by Justin Kingsley
The following stories and the accompanying images tell the story of my first visit to Berlin. It was September 2010, there were celebrations and anniversaries related to the Germany’s well-known history throughout the city, but I went looking for something else. I needed to get away from guidebooks and tourist sites, and make my own interpretive microscopic history of the place.
And so I spent a week alone, based out of a tiny room at the Artist Hotel on the Mitte River, with a mission to walk the city and talk with locals. I wanted to know their Berlin, the one they wish all visitors could see, should understand.
I selected the best discussions and incorporated them into three stories, below. I added a fourth chat in conclusion, a chat I had with a reputed and respected gallery owner in Montreal who wanted to see the work, but doesn’t see any real value in it.
The bird of paradise
You don’t need to remember the avenue or the treed square across the street. You ride the train to Charlottenburg station, leave it, walk down the stairs go through the tunnel under the tracks turn right at the second corner, and it’s not far. That’s how I remember it anyway.
Then look for the bird. Maybe it’s not a bird of paradise. Maybe it’s a blue parrot or a macaw, or a lorikeet, or a Berlin toucan. The only time you can’t see the bird is when you’re standing underneath it, but by that time its glow dissipates and the muted buzz of the cafe draws you in.
The place never closes so if you’re ever in Charlottenburg and in need of drink, well, the place never closes. It must have a name but you don’t need to know or remember it, you just need to look for the neon bird, over the door.
So I walked in, late one night.
Every single one of the heads in there didn’t turn. The feeling of people staring at a newcomer didn’t exist, in there. Yet the sound of stories and laughter and passion and pretension and joy or whatever else occurs when multiplied voices saturate a room with conversations that bounce off the ceiling, made room for me. I could hear every word and, despite not speaking a flicker of German, understand all of it. Like it was my buffet of strangers’ chatter. I was wrapped me in a warm glow of humanity and even so, I walked up the stairs because all of the chairs and tables on the ground floor were occupied.
In the organized scatter there were candles whose flames were dancing in oil-paper bags that sat on the tables. In that fire there were stories. I sat down and Mikel came to me, waiting for me to speak as I looked up toward him while it was two in the morning. His face was light brown under curly black hair and warm, focused eyes.
“What are you reading?”
I told him.
“What would you like?”
“What are you doing in Berlin?”
“May I sit down?”
I leaned toward a free chair.
“All over Berlin there are yards and I love to walk into them. I love to discover them. I was not born here but I have lived here and now I go to school here and the place I go to feel my solitude is yards.”
I asked him another question.
“That’s easy. Every time you see an entrance from a sidewalk and the way it is open, you go. The real Berlin is there. Besides, anyone who looks like you or me or another foreigner just lies about not understanding where he is, and then finds another yard.”
I didn’t understand all his broken words as they ran into phrases and sentences, but his meaning was clear and I liked that.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who sound scripted no matter what the improvisation, and those who sing refrains never the same way twice.
It had been clear from the moment of checking in that greetings, at The Artist Hotel, were pre-written, responses prescribed, and tone pre-ordained. Manufactured warmth. One discovers this by arriving and waiting second, third or fourth in line at check-in.
Luckily, there was Hannah. From the first, when she recited the good-host commandments, there was an element of inventiveness, of re-arrangement, of spontaneity in her manner. It was more than just words; it was singsong, a tune in an unfamiliar tone. The kind of music that gets prettier with time without ever crossing into the personal bounds of abundant familiarity.
A few notes to whistle along the Mitte, when the violin soloist quiets.
Hannah and I shared three part-time conversations over the course of one week. The first was a warm-up, a way to get into the pit, so to speak, and rehearse Hannah’s rhythm. The second chat was meant to find answers to my questions, to play in time. And the third would be pure improvisation.
It was late in the afternoon after our first rehearsal, and suddenly Hannah and I were surrounded by an abandoned lobby. I stood there a while, pretending to make notes, looking into the street, and sometimes just waiting for silence so as to hear the world. I learned that the distinctiveness of our world’s quiet is determined not by borders but by environment. That calm changes shapes and that silence does not bear the same reflection when it is reflected in a storefront rather than a forest or a mountainside. That when I follow my shadow it moves across a city, carried by autos and trucks and vans, whereas in nature it will sink into a disturbed pond, alone, and dissipate.
I discovered that Hannah’s Berlin is superimposed, stratified by people and nature. That history just shows origins, and that the roots keep growing. That metal and bark co-exist. That weakness and strength depend on each other. That melody comes after the quiet. That solitude, when spied upon, creates solidarity.
Finally I found, by retracing each step of Hannah’s recital, that superimposition delivers a sense of community. That originality, in this place, seldom exists alone because it can and always will be constructed upon. And I understood that creation is a constant act; it gets better the more people walk upon it. That just by stopping a few moments to admire or see or be seen, that a conscious gesture generates change.
Eventually Hannah and I had our third chat, and she took me to new depths within herself.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” she asked.
And I learned that I, too, can keep a secret.
East Side Willy
This one came to me. Seeking me out, as if he knew there were questions to be answered. Like he had looked into my mind and read that my thoughts, my opinions, had been formed only by books, film and the slant of history. That he had something to say about them. Affecting change, one person at a time.
She followed close behind but reluctantly, drawn at the elbow, wondering why her man had approached a complete stranger. It was out of his character, that’s for certain. But it didn’t stop Willy, that was his name, yes, from approaching me.
“Hello,” Willy said in accented English. “You’re not from here.”
“No, I’m not.”
We traded pleasantries, and he found it odd that I’d be eating in a Southern German joint while visiting Berlin.
“It’s not the local specialty,” he told me. “Why did you choose it?”
“Well, why are you here?”
“The food is very good.”
“Well, there you go.”
And then we idly chatted about ham, potatoes and the right kind of beer to drink with a heavy seasonal meal. I sensed—we both did, in fact—that before long I would soon be losing him to the distracted, sluggish tug that was gone from his elbow down and moved to a denim loop at his hip.
“So what do you want to know,” he asked.
And so I told him.
He paused, immobile. Right then I saw in his gaze a different person. And then he paused again. Willy’s head turned away from me and he looked up and above and behind the bar and found the answer over the mirror, a distant recollect in a white patch of shorn plaster.
First he nodded, then he sighed.
He shifted his stool and turned to face me, knees, elbows, shoulders and all.
He said I needed to go to the East side of Berlin, and there I’d find the country he wished all could know. That in the shadowed flank of this great place I’d find shafts of light to orient my truth. That there, I could walk along the stitched reality of a storied, troubled place. That it wasn’t too late to find the ultimate edge dividing old and new, that the leftover brick foundations of the Wall were, in so many ways, meaningless. That memory, and freedom, make leaps where humans can’t.
“I remember colour,” Willy went on. “One day, there was all this colour. I’d come from a world of grey. Everything was bland, and grey. And one day the rumours came true and they opened up a whole in the wall. I didn’t walk across right away. I waited, and stared at the hole for a while. And then I stepped across and went for a walk. And I realized that everybody knew where I came from. I had no colour. I was grey. It wasn’t shame, no, but it was something close to it. I can still feel it. All this colour, splashed across the world.”
The last chat with Art Seller
“Your subject is too big,” Mr. Seller told me. “It is too vast and because of it you must narrow it down and focus it on an element that is your own.”
“But the point is to present a point of view of just a few individuals and make their stories matter.”
“They do not matter.”
“Let me explain something to you: these are very pretty pictures but they must altogether convey something specific, narrow and concentrate.”
“But my wish is to let others interpret for themselves, and discover their own stories from each image so that they feel something.”
“If you do that, you commit an act of perjury because they cannot know the truth of each image. They must discover your truth for each image.”
“Who cares about my truth? It’s their truth that matters, whether it’s real or not.”
“That is not true art my friend, I’m so sorry. It is very pretty but it is not real. It belongs in your home, on your own walls maybe. That’s it.”
“Thank you, Art, for sharing your thoughts with me.”
Justin Kingsley is the head of public relations and storytelling at Sid Lee and an award-winning photographer. In 2009 Marketing Magazine named him one of Canada’s 25 most creative people. He is a member of Contrast Photo Agency and continues to seek the elusive left-footed half volley. www.contrast-photo.com