Berlin, Ost: whose party is it?

What I described as retro-chic would be better called Osti-chic. It carries that somewhat questionable association, like Red Army chic or Soviet chic. Because today we visited two of the Sunday markets where the consistency of this style was readily apparent. In the clothes. The furniture. Some of it even old bureaucratic East German fittings, desks, chairs. In the light fittings. The bakerlite objects. The ceramics. The bric-a-brac. All having that slightly muted quality of coming from a somewhat sheltered Communist place. Nothing too bright and showy. But not necessarily built to last either. Loved. Or lovingly restored. Like the definitive statement of this area: the bicycle. To which a whole store nearby off the market is devoted. With rubber innertubes rolled with their two-part valves sold separately. Boxes of handles for handlebars. Bakerlite and rubber. The branding nostalgic. The branding a major element of the item. The bike.

The branding then not too unlike our postcapitalist present’s limited to a narrow spectrum of well-known. A mantra. A child’s catechism. An adolescent’s check-list. And like the present-day – which above all this retro-style is in negative disavowal of- the Osti style returns a particular repressed as a general representation. In denial of its past. That is that provenance from a culture of repression, of political repression. The postcapitalist product, comparably, eliding if not hiding its provenance from countries where the freedoms enjoyed in the ‘West’ do not obtain. And labour is cheap.

Labour was cheap in the old East. Now the things left behind have this odd aura. It pervades the markets. Like a distinct colour, office beige, Stasi off-white.

On the way to Mauerpark we come across the cobbles set to show where the Wall once stood. On the corner of Berg and Bernauer Str.n, a place the map calls a Dokumentations Zentrum Berliner Mauer. There is a placard here with a series of photographs, one of which presents the famous defection of an East German soldier, who chooses, rather than policing the Wall as building commences, to climb over the barbed wire. Who chose. Who chooses. To leave. It’s a sad picture somehow. Not just for what you can imagine about his context. He is young in the picture. So he must’ve had a family, parents who might have supported what was surely an impulsive decision, but would regardless have missed him. Perhaps it was not impulsive. Perhaps he had time to say goodbye. The night before. Keeping all through the morning mum about what he planned to do. Joking with his comrades as usual. Perhaps more forcefully than usual. Laughing a little more heartily at their jokes than was necessary. Then when on duty, his heart invisible in his serge jacket, anticipating the opportunity to step over the line.

He could have been shot. Ought strictly speaking to have been shot. By the same comrades he’d so recently been joking with. Or an over-seer, a superior.

It’s sad in the way the absence of the Wall is sad. I mean its brute physical presence. Which the immaterial sense that it was there really tells us nothing about. Sad like Charlotte Rampling’s relationship long after the war with Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter. A Stockholm syndrome recalled. A tragedy we can celebrate the end of but having been a place where once we resided find we cannot now defect from. The hope of the soldier is invisible like his heart. Perhaps he was not hopeful. Just acting on impulse after all.

Mauerpark is packed with people. Tourists we are told. But tourists acting like spies, undercover as representatives of a generation. Individuals, in other words.

We eat Currywurst. And sit in the grass outside the market, in the No-man’s Land that was an empty strip running between East and West before 1989, a buffer zone, full of rabbits. It was where Hitler’s bunker was located, No-man’s Land. Not here at Mauerpark, but as a distinct zone. Full of rabbits. You used to be able to buy postcards of rabbits running around between the Walls. Happy opportunists.

Hippies here now. And a drunk raconteur called Fred who regales me with his adventures in NZ. He has a blanket on the grass with some original vinyls on it for sale. Lou Reed. Bowie. Maybe Elvis. I don’t see Elvis but he kisses his fingers telling me how he scored some mint copies of Elvis records.

Coffee at German Coffee Heroes, which has Flat White on its menu, the drink popular in NZ and Australia. The coffee’s well-made. The roast tastes good. Although the milk is a little too full-bodied, a bit too full-milk-powder tasting, overpowering the coffee.

We tram and walk down to Museum Island, in the Spree, the river that before 1989 used to act as an equal barrier to the Wall, its watery extension, a No-man’s Land, on the banks of which there was always a new bloom of crosses, to mark the shootings, that used to occur at night, of night-swimmers, would-be escapees. Museuminsel is all new despite the museum part of it comprising a collection of some of the oldest buildings in Berlin. The Dom. The Pergamon, I used to visit back in 1983. The Bode. The Neues and Altes. And it’s an awesome collection. Missing, so those ardent for its restoration might tell you, the Schloss.

Where the DDR’s central command once stood is a grass platform, crossed by a series of boardwalks, beside the Spree. It has been gone only several years. It is spooky. The graffiti doesn’t talk about it. It was an awful building. A bureaucratic horror. The justification for the initial stage of its demolition had been that it was full of asbestos. It was gutted. Then much later razed. Erased. Next door is where they are rebuilding the Schloss.

It is very strange thinking. Later we see the monument to the book burning in 1933 outside the Staatsoper. Empty shelves. The blanks asking to be filled but never again to be filled. Of history. But a represented blank. An emptiness brought to visibility and worked into the fabric of the city. Like that across the road. The monument to the victims of politics. With its secular pieta. Another empty volume there. And throughout Berlin I guess we will come across emptinesses. The art of contemporary monument-making being one of representing the blank, missing, saying the unsayable? Was geschehen ist.

I miss the emptiness however that is not monumentalised here. The not here that nobody seems to want to be here. Or to make appear. Bring back a Prussian Schloss? Crazy. Is the desire to rebuild motivated by aesthetics? If it is then we have passed through the minimalist phase of monument construction to something the Nazis would understand, the glorious past.

At night we go and see experimental dance, a short show, in a small studio venue. Contact improv based. Suffers from the good intention of wanting to produce experimental dance. Movements that start out well end in recuperation, prettified, dance-ified. There is a section which seemed to me to satirise German techno in which a man on his hands and knees facing a mic on a chair, its lead going to a small speaker on the floor pointed at the audience, grunts. Rhythmically. Could be sexual. But reaching no climax. Grunt grunt grunt grunt. Grunt grunt grunt. Grunt grunt. The programme said something silly about it being a manifestation of human evil. It went on too long to be funny. Marred not by repetition but by rhythmic regularity. Bring that beat back.

Indian takeaways for dinner.