Excerpt: Little dialectic of a city wanderer
Posted by Nickel van Duijvenboden
The following lines were written in response to a Dutch artist’s request to contribute an essay to his forthcoming book of drawings. Having just arrived in Berlin, I could only write my text from my current surroundings and preoccupations. It combines several themes that together form the starting point of my residency at ABA: psychogeography (exploring a local condition through walking), written correspondences and music. For me, these fields are closely associated, and the possible ways in which they dovetail determines the current focus of my practice. If I were to capture this association in a few words, they are all about a personal experience of time and fluent spontaneity. NVD
Rote Insel, Berlin, September 2017
Some time ago you wondered what it must be like if I “emptied my head”. Unsurprisingly, I still owe you an answer. It’s a fair question, its implied challenge no less deserved. As one who summons an inner world in drawings, you probably know better than I that the head doesn’t allow emptying; it’s as pointless as waiting for the ability to perceive your surroundings without any distortions or private thoughts – without histories and unconscious layers enmeshing what is present.
There are multiple versions of the present, which address multiple layers of consciousness. I appreciated that afresh as I took a stroll through the neighbourhood just now, as a means of exploration and also to avoid the bare interior of my new writing room. Every exploration, even a mental one, presupposes a topography. The situationist drifters had an excellent term for it: ‘psychogeography’. Walter Benjamin, remembering the streets, bridges and parks of his childhood in his Berlin Chronicle (1932), notes that ‘for a long time […] I have toyed with the idea of dividing up the spaces of life – bios – cartographically.’ At first, he imagined the kind of map in which buildings are coloured in; later, he would be ‘more inclined to look to an ordnance map, should any exist of city interiors. But probably none do, since we misconceive theaters of war.’
In any case, no matter how curious and fresh my observations are, I can’t separate the breadth and tranquility of this ‘Red Island’ – so named because of a long past socialist uprising, and because it’s wedged between the many railway lines that once extended south from the Gleisdreieck, its rusty-red tracks still protruding from the undergrowth at odd places – from the thoughts I’ve hauled here with me.
I know you love to wander through this city, and that it has inspired some of your drawings. Several of them, you told me, even started out as a sketch in the street. This surprises me on the one hand, because there’s no obvious correspondence between the feverishly internal visual language in your work and the city drift as both a phenomenon and a phenomenology. On the other hand, for reasons mentioned above, walking gives rise to a certain dialectic, a thought-current running in the opposite direction, seemingly averting itself from what is ready-at-hand, turning it inside out.
The dialectic demands that I suspend my blissful sense of safety and anonymity in favour of more haunted and uncanny thoughts. Here, for example, I sense a continuous proximity of times and worlds that are far away from my own, a depth and weight that have something to do with those overgrown and half-sunken railroad tracks, and which press like a heavy load-bearing body (Speer’s Schwerbelastungskörper is just around the corner) on the foothold of the present as if from below.
It seems obvious to locate this ever-present heaviness in a past that has been extensively archived and described, and has therefore acquired the grip of a system of roots. I know that somewhere deep down I relate to those roots, and that the possession of this grip is something familiar. The phenomenon of ‘guilty landscape’ perhaps epitomises this. We look at a tree and wonder what it may have witnessed; we peel it off, as it were, layer by layer, until we arrive at the young shoot. I suppose this perspective, which ascribes a collective meaning to objects and landscapes, is culturally determined. Yet no matter how heavy minded the gaze, this way of looking paradoxically harbours a certain innocence, in that one’s perception is always governed by the knowledge and freedom of the present time and the stability that makes such reflections possible, making the facts appear absurd, grotesque.
‘There where that slide is,’ I whisper in my little boy’s ear as we cycle through the city, ‘where those laughing people are playing table tennis, there used to be a wall.’ He absorbs it silently. He’s five. Clearly, he’s not ready for such layered ways of seeing – and why would he need to perceive things that aren’t there? Some part of it sinks in, however. At home, he constructs a wall from Lego; whoever clambers across pays with his life.
You never fail to ask me about my son. Your words betray an preoccupation with his very first memories, with the moments he’s forced to relate to a world that moves beyond the protection that I, as his father, am able to provide. I always have the impression that, in doing so, you’re saying something about yourself. It’s a particular obsession of yours which, I’ve come to understand, comes to light in your drawings. These hark back to the febrile intensity of childhood visions: images that recur time and again, with which one arouses or torments oneself, the symbolism of which becomes graspable only much later, or maybe never.
Perhaps you would say: less and less.
This past spring, before moving here, my son and I sauntered across a museum’s idyllic courtyard when a man came towards us on bare feet that were blackened from wandering. We were about to sit down in the sun to eat. The man emitted some hoarse sounds and rubbed his stomach with a miserable expression. I offered him a bulky double sandwich from our lunch box. That’s when he formed an ‘O’ with his lips, pointing savagely at where his teeth should have been. I awkwardly made it clear that I had nothing else to give, at which point he shook a clenched fist in my face. He briskly turned around and left the courtyard.
After a moment’s silence, my son asked me why the man had no teeth, and I realised this moment would stay lodged in his mind. It led to our first conversation on war and fleeing, though I could only guess what had happened to that man – a lack of answers further amplified by the wordlessness of the exchange.
It is an unmistakable privilege to be an artist living abroad. It also has an aspect of a child’s guilelessness and shelter. The city seems to open itself. It is no coincidence that, since my arrival, I’ve been handed sets of keys from every direction. Keys to gates, fences, a house, a studio, a gallery, a kindergarten, a freight elevator (‘160 tons per square meter’ cannot be right, can it?) – even to a garden in the outskirts. Like a postman, I need to ponder which sets to put in my pockets when I leave home. In a sense, art itself is a key to the city.
This makes it all the more disquieting to come face to face with the wretched who came here to seek asylum, and whose experiences have scarcely been recorded. I doubt if their diaspora will be written about and traced back with a similar meticulousness as the collective traumas of the Occident. It may be argued that the life stories of modern refugees, precisely because they’re so raw, so particular, and so unprocessed, weigh down on this landscape of memories just as heavily. What have they seen? What inner vocabulary of symbols do they carry with them? And what do they see when they look at me?
 Walter Benjamin, The “Berlin Chronicle” Notices (translated by Carl Skoggard), New York, 2015: Publication Studio, p. 5
 The Heavy Load-Bearing Body is a concrete cylinder of 12.650 metric tons, built under the command of Nazi architect Albert Speer in order to find out whether the sandy Berlin soil would be able to support the colossal structures he had envisioned for Hitler’s megalomanic ‘Welthauptstadt Germania’.