Five Fragments In the Presence of Absence

By Lea Grüter 

 

My family is from the West of Germany. I never experienced this as clearly as during our stay in Berlin. Germany for me, most of the time was Germany. The GDR was something which existed in history books, “Ampelmännchen” and German movies as “Goodbye Lenin” or “The Lives of Others”. When I asked my grandma if she had ever been to the GDR, her answer was a clear no. “You didn’t just go there. No one went there.” One of my best friends is from Dresden; she was born two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, her birth certificate still says: German Democratic Republic.

I was born in 1991 into another world – in time and space.

The same night I asked my grandma how she met my grandfather for the first time, her answer was a laugh. My grandmother is a quiet tough woman; she is smart and wit and has a saying for every situation. But within this laugh was something innocent, excited as if she would not yet have experienced the things she had experienced. – “Aber is egal. Es nützt nichts, ist vorbei.” – I never heard such a timid laugh form her before­ ­­– “Jaja, alles vorbei.”- Yes, it’s all over but there was something in that laugh. I never met my grandfather but still, I could somehow sense her memories. My grandma added: “Your generation cannot remember this time anymore, how could you?” I am not sure if she is right.

In one of my favorite German books the author reflects: “Never will I forget that moment. I had invented something that was true. […] Like an archaeological tool, my lie had scraped out an encapsulated detail and dragged it back from the depths of my memory. It was an incredibly liberating realization: inventing is remembering.”[1]

Maybe the true thing about storytelling is that it follows our way of meaning making. We never create meaning in a linear chronology. We go back and forth; we connect parts, remember and rethink in a constant movement. Creating music, poetry, a movie, we are actively using this way of analytical empathy.

 “Why do we think the stories of life are just happening to us?” is a question by the German philosopher and journalist, Carolin Emcke which comes to my mind. We are telling them and we are able to rewrite them the way we would like to listen. Maybe we are too often scared to lose ourselves in listening – to lose the outer structure, our constructed frame which we are so eager to defend. It is not because we think of nothing but ourselves; I think most of the time we are really scared to be fragmented or even absent– but maybe only in this absence we can create something new, something we have not thought or done yet. Maybe only in this state, we are in the movement of meaning making.

 

Concrete under construction – noise, a grey sky and nothing to tell. The whole space we are walking on looks like no one has ever lived here and no one will. Someone once put a quiet humane looking gothic church in this storage room and never took it back out, -outmoded- forgot it here right behind the pompous baroque Neptune fountain in its awkwardly exposed elegance.

The GDR building is a security “Bewachtes Objekt”- a guarded object. I am wondering why – yes of course, it is a huge building – I lose myself only looking at the picture – but when you take a really close look, you recognize a tiny head in one of the windows. I am wondering if the head is looking at me or what it is looking for.  I am wondering why this architecture blows me away. I darted through its corridors, it made me feel like I was the loneliest person in the world – no, even more – in the presence of the building, I felt completely absent from the world.

I am wondering how the head in the window feels, if you become familiar with the details – the one thing which makes your corridor look different from the 13 other floors, the little flaw on the ground, or your neighbor’s doormat. Probably the head celebrated a wedding here or the birth of a child or a new job or cried for someone it loved, and probably the TV tower looks amazing in the sun from up there.

 

One day ahead of the walk, I met those guys sitting under the bridge next to the Alexanderplatz. They started talking to me after I left one of the huge GDR construction buildings “die Rathauspassagen”. I felt somehow very relieved to interact with other human beings after this experience of 13 floors of silent concrete. It felt like falling back into the world. We talked about their guitar and when I asked if I could take a picture of them for a project, they started to sing for me. Then I recognized the tag “Zauberer”— magician, behind the guy I was talking to (sitting on the drum) and right next to it, on the left, a little cross which indicated “x Bühne” – stage. This little concert on the magic stage under the bridge stuck in my head. It was a Russian song.

Telling a story is more akin to playing music than it is to the exchange of information. Why don’t we play memory? Do we see our societal or collective memory as a reminiscence of the past, as a score in a drawer? A guarded object? Maybe the true memory lies within an encounter, within the narrative structure of a person, the way the story is told, the words, associations, the sounds, the materiality, in a laugh.

 

This photo is kind of eerie to me. If I don’t clap my hands they will stay there forever and turn into stone like the people in Pompeii. Holding hands – in eternal present and lucid vulnerability. What does time and space mean then? Memory? Were we there? Are we still inspired? Are we yet inspired? Untold fragments without frame – maybe more uncanny then eerie – beyond one’s ken. The German word for uncanny  is “unheimlich”, which literally means beyond one’s home and beyond secrecy.

 “We felt like standing in front of a death squad”. I could feel my heart beat and I was aware of the tension in the group but not of this association almost everyone was telling me about afterwards. For me, the photo’s eeriness also lies in this kind of confidence to keep on listening. It’s not easy to let go if you lose your frame, to feel comfortable in the unknown insecurity, in which we become vulnerable, in which we expose ourselves in the opposite of secrecy, like Neptune and the nymphs on the fountain. Maybe in this context they are the truest to themselves, present and attentive to the world around them.

I never felt this responsible to invent an uncanniness: being open for the unknown to happen needs trust. Within the uncanniness lies the possibility off encounter, realization and discovery – the possibility to ken. When we see memory as movement of thoughts we can decide where to go from there. Clap.

 

[1] Joachim Meyerhoff, When Will it Finally Be Like it Never Was Again? (orig. Wann wird es endlich wieder so wie es nie war?), Köln 2013, 13.