The Berlin weather had a distinctly British summer feel to it – warm and sunny one minute, raining hard the next – so our open topped bus had a tarpaulin roof, which was a shame.
We made the Jewish Museum our first stop. It’s a most impressive space: zinc-panelled, built to a ‘Between the Lines’ theme and based on two main axes. One ‘of connection, tortuous and infinite, symbolises the cultural exchange between Jews and Gentiles and their mutual influences’, while the second ‘straight but broken into discrete fragments, runs through the length of the house – it is the line of the void’. But the museum’s not without its flaws. The curators assert that, ‘history always consists of individual stories’, which I find an odd idea as Jews have not been oppressed for their individuality, but by a prejudice blind to the individual. Consequently, it’s the broken lives of individuals that are on display. Yet I wonder just how typical these lives are. Typical exhibits are the clothing factory owner’s son, with his law degree and great prospects. But the six million who died can’t all have shared his background. I wonder what became of the Jewish seamstresses, say, who worked for the father and others who couldn’t afford family portraits or lacked the education or inclination to write letters and keep diaries. The focus on individuals who left something behind forgets these people.
So it’s art and Daniel Libeskind architecture that make the Jewish museum. (Libeskind is also responsible for the Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays.) And the installations are outstanding. Libeskind’s garden – trees grow constrained in concrete pillars – gets most attention, but best are the voids. One is a concrete windowless room, but with an apparently natural light source present at its high ceiling. Yet the walls have holes – too high to see through – that let in the sounds of outside, a ladder too high to reach suggests an escape and the whole thing is genuinely disorientating. Another void contains Menashe Kadishman’s ‘Fallen Leaves’: faces cast in rusted metal, that we’re invited to walk across. As you do so, the individuals you tread upon clang and echo through the space, so you look down on them – watching your step – and see the individual expressions. I took it to be the sound of the downtrodden screaming, though Katharine felt she was giving them a voice.
Next stop was the Deutsche Guggenheim. It’s the baby of the Guggenheim museums – just the one gallery – but was a must for us. We’ve now done all three European Guggenheims: Venice, Bilbao and now Berlin. On show was Nam June Paik’s Global Groove 2004, a video installation which benefited from being the only exhibit. With the pressure to move on removed, you inevitably spend more time on the exhibit and Global Groove 2004 needs that. Nam June Paik first created Global Groove in 1973 and this version is built upon that, while acknowledging all that has come since. So we get a wide range of images together with, amongst other things, the music of John Cage, choreography of Merce Cunningham and poetry of Allen Ginsberg.
As the weather brightened we re-joined the bus tour and spent much of the afternoon around the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate. Unfortunately, the queues at the Reichstag were far too long – around four hours to get in – so we decided to leave it for another day (more on that later), wandering over to Checkpoint Charlie. This felt a little artificial with guys in US, British and French uniforms bearing flags around what is only a hut on the middle of the road. I don’t know why Britain and France were represented when it marked the US/Soviet border, but there we are.
We got on the bus again with the intention of making it back to the hotel, but the tour finished abruptly at 6pm, with us back at the Reichstag. So we decided to eat early finding Samadhi, an excellent vegetarian Thai restaurant on Wilhelmstraße, near the British Embassy and well signposted. It was quiet when we arrived, but soon filled up. As did we.