Wednesday, September 22, 2010

what we want from what we lost (Berlin, part two)

My guidebook had this to say about my last museum: "Berlin's Jüdisches Museum, the largest Jewish Museum in Europe, celebrates the achievements of German Jews and their contribution to culture, art, science and other fields... [T]he exhibit also includes one section about the Holocaust, although this is by no means the museum's entire focus. In fact, what makes Berlin's Jewish museum different is that it looks at Jewish history beyond the very narrow context of the 12 years of Nazi rule." I’m sure that’s true. In fact, I wanted to see the special exhibit on Jews in comics, but it cost extra and so I somehow only saw the Holocaust section, and while I guess it shouldn't be surprising that it was an emotional experience it was emotional in a way I wasn't expecting.

What was so profoundly disturbing had somewhat less to do with what I was seeing than with where I was seeing it. The exhibit itself, on the lower floor of a very unassuming building, is surprisingly sparse: a handful of windows set into the walls, each with a small token from somebody's life and a note describing their eventual displacement or murder. There are two longer hallways, the Axis of Exile and the Axis of the Holocaust, and they are intersected by a third hallway, the Axis of Continuity, which leads back to the surface. Many museums attempt to somehow thematically link themselves to their subject via architecture, but this was the only space I’ve ever been in where the intent was to make the visitor uncomfortable, unsettled. The three axes intersect at odd angles, and the floors subtly slant; the walls are perfectly white, the lighting cold, and display windows are set flush with the walls so that the long hallways appear unbroken and clinical. That’s it: three hallways, some exhibit windows, a few artifacts.

The Axis of Exile, which deals with displacement during World War II, leads to the Garden of Silence, a square of twenty-foot-tall stone pillars—the only right angles present anywhere in the exhibit, I was informed—reaching towards the open sky and filled with low-growing trees. Teenagers were playing hide-and-seek between the columns, their echoes surrounding me, and I could see blue overhead; even though I was stumbling over the rocky ground, thrown by the endless columns and the still-slanting floor, the air took away a little bit of the disorientation I was feeling, and I stayed there longer than was necessary, craning my neck to see the clouds. Then I went back inside, to the Axis of the Holocaust.

At that point I was still okay. I walked slowly, reading each plaque and looking at every artifact. I’ve been to a few concentration camps, and what I remember from those is their attempts to overwhelm me: rooms full of shoes, hairbrushes, hair. They try to tell me that I can never understand the number “six million”, that I can’t even come close. The Jüdisches Museum took the opposite approach, sneaking in through tiny details and abstract representational force. The end of the Axis of the Holocaust is an empty room, the Holocaust Tower, with tall grey stone walls and a completely black ceiling. The angles were so completely wrong and the silence was pushing every sound back; the echoes, unlike the almost friendly ones from the teenagers in the Garden of Silence, came at me so loudly that I fled in a panic after less than a minute. There was nothing there, but somehow I was more horrified than it is possible for me to express because there was nothing there. It was shocking, the emptiness of that chamber.

I left not only the room but the exhibit, fumbling for my backpack in the locker, in a rush to exit this nauseating place that felt so quietly and viscerally horrifying and be back in the normal world. In my haste I stumbled out the wrong door and ended up in a garden that seemed benign but which I couldn’t seem to find my way out of, although I could see people in deck chairs, presumably at the museum café, sipping drinks and watching me as I stumbled around. Every gate was locked; every stairway led back to where it originated. At first I laughed, nervously, and acting nonchalant because of the drink sippers—who, frankly, seemed more menacing by the second—but after ten minutes I was walking faster, tugging at doors and trying not to run. After fifteen I was nearly in tears. When I finally found the door I had come out of I burst through, breathless, disoriented and wild-eyed. I ran to the actual exit without caring if I was drawing looks, ran out the doors and to the children’s playground next door. I wrote and sat and ate some bread and cheese and blueberries—blueberries were a great comfort, somehow—watched ants run around on the bench beside me, recovered. Eventually I left, quietly, and went home, went to bed. It was all I could do.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

one of the cities in which i loved you (Berlin, part one)

In Berlin, I mainly did two things: I walked to museums, and then I walked around inside of museums. Travelling alone made me realize how many of my prior travels had been based around themes like "let's find a good place to eat lunch" or "let's sit around and talk to each other about what we see and then maybe have a beer". Without those fallback positions, I discovered pretty quickly that I had no idea what to do with myself, which is when I started hitting the museums.

I went to seven museums in three days, which would have been tiring even if I hadn't been walking probably seven to ten miles of urban sidewalk each day on top of that. I learned about the fishing boats of Pacific Islanders and saw photographs of Depeche Mode, looked at still lives of garden gnomes and wondered at partially destroyed Greek friezes, all beauty and decay and silent stylized struggle. I went to a contemporary art gallery housed in a revamped train station decked out with neon lights, and I went to the Zuckermuseum, which I thought would be a candy museum but instead turned out to literally be about sugar; ironically, it was staffed by the sourest people I met on my entire trip. I saw a lot of stuff, but I would say that I had exactly two truly moving experiences in those three days, moments that were divorced from the intellectual coldness that can accompany a museum visit or seven. These two things have been tumbling around in my head ever since. This is the first one.


Usually when I see famous pieces of artwork I end up feeling a little let down. They look exactly and unexcitingly like their reproductions or there are too many people around--hey, Mona Lisa, I'm looking at you here--or I end up psyching myself out, thinking "Is this neat because it's famous, or is it famous because it's neat? What am I enjoying here, art or fame?" When something bypasses all of that, it's incredibly shocking.

I saw the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum (New Museum) on my first day, almost as an afterthought. I wasn’t excited about it; it wasn’t something I’d ever felt a desire to see, and I assumed it would be underwhelming. Instead, when I rounded the corner into the room where the bust sits alone, the shock I felt took me completely by surprise. The sheer presence, the vitality of this piece of painted limestone was like nothing I’ve ever felt before, like what I imagine people mean when they speak about seeing something supernatural. It wasn’t a reaction to the beauty of the work—although it is beautiful, much more beautiful than you’d guess—but, I think, to the intent of both artist and model. I think that for a piece of art to cause a skeptical visitor to shake 3,300 years after its creation, the force put into it must have been incredible. It felt huge and almost menacing; I stood trembling, riveted, trying to decide whether I felt like crying or running away or throwing up.

I ran away. After maybe three minutes, I turned and fled. After I had recovered--maybe twenty minutes, during which time I saw very little although I passed by many things—I went back. The impact was gone, except for an echo of the awe and fear. I left the museum soon afterwards, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Tiergarten, trying to recover.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

falling down

Just a brief update, although I hope to really write something tonight. It's 11 PM and I'm not even remotely tired, so... We'll see. At any rate, I wrote something for my friend Louise recently. It's about my terrible horrible no good etc. etc. trip to Germany, and the book that put it all in perspective by being incredibly awesome. Read my thing, and then read the book. It's called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, and it's just as fantastically beautiful as its title. Good night, and good luck.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

when it rains

Dear friends,

(Or, you know, strangers who googled "naked girls and me" or whatever.)

It's been more than a month since I wrote anything on here. That really sucks. But can you believe me when I say that lately I don't seem to have more than the bare minimum of words available to me, that anything beyond that seems like an absolutely overwhelming? It's been a long and exhausting month since Berlin. It was a long and exhausting month before Berlin. Exhausting is perhaps my most-often used word lately. And that also sucks.

I remember writing last year about how I'd survived a bicycle accident relatively unscathed, how lucky I felt. Well, lately I feel profoundly unlucky. It's incredibly frustrating, because I feel like I should be on top of the world: I have two loving and amazing partners and countless wonderful friends, I just spent a month in Europe, my ensemble won an international performance prize and return invitation to perform again in two years, and my cats are adorable if irritating. My jobs are generally fulfilling, even. But good god, all the smallest things seem to be against me lately.

First there was the trip to Europe. I think I mentioned this before, but I'll reiterate: lost (and quickly regained, thank god) luggage, lost wallet, missed flight (not my fault! I swear), giant rebooking fee, nearly spending the night on a stoop that I wasn't even sure was mine in Germany. Also, back at home my bike was stolen, because seriously, what the fuck? Travel travel travel--including running out of money in scary ways several times that were complicated by my lost wallet--and then home to an apartment where my kitchen sink and bathtub immediately and irretrievably clogged themselves. A week later, the unclogged bathtub began leaking through the floorboards, flooding the bathroom; when that was fixed, the bathroom sink didn't work for several days. There have been massive scheduling conflicts between my two jobs, attempts to decide what to do about my future housing situation, and one of the cats won't stop shredding the goddamn toilet paper.

I hate to bitch, but goddamn. It hasn't all been bad, of course--I spent a few lovely days in Paris, and there are still amazing people all around me, and there are plenty of small good moments--but all of these things added together, plus others that don't bear mentioning, are wearing me out. I feel like I haven't been this tired in years. And so, the lack of words. Hopefully things will get at least a little better soon and I'll be visiting here more often, but for now I'm going to focus on staying afloat. Wish me luck.

And hey, you know what? My wallet was returned to me by a nice British man who mailed it to my parent's house with a kind note about how sorry he was that I'd had to go through the anxiety of losing it. Nothing was missing. So maybe that's a harbinger of better things to come. I certainly hope so.