Two Pieces of Evidence

We left San Francisco Thursday at 5:30pm and flew to Copenhagen, arriving early Friday afternoon. The plane flew north of the terminator, so that there was daylight the entire flight, though they turned off the lights and closed the shades so people could try to sleep. Ray prefers a window seat, especially when flying over Greenland, and especially when not one person on the plane was looking out the window for one second the whole ten-hour flight. Why travel at all if you are so incurious?

We had a six-hour layover, and our friend David picked us up at the airport, took us to his house, showed us the cool 3D-printed watch he’s making. I was not aware you could 3D-print bronze. Apparently you fuse fine powder with laser light. As with all art in this century, the actual making of it occurs miles away from the artist. It’s work enough just specifying. And while his day job is writing signal processing software, he has involved himself with mechanical engineering and circuit design for this project. What a guy.

David walked with us through some parks and put us on a train back to the airport. A very nice way to spend a longish layover. We then boarded a short flight to Berlin, and took a taxi to our friend Philipp’s house. His friend Simone let us in, then we went to find some food open late (we found Turkish food a couple miles away) and then immediately went to sleep.

It is unfortunate that we did not get to hang out with Philipp in Berlin, because he is a very fun person. But it was wonderful of him to let us stay at his house and take his car everywhere. He had to go to Munich for a film festival; had we known that in advance perhaps we would have planned differently. He lives southeast of the center of Berlin near the Plänterwald park, a short walk from various S-trains and buses.

Saturday we intended to visit two museums. As we waited for the first to open, we went into an exhibition next door called Material Evidence, where people were showing very large prints of war photography taken in Syria and Ukraine. In some cases they had collected some items pictured in the photos, such as a dummy intended to reveal the locations of snipers, and a hanging bar used in what used to be a restaurant for torture. Having visited Syria in 2004, and Kiev in 2009, it was very sad to see all of the needless death and destruction that has plagued both places recently.

Then we went into Buchstaben, which collects donated display lettering and neon from the sides of buildings. At this point they have a rather large collection, all carefully cataloged and identified. It seems to be arranged in the building mostly by color. Our friend Skot collects this type of thing himself, and our friend Steve is interested in fonts, so it seemed like a good place to check out on their behalf. Next to an exhibit showing how illuminated letters are constructed, there was a video clip from Inglourious Basterds showing the remants of a letter E, part of CINEMA, which was salvaged from the theater explosion at the end; as a movie prop, its construction was much less rigorous than something designed to be used for decades. But it fit the meme of Photo/Artifact from Photo which is of concern to curators on that city block.

We arrived at Sammlung Boros in time for our reservation. It is a contemporary art collection, with lots of young unknown artists and a few well-known ones like Ai Weiwei and Wolfgang Tillmans. It is located in a bomb shelter built in 1942, built aboveground with six-foot-thick walls. After the war it was used for a prison and then a warehouse; after the wall fell it was a fetish sex club and rave venue. Around 1996 it started being used to exhibit art, and has been ever since. It is quite an eccentric building: there are doubly-interleaved stairways on all four sides. The art was all right, but the guide was very enthusiastic. One of our favorite pieces was a popcorn machine by Michael Sailstorfer, which has been running continuously since it was installed.

The concrete that formed the building was pure crap. They have cut away some of the interior walls — the slave labor that built most of it had no conception of a grid of rebar, they just dumped in random hunks of it in twisted masses. It is best to see Sammlung Boros sooner in life than later.

In June, 2012, we met Thomas Rentmeister, a Berlin artist, and attended the opening for a show he had in Wolfsburg later that year. We had dinner at his studio Saturday night with him, his girlfriend Bibo, and Simone, which was very festive. It turns out the popcorn machine artist is his next-door neighbor. The studios were spacious and contained many of his past works, all carefully boxed up. The boxes were very cute and sturdy. He showed us some new stuff he is working on.

Sunday six of our friends from Braunschweig drove 200km and met us in the nearby town of Potsdam; I had hoped to see a college friend there as well but he was out of town too. We spent seven hours at Sanssouci Park walking through castles, and the wooded area they were located on. It was the summer home of Frederick the Great. His wife had a room there too, just to keep up appearances, but lived in Berlin. All the rooms were sumptuously decorated; I liked how the rooms had niches at the far end for a bed, so the rest of each room, larger than the living rooms of most people I know, could be used for entertaining guests. Several rooms were dedicated to writing (with sloped desks, an innovation at the time) and concerts (Frederick played the flute, and pianos had been custom-built for him). A Chinese pavilion had statues of Chinese people made by sculptors who had never seen any. We returned to Berlin just in time to meet Thomas and Bibi for another dinner, this time downtown at “Katz Orange”, the restaurant of a friend of his. It featured meat which had been slow-cooked for 12 hours: we had some amazing lamb shoulder. Everything we had was good, and the hazelnut schnapps at the end was quite nice.

Monday morning was spent in the apartment doing laundry. We left the house around noon and drove two hours to Muskauer Park, another estate with castles which straddles the Polish border. Here the focus was on the grounds; we rented bikes and visited all the points of interest on the map. Many of them were places where Mr. Fürst Pückler, a designer of many parks, had intended to build something that ended up not actually happening. Whatever — it was still nice to putt around on bicycles. Monday evening we ate at Schneeweiss, a German restaurant Philipp recommended, which combined German standbys such as goulash and dumplings with a fennel-orange soup with avocado tempura.

Tuesday we started at Five Elephant Coffee, which easily could have been in SF. We visited the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, an impressive monument to the Soviet soldiers who died in Berlin in the war, many of whom are buried there. Then we went to Martin-Gropius-Bau, an exhibition space showing not only the David Bowie exhibit we saw last year in Amsterdam, but also “Evidence” by Ai Weiwei, 18 rooms containing much of his recent work. The entire large floor of the space was filled with 6000 stools dating back to the Ming dynasty, collected from families all over China. As we walked around in a replica of the cell in which he was imprisoned in 2010, we noticed two video cameras. Sure enough, a monitor nearby was displaying the feeds from the cameras. He continued his habit of making things out of unusual materials: handcuffs in jade, rebar in marble, and river crabs in porcelain. (The Chinese word for river crab, “he xie”, is pronounced like the word for harmonization, a euphemism for violent suppression of dissent.) We had an early dinner at Rutz Weinbar, which paired various modern takes on German food with various German wines, all delicious. Especially the German cheese plate.

Tomorrow we fly to Romania for the anchor event of the trip, our friend’s wedding.