False fronting in Berlin

Five weeks spent living in Berlin, a very down to earth and unobtrusive city, has given me cause to reflect once again on the elaborate nature of ‘facading’: the human or architectural tendency to project or perform an identity to others. This behaviour is often read as inauthentic, a form of ‘fronting’ that conceals our true selves. Unlike other international cities I’ve visited, Berlin appears to exhibit much less of this behaviour (in both people and architecture), and yet a closer look reveals that not everything is what it seems. While there’s an inordinate amount of things going on in Berlin at any given time (night or day), the city maintains an admirable amount of modesty and restraint. There are ways to tap into various scenes, from techno to contemporary art, without being overwhelmed by it. It’s not a showy or pretentious place, but there is plenty of stuff going on that you probably won’t catch wind of (and that’s okay too).

Perhaps it is this balance of variety and subtlety that allows visitors to segue between the former site of Hitler’s bunker (now a parking lot) to gleefully cycling down the runway of a disused airport without batting an eye. One of my favourite places in Berlin, Tempelhof Park, is the same airport that received supplies from the Allied armies for the people of West Berlin. Today its colossal airport building is home to over 4000 refugees and its runways are occupied by cyclists, rollerbladers and wind-skateboarders (yes, that’s a thing). With similar contradictory abandon, you can stroll down the imposing Soviet-inspired strip Karl Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee) and browse a second-hand clothing emporium, before retreating to the famous Sybil’s cafe for a cold beer and a schnitzel. In the back of the cafe is a little museum of Eastern Block paraphernalia (including a rescued bronze moustache from the toppled Stalin monument!), telling the story of how bombing reduced the area to rubble, from which rose the mighty rows of communist era apartment blocks that flank Karl Marx Allee.

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Tempelhof Park (former Airport)

Little pockets of culture and history are everywhere to be found in Berlin – my guidebook wagers you can’t swing a kebab without hitting a gallery (something I didn’t get around to trying) – but they’re not always easy to find. After one failed art crawl attempt, I cursed my self imposed rule that prevents me from owning a smart phone and therefore navigational technology (perhaps a rant for another time?). At the same time, I learned that the huge volume of sights, events and happenings by no means guarantees quality. A live drawing performance involving an ageing artist (his belly hanging over his trousers and a chunky oil pastel in hand), and a much younger and fitter muse rolling about on a floor-size piece of paper, left me feeling thoroughly disgusted.

In a way, though, all this variety gave me permission to engage or switch off when I wished, without feeling pressured to experience some kind of ‘essential Berlin’. I did not, for example, enter the world famous Berghain club because I couldn’t bring myself to stand in a 3-hour long queue only to be wordlessly turned away by a bouncer (punters have a 50/50 chance of getting in, and the jury’s out on the precise formula for success). We enjoyed hanging out around the entrance, admiring the outfits and graffiti, and generally soaking up the atmosphere. We learned that any sort of ostentatious displays in the queue might count against you; the advisable approach is to act very unbothered by the whole thing, and whatever you do, never look like you’re having a good time. This is a whole other kind of front, one that requires the repression of any outward sign of desire or enthusiasm to enter what is generally regarded as ‘the best club in the world’. Correspondingly, the ‘Berghain look’ is expressed through exclusively black, second hand threads, dirty plimsoles and an empty, disinterested gaze that acts like a shield against the judgement you are about to receive.

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Graffiti, Berlin

Equally double-edged was the Berlin Biennale (the city’s 9th, this year curated by the American cohort DIS: Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso and David Toro), which highjacked the antiseptic, alienating language of banks and corporations to such perfection that it most certainly went over many (most?) people’s heads. After spending the best part of an afternoon in the Kunst Academie, we stumbled into the outside world wracked with uncertainty about what to believe and who to trust. Having been rigorously exposed to the sinister nature of post-capitalist consumerism and its ability to sap our lives of meaning, we felt suddenly hypersensitive to the slick signage of our urban and online spaces. Adverts and many of the products they promote are designed to distract and warp our minds, manufacturing desires that are unattainable or antithetical to our needs as human beings. Many of the artworks brought together for this biennale, unified in their vision of a dystopian present, convinced me of the importance of fortifying ourselves against the seductive power of corporate and commercial interests if we hope to salvage something of our humanity.

We have found ourselves reflecting on the Biennale in the days and months that followed. Its theme, ‘The Present in Drag’, suggests that however authentic we might think ourselves to be, we are always already succumbing to established categories of identity that are presented to us as unique or distinctive. We are performing whether we like it or not. Rob Horning’s Fear of Contentfeatured on the Biennale’s website, sums up this problem nicely:

Genre is central to the self’s authenticity. The self can only be parsed as “authentic” in relation to a legible set of conventions. “It is the perception of repetitions that makes a work of art intelligible,” Sontag writes in “On Style.” When I am trying to be true to myself, I turn “myself” into a genre, with readily recognizable and repeatable tropes. I can never be authentic, only authentically generic. I can create and meet a set of established stereotypes of myself. Being oneself always means being a self-parody, and being a parody of oneself is the process of self-discovery. Self-parody precedes selfhood.

It’s horrifying to think that there is no such thing as a true self, and that we are doomed to spend the rest of our lives slipping in and out of pre-established ideas of ourselves. In this scenario, the more we try to be authentic the more generic we become. On the other hand, the notion that self-parody precedes selfhood is somewhat freeing, for we are then absolved of the heavy, narcissistic quest for some unique idea of self. As much as we all hate to conform to stereotypes, or reinforce them in our cultural interpretations, we are currently playing with a depressingly limited deck of identity templates. And yet, aren’t these constructions, parodies and performances expressed differently by and through each of us? If we view each of our identities as subtle variations on a theme, then aren’t those subtle variations what make us unique? After all, convention is potentially fertile ground for innovation.

Among the strongest works in the Biennale (imho) was Camille Henrot’s Office of Unreplied Emails. Scattered across the floor and hung on pegs, enlarged printouts of blanket emails and spam received by the artist are overlaid with her calligraphed responses; heartfelt, hilarious and bizarre in equal turns. Seemingly genuine, the impossible task of responding (fiscally or otherwise) to the endless pleas for donations, campaigns and petitions here takes on a sorrowful tone that mimics the hyperbole of the emails, i.e. ‘Camille, I need you before midnight’, or else poetically riffs off the odd use of language and awkward phrasing produced by translation software. The automated sincerity of emails that clutter our inboxes and niggle at our first-world guilt is elegantly parried by Henrot’s ornate prose.

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Camille Henrot, Office of Unreplied Emails, 2016, Berlin Biennale 9

Our encounters with other false fronts in Berlin included the reconstruction (currently underway) of the Prussian palace on Museum Island. A replica of the original, which was bulldozed in 1952 as a ‘means of driving an architectural stake through the heart of Prussian militarism and nazism’, is this time poured in concrete and diplomatically renamed the ‘Humboldt Forum’. The reconstruction (resurrection?) of the palace might be understood as an attempt to tackle Germany’s colonial history in a reflective manner, or to satiate a nostalgia for a golden era of power that has been denied along with the fascist regime that followed it. According to historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, the project is ‘an architectural magnification of the Mitscherlich theory of the inability to mourn – of wanting to try to undo history and rebuild the façades of something that would make them feel a greater sense of self-esteem of being German’. Estimated at €600m, it’s a seriously expensive statement that has polarised debate over what it means to return to a particular moment in Germany’s history (with interesting if not terrifying parallels with the Brexit crisis).

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The Humboldt Forum rises out of museum island (on the former site of the Prussian Palace), Berlin

A trip to Pfaueninsel (Peacock Island) in Berlin-Wannsee, near Potsdam, revealed a more playful site of Prussian power. The rather unremarkable pleasure palace on the western side of the island (designed by Gottlieb Brendel for the Prussian king Frederick William II and his mistress) has been lovingly restored, down to the last faux brick and ironwork bridge. Other highlights include a dairy in the guise of a gothic revival church, and the occasional wandering peacock, descendent from the king’s own flock. Apparently the island was once home to over 100 exotic species (modelled after the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes in Paris), before they were relocated to the Berlin Zoo. The remaining peacocks are a throwback to more extravagant times, strutting around with little regard for the tourists that have replaced the royal entourages of their ancestors. A symbol of wealth and privilege, the Asiatic birds still seem spectacularly out of place in Europe. To quote Flannery O’Connor in The Displaced Person: ‘The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all’. The many suns (or eyes?) displayed across their iridescent tails seem somehow excessive, a courting measure that awkwardly outweighs competitive advantage. An interesting case of nature’s own facades, the peacock’s tale has flummoxed evolutionary scientists and admirers alike – how could something so beautiful and ornate be wasted on attracting the lowly peafowl?

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‘Lustschloss’ or pleasure palace of Frederick William II, Pfaueninsel, 1794-1797.

Peacocks and palace follies are a privileged world away from the many more nuanced facades that Berlin has to offer. A place that is wonderfully relaxed despite an incessant hum of cultural energy, its manifestations are rarely ostentatious. It is the past that wears a much more elaborate mask, particularly through the buildings of the Prussian kingdom that asserted its power throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Even with all its devilish flourishes, the high baroque style that predominates in Potsdam (exemplified at Sanssouci) still manages to feel bland and generic, strangely unremarkable compared with the understated idiosyncrasies of contemporary Berlin.

So while we might choose to see facades as false fronts that serve only to hide less remarkable truths, they are also extensions of those same structures, without which they would not exist at all. We can extend this metaphor to our individual identities as they present themselves, which are inextricably connected to our inner consciousnesses. However fake or generic they might appear, these are the manifest expressions of our desires, hopes, anxieties and fears. All facades hold meaning; they conceal the difficult truths that we are not able to reveal about ourselves, and our histories, at the same time that they allow us to imagine more beautiful, complex or unique versions of ourselves. From that perspective, what could be more authentic?

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Baroque ‘herms’, facade of Sanssouci palace, Potsdam

Photo credit: Stefan Skrimshire

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