BY Heike Geissler in Profiles | 19 MAR 20
Featured in
Issue 210

Heike Geissler on Pace and Pauses

Wandering Munich with the graphic designer Anna Lena von Helldorff, the author wonders what it means when time constantly overtakes us

BY Heike Geissler in Profiles | 19 MAR 20

We were outside the Transport Museum in Munich, standing in front of Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy’s sculpture Sweet Brown Snail (2003). It’s a pretty good joke when you think about it: a slow-moving gastropod right next to an institution dedicated to speed. We paused for a moment and took stock.

I was with my close friend and collaborator, the graphic designer Anna Lena von Helldorff. For half a year now she’s been back in Munich, having returned from Leipzig, where I live, putting quite a few kilometres between us. We see each other far too rarely but always come up with projects we could or want to work on together. And that’s how it will always be. Since I had an upcoming reading in Vienna, I arranged a stopover in Munich. Anna Lena and I could do whatever we wanted for the day, travelling about the city, mostly not working but working. A little trick, perhaps plucked from the obscure treasure chest of self-optimisation, but then I am and she is, I mean, we are just the product of our times.

Heike Geissler and Anna Lena von Helldorff, 2020, specially commissioned illustration by Olga Prader. Courtesy: the artist

Sweet Brown Snail is fundamentally at odds with any sense of professionalism, with any and all professional deformations, whoever sees it understands as much immediately. This snail seems like a foil for our incessantly accelerating era. Behind it, the two symmetrical horses of Georg Roemer’s sculpture Wilde Pferde (Wild Horses, 1907–08) rear up, unable to keep pace. Clearly, the snail is disinterested in any competition; with its engaging smile and the comma-shaped glints in its eyes, it always wins. Sweet Brown Snail was designed to be loved and, as we made our way towards it, we had already fallen for it. The snail seemed to look at us as we approached but was not sufficiently smitten to accompany us. In any case, Sweet Brown Snail was never really ours: it’s a public snail belonging to all; if anything, we belonged to it.

A short while later, we were outside Munich’s Hall of Fame, with its neoclassical colonnades, gazing up at Ludwig Michael Schwanthaler’s imposing cast-bronze statue Bavaria (1850). The sculpture, a female personification of the Bavarian state, is so vast it can be entered and scaled; from within, you can look out through the eyes or, in warmer months, rest on the benches within its cheeks. We took photos of Bavaria’s turquoise-tinged base, which bears the traces of the statue’s weathered bronze.

It was a cold day and our phone batteries depleted rapidly in the freezing air. Nonetheless, all day long, it seemed as if we were turning straw into gold. Or, rather, that gold was lying on the street just waiting for us to find it and we – technology-fixated and deadline-demoralized – simply hadn’t noticed it until now.

Subway graffiti, Munich, 2020. Courtesy and photograph: Heike Geissler 

We walked around. We thought we were lost, but we couldn’t be lost that day. We looked at the rail network, looked at maps of the area around the train stations. Later, when we were already on our way back home, standing on a tram platform in Berg am Laim surrounded by Bayern Munich football fans and tired office workers, we suddenly noticed that the pins in the local transport map were gone, nothing was there to show you exactly where you are. By then, it was already dark and we had just seen the reflection of the full moon in the windows of a high-rise that was still under construction; the huge, beaming lamp of someone who had moved in too early.

We rode the U-Bahn and the trams. We walked. We rode the bus, which was the warmest and where we even warmed up our mobiles, although it didn’t revive our batteries. By the time we reached the western district of Pasing, it seemed as if we had already been on the unlikeliest journey, had been in a variety of places. Pasing, in other words, was now London Kensington Station and a set for a film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878). Pasing sufficiently confused our already over-stimulated synapses to render our public transport excursion a trip around the world. From then on, we journeyed far and wide, holding the threads of many places in our hands, as if every chance was ours and not a single one was a burden.

We read election posters because you always have to read everything, and because you have to pretend that you are the one they are addressing, and because you have to keep on determining that, no, you are not the one they are addressing – and that, maybe, no one is being addressed at all.

Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, Sweet Brown Snail, 2003, Bavariapark, Munich. Courtesy: the artists; photograph: Heike Geissler

We squeezed every last iota of battery out of our phones to take photos. A brand-new residential complex, despite the wintery temperatures, looked like a hotel on a beach promenade. We almost knelt down in front of the medical-supply store to capture the extravagant shop window diorama: an ice rink with a hole in it, next to which lay a glittering, apricot-coloured ice skate and an empty wheelchair. It could have been the set of a murder scene or an accident: where was the second skate and what about the child wearing it? Where was the person in the wheelchair? But there was no harm shown here, just miniature fir trees standing like a distinguished choir in the background and two jogging mannequins, showing off bandages and medical clothing. We took photos to document not the curious arrangement but the proprietor’s need to stage the enormous screen of the shop window. We took photos of the overflowing desire for design and the belief that someone would see it. Bravo.

We had it really good that day. We took the tram diagonally through Munich – it was completely banal yet exciting. We sat there all the way to the last station and read the city as best we could. In the underpass by the tram stop we read an unrepeatable denial, read expressions of love and the scrawled message: ‘I hope you hated your visit.’ Down from above, the darkest grumbling of the city traffic reverberated – a muffled, threatening sound in the fade-out of a relaxing day. 

Somehow, although we didn’t do a thing, we did a lot. We found ourselves sitting in a new-looking cafe in a shopping centre. In front of us, a tiled open space, then a supermarket. On the table were a Spezi cola, an apple spritzer and some fruit. In our backpack was the dinner we would cook for ourselves later on. We talked about public space – how, for example, cafes would now have to serve as places of assembly due to a lack of designated public arenas – and wondered how many places assigned to the public we had actually seen or overlooked that day. At the tables closer to the window were men in hi-vis overalls and, next to them, an elderly couple; to our left stretched the bakery’s long sales counter. In this newest-of-new places, in these newest-of-new seats, we toasted with our Spezi and spritzer. Behind us, a stainless-steel railing cordoned off a second, higher row of tables; underneath, the seats glowed neon red. It was as if we had been sitting in a theatre and had been chatting away throughout the entire play.

Translated by Alexander Booth

This article first appeared in frieze issue 210 with the headline ‘Snail Trail’.

Main Image:  Map of public transport network, Munich, 2020. Courtesy and photograph: Heike Geissler

Heike Geissler is an author based in Leipzig, Germany. Her book Seasonal Associate, translated by Katy Derbyshire, was published in English by Semiotext(e) in 2018 and in German by Volte (Spector Books) in 2014.