A crisp autumn day last November marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have a soft spot for ceremonious assemblies of crowds, those half-earnest displays of public yearning, so that evening I walked around Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and wove through the piecemeal groups assembled there to memorialize the anniversary. Over the course of the night, 8,000 helium balloons were being freed from their poles one-by-one as part of the Lichtgrenze display (Wall of Light) that ran along the former Wall. White, glowing orbs disappeared into a smudged dark sky, and the crowds dissolved.
On my way home, I walked past a Dunkin’ Donuts where an impossibly high pile of food scraps, napkins and coffee cups had accrued, balancing in graceful silence atop two small plastic table-tops depicting coffee beans. In contrast to the crowds at the Brandenburg gate, the private sector and tabloids alike had been enjoying themselves: in Bild, the electronics outlet MediaMarkt promoted a 25EUR gift card that read ‘Alles Gutschein zum Mauerfall’ (a pun on ‘here’s to the fall of the Wall’ and ‘enjoy a gift certificate on the occasion …’). For Deutsche Bahn, meanwhile, the anniversary was the perfect occasion to promote a reduced-price BahnCard 25 with a toddlerish drawing of a high-speed ICE train bursting through the Wall.
Why, I wondered, Lichtgrenze in mind, has Berlin been so tremendously dull in its self-memorializing – whether at events for national anniversaries, museum exhibitions or monuments? In 2010, a jury assigned by Germany’s Ministry of Transport and Urban Development selected a proposal by Johannes Milla and Sasha Waltz for a reunification monument to be built on Schlossplatz, near the newly reconstructed City Palace. Renderings depict a giant, 55-metre length steel wing that rocks back and forth according the balance and concentration of people walking on it. In Leipzig, architects Marc Weiss and Martin de Mattia won a competition for another unification memorial: 70.000, a football field-sized mobile installation where multicolour, plastic-and-ceramic squares could be moved around by visitors. Like the chronically delayed Brandenburg Airport, neither memorial was ready, as initially intended, by last November’s anniversary: the Berlin monument is planned to be finished by 2017, while the city of Leipzig, after years of heated debate over the plan, has cancelled the project. The plans and promises vanished like speech balloons into the ether.
Memorials have a complicated relationship to their public. To start with, what constitutes a specific public, and who might be excluded? As an ‘outsider’ without a German passport, can I participate seriously? Can I laugh? The question of who ‘owns’ memory is not merely rhetorical or philosophical, as people still come to heads intensely on such issues. In an uncomfortable manner, this is the problem faced by reunification memorials: they purport to represent the memory of a public that seems to recoil at its own representation. In this way, Berlin, as a city of insider/outsiders, head in the clouds of its own perpetual bohemian idyll, is exemplary in its exceptionalism. The city seems unable (or unwilling) to find institutional forms and structures to represent its own variegated identity.
On this subject – of who ‘owns’ and can represent memory – a somewhat controversial historical exhibition can shed some light. In 1991, on the first anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-born artist David Robbins, then living in Germany, opened an exhibition at Christian Nagel’s Cologne gallery titled Mold and Model: The German Reunification Public Sculpture Competition. German reunification, for left-leaning critics, including many in the Rhineland’s bohemian art scene, was met with great suspicion, for fears that, five decades after Nazi reign, reunification would reignite patriotic hubris. Robbins’s exhibition centered on a fictional contest for a monument for German reunification, and displayed a series of twelve, somewhat snide models to memorialize the reunion, for which the audience-public was asked to vote by paper ballot.
Alas, in a nod to kangaroo politics, I. Sealed Ballot Box (all works 1991) would allow no ballot. And the entries, pace the supposed ‘public contest’, were all designed and fabricated by Robbins. These included conceptual-propositional works such as A. WXRY: a television channel, WXRY, featuring nothing but a video of x-rays of passenger luggage (tagline, ‘Nothing to hide. Nothing to declare. 24 hours a day.’) Proposal B) The Resurrection of Tilted Arc (with squatters) was an idea to reconstruct Richard Serra’s contested, wall-like Tilted Arc (installed in 1981 to much derision and public uproar outside the Javitz Federal Building in Manhattan, before being removed in 1989), in West Germany’s capital of Bonn. The displaced Tilted Arc would serve as an icon for the relocation of Berlin squatters to soon-to-be-empty government buildings in Bonn’s Adenauerallee.
Robbins has described this exhibition in the context of ‘concrete comedy’: a comedy of objects (rather than actions or words) that teases out relationships more generally between aesthetics and the comic. There was, naturally, a provocative edge to Robbins’s project: the proposal to tattoo the Deutsche Bank ‘slash’ logo on the shoulder of all German citizens, or the proposal to displace the entire German population and erect a glass wall around the perimeter of the empty nation. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition was not met with local acclaim. In the newspaper taz, Cologne-based writer and novelist Dieter Wellershoff maintained that Robbins had reduced the experience of people to ‘small talk’ (taz, 8 November 1991). The objects on display, he argued, were ‘misleading and expressed a formalism far removed from the historic substance of the event in question, far removed from the actual experience of the people… representing nothing less than inhuman bad taste.’
The claim implicitly being made here was that politics are reduced to pure (surface) aesthetics, while the ‘real’ histories and experiences are inaccessible to those who were not present. Robbins later wrote, in response ‘to the natives who challenged my decision to address the sensitive subject of another nation’s re-unification’, that ‘everyone has right of access to their own experience’, an answer I agree with in principle but find unsatisfying here: the moment art finds an audience, however small, the ‘experience’ in question concerns not only one’s own but that of one’s receivers. Satire, in particular, like comedy, functions only with the implicit knowledge shared by a specific audience, and is arguably more bound than many other forms of art-making to the shared experience of others.
One can criticize the surface flippancy of spoofs and farce – the Swiftian tradition recently actualised, say, by Michel Houellebecq’s book Soumission (Submission, 2015). But claims such as Wellershoff’s resonate today in how they carry unwitting territorial exertions (over a history, identity, over the ‘real’ experience of people) while overlooking the serious, positive political valence of satirical forms. Germany has a history of memorializing genocide, as with Peter Eisenman’s Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Every memorial, like every political exertion, or art, has some link to imagination, and hence to fiction. Yet at a time when German historical guilt has all but receded, when national schema are being reintroduced without shame, when asylum-seekers are once again being attacked, and when national boundaries are being forcefully reasserted, satire would, then, in fact be a worthy antidote to the claims of authenticity and the violent or conciliatory symbolism of border-keepers on either side.