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Report from Germany “For Ermyas M.”

“Being Doomed” is the expression that unites all the faces in Gillian Wearing’s video installation, Drunk (1999). Young and old, alcoholic men and women are seen sitting, standing, looking around, speaking, trying to do simple things, like put on a sweater. They are projected on a huge triptych of screens in an empty room, a pure black-and-white recording of people in front of a stark white background, filmed by Wearing. These men and women live in the neighborhood around her studio in East London–people whose personal destiny gains a deep dramatic power in “being doomed.” The artist shows her subjects with dignity, and with love. She watches, steps back and transforms what she sees into a strict form. Sometimes there is only one person visible and the other two screens show an empty wall. Sometimes the floor seems to be a horizon. Then you see three people, each deeply lost in his or her world–strong images for the final loneliness of every human being.

Wearing’s installation is one of the most impressive works of art at Berlin’s 4th Biennial for Contemporary Art, curated by Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiano Gioni, and Ali Subotnick at Auguststrasse, the gallery-lined street in Berlin’s old middle or mitte. Another is Tino Sehgal’s video, Kiss (2002), which shows, in the middle of the day, a young, tightly entwined couple kissing and hugging in silence, while standing or rolling on the floor of a morbid mirrored ballroom, which is on the second floor of a dancehall, “Klaerchens Ballhaus.” Already well known by 1929, in Alfred Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, the hero, Franz Biberkopf goes there to dance. Some viewers walk by, looking for the next exhibition. Some just turn away, shaking their heads, while many others are fascinated. They take pictures, and watch the couple that seems completely lost in a different world. But every once in a while the two look at the viewer who is in a state between being enchanted by the atmosphere and being a voyeur. It is refreshing and smart that the curators of this exhibition didn’t only concentrate on art that is brand new in this thoughtful exhibition.

However, instead of writing more about this strong show in the heart of Berlin, and all the other art shows in Germany at the moment–the inspiring drawings, etchings, and lithographs of Max Beckmann at Frankfurt’s “Schirn” Kunsthalle, the stunning, small paintings on copper by Frankfurt’s Old Master, Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) at the Staedel Museum (including his last painting “Flight Into Egypt,” which is the first relatively precise description of the Milky Way in a painting), the beautiful presentation around Albrecht Dürer’s copper engraving, “Melancolia,” at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie–it seems more urgent to turn our attention to something else: On Easter Sunday, around 4 a.m., a thirty-seven year old Ethiopian man was severely beaten in Potsdam at a bus stop. Close to Berlin, Potsdam is a small and pleasant town where many people in fashion, TV, and the arts make their home. But, according to a recent article in Berlin’s daily paper Der Tagesspiegel, the town also has a scene of about 150 to 200 people who belong to the extreme right and are considered especially dangerous.

It is not clear whether or not Ermyas M, a scientist at the Leibniz-Institute for Agrarian Technology, Potsdam, will survive the beating. Ermyas M. has lived in Germany for twenty years; he holds a German passport and is the father of two small children. In this brutal act people cursed him as a “Scheiss-Nigger (“Shit-Nigger) and “bloedes Schwein” (“stupid pig”). All of this was recorded on the answering machine of his wife, whom Ermyas M. had called when he was attacked. A taxidriver stopped and saved him. Germany’s Attorney General Kay Nehm has taken over the case.

Spontaneous attacks under the influence of alcohol are no exception in Potsdam Der Tagesspiegel reports. There were attacks against foreigners within the last twelve months, against an African, Indian, and Turkish man. Why? Is it only because they are different and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Is it because there are people who do not think clearly, but need to feel superior others, no matter what? Is it because there are people who need to destroy not only their lives, but also the lives of others? It is shocking that this is possible. There is a feeling of being at a loss, of anger vis a vis this primitive act of violence. What country are we living in? Of course this does not happen in Germany all the time. It is a very rare incident. But this obviously is a part of Germany, a terrible burden from the past that overshadows our present again and again. Though I suspect that if there were no neo-Nazi ideas flying around, people would find something else to rationalize their aggressive actions against foreigners. There are no easy explanations why people (mainly in groups) commit acts like this, but there are definitely no excuses.

The curators of the Berlin Biennial speak in the exhibition guide about our “sense of diffuse insecurity” that is mirrored through the isolation of the people you see in the works of the show, or that their isolation is “just a sign of the ominous atmosphere of fear that pervades our present.” And they conclude, “it is time to retreat and hide inside.” In light of what happened in Potsdam, we must say: No, it is not time to retreat and hide inside, because angst must not win.


Barbara Weidle

Barbara Weidle is an art critic and curator. She lives in Berlin and Bonn.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2006

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