Berlin Wonderland – Wild Years Revisited 1990-1996 is an exhibition designed to promote a new book, that by way of photographs taken in the years immediately following the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall, describes the experiential worlds of those who moved into the districts that were previously nudged up against the West Berlin border.
The city of Berlin was physically enclosed within the country of East Germany, and split in half by the Berlin Wall. When the wall was broken down, an already devolving society in East Berlin experienced full disintegration – culturally and demographically – at a very rapid pace, as though a food blender had been turned on.
People lost jobs, they were losing their homes, holding East Marks was essentially worthless (until this was rectified through the currency reunification in 1990), children played in abandoned buildings and lots, and the cesspool of waste that was East Berlin turned into a whirlpool that drew in people from across the newly reunified German nation and also from around the world.
As they modded out their newly occupied (squatted) homes and made a place for themselves in these heretofore East Berlin districts, the new crowd innovated not just habitats and new forms of cultural activity and communal assembly, it essentially became a portal for a true merging of old and new, of east and west, of national and international. It birthed a fledgling whose wings undulated at first arrhythmic, then rhythmic, flapping with a sense of unfettered and actionable freedom within the dilapidated vestige of an older story.
The whooshing of this constantly evolving wind of change was percussed by the clinking of bottles and the hammering of nails, driven by guitars and bongos and the heady throb of electronic dance music, softened by the rustle of rolling paper and conversations at communal dinners, and punctuated by the whoop of slightly older former easterners who were at last making up for their lost youth and discovering the pleasures of not ‘having to’.
This was powered on not in spite of but actually because of the currents produced by chaos.
This is the sheer untamed beauty of humankind and of our world. From a void left behind by hate and violence springs forth – every single time – music, art, beauty, a will to live, and a will to love.
On my way towards Alex after the exhibition, where I sometimes used to eat a fat pommersche Bockwurst with the best Senf in the world (Bautzner Mittelscharf) over a decade ago, with nothing around but various shades of grey – the monotony broken only by the kooky little trams, today all glitz and glitter and branded beauty – I passed a couple of buildings with one or two little metal tiles just outside the threshold marking them as the erstwhile residences of human beings who, perhaps on their way to the bakery or at night in their own homes, or even when they had managed to escape Berlin to a short-lived safety, were simply plucked and snuffed out of existence in some Nazi camp. Well, surely there should be tiles for those who suffered a similar fate under the East German dictatorship as well!
To know this can happen (anytime, anywhere. Citizen! Beware!) makes one shudder because of the involuntary putting of oneself into their shoes for a few brief moments.
And yet…and yet…every glorious movement for art and beauty and love and understanding and music and peace has been preceded by the most unimaginable horrors by other human beings with whom we all share DNA.
That which makes life worth living seems to always slide out from a birth canal head-first and wailing loudly, all wiggly and cute, but colored and surrounded by the very placenta – all gory and bloody – that facilitated its existence.
And thus begins a whole new round and the light always fades and shrinks back into the womb and then comes out kicking and screaming all over again to marvel at, and contribute to, the wonder of this meaningful yet pointless experience of breathing in and out, in and out.
The Exhibition and the Photo Book
Some of the photos are clearly interesting, showing a motley bunch unwittingly forming a tableau on a messy street, or someone taking a first step backwards off of a roof onto a ladder. Some of them might come across as relatively unremarkable or even dull like a group of people under a bus shelter or a truck just parked there, until one mulls over the story behind the photograph – moments preceding and following the sound of the shutter, the reason anyone was any place when the shutter snapped and froze them midway for prosperity.
What were they doing and why were they doing it? Was it simply a question of how to haul the coal up 4 floors to oven-heated quarters, were they figuring out how to make a sound studio out of a damp and stinking cellar, was it a random photo of some random strangers – now friends – enjoying a communal dinner, or was the photo staged to make a statement in a contemporaneously self-aware manner?
The portraits section was simply fascinating and each and every face in it was so beautiful.
Where are all these folks now? Did they get fat and old, did they get stuck in minimum-wage death-traps, are they cringing at how their self-made world with its patchwork bars and galleries and spontaneity was all too rapidly replaced first by state-enforced tenancy-agreements – and then by a chic and pricey world of ice-shots and spotless reflective surfaces – not too long after the last of these photos was taken?
Or are they still banging about somewhere, making Radler out of lemons found through serendipity and circumstance?
A minor observation about this exhibition: just as Haight-Ashbury is popularly seen to represent the Sixties, when actually most people from back then actually do remember the 60s and wore their hair short, this collection of photos focuses almost exclusively on one sub-culture from early 90s Berlin. No doubt they heavily influenced a new understanding of an old city, but what I am saying is, this can’t have been all that was going on, and I would have loved to have seen a more well-rounded narrative of post-wall birthings.