Sunday, December 19, 2004

Making A Living

So the other day the phone rang, and there was a voice on the other end I hadn't heard in ages.

"Hi, Ed? This is Richard Posner." Wow. Richard Posner first brought himself to my attention back in 1999, when I was doing cultural reportage for the Wall Street Journal. He had a project he wanted to tell me about, a politically-themed piece in which the swastika -- a glyph which is totally banned in Germany, to the extent of anthropology museums not even displaying Indian artifacts where, reversed, it's a sun symbol -- was doubled over on itself, the resultant spaces filled in with various colors, and rendered in herbs and broken glass. He was a veteran of such political public art, and had had commissions from libraries and other public institutions in the U.S. and had somehow wound up in Germany, so he had decided to see if he could figure out a way to do this piece right in the hottest location possible.

Now, as I wrote a few days ago, The Burden Of History compels people making memorials here to be very grim and blatant, and I already had a story to bear this out. A guy I knew when I was working at the radio station was an artist (among other things), and at one point the Federal government here was looking for art to put up in places where the Wall had been. Now, as anyone who's been here knows, there wasn't a single Wall, but, rather, two walls, between which was a No Man's Land, which was made impassable by any number of means: trip-wires attached to automatic firing devices, vicious patrol dogs and vicious patrol humans, all sorts of things.

Well, this guy had found a place where the hazard was gargantuan amounts of pesticide, enough that you'd get incredibly ill. (Would this work? Who knows: the DDR had a very bizarre sense of things, as evidenced by the thousands of jars of cotton pads containing samples of sweat the secret police had gotten while interrogating people, some of which are on view at the Runde Ecke Museum in Leipzig). Anyway, he knew where this patch was, and his proposal was to plant corn there. Corn has an ability to suck things out of the soil, and of course none of the corn grown on this site would be eaten by humans or animals. But it was his color-scheme which killed the project: he wanted to plant the corn in rows of black (actually blue, but it's really dark blue), red, and gold, just like the German flag. There was so much resonance to this, so much fine symbolism, that I was really taken aback by the idea. I thought it was brilliant. Whoever was doing the commissioning went ballistic and firmly and thoroughly rejected the idea.

Needless to say, Posner kept running into walls. Even though, in the finished design, no swastika (it's called Hakenkreuz here, or "broken cross") could be discerned even if you worked real hard, the very idea that it was a design element produced anger and fear. I can't remember the whole rigamarole he went through, but it took months and months and months. Finally, he got a location, way down in Köpenick, on the very fringes of the city, at the site of a now-vanished synagogue, right by a clubhouse for what appeared to be young nazis. He got the broken glass from the local public transportation system, and I can't even remember if the plants went in or not (hey, it was five years ago, and I haven't re-read the story I did). And, after the installation went down, he got a teaching gig in Chicago, and that was the last I heard of him.

Until the other night. It turns out that he was having an opening Friday night, and not only was it an opening, it was at the Barbara Blickensdorff Gallery, one of my favorite local galleries. She's friends with a couple of people I know, and in fact my friends Fred and Dominica, when they lived here, had a couple of pieces they'd bought from her. (She also represents some guy named David Hockney for Germany). She consistently finds extremely interesting artists, and although it had never occurred to me, she and Richard Posner were a great match. One thing she does each year is to find a wall somewhere in Berlin and mount a piece by one of her artists. The first one I was aware of was a field of placidly munching day-glo-colored cows which were lit with black light at night, covering the entire four-story wall of a building on Kollwitzstr. in Prenzlauer Berg, done by Sergei Alexander Dott. Kinda gets your attention. (You can see this at her not-very-well designed website if you click on "Projects," and then "KUHUUNST," and then "Pictures." I recommend it!) The thought that she and Posner might do one of these public projects is a natch.

It turned out that Posner was sharing this show with another artist, but his room was the one where everyone was standing around and reading the captions and giggling. The show is called GWOTBOTS, and he's made a few dozen robots for the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Actually, what he did, he told me, was make a junk-dealer "an offer he couldn't refuse" for a bunch of small plastic toys, and then, as post-election therapy, took a whole bunch of plastic binding strips and strapped toy cars to superhero dolls, animals to airplanes, soldiers to other soldiers, and invented names for each piece to satirize or comment on the current political situation. (Or, as the invitation has it: "Richard Posner a crafstman hunched over a kitchen table full of detritus in a dimly lit hinterhof atelier, abracadabra flotsam and jetsam into a plastic toy vehicle, one at a time, by hand.") There's a mordant, bittersweet humor to the pieces, and I'll be going back again when the crush of opening-night folks isn't present to look a little more closely at them. Meanwhile, Richard, who's found himself stuck in Berlin since a couple of years ago, has invited me up to dinner on Wednesday, after which we'll play German Monopoly (the board is Munich, but it really should be Berlin) with a couple of his friends.

Then, last night, the dancer got me to go hear a piano player in the bar of the swanky Steigenberger Hotel. His name is Joe, and he's married to a friend of hers from whom she earns a bit of money babysitting their new daughter Lulu. Joe's been here since he arrived with a musical that has become infamous in Berlin: Shakespeare Rock and Roll, which left a trail of bad debts all the way to the Swiss border, where its perpetrator was caught just in time. ("I saw to it my boys got paid," Joe said). Joe is an accomplished jazz pianist, but that's no way to pay the rent here, so he alternates hotel gigs, with going out every other year with the horrific middle-of-the-road German performer James Last. Last, it develops, is a real down-to-earth type, and makes sure his band is filled with some of the finest jazz musicians around: it's work, it pays extraordinarily well, and so the money might as well go to the right folks.

Joe was singing -- and I mean singing -- "Georgia On My Mind" when we got there, and he managed to settle in comfortably with all the material he did, not carbon-copying the original singers, necessarily, but inhabiting the space they created with the original song. If that meant Elton John or Billy Joel, fine. If it meant someone more interesting to my ears, like Ray Charles, even better. But the problem last night was that the audience was Teflon: nothing was sticking. Joining us at our table between his short sets, Joe was a bit frustrated, but it's the week before Christmas, and people just aren't going out. He even has a small crowd who come out just for him, and if fate hands you the fortune to be staying at one of Berlin's better hotels (except the Adlon -- but then I never recommend anyone stay there), check the bar with the piano and see if there's a guy with totally white hair (he's got a medium case of albinism) playing with soul. That'll be Joe, from Philly, doing what he does.

Both Richard and Joe have settled here because they married German women and have families. Both are making a living here as best they can. Both are American, and both are, like me, pretty much sure they prefer living in Europe. No big moral here, no great metaphor. Just two guys on two successive nights in two completely different ends of town.

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