighborhood, it jibes with it. But it’s neither an objet trouvé, nor a re-make (appropriation), nor a transplant (readymade). It’s the doubling of the “idea” of an art gallery storefront, and, in specific, the “idea” of a storefront on Potsdamerstrasse. It’s so uncanny, it begs the question: for whom is this window uncanny? You see, Eriksson hired decorators, a window-display firm, to do all the work, and curator Katharina Krawczyk had a heavy hand in helping out. The result is the brilliant conception of what the storefront of an art gallery should look like, created by people in the business of window displays. It is the manufactured simulacra of a nonexistent original. It is coherent yet incomprehensible as its function is reduced to a mere signifier of the thing-in-itself. (The exhibition behind the storefront has nothing to do with Annika Eriksson’s allotted project space).
So what does this “idea” of an art gallery storefront look like? Eye candy. Popping colors. Bright lights. But then one has to consider more closely: the objects on view indicate a workshop, not the finished product. Here is where art is being made, quite literally, with bottles of paints and brushes and easels, to be sure. And a canvas, oddly quaint, with paint brushes nailed to the edges created a variety-show effect, akin to putting light bulbs around a marquee. Scattered playfully across colorful tables stacked on top of one another were the letters spelling out K-U-N-S-T and A-R-T, animated as if dancing across the screen of “Sesame Street.” Naked light bulbs dangling from red cords added the finishing touch; the kind of lighting that screams “This is so Contemporary.” Nothing seemed out of place: and that is what is so uncanny about it. But looking back on it, one has to ask what the red-polka-dotted valise (the perfect case for Crayolas to-go), oversized clothes pins, a small filing cabinet, and a rabbit figurine under a glass cake dish had to do with indicating an art gallery. I absolutely refuse to believe that the valise hints at Duchamp or the rabbit to Dürer or Beuys, no. No excessive associative activity is allowed here. These objects indicated a “coherence” with the neighborhood, the kind of things you’d expect to find in a display window on Potsdamerstrasse. And that has nothing to do with nostalgia for a Potsdamerstrasse soon-to-disappear behind gallery fronts, or for that matter, the disappearance of sex shops, casinos, and the coming of Tofu Bonanza. Rather, in their own odd Potsdamerstrasse logic, they offered up a subtle moment of a coherence with the uncanny, Freud’s uncanny, the diminishing foggy logic which makes Berlin Berlin.