Saturday, April 28, 2007

Permanent Adolescence

Are you sick of trying to explain to your friends who don't live in Berlin what it means when you say the roughly 800-year-old city has an unfinished quality, an appealing roughness around the edges? Me neither. I love to talk about it. But in case you need a visual aid, just direct them to this photo of the enormous desert/vacant lot in front of the shiny, brand-new Hauptbahnhof, symbol of the capital's rise to European prominence. Well, maybe one day.


Friday, April 27, 2007

The Politics and Palatability of “Edible Ivory”

Unlike New York, which is periodically engulfed in mania for whimsically idiotic fashion—high heels with socks, couture track pants—Berlin is sensible about its collective frenzies, focusing on what really matters. Like asparagus. Anyone in the city now will notice that grocery stores, underground stands in the metro, and even café chalkboards from the corner Kneipe to upper-crust establishments are proudly boasting the fruits (er, veggies) of Spargelsaison, which officially began a couple weeks ago. Asparagus cream soup, asparagus-accompanied schnitzel, asparagus-topped linguini—the lists sound a bit like Bubba’s famous “shrimp” monolog in Forrest Gump. And this isn’t the enforced fixation of scarcity, a-lá the potato famine, but rather self-selected obsession. Germans love, love, love asparagus.

As Deutsche Welle reported recently, the national affection for “white gold” adds up to the world’s highest annual consumption, at about three pounds per person, as well as Europe’s highest production, at about 82,000 tons. This massive harvest is fueled by the domestic belief that “Made in Germany” means a tastier plant, a preference not present with respect to other crops like cauliflower. That is, asparagus is not merely a foodstuff but rather a point of national pride, occasioning statues in town squares and annual festivals like those in Effeld or Zerbst, the latter proudly boasting the “Asparagus-Peeling World Championship.”

Yet the treasured nutriment is not one hundred percent “German-made”—not if you want to credit the contribution of Poles and other Eastern Europeans who stream into their richer Western neighbor each spring. And not everyone is going mad from asparagus-induced ecstasy this year: Der Tagesspiegel reports that farm owners are dissatisfied with labor laws passed last year that require up to one fifth of the workers to be German. They claim that while Poles are willing to bend over sandy fields and dig out the stalks, German laborers either refuse the back-breaking labor or sign up but then play hooky when harvest time comes. This chronic absenteeism angers owners who say that the pay of 500-700 Euros a month is more than enough for non-native laborers, while unemployed German recipients of state welfare feel entitled to turn their noses up. And while the ethnic quota was only put into practice last year, some growers also claim that it has already scared away potential Polish workers who didn’t want to risk getting sent home.

One thing is certain, however: even if Germans would rather eat their food than harvest it, and Poles defect in droves to greener pastures, the country’s asparagus adoration isn’t going anywhere. And although I understand the convenience of having a completely innocuous symbol around which to rally in a place where nationalism was neutered post-WWII and is still not quite acceptable (although flags have made a comeback since last summer’s World Cup), I have to ask myself what, really, is the appeal.

If, like me, you grew up in the United States, you may have recoiled instinctively at the drained, ghostly pale rods, even more so at the hint of freakishly ultraviolet purple that some stalks bear. The preference for chlorophyll-free food strikes me and others who grew up with verdant veggies as frankly strange. One American asparagus-loving essayist on Salon paused her rhapsody with the following parenthetical:

“(What is white asparagus? It is grown in secret caves, as mushrooms are. It is a long, spooky fungus. It is naked and phallic. White vegetables do not make me want to live.)”

Actually, white asparagus isn’t grown in caves but rather underground, but I sympathize with the author’s disgust, as does the following American cooking website:

“White asparagus, as you know, is grown covered in mounds of sandy soil so that it never sees the light of day until the moment it is unmercifully hewn down.”

Wow. Those mean, mean German farmers. (Although, for the record, something cannot be “hewn down” if it never broke ground; it would be more accurate to say “cruelly plucked from the soil’s breast.”)

The white variety even costs more than the green variety, due to the labor-intensive cultivation. Despite the visual and pocketbook drawbacks, I was initially filled with curiosity about the collective asparagus euphoria. I decided to try some, only to discover that it was…okay. It wasn’t the revelation I’d been hoping for, merely a somewhat less full-bodied version of the green type I’d grown up eating. Full disclosure: it was also cooked by an American. The next step would be to try some authentically German-prepared (and Polish-harvested) Spargel. Feel free to post recommendations here about what dishes, local restaurants, recipes, etc. bring the earth’s bounty to its fullest glory.

Meanwhile, Michael Pollan wrote yet another scathing indictment of American food culture for the New York Times Magazine last week, bemoaning the Farm Bill’s heavy subsidies to corn growers and lack of support to vegetable farmers. Compared to the embarrassingly expensive carrots and cheap soda pop Pollan discusses, all this asparagus hubbub looks pretty good. The next question is, of course, whether the mania will arrive stateside any time soon. Transplanted German Hans Röckenwagner tried to serve the washed-out stalks in up to 75% of the dishes in his eponymous Los Angeles restaurant, which he later shuttered to reopen a “hipper” bistro, then later still, a bakery. One possible conclusion: the Amis didn’t bite. Our tastes remain green, but perhaps it’s better that way--after all, we have our own issues to nationally fixate on, like the comeback of leggings, or Britney's time in rehab.

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Dr. Range-Rover
(or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Ambassador)


He doesn’t speak German, some grumbled. He’s a businessman by trade, not a diplomat, others pointed out. And perhaps the most strident complaint: he’s friends with President Bush. In fact, he’s a major campaign fundraiser for his buddy. And anyone in Berlin can tell you this is bound to raise eyebrows of suspicion.

But William Robert Timken, Jr. has also earned some praise since assuming the post of American Ambassador to Germany in fall 2005, largely for his friendliness and open attitude, reports The Atlantic Review. His charm was certainly turned on for a talk he gave at the Embassy last Thursday morning when he introduced himself by saying, “Look, I wore my pin-stripe suit for you folks today,” making light of his official status as commander of America’s largest foreign mission outside of Iraq. He maintained his "aw-shucks" informal tone throughout the talk but was just as eager to spotlight his close relationship with the President and the enormity of his role as “a sort of President of the US-in-Germany.”

Timken was speaking as a favor to a group of visiting Stanford University, having received a B.A. there in 1960, as did fellow presenters and embassy staff John Bauman, Minister-Councilor for Political Affairs and Ryan Wirtz, Economic Policy and Development Officer (as did yours truly, hence my invitation to the talk.) Also present was William Czajkowski, Commercial Counselor for the US Commercial Service in Germany, who with his colleagues discussed key economic and social issues like unemployment and EU membership. Timken was quick to jump in with a comment or a quip, keeping the tone both classically capitalist—characterizing unemployed state aid recipients as “government check slaves”—and comically light—“My wife said, ‘Ok, sure, I’ll call him ‘Your Excellency’—but he’ll have to pay for it!”

Despite his charismatically commanding presence (see New York’s recent article about how “boss” personalities seduce) and affable manner, I will admit that I was initially uncomfortable with the figure Timken cuts. His emphasis on his close relationship with the President betrays the unapologetic cronyism that has landed the administration in hot water more than once. I was actually quite surprised to learn that he is from Ohio, not Texas. And Timken’s straight-talkin’ speech was peppered with what can only be called, well, Bushisms.

He referred repeatedly to the “ex-East German countries” rather than using the correct term of “states,” a glaring and embarrassing mistake, since “countries” unambiguously means “sovereign nations.” There are also, according to the ambassador, “Still a lot of Stasis walking the streets.” He presumably meant ex-employees of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, whose colloquial abbreviation into "Stasi" neither refers to people nor is used in the plural. He also emphasized that “people can only now see their Stasi files,” which is correct, technically, although it has been correct since 1990 as well. These seemingly little mistakes nonetheless jump out of his speech, marking it as a bit amateurish and cavalier.

Finally, some view Timken’s refusal to acknowledge anti-American sentiment with skepticism. To his claim that he hasn’t truly encountered any, they suggest he simply doesn’t know enough German to understand the media’s bombastic headlining.

Yet Timken has a right to brag. No one would envy the post he took over, a seat soured by predecessor Dan Coats’ outspoken criticism of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s anti-invasion stance regarding Iraq. At a time when many lamented the “special relationship” between the two nations was irrecoverably eroded, Timken arrived in Berlin ready to make nice. Although it is unclear how much credit he alone can take for the turn-around, especially since a new coalition government headed by Angela Merkel has decided to befriend rather than rail against the Bush administration, German-American relations have improved since his appointment.

As well, Timken’s pragmatic approach to projecting a positive image of America in Germany seems to be the right one. Not only does he try to keep people smiling while speaking their language (although not literally), the classic tasks of a diplomat, he also has rightly targeted the German Muslim population as prime candidates for a bit of international healing. He has met with Arab youths in Berlin’s Wedding district to discuss their needs and encourage them to start their own businesses, at a sitting where Der Tagesspiegel reports his wife, Sue Timken, as having suggested the teens spin off their graffiti skills into marketable products. The same article also points out that the press is usually not invited to such meetings; in other words, they are not publicity stunts but the rather Ambassador’s sincere efforts to improve relations.

Timken also invited conservative Muslim cleric Abdul Basit Tariq to speak at Berlin’s recent sixth-year anniversary ceremonies for September 11th, a calculated gesture of reconciliation that strikes a strong note when compared to the native German protests against the mosque that Tariq’s supporters are building. In short, despite his posturing vis-à-vis his good pal Dubya, this man is here to get good work done.

I forgive him for his verbal slip-ups and lack of German too—that’s what aides are for, to make sure everything is translated and understandable. Sure, the Ambassador may look a little uninformed sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to hinder his understanding of where priorities lie or how to make friends. Besides, his advisors are doubtless being paid to be kept well-informed, while Timken is paid to run the show smoothly. As the New Philadelphia Times Reporter quotes him saying, “[I am] careful to utilize the resources of the embassy, meaning the talents of the people, when it comes to the nuts and bolts” of policy. In other words, my employees iron out the kinks while I manage the office.

I don’t even mind the allegation that his assignment was a “thank you” for Timken’s massive campaign fundraising; it’s water under the bridge if he is doing a good job. And the accusation that he got rich in the past off of trade tariffs that hurt his German competitors is frankly irrelevant. Moreover, I believe Timken when he claims that his business background of meeting the needs of diverse clients from around the world is ample preparation for a diplomat’s job. We have a failed businessman in the Oval Office now, and as far as I can see, he is running the United States into the ground in a similar manner. However, he seems to have chosen well for our nation’s representation in Germany.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Rainbows in Berlin

Berlin’s proposed update to inner city driving laws has some drivers of the roughly 80,000 automobiles old enough to spew excessive pollutants into the atmosphere feeling unfairly targeted (Post Feb. 18). Some drivers are also delightfully creative, as this picture of a tie-dye VW Bug shows. The sign in the window reads, “Against the 2008 Inner-City Driving Ban.”

Tidings from Vienna (Post Apr. 11) continue: Die Presse reports that Austrian architect Adolf Krischanitz, who designed a temporary modern art exhibition hall for the capital in 1992, is looking to do the same in Berlin. Berlin’s Palast der Republik is on schedule to be fully demolished by 2008, leaving two years before the Communist-era structure’s replacement is continued with inaugural construction of the Stadtschloss in 2010. Many have proposed opening a grand hall for contemporary art in this time, an idea enthusiastically endorsed here in New Yorker in Berlin in November.

Krischanitz’s design presents a wooden box similar to his Viennese steel “crate” for this central complex. This structure would also be clad with an outer skin of plastic open to design by featured artists. Here’s hoping that the rainbow-bar-code imagined in this graphic one day pops up next to the Berliner Dom’s archetypical Baroque grandeur. Unfortunately, neither the article nor Krischanitz’s homepage give further details about the proposed design, but stayed tuned on the blog for more updates.



Meanwhile, the Berlin Senate and federal officials are trying to get discussions about the financing of the Stadtschloss wrapped up by summer, Der Tagesspiegel reported yesterday. The latest plan, which forgoes the planned underground parking lot and four-star hotel, clocks in at a clean 480 million. Additionally, the city may bear the brunt of the cost of proposed cultural additions to the site, including the transplant of ethnographic collections from current museums in the Western neighborhood Dahlem, as well as the construction of a major central library.

Berlin art is also appearing in the world of letters: the catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s” (Post Jan. 16) is reviewed by Francine Prose in this month’s Harper’s. Prose concludes that “only a very few of the paintings in Glitter and Doom move us as great paintings do,” yet finds the scathing Verist style of Dix, Schad, et. al grippingly accurate in its portrayal of reality’s ugly side. Some of the paintings are now on display at Berlinische Galerie’s very own “Masterpieces from the Twenties,” including Dix’s heartbreaking “The Poet Iwan von Lücken” (1926).

Finally, New York Times art critic Holland Cotter wrote about the Jewish Museum’s “Dateline Israel” exhibit this week, reviewed March 27th on this blog as part of a commentary on cliché. Cotter declines to say the dreaded C-word but does lament that Wim Wenders’ Mount of Olives images, which I described as bringing “nothing fresh to the table,” present “an easy idea, a generic consumerist dig.” Cotter and I agree that the show has plenty of interesting images but misses the chance to provoke: I found the show to be largely lacking in insight, batting around ideas that have been “point[s] of concern for native artists for the last fifteen years,” and Cotter criticizes the curators for “stick[ing] to package-tour generalities.” While I conclude that the usual stuff nonetheless provides an interesting framework for a few outstanding pieces, Cotter insists that tougher questions should be posed by the pieces on display. He thereby exposes the real damage of clichés: opportunity cost. When you’re busy repeating, you can’t interrogate at the same time.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I The City’s New Self Esteem

“Whoever looks to the future, heads to Berlin!” trumpeted Der Tagesspiegel yesterday, after a temperature reading of the Internet showed that Berlin was considered Europe’s “place to be.” The article went on to excitedly point out that after years of economic stagnation, bankruptcy, and population shrinkage, things were finally looking up. This hopefulness sounded almost like the hype of the early 1990s, when everyone expected Berlin to become the financial, cultural, and geographic capital of post-Cold War Europe. (It didn’t.) Yet the optimism was backed up by the assertion that in the last fiscal quarter of 2006, more jobs were created in Berlin than anywhere else in Germany.

Fair enough. But read on and discover that Berlin also has the second-slowest growing economy in Germany, i.e. that its dismal fiscal situation remains, well, dismal. It clocks in at 1.9%, barely missing the booby prize, which the small Western German state of Saarland wins with 1.6%. This figure complicates the idea of Berlin as the capital of job creation and innovation—if so many jobs are being created, why isn’t the economy growing? Perhaps because more jobs are also being lost, or because people are still leaving for cities with greater native industry. The most optimistic assumption is that growth figures haven’t caught up with job creation yet. However, the market growth that the piece touts seems more like fiction than fact.

What this article is really celebrating is the change in Zeitgeist, that is, Berlin’s slow transformation into the Next Trendy Metropolis. After that one measley scientific figure about job creation, author Ralf Schönball gives up the pretense of a financial thesis and shows he is thrilled, just thrilled, that people around the world are really starting to like Berlin, citing growing numbers of tourists as well as the city’s extreme image boost after the summer 2006 World Cup. He even proudly mentions that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—those child-adopting beacons of humanism! Those attractive ambassadors of taste!—recently bought an apartment here.

Without citing statistics, I must say that Schönball appears to be right, from my expatriate—and hence, member of the club of new admirers—perspective. Hipsters from New York are swarming around in great numbers, the art scene here is exploding (see Post April 3) and I truly don’t remember seeing quite as many tourists two years ago; even the Berlinale film festival (see above photo) seemed more chaotic than previous. And he is right in celebrating: Germany is still heavily associated with its dark past in the eyes of many foreign observers, and it is high time people began to adore its darling, scruffy, good-timing capital city. Schönball's piece is really just a platform for Der Tagesspiegel's giddy announcement of an upcoming series dedicated to describing “fourteen successful New-Berliners.” And why not? Everyone deserves the chance to cry out, eyes misty and arms outreached, “You like me! You really like me!”

II Unbearable News

As long as it doesn't try to maintain the pretense of real findings, and simply allows itself to a fabulous, self-admiring, sociological-human-interest project of Berlin worship, Der Tagesspiegel's series promises to be great fun. Less fun is some of the recent news from Berlin: Tilo, one of the city's mascot brown bears who are kept in a special, non-zoo-related enclosure, succumbed to lymph node cancer. This just after Yan Yan, a Zoo panda bear, died of intestinal congestion at the end of March. Of course, all eyes remain on Knut, (See Posts Mar. 30, Mar. 28), the little polar bear who no one expected to survive; the Zoo recently clocked 90,000 visitors since his March 23rd public debut and counting.


Bears have a way of capturing public fascination in Germany; the shooting of a brown bear who wandered into Bavaria from Austria caused outrage in the fall. His body had to be hidden from angry environmental groups and is currently being kept at an undisclosed location. The creature, dubbed Bruno, had captured the public imagination partially because wild bears are extinct here, and perhaps this gets at the root of the collective fixation--a whopping guilt complex, a hope that current adoration can make up for foolhardy hunting of the past. Or perhaps the bear fascination is much older than modernity: witness the Albert I, who lived in what is now Northern Germany from about 1100 to 1170. The warrior who defeated the Slavs to conquer the area of Brandenburg in which Berlin lies was dubbed "Albert the Bear." And of course, being a city whose official seal bears (pun intended) a rather chicly stylized bear, Berlin is the best setting for ursine fixation. Here's betting Der Tagesspiegel cannot resist the temptation to list Knut as one of their "fourteen successful new-Berliners."

Knut photo courtesy Franka Bruns, AP. Bruns' last name may be a variation on Bruin or Bruun, old English/Dutch words used to mean "baby brown bear." (And now adopted by sports teams a-la the UCLA Bruins.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007



A Tale of Two Cities

The number of Germans living in Vienna has risen 78% since 2001, reported Die Presse recently. They are drawn by a quality of life that tied for international third best in Mercer Consulting’s latest survey, a standing which owes much to Vienna’s former role as capital of the Holy Roman Empire. After five centuries at the center of Western wealth, the city has an inordinately large number of palaces, well-kept gardens, and clean, beautiful streets. Meanwhile, that other German-speaking national capital, Berlin, is known for its scruffy patchwork appeal, a reconstructed flavor that speaks of bombed-out buildings, the Berlin Wall, and the misery of the last century. It is notoriously rough around the edges and lacking in Old World charm. As a resident of the latter city, I wanted to find out for myself what the Habsburg enclave to the south had to offer, and headed down for Easter weekend.

The necessary immersion in the great traditions of music, royalty, and decadent pastries began with an evening at the Konzerthaus. This is the venue where the Wiener Mozart Orchester performs a “greatest hits” rendition of the genius’ ouvre, including selections from A Little Night Music, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute among others. While purists might scoff at the alternation between beloved movements and roof-raising arias, these are also the context-snobs who made fun of you for buying the Beatles’ One compilation, so pay no mind and enjoy the music. Besides, this seemingly modern “Classics-Lite” approach is actually a tradition founded by similar “Musical Academies” at the end of the eighteenth century. The only challenge was staying alert during the rather drowsy stretch from the Requiem, which the composer worked on as he slowly succumbed to a mysterious illness.

To hear more about conspiracy theories surrounding this illness, as well as about Mozart’s inveterate extravagance in clothing and illegal gambling, the Mozarthaus near the Stephansdom cathedral is the place to go. Its barren rooms lack authentic objects but the curators have filled the walls with pictures and the audio guide is there to ensure that every detail of Mozart’s life is filled in. Their picture of wealthy patronage feeding the fanatically egotistical child star is much complemented by a pre-trip viewing of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, which won the 1984 Best Picture Oscar (and several more.)

True fans—or anyone in need of caffeine after an hour of biographical sketches—can walk a couple minutes from the museum over to the cafe Frauenhuber at Himmelpfortgasse 6, the coffee house where Mozart allegedly hung out. The typical Viennese drink is called a Mélange, which Berliners will recognize as a poor man’s Milchkaffee, that is, coffee and hot milk mixed together, here with less milk than up north. That may, however, be to save room for the proud array of artery-clogging sweets sitting smugly behind the glass counter. The toughest choice visitors to Vienna must make is between Sachertorte, the triple-chocolate classic invented here—Oreo, take note—the hazelnut-flavored Esterhazy, and the dependable classic apple strudel, a less crusty version of our stateside pie.

After three days of such decisions, my sweet tooth began to ache. I wasn’t craving sugar any more, but rather spice—the controversy of Berlin, where modern history keeps the populace feisty and up in arms. Recent arguments include how to commemorate the Berlin Wall and how large the pensions of East Germany’s Draconian secret jails should be. Berlin’s most important palace is one they are ripping down, the Communist-era Palace of the Republic, to much outcry from former Eastern residents and historical preservationists. In contrast, Vienna’s palaces quietly became government buildings or art museums as the city slid genteel-y into modernity, its picturesque streets barely registering the last century’s catastrophes.

However, this rather charming transition does give tourists much to “ooh” and “ah” over. Since my capacity for looking at pretty things is no smaller than the next person’s, I thoroughly enjoyed gazing at masterpieces in the mansions of the titled families who once collected them. Of particular note are the Albertina’s spectacularly re-created chambers, open to the public only since 2003, and the Belvedere’s gorgeous halls, which house a truly impressive cache of Art Nouveau masterworks by Gustav Klimt, including his infamous The Kiss (1907-8). The Museumsquartier complex should also be on every culture hawk’s itinerary, especially admirers of recent and contemporary art who want to avoid the trips out to individual collections (and are perhaps sick of all the frippery.)

On the other hand, royalists of all flavors, particularly Habsburg buffs, will appreciate touring the apartments of Emperor Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) in the central Hofburg, as well as the Versailles-like Schönbrunn complex slightly outside of the city center. While the former showcase the modesty of modernizing monarchs, the latter exhibits such recent restraint as well as the earlier lavishness of Empress Maria Theresa, who spared no expense.

Many, many canvases, tapestries, statues, and manicured lawns later, it isn’t hard to understand Vienna’s attraction. It is a lovely place to spend a packed weekend, soaking up beauty the way one soaks up sun on beach getaways. But like Empress Sisi herself, I grew restless with all the courtly backdrops and was happy to be back in Berlin on Monday, where the newspapers were full of arguments and my taxi driver started a political discussion about the Turks. Only this time they weren’t the Ottomans laying siege at the gates of Vienna, but rather the community of families in my neighborhood. After a brief jaunt to the past, I was firmly and gratefully back in 2007.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Women, Media-Savvy and Otherwise

“She is just an embarrassment now. She won’t be given any future responsibilities,” intoned CSU representative Markus Ferber ominously. He was speaking of the unforgivable crime of fellow CSU member Gabriele Pauli: posing in suggestive photos. The images appeared in this month’s issue of Park Avenue, a German glossy that fancies itself a mix of high style and social engagement—when that engagement comes in pretty packages like Ms. Pauli, who appears in one shot with leather gloves, and in another with a face-paint eye mask. As Der Tagesspiegel reported today, many members of the Christian Socialist Union, Germany’s prominent conservative party, are now calling for her expulsion.

It gets worse. Not only did Ms. Pauli appear in these photos, but she won’t apologize. “Do we live in the middle ages?” Tagesspiegel reports her telling the Hamburg magazine Der Stern. She also vows to continue her political engagement even if shut out of the CSU. With such a fresh and defiant attitude, you’d think she actually believed woman deserved to be judged by the same standards as men. You’d think that she objects to her denouncement as a tramp, slut, etc., when a man posing in a similar, stylish spread would simply be seen as trendy or attractive. You’d think that she views a photo shoot as less important than her campaign ideas, that the “personality” piece portraying her as sexy and fun should not occasion calls for her resignation.

You might be right. But Ms. Pauli is clearly wrong. As one reader commented on Der Tagesspiegel's website, “How can a politician be so naïve? There is no private life in politics…I wonder if she got her position [as district administrator] because of her intelligence or because of a [gender] quota.”

Pauli is probably not so naïve after all. This whole affair isn’t truly about her indignant astonishment, but rather woeful miscalculation. She probably knew the photos would gather press, but she underestimated the sort of attention they would garner. Since it is generally ok for male politicians to be attractive (or even ugly!), and since their sexual exploits neither damage their reputations (Clinton and the cigar), even becoming the stuff of legend (JFK and Marilyn) or are ho-hum enough for nationally-syndicated commercials (Dole’s Viagra ad), she figured she could let her hair down and allow a photo to show her as…a pretty (but not chaste!) woman. Boy, was she wrong.

As Katha Pollitt has pointed out with her excellent column in The Nation for some years now, contemporary society wields a double standard like a mallet, ready to whack any woman who attempts to pretend men and women may be equally considered. It appears that her assessment of the American scene works for Germany too.

Pollitt has also attacked many a New York Times headline about the “death of feminism” for being based on anecdotal evidence and thin reporting, and unlike Pauli, her media analysis is spot-on. Sunday brought another article based completely on anecdotal evidence, this time Sarah Rimer’s acquaintance with a circle of adolescent over-achievers at a prep school outside of Boston.

For Girls, it’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect Too” is not the expose it promises to be, relying mainly on conversations with these hyper-American hard-workers to form a repetitive run-down of their goals and extra-curriculars. Rimer aims to shock us with the workload these girls are taking on, but her promise of gender analysis doesn’t come through. Sure, these girls are working their track-captain butts off—but what does that have to do with being female? Boys at such prep schools are working just as hard, the article itself acknowledges, in its gender-neutral quotes from administrators and parents and multiple reversions to the word “student” rather than “girls.” The piece has nothing to do with gender, outside of the author’s choice to interview only young women. This is really an article about the ever-more-ridiculous ideals of achievement America’s elite communities foist on their high school youth, dressed up in a skirt to make it sexier. Shame on the New York Times. It could have at least used, say, black rubber gloves and an eye mask.


Pollitt's new book, a collection of her columns entitled Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, is in stores now.

Pauli images courtesy Park Avenue, Pollitt image courtesy http://ffrf.org/day/?day=14&month=10, and student image courtesy New York Times.
Who needs bar-hopping…

People stood chatting in clusters, swilling glasses of Riesling and having a mighty fine time. They greeted one another with two or even three kisses, exclaiming in English, German, Italian, and Japanese. Some stood aside, taking pictures or messaging their friends. In fact, the only thing not happening was art spectatorship--no one seemed overly concerned with the works we were there to see.

“It’s always like that at an opening,” one of the artists, Wilken Skurk, told me. He was showing new iron and glass sculptures, heavy shapes with a likable heft that stood out in the crowded room. “But I saw you looking at my art. So you’re the exception.”

“I’m the one with no friends to talk to,” I corrected him. We laughed. Ah, the wonderful world of galleries in Berlin!

Berlin’s casual, open ambience, where gallery openings are accessible to all and artists actually talk to no-name visitors (like me), is created largely by the surplus of talent here. A decade of stable, low rents has drawn artists to the metropolis like moths to a light bulb, and many have planted long-term roots in the ever-growing scene. There are always creative figures who aren’t famous enough—yet—to have someone better to talk to than the average visitor. Meanwhile, the sprawling gallery scene is too unruly and quickly-growing to provide the incubating conditions for an elitist class of big-name dealers, art-media paparazzi, and privileged art celebrities. Like all places, it has its VIPs, but even they can’t make events “invitation only,” a phrase as likely as “no smoking” to pop up in promotional material.

The result is simultaneously relaxed and exciting: all are welcome—to ten events in one night. On last Friday’s warm, early spring evening, the few streets most heavily lined with galleries in northern Mitte were dotted with noisy islands of revelers spilling out otherwise quiet cobblestone streets. I attended three openings, each event growing naturally as pedestrians paused, attracted by the good time they had stumbled upon, and passing foot traffic converted into wine-fueled art viewing.

And it wasn’t just fun: the art was good too! Galerie Rossella Junck, where I chatted with Mr. Skurk, was also showing new work by Robert van de Laar. Himmel-Erde or Heaven-Earth was a series of glass circles painted with ink images of dream-like hands, faces, birds, and spirals that seemed a cross of Kiki Smith’s bodily fairy-tales and Joan Miro’s doodle aesthetic. The ink was visually delightful in its variability: at once heavy, dark, and splotchy; and light, immaterial, and fluid, where pigment mixed with water and feathered outward.

“They remind me of Goya’s ink and ivory miniatures,” I told the artist, who stood nearby in a tweed coat, agreeably chatting with visitors.

“Yes, they are a bit like that,” he agreed. “You don’t have total control over where the color goes when you are working in this technique.”

Down the block, Takafumi Hara was showing his Signs of Memory: Project Pink Windows. The project is an investigation of local geography, carried out by pink panels placed in the windows of selected buildings. From his native Japan to Berlin to Singapore, Hara has polled inhabitants about their thoughts and feelings and created tablets of their words, illustrated by child-like, whimsical images. The latest incarnation, on display here, was Singapore’s City Hall for the 2006 Biennale there.

“People said it was disrespectful to do such a thing to a historical building,” Hara explains. “They didn’t think it should or could be carried out.”

Yet he did it, and we get to enjoy the result—on display in the form of a model here—a work that neatly highlights Singaporeans’ ambivalence about their rapidly-modernizing nation’s role in the global world. By suggesting that the best way to “peer into” a building is through not a window but rather the minds of inhabitants, Hara reminds us, lest we take our physical, built reality too seriously, of the immateriality of hopes and reflections that must precede physical realization. The tension between material and immaterial, seen and invisible, was also present at the gallery’s bar, where drinks were rapidly going from existent to non-existent.

At each event, the anything-goes atmosphere was quite nice. Doubtless, the terrier accompanying one gentleman through Rossella Junck enjoyed it. So did the woman who set down her wine glass on a pedestal alongside the work on display.

In all seriousness though, this is the ideal way to view art--as objects that exists up close next to us, right in the middle of our messy lives, not as silent, sterile things in museum. Indeed, while museums charge us for the service of appropriate cultural edification, galleries court us, motivated by the hope that viewers will become customers. However, to summarize by saying that one walks out the Pergamon feeling educated and out of Rossella Junck with a shopping bag is to do the scene a disservice: where else can you view something new and interesting (in most cases, anyway), then turn and discuss it with the creator?

Besides, without much native industry or financial power, resource-poor and bankrupt Berlin can at least brag about its contemporary cultural edge over Frankfurt and Munich. For self-esteem, the capital makes neither steel nor glass—it turns them into works of art.

The group exhibition Ve:tro is at Rossella Junck, Auguststr. 28, +49 30 94 88 38 98 through May 26. Hara's Signs of Memory: Project Pink Windows is at DNA, Auguststr. 20, +49 30 28 59 96 52 through May 19.

Images: top, Galerie Rossella Junck. Skurk's Cathedral, Iron and glass, 2007. Two shots of Van de Laar's Himmel-Erde, Ink on glass, 2005. Hara's Singapore City Hall in miniature, text excerpted for lack of room on model. Hara in front of his exhibit. Wine glass alongside Julius Weiland's Relaxan, Blown glass, 2007.