Berliner Geschichten

By Norbert Ruebsaat | January 6, 2008


For an exhibit in the Berlin Guggenheim Museum on Unter Den Linden an artist from New York named Phoebe Washburn collected debris, garbage, cast off building material-lots of wood, tarpaper, nails-in New York, had it transported to Berlin, and assembled it, along with some additional debris from Berlin, into a shed-like structure that, as the exhibit guide put it to visitors, “devoured” the interior Guggenheim gallery space. Inside the structure a conveyor belt moved small wooden boxes strongly lit from above and filled with sod and grass in various stages of growth past one’s eyes as one looked through small apertures in the wood. One could also go into the structure’s interior and watch the conveyor belt “live” from this perspective and then look up at small green slips of paper that dangled through the sloping roof boards. The guide said that when the grasses seeded in the boxes matured the sod pieces were transferred to the shed’s roof, where they then gradually died because they were not watered and there was no sunlight. One could see a number of green sod patches already in the semi dark on the higher, back end of the sloped shed roof, close to the gallery ceiling. The guide said the exhibit would end when all the sod sections growing inside the shed had been transferred to the roof where, of course, the earliest pieces transferred would have already died: this would create a delicate shading from green, through brown and then to grey on the sod roof, and the whole piece, which was intended to be a commentary on the life and death of natural things and processes in the face of cultural intervention, would have done its work. The guide said this was Phoebe Washburn’s first European exhibition, that she was a young artist with a special interest in environmental statements and work involving living things, and that she had already made a strong name for herself in numerous New York exhibitions. She pointed to rows of tiny coloured stones arranged on ledges and sills all over the shed and said Phoebe enjoyed collecting these and in whimsical moments painting them and adding them to the installation.

Unter den Linden is Berlin’s central presentational boulevard. The lime trees after which it is named were planted in the seventeenth century by Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg, the Great Elector (one of the seven German princes who elected the Holy Roman Emperor) to shade the route from his palace on the Spree River to his hunting grounds in the forest that is today Berlin’s Tiergarten, ie. central park. The route was reconstructed by Friedrich Wilhelm’s son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, Prussia’s first king, into a military parade ground where he could watch (and paint) his soldiers (all of whom had to be over six feet tall) march in rank and file and help him found the Prussian state. Friedrich Wilhelm’s son, Fredrick II, aka “The Great,” a lover of art and of the French Enlightenment, made Unter den Linden the display center of his expansionist state and commissioned the first of the monumental baroque and neoclassical buildings that came to identify the avenue; he left behind the double-life-sized equestrian statue of himself which forms its epicenter. During the imperial age, Germany’s nation builder Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor,” filled in the gaps in Unter den Linden with more neoclassical monuments, tributes to gigantism, and in 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm II launched the Second German Reich into World War I by staging multiple parades along its length. Hitler cut down the lime trees and replaced them with faux “totem poles” (think of the Survivor “reality” show) and his architect Albert Speer prepared drawings and models that incorporated the lindenless avenue into his übercapital dream metropolis, Germania. After 1945, the East German government replanted the lindens, repaired the badly war-damaged buildings-you can see the many places where beige stone patches that look like band aids have filled in the bullet and shrapnel holes left in the soot-stained earlier stone-and then cut the avenue off at its symbolic source by building the Wall around Brandenburg Gate. Today the German government is taking up the task of remaking Unter den Linden into reunified Germany’s both real and symbolic heart.

August 15, 2007



In the Hamburger Bahnhof Gallery in Berlin, Ilonka, my host here, and I, saw the pieces of fat that Joseph Beuys had packed into the gallery spaces where his installations were first exhibited in the nineteen seventies. I touched one of the pieces-they are gigantic, towering above the spectator like great broken plinths-and the guard came over and told me it was forbidden. I asked if I could smell it, and he repeated: don’t touch, nicht anfassen.

The pieces of fat-I have to emphasize again their monumental character, the fact that, as pieces of hardened grease, creased and broken apart now in places, they give the appearance of fallen Roman, Greek, or even Egyptian statuary-smelled like soap. Ilonka explained to me that these, like other Beuys’ pieces-and indeed, like a good part of the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibit-had been donated to the gallery by a well-known private collector named Friedrich Christian Flick who had bought many of Beuys’ and other conceptual art installations when they were first mounted and had stored them for years until a space large enough to publicly exhibit them was finally built. She didn’t know where Flick’s storage space was or what kind of place it was.

The Hamburger Bahnhof Gallery is a turn-of-the-twentieth-century train station which was badly damaged in the WW II bombings and has been redesigned and transformed into Berlin’s premier contemporary art gallery. Great arched steel girders and columns that typify nineteenth century train stations are encased in white gallery-style plaster and cause the structure itself to take on the appearance of installed art. This effect is strengthened by the fact that the white plaster fill which links the pillars and arches and the floor mimics in spanking new purity the fat mountains or monuments which, since their creation thirty years ago, have taken on a patina of yellow and brown shading and contain numerous large fissures. Such apparent symmetry creates a feeling of time moving backwards, and draws attention to the figure-ground relationships which are always at play in conceptual art: I was pleased to note that Beuys’ pieces have weathered well.


One is tempted, in fact, to compare the fat pieces with glaciers which, as they age and, in our current culturally-modified climate, melt, take on similar brownish-greyish-bluish  hues, form crevasses, split, and eventually cave into the ocean and make their entry into historical rather than geological time. Beuys’ fat installations were, so far as I remember, originally installed in the corners of gallery rooms, and, if I recall correctly the photos that I saw of the pieces, they tended to act as visual stabilizers, albeit also softeners, of the sharp, 90 degree angled exhibition spaces.

So it was interesting now to note, along with the time warp, the reversal of this culture-nature relationship. Beuys’ fat modules, saved from the private vaults, dark and gigantic, in which they had lain unnoticed and uncelebrated for so many years, lay now, as I said, like broken monoliths, abandoned statuary, in the centre of the newly roomy, public, sparklingly white plastered display spaces, and the one I touched and then smelled, monitored by the gaze of the gallery guard, contained a fissure so large that somebody-Beuys or Fleck, or perhaps the curators-had clamped and bolted a metal bar around its central girth to keep it from breaking apart, possibly calving, right there in front of us in the gallery. Art, like time, like life, I thought as I looked, is precious and one must maintain a sense celebratory elation in the presence of its preservation in a city, which, like the glaciers themselves, was as close to having been smitten permanently in two by historical circumstance as any city in the world has been.

August 18, 2007


In Berlin, on Bebel Platz, which is where, in front of the German Opera, Nazi Party functionaries famously, on May 10th, 1933, under orders from Propaganda Minster Joseph Goebbels, burned tens of thousands of books by Heinrich Heine, Erich Maria Remarque, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Stephan Zweig, Erich Kästner, Bertolt Brecht, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and many German and foreign others on the grounds that their writings were “un-German,” cyclists like riding their bikes over the glassed-in aperture, about a metre square, embedded in the square’s cobbles, which, when you look down through it, reveals the ghostly catacombic apparition of a set of library shelves, bereft of books. The cyclists, some of whom have rented their bikes from the nearby tourist outlet (it specializes in bikes with fat “balloon” tires and wide Harley-style easy-chair handlebars) but others of whom are local mountain and even ten-speed bike enthusiasts, imprint their tire marks in multiple patterns on the glass, and then park their bikes in a circular formation, still sitting astride them, and converse atop this historical, tender, modest and hallucinatory monument to literacy. I came on a rainy day, and didn’t know where to look for the memorial (created by Isha Ullman) about which I had read and heard, and was anxious to see, and when I noticed the congregated cyclists I moved toward them, and it was only when I stepped right into their midst and watched a bike tire being repeatedly moved by a young man over a glass square and leaving a distinct water-and-mud-mark that I realized this was the place.

How could one have guessed? I recalled how in Egypt groups of youths often congregate around sites which contain “relics” and attempt to sell examples of what they are talking about to you, the tourist; but here there were no objects: there was simply a location in which events had occurred and in which, in view of, or in memory of such events, one was being encouraged to congregate-and in which kids talked. The youths on their bikes did not look to me like readers: they did look to me, however, like acute readers of “reality,” if such a text can be imagined by people of a generation that has been taught to identify with and locate imagination in the pages of books-the very ones whose absence was being celebrated and mourned (it is sometimes hard to know which valence is being addressed here in such monuments to the German, and particularly to the Berlin past). Yes, it is hard (for me) to “read” the text these youths were tracing (I repeat; again and again) on the glass above the (bookless) library on Bebel Square; but I was encouraged to be among (seeming) friends who appeared, via instinct or genetics, via wit or technology, or, god help me, culture, to be interested in this small location, among cobbles and rain, among tourists, locals, riffraff and-dare I say it, complete strangers-where history had temporarily paused and trodden.

August 19, 2007


1. Notausgang

I was afraid to go into the isolation chamber I had imagined was in the centre of the Holocaust Memorial just south of the Brandenburg Gate on Ebert Strasse in Berlin. A narrow set of stairs there led downward to a closed door with a sign that read “Notausgang,” “Emergency Exit,” and I couldn’t tell whether the message was to be taken literally, metaphorically or ironically. The door seemed to lead into the centre of the earth, and halfway down the stairway I grasped  the handrail, held tightly, began to shake, and turned back.  I had read that the purpose of the chamber I imagined would be behind the door was to convey the choking isolation experienced by concentration camp inmates, especially in those last moments before they entered the gas chambers.

I experienced a great deal of isolation while wandering through the square- block-sized maze of blank rectangular grey stone slabs, of varying heights, arranged in a grid and set upright, suggestive of gravestones, that constitute the memorial, and although I “knew” this was art, this was metaphor, this was aide memoir, I easily panicked. I caught glimpses of other people: they appeared in short snatches, almost photographic “takes,” as they and I moved in and out of view in the narrow, straight, undulating cobbled passageways between the slabs-which grew higher than one’s head as one approached the centre of the exhibit-and I wanted to cry and reach out to their extremely distant and increasingly fleeting presences. Some of them, mostly young people, were indeed snapping photos of each other as they emerged suddenly from a passageway and then disappeared just as suddenly into another, and I felt for moments like a participant in a game of virtual peek-a-boo, or photo tag.

It is hard to know what people in their twenties with digital cameras are thinking when they move, touristically, through a memorial such as this which might strike them as something to do with their ancestors, but which has no immediate connection to their present multimediated reality. I recalled reading in the newspaper and maybe also hearing from my host, here, Ilonka, that there was some controversy in Berlin about the fact that the memorial-designed by American architect Peter Eisenmann and built at a cost of 30 million Euros-should be so close to the symbolic centre of Berlin and not at the actual sites of the Holocaust atrocities. A real concentration camp, said the critics-for example Sachsenhausen, which was already a museum and memorial site and ready at hand a short train ride away from the city-would be a more apt and authentic way to memorialize the crimes and their victims and would be less costly: this current memorial was fake, a classic example of German guilt duty without substance or content.

The passageways between the slabs are absolutely straight, albeit the ground rises and falls, and as your head dips below the slabs’ tops  you see little squares of green and occasional flashes of light at the end of a corridor: these are the boulevard trees, and the periodic passing cars, which disappear immediately again, and then reappear, as you walk, and they grow more and more distant as you approach the site’s centre. The passageways gradually create the visual experience of looking through a reverse telescope, and cause you to imagine you are disappearing. When you look up, which you will be prone to do, you see a patch of sky transected by occasional passing pigeons or airplanes, both desperately remote and increasingly imaginary. Were you to meet someone in a passageway one of you would have to back up and turn into another passageway because the passageways are too narrow for two bodies to pass. Hence, the Other always disappears and you are, again and again, alone. By the time you reach the central stairway, this loneliness aches and crushes and begins to push you down those stairs.

On the southern edge of the monument, where I emerged, a group of what I thought, for reasons that are not clear to me (did I hear Hebrew?) to be Israeli twenty-somethings were relaxing, talking, smoking, taking snaps of each other and chatting on their cell phones. Their bodies rested easily on the slabs, which here are flat and broad and at bench height, and as I watched them lean against their packs and the stone and each other and talk and touch and smoke, I experienced an uneasy and relieving sense of lightness. When, some minutes later, a tour bus stopped nearby and groups of elderly passengers emerged, some of whom wore yarmulkes, I watched them stand at the edges of the memorial and take pictures: they aimed their camera lenses high, over the whole of the monument for wide angle panorama shots, and sometimes some of them posed for others in small groups in front of one or two of the stone slabs. Only a few of them sat on the slabs, and even fewer of them moved in the direction of the exhibit’s centre.

2. Memory Void

I learned after my visit that the isolation chamber I had imagined to be in the centre of the Holocaust Memorial is in fact on the first floor of  the Jewish Museum, a kilometer or so away on Linden Strasse. The place is called “Memory Void,” and is filled with recorded sounds of clanking metal and a sea of a thousand grimacing masks, and you reach it after traversing a complicated sequence of architectural events by which the building’s designer, Daniel Libeskind, has attempted to tell, visually and in three dimensions, the difficult story of Germany’s Jews. The building’s ground plan is in the shape of a lightning bolt that mimics and at the same time deconstructs a Star of David (so I am told) and it is considered (so I am also told) a building in which it is easy to lose one’s way. The door I saw and was afraid to open in the heart of the Holocaust Memorial, it turns out, is, as my guidebook duly informed me, the planned entrance of “an underground centre where historical and personal accounts and life stories of some Holocaust victims will be presented.”

3. The Impossible

Ilonka told me after my visit to the Holocaust Memorial near Brandenburg Gate that many Berliners and other Germans criticized the installation not only because it is in the wrong location but also because its memorial purview excludes non-Jews-the gypsies, homosexuals, communists, handicapped and prisoners-of-war-who were murdered in the camps. She said also that its monumentality, reflected in its location and cost (thirty million Euros) weakened its intention. It was a monument to guilt, memorializing a category of persons rather than the actual persons who had been murdered, and it addressed an abstraction: the German people? the state? humanity? guilt itself?-whom, exactly, does it make responsible for the crimes? Ilonka asked. She said many young Germans (I imagine Ilonka to be somewhere in her thirties) ignored and treated the memorial as yet another attempt by German state and corporate authority to generalize and slide Holocaust responsibilities away from their institutions, and from individual persons, and foist it on subsequent generations; like a kind of original sin.

Wolf Lepenies, whose The Seduction of Culture in German History I found in the excellent library of the flat where I am staying, echoes this criticism. He writes that the tendency to aestheticize politics, to conduct politics as if it were art, to confuse history with poetry-practices which have been the bane of German intellectual activity since the Romantic period-are forcefully at play (and work) in Peter Eisenmann’s monument. It romanticizes and poeticizes the Holocaust by representing it as fate, as something beyond and outside history, part of the world of art, of myth and mystery; it becomes something whose evil and suffering are absolute and can never be fully grasped or accounted for (and can therefore never be properly mourned or atoned for). And the absence of meaning at its centre-which in the case of a properly located memorial would be an actual place where an actual crime had been committed and suffered by real people-renders it vacuous and potentially monstrous: kitschy, pornographic. Lepenies’ book reprises, in this context, the Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers correspondence about whether the Holocaust should be imagined as an ultimate, essentialized, one-time, or as a banal every-day example of evil.

Ilonka told me-and Lepenies mentions these also-that there are many small local memorials in Berlin which properly and modestly commemorate the actual persons and places involved in the Holocaust, and whose demarcations make orderly emotions and thoughts about it more feasible. She showed me on the map the location of one of them, a small Jewish graveyard near Hackescher Markt S-Bahn station. She said her favourite comment about the Eisenmann Holocaust Memorial was made by a visiting Canadian friend who suggested that the way to give it proper effect would be to post snipers on the rooftops of buildings around the site and have them fire occasional shots over the heads of visitors-a thing which, of course, is impossible to do. As a conceptual art alternative, he proposed that snipers be posted inside the monument itself and instructed to leap out from behind the stone slabs at night and pelt visitors with paintball guns.

August 20-23, 2007

The Flight Into Representation


Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, whose station in the German is given the feminine ending-Kanzlerin-traveled to Greenland a couple of days ago to “observe at first hand” the effects of global warming which in that part of the world are most dramatically noticeable. German Green Party Leader Rheinhard Bütikofer called her visit “eine Flucht in die Inszinierung,” which I will translate as “a flight into representation.” Legions of the German media accompanied Ms. Merkel to Greenland and they reported on their return that Ms. Merkel had proclaimed global warming-which in the German media is labeled “Klimawandel,” literally, “climate transformation,”-to be the most pressing problem of our times, and she, Ms. Merkel, planned to set it at the top of her political agenda.

Meanwhile, I am reading Wolf Lepenies’ The Seduction of Culture in German History, which argues that a German tendency to poeticize politics, in other words turn it into representation, has been tragic because it imagines reality as spectacle and leads, if one doesn’t pay attention to this trajectory, to political barbarism, ie. Hitler and the Nazis. Politics, properly practiced and reported, Lepenies claims, is presentation, real action, not representation, action taken to communicate something other than itself.

In North America of course, we would call Merkel’s polar jaunt a media event or publicity stunt-which is another way of saying representation: Merkel is doing nothing about global warming or Wandel, she is performing the doing of something as if it were that something. It’s kind of a Bertolt Brecht moment. And we would know it in North America to be image politics, the familiar and banal, er, transformation of politics into public relations.

Or is it spectacle? Are politics-as-public-relations, image politics, flights into representation, of a piece with Nazi dramaturgy? I walk to the Fussgängerzone, the car free shopping zone on Wilmersdorferstrasse near the place where I am staying, and in front of Rogaki’s, a fantastical food outlet where you can eat, for reasonable prices, yummy ocean delicacies from Holland, then shop for your German deli food, which here will include seventy-odd varieties of cheese, fifty of Wurst, thirty varieties of freshly-baked bread and buns, not to mention pastries and condiments, I sit and sip a glass of nice white Rhine wine at one of the tables and feel the balmy breezes of a perfect Berlin late summer morning tickle the hairs on my bare legs and quickly waft away the cigarette smoke which, here in Germany, has not yet been banned entirely from public places.

Yes, in this spectacular location, you sit and savour your tourist-and-once-upon-a-time-citizen identity, muse about globalization, and you suddenly hear Papageno’s love aria to Papagena from Mozart’s Magic Flute rise over the ambience and drift through to you upon the smoke-free breeze. It is played, inszeniert, by an organ grinder some thirty paces distant, standing beneath a decorative sapling. The machine is quite sophisticated and renders the complex orchestration with great authenticity, and you marvel that a burnished wooden box, a half-metre cubed, and coaxed into song by a metal crank turned by a man who is dressed in a rumpled suit and wearing a-yes he is, he is wearing a top hat!-can produce such sweetness in so casual a manner and in such a casual and nevertheless marked location.

Immediately you will think of Schubert’s Leiermann song, from Die Wintereise, sung by Fischer Dieskau on the Deutsche Gramophone label, where the organ grinder, the Leiermann, is hinten, (or is it oben?–must check the Wilhelm Müller poem)-at any rate in the distance, and is represented by repetitive, gently modulating chords in the piano accompaniment, played, one recalls, by Gerald Moore. And the wanderer, der Reisende, is enthralled, seduced, immediately enraptured, by the simple chording which seems to arrive from a distant village and then guide his steps toward the castle which, as it turns out is the goal–Ziel: “target”-of his wanderings.

Yes, you are hypnotized. You’ll wander between two worlds. I listened and listened, and because I had been thinking about Lepenies and the flight into representation-which Lepenies calls “the escape into culture” and links with the concomitant “rejection of politics”-I started to think also about Theodor Adorno, the dour German philosopher and cultural critic who called  music-especially music which, growing from popular roots (he mostly meant American popular music, but included German folk music in his purview) becomes, as it moves-yes, from the village to the castle, or, via migration and then recording, from plantation to city-an instrument of class oppression and force for forgetting. “Mass hypnosis,” “mass deception,” is how Adorno labeled it: flight, par excellence, into representation.

And so, because I was thus now lost in thought about the whole political catastrophe Lepenies thinks, and Adorno thinks, is potentially attendant upon the replacement of politics with culture, presentation with representation, mind with body, truth with fiction-reality with poetry, food with music, love with sound, street with promenade, air with cigarette smoke, etc. etc.-all of which might be thought of as aspects of image politics, media management, public relations, style over substance, spin-I grew restless. I opened the Berliner Morgenpost, which lay on the table before me, abandoned by a previous wanderer, and there I found the headline and story of Merkel and Bütikofer and the journey to Greenland-“Die Grönlandreise”-and the quip about the flight into representation. I had heard the story earlier that morning on the radio, but had not heard the name Bütikofer, which is a complex name, well enough to recall it, let alone know how to spell it.


The Berliner Morgenpost is published by the company founded and run between the nineteen sixties and eighties with great aplomb by the late Axel Springer, who, some might recall, was the darling of the Right and the dragon of the Left (not to mention the Chaotics-die Kaoten, as anarchists are called here) in Berlin and Germany during the student uprisings in 1968 and onwards. His tabloid Bild Zeitung goaded and baited students with its relentless diet of extreme Right, often racist reports and diatribes, its celebrity and scandal gossip and full page photos of naked women, all set in a frame of vitriolic anti-communist rants against the Berlin Wall.

The Springer Verlag (Press) published-and publishes-in addition to Bild Zeitung, and the Morgenpost, the slightly more middle-of-the road Berliner Zeitung and Die Welt, and remains one of Europe’s and the world’s great media empires. Ilonka Optiz, my guide here, and I happened to drive by the Springer Verlag A.G. complex yesterday when Ilonka was touring me around the city. The complex is a spectacular series of utterly contemporary glass and steel high and low rises set amidst calculated landscaping, and it fills an entire square block on, yes, Axel Springer Strasse. It butts right up against the double line of cobbles which runs through the city and demarcates the trajectory of the former Berlin Wall that was such a welcome curse to Springer’s cause.

I did not know, in my student days, while reading and hearing about Springer and the Bildzeitung and the protests we students were said to be staging-inszenieren?-that the Springer headquarters had been located so close to Berlin’s then Ground Zero. Ilonka told me that, in addition to the Springerstrasse, there was also now a Rudi Dutschkestrasse, close nearby, which she thought intersected the Springerstrasse at a 90 degree angle. We chuckled and acknowledged how this might cause old dear Springer to rotate in his grave. Rudi Dutschke, as some will also recall, was the charismatic student leader, dubbed Red Rudi by the media, who in moments in 1968, seemed to lead Berlin students to the brink of a kind of political revolution. Or at least a spectacular rebellion. Ilonka and I looked for, but could not find Rudi Dutschkestrasse, and were both a bit sad to miss this addition to Berlin’s street name pantheon.


When I was first learning to read and write German-which was about the same time that I grew conscious of people like Rudi Dutschke and Axel Springer, not to mention Theodor Adorno and Schubert’s Winterreise-I was fascinated by the German language’s ability to turn actions into concepts via the creation of compound participles and gerunds. I thought Buchstabieren, “to spell,” because it combines the word Buch, “book,” with something that sounds like “to stabilize,” Stabielizieren, that Buchstabieren, meant “to stabilize something by putting it into a book.” The word does not actually denote this, of course: Stab, here, means “stave,” in the music notational sense of this word: and so when one is spelling in German, one is notating-visually representing, and, yes, in this way stabilizing, making a spectacle of-not reality, but sound by putting it into a book.

Or one is fighting with staves.


Adorno, by the way, understood music’s redemption from being an instrument of mass hypnosis and deception to be available only in the complex, intellectual twelve-tone compositions of his adored friend and contemporary, Arnold Schoenberg, who composed music in which listening pleasure and emotional resonance is twinned with intellectual engagement in matters of form and construction, and sound stimulates the mind, therefore, as powerfully as it does the body. The body thus, hopes Adorno, escapes the seduction of “culture” and is not led astray by politically unprincipled Pied Pipers.

August 25-30, 2007

Concrete Culture

Well, not quite. The place is actually real stone, big square granite slabs organized into an expansive sloping courtyard in front of the Kulturzentrum, where I have just come out of the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin’s premium collection of European paintings from the Middle Ages to 1800. A group of youths is assembling for what looks to be a skateboard competition. The courtyard slope reminds one of the racked stages of some Elizabethan-style theatres and it is interrupted by occasional small ledges, and in other places stone stairways, arranged in sets of two and bordered by magnificent knee-high stone banisters. All of these lead downward into the courtyard’s expanse. It’s perfect skateboarding territory.

A number of the youths carry expensive looking camera and video equipment, which they remove from tattered packs as they set themselves up around one of the double stairways. One group stands on a small roof beside it, arranges tripods and screws on camera lenses; another group fans out individually below, about twenty metres down from the stairway base. They park their boards by angling them sideways, against the grade of the courtyard slope, and set up their tripods and cameras there like professional media getting ready for a shoot. There is much banter and waiting; I have no idea what to expect.

And then I hear a distant rumbling. It is a familiar sound: I know it from the skateboarders who inhabit my neighbourhood in Vancouver, a less propitious location for boarding than this one but still skater terrain. The sound emanates from the tiny, what are they-Kevlar?-wheels beneath the five-inch-high board; it resonates briefly in the cavity between board and stone, gains amplitude, and then zooms, complete with Doppler effect, past your eardrums in a high pitched rumble as you unavoidably turn your head to give sight context to the sound.

The youth here, when I look, is already flying. He has leaped, with his board, off the edge of the upper stairway, is a good eight feet above the sloped area at the second stairway’s foot; he lands there with a great clap that turns into a chatter as the board rushes out from beneath his feet, on which he lands backwards on the granite, runs that way for a stretch to catch his balance and curb his momentum, and, in the coolest move you will ever see, twirls on his heel, readjusts his cap, and walks off to the side of the course toward some spectators who have gathered kitty-corner to the camera crew. A member of this crew, ten or so metres down from where our hero landed, catches the by now runaway board with his feet and sends it with an aimed kick back up grade to the guy who got air (is that how you say it?); the latter catches it, clean as a soccer expert, with his toe, tips it up and sideways with a smart crack, and catches it at his hip with his left hand without breaking stride or looking down.

He needs to repeat the jump-if that is what it is called. He goes back up to the starting point, which is the exit from the Gemäldegalerie where the courtyard’s slope begins, and from which I recently emerged, after considering the entire history of Western painting, to take another run. Yes, he runs for a while, holding the board lightly in his right hand, drops it with a clang and slapping sound when he’s got good momentum, and he hops on board just before he and the board reach the edge of the top stair and lift off. They are airborne, and he flies, and the board twists slightly under him (I have no idea how he gets it to stay close by his feet while up there) and he lands, eight, nine feet down, off balance, a bit sideways, and the board flips out from under him again like badly hooked trout, and he drops now, lands backwards again on the granite, falls, does a backward roll and is back on his feet before you notice the transition, and he’s already heading again toward the spectator row as the team down below shoot the board back up to him, like a piston.

This scene repeats itself twenty or so times. Each time the boy-he looks about sixteen, he’s small, wiry, tattooed up both forearms, wears a nondescript pair of grey sweats and a blue tee-shirt with a big yellow banana on the front and a stylish half worker’s, half soldier’s cap, which never falls off when he falls, and which he adjusts after each leap in a kind of salute or tip-of-the-hat gesture-yes he repeats the leap twenty times, and each time the board slips or flips or careens or jackknifes out from under him and he cannot land cleanly on it, and he lands in various formations accompanied by locutions on the stone surface that seems, to my eyes, to come up hard and ruthless against his bum, limbs and torso, and he gets up again and walks left, away from the course, as if the world were made of sport and he were its champion.

The camera guys and the audience cheer and then groan each time he almost makes it, losing his footing on the board just at the end when it shoots out again like that wild creature you thought you had, and after ten failures the boy starts cursing, so loudly that it echoes from the Gemäldegalerie Walls. Fuck you. He’s not English speaking though: he and the others, including the spectators, among whom I now notice a girl to whom the performing boarder pays not a moment’s attention, speak a kind of German that I can, given the distance and the accents they appear to inhabit, catch only snippets of: part dialect, part skater talk, part English cursing (which may be part of skater talk) I’m thinking. Youthese.

Another boarder has arrived. He is larger, lanky, hatless and much less talented than our boy. He usually cuts the leap off before reaching the upper edge of the stairs-this is done by hopping off the board, letting it clatter down the stairs as you stop and check your momentum by leaning back in your sneakers-which, yes, is what both boys are using for footwear-and catching yourself and throwing your head back in an “aw fuck” gesture. Once, though, this sidekick, as I think of him, by miraculous luck, almost makes the leap and lands squarely on his board, and only in the last minute loses his footing and lurches backward onto the rock, as the filmmakers and spectators groan: they almost got him, upstaging the star. But things are quickly normal again. There is no apparent rivalry between the two young men: they give each other high fives after each leap, talk and joke and maybe curse as they move back to the starting line and hang around in their bodies for a while like boys do when they are seventeen and in love with sport and oblivious to the otherwise constituted world.

Then suddenly, at no specific or heralded moment, in which our boy-the small one, not his Little John-type sidekick-jumps on his board earlier than usual, almost as soon as he lets it loose beside him on his run, rises like a skylark, curves in the air, and the board, like an obedient canine, lands beneath him with a kerclank, and he lands on it, sways backward for a moment, lurches, catches his balance, and then, once in control again, cruises like a motorboat into the applauding ranks of the film crew down slope. The guys on the roof beside the stairs and the audience on the sidelines pick up the cheering and clapping which echoes from the Gemäldgalerie walls.

Our boy cruises around the arena for a few moments-think of downhill skiers, who, after they cross the finish line knowing they’ve got Olympic Gold, take their time slowing down, make swoops in the snow like angelic beings made for the camera-and then he gets off his board (which one of the filmers below catches and holds on to, after tipping it up in the proper casual cool way by hitting one end with your toe, like you do a silver garbage can flip-up lid pedal) and moves over first to the filmers on the low roof, who let him look into their viewfinders for the instant replay, and then walks down to the lower media huddle and looks into their apertures, nods his head, receives congratulatory pats on the back and shoulders and waist, and also hip-level palmed, I guess, low fives; and the spectators along the side of the course, including the girl, who hasn’t moved from her seat on one of the stone ledges, over which she dangles her crossed legs, look on, too, and nod and maintain the applause.

Then the whole thing is over. The shoot’s in the can. Everyone packs their cameras back into their low tech packs, folds their expensive looking tripods as if they were camping stools, chats a bit and then leaves in smallish clusters. Star and sidekick-I notice again how much smaller, wirier, Robin is than Little John-chat for a while up near the starting gate (entrance to the Gemälde Galerie, home of Western Art) and then tuck their boards-which, I should add, although it goes without saying, are fiercely decorated with graffiti-style designs-under their arms, and walk off into, not the sunset but toward the Matthias Church, in the near foreground, where the life of a Lutheran minister who resisted the Nazis and died in the camps is being memorialized in an historical display consisting of photographs and photo facsimiles of his writing. The bell of the reconstituted church tolls on the quarter hour. Potsdamer Platz, the fiercely high tech and branded, up-market space station built after the Wende (regime change, fall of the Wall) on the site which, before the War, was the most vibrant square in Berlin and after the War was a bombed out wasteland through which the Wall sliced its way, rises up in the background to the left, and the Mercedes Benz and Sony Centre monoliths, the latter complete with monster helicopter blade canopy, thirty stories up, can be seen bordering off and securing one’s view of the horizon.

August 25, 2007

Vancouver, Jan. 6, 2008. 6780 words.Versions of these texts appear in Geist 67, Winter 2007.


  • Norbert Ruebsaat

    Norbert Ruebsaat teaches Media and Communication Studies at Columbia Collage and Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C. He publishes regularly in periodicals and newspapers, has produced documentaries for CBC Radio’s Ideas program, and has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in fiction and creative non-fiction.

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