by Victor Maldonado
Artist residencies anywhere are always a prize—that’s why I was especially honored at the end of last summer when galleryHOMELAND Co-Director Paul Middendorf offered me one of the spots for his arts non-profit and Brooklyn based Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery’s International border smashing curatorial project the EAST/WEST Project in Berlin, Germany.
Last February I had the fortune of spending a little over a week in Berlin by taking part in RESPLENDENCY: Light and Art in the Modern Age. I had a lovely time while residing at Gartenstudio, a space devoted to social forms of art, run by artist Malte Zacharias. Comfortable in my own room with a shared kitchen, stocked with Stumptown Coffee, Foxfire Tea, and living basil in pots, I made myself at home.
I landed in Berlin’s Tegel airport at night and was greeted by galleryHOMELAND Assistant Director, Emily Henderson, who escorted me deep into the city and played host, facilitating every detail of my stay, she ensured that I made creative use of my time away from Portland.
galleryHOMELAND made Berlin as legible as possible with virtual maps of all the organic grocers in town and points of interest in the neighborhood and paper maps for the incredible and punctual public transportation systems.
To make room for as many green screen paintings as I could fit in my suitcase I brought very little with me to Berlin with a few changes of clothes mainly for padding but that latter proved very useful for warm layers.
It was more than a bit surreal to be on the go with a small series of green screen paintings, created with the support of the William T. Colville Foundation, conceived of as memory banks for the process of immigrating and acculturating through the television sets I grew up glued to the streaming images of popular broadcast culture.
After a bus ride to Alexanderplatz, Berlin’s main transportation hub and a short train ride on the U-Bahn to Kottbusser Tor, we arrived to the Kreuzberg borough. Alive and bubbling in late winter thaw, Kreutzberg is home to some of the best street art, bookstore/galleries, and restaurants for each kind of immigrant population that makes this borough so unique.
With a week before the opening of the show at the EAST/WEST Project I set out to explore Berlin as an image of a former border city. I was interested in walking the streets of Berlin and imagining it as a precursor for other border cities I was more familiar with like Tijuana, Laredo, or Brownsville along the Mexican/American border. I wanted to get lost in Berlin in a way I could never let myself get lost in Tijuana.
Most of the day and sometimes late into the night I walked the frozen, snow covered, sidewalks, walkways and green spaces that delineated the former Berlin Wall. Most of it is gone – so I relied as much on maps as asking people along the way. What remains of the Wall is an amazing monument to the past and the limits of memory and context.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Kreuzberg went from an odd peninsula to the center of a rejoined city. As an outsider and tourist most of the divided city seemed connected and accessible even under inches of snow.
Just South of Kreuzberg is the Mitte District where the EAST/WEST Project first opened in its original location. It’s an area populated with the now fetishized rubble of the Berlin Wall and the architecture of its former hold. It’s a district filling with high-end art galleries and shopping gallerias.
I was amazed to witness what once were imposing gates controlling human traffic now providing photo opportunities to endless streams of tourists groups. And, once intimidating border guards, now seeming simulationist enacting the work of museum docents, enthusiastically helping those same tourists loiter a little longer.
These were the kind of experiences I wanted my work and exhibits to create. I arrived in Berlin with traditional paintings about the special effects cult of the American Dream and I would leave with strategies for tackling borders both as aesthetic and philosophically permeable forms.
Other great surprises during my stay as an emancipated tourist was visiting the Pergamon Museum, on Museum Island and the Book Burning Memorial near the Babel Platz and Opera Houses, on the recommendation of EAST/WEST Project Co-Director and Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery Director Leah Stuhltrager.
I had shared my action walks with her all week and she correctly assumed that the installation of the Ishtar Gates, from being raised in ancient Babylon then transplanted as booty to modern Berlin, and the minimalist tomb/library to Nazi book burning would be a moving and humbling experience for me to have and take home with me.
Not only was I leaving Berlin with a renewed sense of inquiry and relevance but I also was returning to Portland with more insights about border culture well beyond my own experiences. That was exactly the kind of mental space I was hoping to have as I co-curate an exhibit about illegal border crossing with Linda Tesner for the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College here in Portland.
From the start Paul, and everyone involved in the the EAST/WEST Project was interested in creating an opportunity for me to build on the work I did in Portland while also encouraging me to experiment in a new support system in an International venue where I could gain exposure to new audiences.
The EAST/WEST Project was especially interested in spurring the kinds of cultural exchanges that could go on between artists from both coasts of the United States alongside artists from throughout Europe to produce a richer understanding about our global condition.
It was over all the lunches, informal studio visits, dinners, opening receptions and artist’s brunches that the most valuable kind of cultural exchanges occurred by having to frame our work for each other in a critical and inspirational language. Over coffee and mimosas, lager and wine the artists, that gathered for RESPLENDENCY, were able to meet intellectually and emotionally through our work and practices and challenge and inform each other about displacement and the essentials that continue to make us accessible to each other.