Archive: Issue No. 85, September 2004

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Penny Siopis

Penny in new pink shoes in Bochum


Club by the river

Christian Hannusek

Christian Hannusek

But officer ...

"But officer ..."

AUGUST 1 - 17

Sunday, August 1

The Museum Bochum, assisted by sponsor Ulrich Froese, has arranged an extensive programme for the visiting artists, and this afternoon we head over to nearby Dusseldorf, to see the Simon Njami-curated show at the Kunstpalast: Afrika Remix: Contemporary Art of Africa.

This is a major show, 90 artists, and headed on for the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, the Pompidou in Paris and London's Hayward Gallery. Unfortunately, we get to the Kunstpalast only an hour before closing - not enough time to properly absorb a show of this size. I had wanted to review it for ArtThrob, but will have to settle for giving a few notes on what I did see. It's a big, bustling show, a little crowded in the Kunstpalast, with some very klutzy exhibition architecture. A chipboard mezzanine supported by scaffolding has afforded extra space - but looks so rough and ready one has to wonder if the architect deliberately chose this make-do appearance for his structure as being typical of Africa. David Goldblatt's Dainfern photographs have been drawing pinned to the wall, level with each step as one goes up the stairs, school project style. The screen for Tracey Rose's TKO is hung at an angle from the ceiling in one space which accommodates a lot of other work as well, so the sound of the artist's gasps and breathing as she punches the punchball seems somewhat disassociated from the image on the screen.

Commissioning new work for an exhibition can be a double edged sword - artists love to get money for making new work, and it always adds enormously to the critical interest of the show if there is a good proportion of work previously unseen. On the other hand, the curator then has to trust that what the artist produces has been worth commissioning. One wonders whether some of the weaker work is a victim of this syndrome. But overall, Afrika Remix exudes energy, I'm sure it would look very different in a more generous space, and I wish that I had had more time to savour individual works.

Monday, August 2

Begging off from the final artists' sightseeing trip, Penny Siopis and I take to the streets of Bochum to go SHOPPING! What's to buy? A red silk chinese blouse for Penny, some kitschy German name plates, and espadrilles for each of us (6 euros a pair) hot pink for Penny, blue for me.

Tuesday, August 3

My ideas about the possibilities and pleasures of travel have been greatly influenced by the writings of Paul Theroux, whose The Great Railway Bazaar (Date) set up an insatiable desire to travel the entire world by train. For this trip, I have selected his latest, Dark Star Safari, overland from Cairo to Cape Town (2002). Streaking smoothly from Bochum to Berlin on the torpedo nosed ICE train, I read: "Out of touch in Africa was where I wanted to be. I thought: Let other people explain where I am, and I imagined the dialogue. 'When will Paul be back?' 'We don't know'. "Where is he?' 'We're not sure.' 'Can we get in touch with him?' 'No'."

Lucky Paul Theroux. I have spent a large part of the time in Bochum jumping from the faulty internet connected computer in the hotel lobby to the antiquated one at the museum to the smoky one at the internet café trying to finish up on business, pay bills, send last month's ArtThrob column, and calm the insistent inquiries from the other side of the world. Sitting on the train I am at last out of reach.

Wednesday, August 4

Invited by artist Olaf Arndt, I am staying in the guest bedroom of the TROIA artist's project in the trendy Kreuzberg district. Suits me perfectly.

I could have come to Berlin with Bruce in 1989, while I was doing a residency in Paris, but I didn't particularly care for the neurotic musician who had invited us to stay. Now I wish I had gone then, to see what Berlin was like at that heady time when the wall had just come down.

Berlin has become one of those key cities where young artists from all over the world want to come and work - rents are cheap, studio spaces are large and there is a lot of improvisation and experimentation going on.

My idea in coming now is not only to make the acquaintance of this exciting city but to see if I can continue with the 'From the Inside' series, in which people who are HIV positive make statements on city walls about their situation. I would like to start on a global series, but whether in the next twelve days I will be able to find people who want to work with me, and just how those messages can be situated in Berlin, a new city to me, I don't know.

Artist/writer Christian Hannusek takes me to Berlin Aids Hilfe, the regional office which supports those who are HIV +. "Come to the weekly breakfast tomorrow morning, you'll meet some people there," we are invited.

On to Galerie Peter Herrmann. Peter specialises in contemporary art from Africa. Surprisingly, Peter does not feel that the recent interest in contemporary African art has encouraged collectors. "Here in Berlin, the market for contemporary African art is dead", says Peter. "It was going along fine until The Short Century (2001), then it dipped, then the last Documenta killed it stone dead. I have nine artists on Africa Remix, and yet there are no additional hits on my website."

Berlin is a city of pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle put together wrongly. Walking down the length of Friedrichstrasse, past the tourists photographing each other at Checkpoint Charlie, the little wooden border post which marked the division between east and west, past a galleria of the world's top designers, I cross one street and am suddenly in a weedy playground surrounded by cheap housing. The city is bankrupt, and all over Berlin, the flowerbeds on the wide streets are filled with weeds. I love it. Green and robust, the weeds introduce that note of subversive chaos so missing in the obsessive neatness of most European towns.

Thursday, August 5

Cape Town photographer Dave Southwood cycles over for early morning coffee. He is doing his masters in Interdisciplinary studies at Berlin's Humboldt University, and has offered help on my current project.

He can't teach me instant German, though. And not being able to explain myself in German is a major drawback in setting up communications with Berliners. I am met with politeness but understandable reticence at the AIDS breakfast, though I receive a further invitation: to go the Cafe Positiv the following Wednesday afternoon. By which time I will be leaving four days later.

Friday, August 6

Meet Annette Czekelius, exhibitions organiser for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, at Potsdamer Platz, once the desolate heart of East Berlin, now rapidly becoming an area of brand new skyscrapers and trendy shops. Cranes are everywhere. Annette tells me that only a few years ago she was able to come here to gather wild flowers for a dinner party. We go to the DaimlerChrysler Building to see photographer Guy Tillim's award winning show. The gallery is the epitome of artistic restraint: simple architecture, white walls, pale wooden floors. A perfect setting for Guy's powerful and chilling black and white photographs of the boy soldiers of Sierra Leone. Next, we go over to the Martin Gropius Building where the Henri Cartier Bresson retrospective is suddenly drawing huge crowds after the announcement of the veteran photographer's death a few days earlier. So many famous images. In the last gallery are the vintage prints, printed by the photographer soon after they were taken. The vintage prints are almost all markedly smaller and in some cases, very much greyer and less contrasty than the reprints in the preceding galleries, pointing up how much ideas of how a photograph should look have changed.

Tonight, Christian takes me to a gay birthday party so I can meet some more people. Hosts Klaus and Jurg are charming, it's a hot summer's night, and the party takes place in the pleasant courtyard of a building in the Mitte, the heart of Berlin. Talk a lot.

Saturday, August 7

Have been really excited to see Candice Breitz again - last time was several years ago when she was living in New York. We meet with friends at a little outdoor Italian restaurant, Vino e Libri. Candice says she is really happy in Berlin, and it's so much cheaper than living in New York. No late night though - Candice has taken up running, and must be up really early before it gets too hot to run in the Tiergarten.

Monday, August 9

Talk on the phone today to Carmen Valdivia at AIDS Hilfe. She deals especially with the cases of immigrants to Germany who are HIV Positive. This group is particularly vulnerable, as if they are recent immigrants and do not qualify for state medical insurance, they can be sent back to their own countries so that they do not become a burden on the state. Carmen tells me she will talk to some about my project, and invite them to the office on Wednesday, for me to meet.

This afternoon brings a long discussion with curator and critic Frank Wagner at the Neue Gesellschaft f�r Bildende Kunst - the NGBK, one of the most interesting gallery spaces in the city. Frank did a series on biographies of people in the art scene that died of AIDS called "Unterbrochene Karrieren" - Interrupted Careers. In 2002, I was part of an exhibition at the NGBK called Africa Apart, around the theme of AIDS in Africa, and today Frank helps me further by phoning Rebecca Uhlig, an artist who runs a painting group on a Thursday night at the Café Positiv. I will meet her group then.

Tuesday, August 10

Time out tonight for supper with Dave Southwood. playwright Hans Werner Kroesinger and his partner, Regine, friends who spent time in Cape Town some years ago. We finish the evening at a club, one of the spontaneous clubs that spring up in Berlin, exist for a couple of months or a season, then disappear. Like many such clubs here, you have to be a local to know where they are. This one, an outdoor club on the side of the river in old East Berlin, is completely unmarked from the street. There's a little bar looking as if was made for a movie set of a beach commercial, a couple of seating/dancing areas, and best of all, down some steps, a carpet has been laid down over the concrete of a covered jetty, a chandelier hung from the roof, and some comfy leather chairs set out. From here one can gaze across the river.

Driving back to the west part of the city, Regine says, "Now we are crossing the wall, now we are crossing the death zone, here is the other wall, now we are back in the west." The wall may have been down for 15 years, but the consciousness of where it was and precisely what it represented is very present in the city. The Invisible Wall, people call it.

Wednesday, August 11

My meeting with Carmen Valdivia is at 11 this morning. Originally from Peru, Carmen is a warm, strong person, obviously committed to her work. The people she has invited to come do not arrive, but Carmen herself agrees to be part of the project, and also invites me to meet a group which comes together every Wednesday evening for supper at a restaurant in Kreuzberg.

Afternoon tea at the Café Positiv, a space for HIV Positive people to relax and meet, and learn about its history.

The group I meet that evening at the Orangerie restaurant is cheerful and lively, and Carmen introduces me to Pablo Fernandes, who coordinates these evenings, and also runs a catering business as a self help project. Pablo was in Durban for the AIDS conference in 2000, and he, too, agrees to take the risk of writing a message up on a wall, and to be photographed. This is wonderful. In the end, it is often easier to work with people who are already activists, as they understand the value of what might seem a small intervention, and are used to speaking out on their beliefs.

Can't stay long with this affable group. Christian Hanussek and Peter Herrmann have got together this evening to make dinner for me, so I u-bahn over to the other side of the city. "The building where I live may look deserted and be covered in scaffolding", Christian has said, "but some of us still live there." Ex pat artist Liz Crossley has also been invited, and over the excellent fish dinner, I hear about her life in Berlin living, as she does, on the outskirts, near a lake.

Thursday, August 12

Would like to do some gallery hopping, but this is the worst time of the year for this: even galleries which are listed as being open are closed, for this, the height of the European holiday season.

Visit Pablo for a long conversation, to decide on his message, and to take photos.

Meet with the painting group at Café Positiv. 'Which walls will you paint on?" asks co-ordinator Rebecca Uhlig. "The German police can come round a corner very quickly!" One or two group members seem quite interested in joining the project. They will phone me.

Supper tonight with Argentinian artist Pat Binder and her partner, Gerhard Haupt, founders and editors of the excellent and highly recommended website, an exhaustive reference on art and artists throughout Africa, Latin America and Asia. Pat once curated ArtThrob as an artwork on a show called The Woven Maze at the University of Hannover. An interesting evening swopping webby notes.

Friday, August 13

Dave Southwood comes to AIDS Hilfe with me, where I photograph Carmen. I tell Dave about Rebecca's remarks about the German police, and picking up a brochure, he passes it to me, laughing. It's entitled: In Jail Tips for Prisoners without a German passport.

Buy paint for the two messages we will paint tomorrow: Carmen's and Pablo's.

Saturday, August 14

It all has to happen today. My last full day in Berlin. The two walls I have located are already heavily graffiti-ed, to avoid accusations of violating a clean wall, and are near each other in Kreuzberg. Carmen is first. Her message, translated from German, is "I am HIV Positive and I want to be treated with respect, not with pity." The rough brick wall is not easy to paint, and takes two hours. As usual, the activity brings debate from passers by, who ask us what it's all about. I explain.

A few blocks away is wall No. 2, for Pablo's message: "Being HIV Positive has given me the chance to be more human". It's to be painted on the side of a housing block in a largely Turkish area. An old man on a walking frame totters over and tells us the police might come. By this time, Christian and Dave have arrived. Pablo has nearly finished painting, with me painting behind him to strengthen his letters when around the corner whip three green and white police cars which squeal to a stop.

"What is going on here?" asks the largest cop. I explain it's an international art project, an explanation he obviously finds entirely unconvincing. "Do you have permission from the owners of the building? Where is your permission? You cannot just come here and paint on walls like this! Where is your passport? Does anyone here speak German?" By this time, we are surrounded by a large group, including an angry woman resident of the building, the complainer. After taking down my name, address and driving licence details, I am told to scrub the walls clean. "My shift ends at 5.30 p.m. and at that time I am coming back and the walls must be clean. Is that a deal?" "It's a deal!" I reply, sincerely at the time.

The police leave. Dave offers to go to the hardware and get cleaning stuff, but the hardware is closed. I know really that in any case the paint won't come off the rough stucco surface of the wall, just smear. Christian, Hans and Regine who have also arrived tell me to leave it and not to worry. "I told them I was leaving tomorrow, what if they stop me at the airport?" I ask. "Won't happen," they tell me. So Pablo completes his message, and we take photos.

Last night in Berlin. Studio visit with Candice, who is doing an ambitious new piece for an Italian show, a taxi trip down Karl Marx Allee, so I can video all the Soviet style buildings against the sunset sky, then drinks at White Trash, described by Candice as Berlin's equivalent of Long Street's Jo'burg Bar.

Sunday, August 15

Last morning in Berlin. Final trip to a flea market to pick up some East German stuff - love it - little badges with fascist imagery. Then it's onto the train to Dusseldorf, plane to Paris, plane to Johannesburg.

Monday, August 16

...plane to Cape Town. Arrive about 3 p.m. Lovely to be home again. Hug family and dog.

Tuesday, August 17

Wake up exhausted. But duty calls. And it's a perfect Cape Town winters day, warm and bright. Drag myself out of bed and drive to the Twelve Apostles Hotel overlooking a sparkling Atlantic to take part in the excellent lunch being hosted by hotel owners Victoria and Toni Tollman. The occasion is the second annual award of the R100 000 prize the Tollmans are giving to a promising young artist. This year's winner is Mustafa Maluka, recently returned from Holland, where he has been living since completing his studies at the Atelier 27 in Amsterdam a few years ago. It's great to see him back. He's an artist to watch.