Copenhagen April 2020
In an ironic state of affairs, Denmark closes all its borders due to the Corona epidemic, just as I am preparing my work for the exhibition on 100 years of cultural friendship between Germany and Denmark.
My plan is to show a work which I made in 2003 in the city of Bleckede, northern Germany.
During my three-month stay at Kunstlerstätte Bleckede, I discovered that the river outside my window had once separated East and West Germany.
I became curious about how it might have been to cross the river for the first time after the demolition of the border, and how the historical circumstances had affected people’s relationship with the landscape. This landscape, which to me was foreign and exotic, possessed a completely different drama for the villagers. For them, It represented simultaneously the feelings of fear and longing.
Now I am walking around Copenhagen also longing for something. For the first time in my life, I am experiencing the limits of free movement in my own city. Due to asthma and bad bronchitis, I have been isolated for over a month, during Denmark’s shutdown.
I don’t go to shops and the closest I get to people is watching the supermarket delivery person when he or she carries the goods through the half-open door to the hallway.
I feel forgotten by the outside world and play WordFeud with strangers. I take long walks at Vester Cemetery, because there are very few people there. I walk around the tombs wearing the big round sunglasses I bought in Rome in February. I hold on to a melodramatic fantasy that passers-by think I’m a grieving widow.
For many years, wandering has been central to my artistic practice.
I gather inspiration for my work, by strolling around the town and observing the world from the streets. A long time ago I discovered, that if you want to elicit new and random experiences in the city, you have to invent a structure that forces you out of ordinary routines. Improvisation requires an order which can be broken.
Now the obstruction is suddenly dictated by an erratic virus, which causes one to be constantly aware of the movements of other people.
During this time, everybody is a flâneur. We circle each other in the streets, parks and cemeteries of the capital, which suddenly seems far too cramped. I walk with a distance of 2 meters from people in my own neighborhood and look at them, as you might look at people when in a foreign country. Sometimes I end up at the other end of town, because the circumstances and other people’s routes pushes me out there.
We are a large organic mass who constantly and instinctively measure the space between us. Some go around in groups of two or more. There is no distance between them, so I suspect they are related to each other. It is me who has to move away on the pathway and sometimes jump out into the street – there is a hierarchy developing on the pavement.
But I also start to see my own city with new eyes, I discover details and buildings that I have not noticed before. Maybe because the figures have drifted into the horizon, I become more aware of the landscape I loiter around in.
I begin to take an interest in the interior of the burial grounds in the cemetery, and think that they look like little private gardens. Many small and different hedges form boundaries between the graves.
Copenhagen May 2020
Most of the country is still shut down while we celebrate the liberation of Denmark from World War II on May 4, with candles in the windows. It feels wrong to watch old movie clips on the television with happy people running around, hugging each other in the streets.
I myself am totally exhausted from not being able to get close to anyone. I can’t really decide if it is the restriction or lack of structure which bothers me the most – or perhaps it’s that most of all, I do not know when it all ends.
Bleckede April 2019
16 years after my first visit, I take the train from Berlin to see Bleckede again. In the bus from Lüneburg station, I fall into conversation with a lady, who tells me that the artist’s residence has been closed and replaced by a beaver museum and an aquarium for rare fish from the Elbe.
The entire border area and the river has become a protected nature reserve and a popular destination for nature lovers. The many years of forced distance between humans, has formed the basis for a diversity of plants and animals living side by side.
I walk around the village, have lunch at a cafe that I recognise from last time and pass the “Bleckede Zeitung” building with the blue and yellow signs. I walk down to the bird sanctuary, where my studio was 16 years ago, walk into the bird museum and buy a ticket for the new aquarium. There is a stand with leaflets that suggests various scenic excursion routes for cycling tourists.
I locate my own studio apartment inside the building. Just inside my old residence, some big pale fish are swimming around in a huge pool in green lighting. In the neighbouring studio I catch a glimpse of the beaver museum. I continue out through the forest, across the dike and down to the river.
It is out of season, the small ferry inn is closed. So I stand for a while in windy weather on the small quay and wait for the ferry to arrive.
I sail over to the east. I am alone on the ferry and there are still distances between the farms on the other side.
The woman on the bus had told me that people from the west still aren’t moving to the east, but that new people from abroad, who would like to live in the big old houses, have arrived.
I walk around for a couple of hours in the almost deserted landscape. In the yard of one farm, stands a drove of donkeys, a few meters apart from each other, looking out me through the fence
It is still very beautiful here.
On the way back to the ferry, I pass a large sign with the text:
On this location Germany and Europe were divided until November 26, 1986 at. 1.15 pm
Bleckede January-April 2003
I live in the middle of a bird sanctuary on the outskirts of the small town, next to two German artists. They sit in their studios and work with full concentration all day. One is working on a series of non-figurative paintings for an art fair, the other is writing a film screenplay. I am restless and curious about what reality I have landed in.
There is a river close to where we live, but it is frozen. I have to wait a few weeks in order to take the little blue ferry to the other side. While waiting, I walk around the city for days. I visit the cafe, bookstore and library, which is located on the ground floor of a public school.
I look at the houses and the people. Each day, I discover more and more details. I think about what life is like for the people of the village. Most of them have the curtains drawn in the windows all day, so you do not see how they live.
In the middle of the main street is a curtain shop with a box outside, filled with piles of gauzy curtain leftovers on offer. I recognise some of the patterns, from the windows I’ve passed.
I discover a local archive. Here I find an older map of the area. One side of the river is missing. On the west side all the streets are accurately drawn – but on the east side, there is a large blank surface. It is here that it dawns on me, that the river has been a frontier.
Not only had the village been divided in two – only very few people knew exactly what the other side looked like. On the east side was a 4 meter high border fence and armed border guards with dogs. If you jumped into the water from the west side for a swim, and got too close to the opposite shore, you could hear warning shots,
For most of my time in the city, the river has over flowed its banks.
I think a lot about how often it changes width and appearance.
While waiting for the ice to melt on the river, I put an ad in the local newspaper. I am looking for people who were on the first ferry crossings after the border had fallen.
I borrow a bicycle, that I will take with me on the deck over to the east side, as soon as the ferry sails again.
I ring the bells of the big old houses. Most often it is older people who reluctantly open their doors. They listen just long enough to hear my explanation and get a piece of paper from my hand with my fax number. I think it comes at a price to live in an area, where your movements have been controlled for decades.
I begin to hear stories of a previous artist at the residence, a woman who in the 80s was allowed to head east to look around – performer Lili Fischer from Hamburg. The only thing she brought back was dust in various shades. She had smuggled it into some slide frames.
Meanwhile I am slowly beginning to make contact with people who want to talk to me about their experiences.
A woman in her 30s from the east says, that when her mother took her on the first ferry to the foreign world on the other shore, 14 years ago, she was terrified. She felt a fierce and irrational anger against the border guards. Why didn’t they shoot at the boat? Her worldview was broken. The life she had lived so far, was worth nothing.
I meet her a few days later and now she tells me that she has picked the box of work certificates and identity papers from the GDR time up in the attic, and has been looking through it all. She is now aware, that these things had meant a lot to her back then.
A librarian at the village library tells me about the mood she was in when she first sailed out into the landscape in an easterly direction. In the midst of the feeling of unreality, it struck her that she now lived in the middle of Germany – and she is actually the type who prefers to sit in a discreet corner when, for example, she enters a cafe.
Some people describe the episode as a dream they feared waking up from, others were afraid the border would close again, as soon as they reached the other side.
Sir. M, an older man from the west side, has begun visiting me on a weekly basis. We drink coffee in my studio and he shows me some scrapbooks, with things he has collected on the east side, because as a scout driver he had a special permission to go over there.
There are pressed plants on the front pages, but in the back of the book there are cigarette papers, napkins and other souvenirs, that he has secretly smuggled back. He had friends over there and was on the very first ferry that sailed east on December 24th. “But,” he said proudly: “I was the only one dressed up as Santa Claus.”
He tells me about the euphoria and about how it was to hug and hold strangers tight.
He uses the phrase: “The tears flowed on both sides of the river”.
Hamburg October 1995
I arrive with my possessions in Hamburg. I am going to start at Hochschule für Bildende Künste in a few weeks, and I am very excited. A good friend has driven me down here from Copenhagen. We carry my moving boxes into the room I’ve rented, and head out to look at the city. It’s a normal weekday, but almost all of the shops are closed.
We don’t understand why the streets are empty, but I buy some water glasses for my new home in an open souvenir shop on the Reberbahn. As we come out onto the street, we bump into a middle-aged couple. We ask them why everything is closed.
“It’s a day off,” they say, “The reunion day of the two German states.”
“Oh congratulations!” I exclaim.
They don’t answer.
This text is written for the catalogue of the exhibition
“Always Together – Mostly Happy”
Århus/Hamburg August-September 2020