Visiting Berlin: art, politics and national identity

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Second year BA (Hons) Visual Culture student Ella Winning on an eye-opening course trip to Germany

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Figure 1: Interior of Hamburger Bahnhof

Back in November, twelve of my course mates and I spent five days in Berlin as part of the second-year Trip to Europe module. During this time, we visited many of the famous tourist sights such as the Reichstag, Berlin Wall and the Bauhaus Archive, as well as galleries and museums in the city.

One place that particularly caught my attention was the Hamburger Bahnhof; a contemporary art museum situated in the west of Berlin. Hosting a collection of modern art works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Anselm Kiefer, the exhibition I was most drawn to was the Preis der Nationalgalerie (29 September 2017 – 14 January 2018). This is a biennial opportunity for four artists under the age of 30 who live and work in Berlin to exhibit their work in a group exhibition at the Museum. Additionally, one of them is chosen to be the focus of a solo show and publication. The most recent shortlisters were Sol Calero, Iman Issa, Jumana Manna, and Angieska Polska.

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

Figure 2: Entrance to Amazonas Shopping Centre

As part of the show, Venezuelan-born multidisciplinary artist Sol Calero exhibited her interactive installation, Amazonas Shopping Center; a brightly coloured amalgamation of a selection of her works from the past five years. Throughout her work, the artist explores themes of national identity and ethnicity, especially in terms of her own, Latino background. Calero does this through her incorporation of various features of Latin culture; her installation includes a hairdressing salon (background of figure 2), travel bureau, consisting of a currency exchange kiosk and travel agency desk (mid and foreground of figure 2), cybercafé, school, and a salsa dance studio and cinema where her telenovela, Desde el Jardin, plays (figure 3).

While Calero is frequently labelled as a ‘Latin’ artist, the artist and her fellow prize entrants reject the practice of describing of them and their work in terms of their ethnicity. In a statement released to Artnet News, the artists

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 3: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

explained that they felt their minority backgrounds as immigrants and as women were ‘emphasized much more heavily than the content of their work’ during promotions and advertising for the exhibition.[1] I found this particularly interesting; at a time of changing attitudes towards race in terms of politics (and therefore society), is it even relevant for the nationalities of the artists to be highlighted? Is exercising of nationality allowing pride in ‘otherness’, or is it a tool of isolation which discourages inclusion?

Some might argue that the Museum was simply highlighting diversity in the selection of artists, showing the all-encompassing attitudes towards art, while others (agreeing with the artists themselves) may perhaps argue that the Museum’s focus on the ‘otherness’ of the four women was perhaps a ‘self-congratulatory use of diversity as a public relations tool’[2] for the Hamburger Bahnhof, prohibiting the artists from fully integrating into the German art world.

It can be assumed that the Museum, along with many other organisations across Germany, wish to reject the racist politics that made a resurgence at the start of the twenty-first century, along with far-right intolerance emerging around the globe in the modern day. The renunciation of these politics can clearly be seen in modern German culture; one example being Angela Merkel’s pioneering and controversial open border policy introduced in 2015. [3] It could be argued that, with similar intentions to Merkel, the Museum has consciously tried to denounce intolerance by highlighting or celebrating the differences of the entrants to those of the past. Others might find it patronising and a form of discouraging inclusion to the ‘German’ art world.

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

Figure 4: Amazonas Shopping Center Installation views

I found this trip interesting because it opened my eyes to this issue of nationality and its relevance in the culture not only of Berlin, but of the contemporary world; a topic which will continue to be particularly important in the years to come.

[1] Kate Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It” ArtNet News.

[2] Brown, “These Four Artists Were Nominated for Germany’s Foremost Art Prize—and Now They’re Denouncing It”

[3] Reuters in Berlin “Merkel: no regrets over refugee policy despite political cost” Guardian. Web. 27 Aug, 2017.

From kitsch to Frankfurt Kitchen: Berlin’s Museum der Dinge

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Student Wendy Fraser (BA (hons) History of Art and Design) opened the cupboards in a real-life Frankfurt Kitchen whilst learning how ‘good design’ was promoted in Germany

In November, second year students on the History of Art and Design trip to Berlin visited the Werkbundarchiv-Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things) in the creative Kreuzberg district. The museum houses a collection of 40,000 German objects manufactured in the 20th and 21st centuries in addition to 35,000 documents in the archive of the Deutscher Werkbund (German Association of Craftsmen). The Werkbund, an association of designers, architects, industrialists, publishers and teachers founded in Munich in 1907, shared similar concerns to William Morris’ earlier Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain. However, although they advocated aesthetic education, sensitivity to materials, quality and durability, their interests diverged from Morris’s ideals in their promotion of modern design and excellence in mass production, aiming to create a cultural utopia.

Figure 1: The museum's main dispaly area with contrasting exhibits displayed in glass-frontedcabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge. Figure 1: The museum’s main display area with contrasting exhibits displayed in cabinets. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Museum der Dinge is located at 25 Oranienstraße and its compact space on the third floor of the building houses a shop, the main display area with glass-fronted shelved cabinets and a separate room with an example of the modernist Frankfurt Kitchen. The cabinets contain an astounding array of exhibits including crockery, kettles, toys, lamps, clocks, shoes, typewriters, tools, telephones, technology, glassware, furniture, and tins. The objects displayed exemplify the concerns of the Werkbund to preserve the quality of manufactured goods during the industrialisation of Germany and their aim to create a cultural utopia via excellence in German factory production. Handcrafted objects are shown with those that are mass produced by machine, named designers alongside anonymous makers, professionally made next to inexpertly produced items, articles made in West Germany compared with those made in the DDR (East Germany) and genuine products displayed alongside counterfeits.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 2: Selection of items made in the DDR. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Image courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

The Werkbund also aimed to educate in matters of taste. The Department of Aesthetic Aberrations was created at the Stuttgart State Crafts Museum in 1909: 900 ‘bad taste’ articles chosen to demonstrate to the public what not to buy. Conversely, the publication of the ‘Deutches Warenbuch’ from 1915-1927 showed 1600 approved everyday objects as a guide for retail buyers and a pattern book for designers. While all of this may sound a little dry, the museum’s display concept invites the visitor to compare the contrasting qualities of the exhibits. The Werkbund viewpoint of appropriate design is juxtaposed with objects of opposing values. Accordingly, examples of ‘good design’ are shown with the kitsch holiday souvenirs they abhorred, licensed character merchandise and some chilling Third Reich goods such as SS figurines and Swastika mugs.

My favourite exhibit was the room containing the Frankfurt Kitchen: visitors can walk into the room, open the cupboards, pull out the aluminium storage containers and chopping board and really feel what it would be like to use the space. As it was the topic of my forthcoming seminar presentation, it was really valuable to experience the kitchen I had previously been studying only in books.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Figure 3: View of the Frankfurt Kitchen from the doorway. Photograph by Armin Hermann. Photograph courtesy of Museum der Dinge.

Ultimately, the Museum der Dinge is an account of the Werkbund’s achievements as an association and with the exception of the Frankfurt Kitchen installation, what is missing for me is the human element. Although a large number of the exhibits are everyday possessions rather than the elite items that we are most used to seeing in museums, it is not the stories of the makers and the owners that are being prized in this museum. That is not to say that there are not fascinating things to see – despite the rather academic narrative, the museum is full of wondrous objects and is worth a visit. It is a trip through the mind boggling factory output of the 20th century and the ‘bad taste’ items are as pleasurable to view as the ‘good design’ products are inspiring and informative.

A Visit to Berlin

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In March 2016, nine second-year students and two tutors from the BA (hons) History of Art and Design programme visited Berlin for five days to study the city’s museums, material heritage and art collections in relation to the city’s distinctive history and cultures. Here are some of the students’ highlights from the trip:

Rachel Blyth: The Berlin Jewish Holocaust memorial was designed by architect Peter Eisenman and completed in 2004. Walking into the memorial the sun was shining; however, walking deeper into the labyrinth of concrete it became very cold and isolated. The modern architecture encapsulated the notion that Berlin is a modern city yet still holds the past close to its design.

East Side Gallery, Berlin

East Side Gallery, Berlin

Charlotte Brown: On review of our trip to Berlin, my favourite part would have to be our visit to the East Side Gallery, a surviving 1.3km stretch of the Berlin wall. Famously graffitied in the ’90s after the fall of the Wall in 1989, the works of various artists can be seen along the whole length. Due to tagging over the past years, the wall is now protected by a metal fence which did however inhibit our view and photographs, but the overall experience and art work has influenced me to base my further studies on the remainder of the wall.

Ruby Helms: Visiting the Jewish Museum – A Different Kind of Museum Space. Without visiting, it was difficult to understand the full impact of architect Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Between the Lines’ structure. The museum showed me that it is possible to present history in such a way that it emotionally involves the visitor, through the curation of objects and construction of the museum space.

Elina Ivanov: Out of the places we visited there were two that I felt made the history of Berlin most tangible; Clärchen’s Ballhaus gave a taste of Berlin nightlife of yesteryear, while the Jewish Museum was a powerful reminder of the great extent of the history of Jewish émigrés, as the discourse typically seems to be centred strictly around the Holocaust years.

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) in the Memory Void, one of the empty spaces of the Jewish Museum

Emilie Kristiansen: Berlin offered copious sights worthy of recollection, but the installation Shalekhet (Fallen Leaves) by Menashe Kadishman at the Jewish Museum stands out as especially significant. The monumental view of thousands of distraught faces cut out of iron plates is a poignant reminder of the countless innocent Jews whose lives were taken, and the void they left behind.

Sarah Mason: I had never been to Berlin before this trip and I have to say Berlin lived up to all my expectations and more. My highlight and what I chose for my presentation and essay subject was a place called Clärchens Ballhaus. Clärchens Ballhaus is a dance hall built in 1895. This Ballhaus was one of many, 900 in Berlin alone in the early 1900s. Berliners loved to dance and the Tango was already more popular in Berlin than in Paris or London at this time. What is unique about the Ballhaus is it is still used today and is as popular now as it was 100 years ago with the local community. In décor, fixtures and fittings it has changed little apart from some slight bomb damage to the grand mirror hall upstairs. If you get a chance to sneak upstairs and take a peek, it’s a must: you really feel you have been transported back in time. Every aspect of Clärchens Ballhaus is steeped in social history for example the original cloakrooms with over 800 iron coat and hat hooks (the Ballhaus would have between 600-800 guests per night in its heyday). The bar and even the majority of tables and chairs are all today as they were  when Clärchens’ famous owners Fritz and Clara Buhler took on the premises in 1913. I fell in love with this place so much I went back and visited it eight weeks later, so definitely the highlight of my trip and definitely a place I recommend to visit.

Working as an Oral Historian at Eastside Community Heritage

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Paul Beard, a graduate of Brighton’s BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society, describes how the degree sparked an interest in capturing other people’s stories – and led to an exciting opportunity…

Oral history is not necessarily an instrument for change; it depends upon the spirit in which it is used […] it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words. – Paul Thompson, Voices of the Past, 1978

Recently I have taken a position as an Oral Historian and Heritage Trainee at Eastside Community Heritage. As a part of a Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) project called Skills for the Future, Eastside Community Heritage and other partner organisations are working together to develop historical and heritage skills. Focusing on East London histories from 1900, the position is geared towards training a new generation of oral historians.

Eastside Community Heritage, based in Ilford, is a community history charity funded by HLF. Run by director Judith Garfield, Eastside work collaboratively alongside a number of local community groups, charities and historical societies to document and exhibit the experience of everyday life in East London. Some of the current projects being developed include: Little German, Stratford and East London (focusing on the lives of German immigrants in and around Newham during the First World War) and Jewish Migration Routes: From East End to Essex tracing the stories of Jewish families who have moved from county to county.

'Peace Tea Party' Barking and Dagenham, 1918,

‘Peace Tea Party’ Barking and Dagenham, 1918, image courtesy of LBBD Archives, Valence House

As a part of my role, I am working on a number of different projects. One is an exhibition on display from 11th August 2014 at Barking Learning Centre, entitled The Great War in Pictures and Words. The exhibition curated, researched and developed by myself and a colleague explores the stories and day-to-day experience of soldiers and families through oral history and images found in the archive from an on going project. The exhibition is a part of the centenary commemorations of the First World War and uncovers the stories of those that would otherwise be lost.

Another project that I am contributing to is Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aimed at engaging the community in one of the largest housing estate in Europe with their own heritage. Woodberry Down is located in Manor House in Stoke Newington, Hackney and is currently under redevelopment by Genesis Housing Association. Woodberry Down: The People’s Story aims to document and record the experiences of living in Woodberry Down in light of the redevelopments that are happening. By using reminiscence sessions, oral history interviews and vox-pops, Eastside are working alongside the old and new communities to facilitate cohesion in the community.

Woodberry Down is an interesting case study for a number of reasons. As one of the pioneering new council estates to be built in post-war Britain, various buildings received awards at 1951 Festival of Britain for architecture. Fast-forward forty years, the same estate that represented utopian ideologies, it was then used in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as the setting for the Jewish ghettos. These contentious issues of race, religion and class still remain contentious issues and are causing tension in the local area. With plans of redevelopment, Genesis and other organisations view it as crucial to ensure that the potential two-tier community in Woodberry Down are brought together to re-establish the old community atmosphere.

The importance of documenting oral history and life stories is become more and more prominent in cultural history. In areas such as Newham, Redbridge and Hackney it is becoming a key tool in re-engaging communities with their heritage. By putting on a range of different events, Eastside Community Heritage bring history back to the people and allow those who do not necessarily have the option to participate in heritage to have the opportunity to do so.

Studying at Brighton on the BA History of Design course gave me a solid understanding of life in the cultural heritage sector. Oral history was a method that I was eager to explore at undergraduate level. The degree gave me a good grounding in oral history as a method. Being introduced to it in the second year module entitled Constructing Historical Research, it was something I wanted to explore in my research; after completing my first interview for my dissertation research I was hooked. Curating has also formed a key part in this position; as skill that I only briefly explored in my studies. From a first year Interpreting Objects module to the final year exhibition (and a couple of small projects I had volunteered on) I had little experience curating an exhibition. This role has allowed me to build upon the skills that I had developed on the course.

There is something special about listening documenting the stories of those who are not ordinarily heard in history. After gaining a strong background in memory as a method, it was something I was eager to take on further in my career.

For more information on Eastside Community Heritage please visit the website: www.hidden-histories.org.uk.

A pilgrimage to the Vitra Campus

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BA (hons) History of Design, Culture and Society
student Stan Portus takes a trip to Germany and considers the relationship between a Modernist heritage and a Postmodern present

This year marks the 20th anniversary of architect Zaha Hadid’s first commission, the Fire Station at the Vitra Campus, located just outside Basel in Will-am-Rhein, Germany.  A new installation outside the building, entitled Prima, was commissioned from Hadid by Swarovski to mark the anniversary. Her original drawings for the Fire Station were used to create the five angular components of the sculpture, embodying ideas of action and speed. Hadid believes buildings should float: observing the juxtaposition of these structures, it is difficult to deny that this had been achieved.

Vitra is a company with quality and ‘good design’ at the forefront of its ethos. Entering the Campus as an architecture and furniture fan, it was hard to be disappointed. Since the site largely burnt down in 1981, Rolf Fehlbaum, son of Willi Fehlbaum the founder of Vitra, has transformed the site into a ‘playing field’ committed to ‘experimentation and artistic excellence’. The architect Philip Johnson described Vitra Campus as the first place since Weissenhofsiedlung in Stuttgart in 1927 to bring together the most distinguished architects in the western world.

VitraHaus, Herzog & de Meuron, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, 2010.

VitraHaus, Herzog & de Meuron, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, 2010. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

Rolf Fehlbaum’s personal collection of furniture forms the basis of the Vitra Design Museum, housed on the Campus in the building of another Pritzker winning architect, Frank Gehry. Opened in 1989, the same year as London’s Design Museum, Gehry’s first building outside America took a radically different approach to its British counterpart. Unlike the London structure, a re-clad warehouse on Shad Thames that harks back to the Modernist style of Le Corbusier, Gehry’s building represents the contemporary Postmodern deconstructivist style he would explore further in his later work, notably the Guggenheim museums. Ron Arad, when asked what the best and worst things of 1989 were by Design magazine (December, 1989), praised Vitra’s Museum and complained that at the ‘safe’ London building ‘visitors don’t see anything they haven’t seen before’.

The pedigree of the architecture and design represented at Vitra sustain the company’s image as the home of ’design classics’. Vitra recently acquired Artek, the Finnish design company co-founded by Alvar Aalto in 1935. At its core Artek is comprised of Aalto’s work, including his Armchair 41 and birch wood furniture. This acquisition is an example of Vitra ensuring their position as holders of a strong canon of 20th century designers. Vitra arguably became synonymous with the Eames since acquiring the rights to manufacture their work in 1957; in another 60 or so years they will likely be synonymous with Aalto and Artek as well. However, there are arguably some issues relating to Vitra in regards to their ideas on what constitutes classic design, what they choose to manufacture and their outlook on what design should be.

In his book Project Vitra, Luis Fernández-Galiano, explains how Rolf Fehlbaum wrote a doctoral thesis on Saint-Simon before taking over the family business. The interest in a utopian socialist from Napoleonic times, who believed in the new religion of industry, left a lasting impact on Vitra’s design canon. Industrial production of furniture was the aim of designers such as Charles and Ray Eames and Aalto, which was seen as a means to supply many with ‘good design’.

The Campus contains other buildings from architectural history such as Jean Prouvé’s petrol station from 1953 (acquired in 2003) and a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome (1975), formerly used as a car showroom in America and brought to the campus in 2000. Fuller’s dome adheres to Modernist ideas of utopianism and Prouvé’s Petrol Station is also a strong example of rationalised design, a fundamental tenet of Modernism. It was one of the first serially manufactured petrol stations and could be assembled easily by two people, thus reducing labour time.

Petrol Station, Jean Prouvé, Vitra Campus, built ca. 1953 and brought to Vitra Campus in 2003

Petrol Station, Jean Prouvé, Vitra Campus, Will-am-Rhein, built ca. 1953 and brought to Vitra Campus in 2003. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

It is strange to see Modernist ideas of ‘good design’ so strongly expressed at Vitra, a company also engaged with contemporary designers and architects. Postmodernism acted as a reactionary movement against such ideas. How we understand the role of the designer and material culture has changed dramatically since 1950s Modernism, where the designer was seen as able to dictate taste and often had societal aims at the centre of their work. Revealed is a complex relationship between the heritage and the contemporary work of Vitra. Walking around Vitra Haus, Vitra’s onsite show room and shop designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, one is left with the feeling that the Modernist history of design Vitra represents and manufactures will always be present, regardless of how dated the ideas of ‘good design’ apparent in some of the products are. Yet one also has to consider that Vitra has always provided a space for the new and exciting and continues to do so.

Eames wire chair seating outside factory building on Vitra Campus

Eames wire chair seating outside factory building on Vitra Campus. Personal photograph by Stan Portus (August 2013)

 http://www.vitra.com/en-gb/campus