Living in Between
en - Many of today’s Jewish artists in Berlin give both this city and their homeland as the places where they live. Irmgard Berner talks to two of them, Boris Mikhailov and Varda Getzow
"Look at me", Boris Mikhailov, collage. courtesy boris mikhailov
In recent years Berlin has become a hot spot for artists from all over the world and a favoured choice, perhaps surprisingly, for many Jewish artists. It is a place where they can be comfortable because in the 20 years since unification, Germany has finally conceded that it is a land with a heterogeneous population. Berlin, a city of liberal equality that proclaims its openness, has now even made the change from a Holocaust-burdened space to a magnetically attractive one.
But do these artists really feel at home in their voluntarily chosen places in what we might call, borrowing from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, a “fluid diaspora”? And can we even speak of diaspora in the context of the lives they lead today? Or is the definition of diaspora dissolving in the fluidness of open borders and diverse cultural identities? I talked to two successful Jewish artists who live in Berlin. Photographer Boris Mikhailov, born in Charkow in the Ukraine in 1938, moved here 17 years ago.
Varda Getzow arrived in 1985 from Israel, where she was born in Jaffa in 1953. They stayed in Berlin – and yet each still calls their place of birth their home. “We don’t live, we travel,” Boris Mikhailov told me when I asked him where he and his wife live most of the time. They remain Ukranian citizens and still have a home there. “We have not really moved,” he says. For 15 years they have “lived in between” Berlin – a place he calls “comfortable for life but not for pictures” – and the Ukraine. It is of existential importance to him to return as frequently as possible to the place where his roots are, the roots that nourish his art and his way of trying to understand the world more deeply and more intensely through photography. Because “back there I find images to capture of more importance”, he says in broken English. He hardly speaks German, which he considers rather a restraint for working the way he wants to in Berlin. Mikhailov first came to Berlin with a DAAD scholarship in 1995, worked, made friends and stayed. Only three years ago did he and his wife get their residents’ visa.
So why Berlin and not London or New York? “First of all it is closer to my place, the Ukraine”, Mikhailov says. “New York would be too far. What’s most interesting for me about Berlin is that everybody is equal. Here it’s not important if someone is rich or not. Everybody is the same. For me this is better.” Boris Mikhailov, who is a self-taught photographer, took photographs at a time when it was considered subversive in the Soviet Union. His unofficial photography met heavy opposition. He continued regardless. Antisemitism was not so much a problem in his surroundings, he says. It did occur but “our education in Soviet times said that everybody had to be equal. Nowadays it’s a different situation”.
Jewishness does not really influence his work or life, although “inside me it does. I don’t forget what has happened.” Many of Mikhailov’s pictures show desperate conditions, people living in the streets in the Soviet times of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and particularly in the late 90s when the Soviet Union had broken down. For example, there is a photo of a man and a woman, a homeless couple in winter who have caught a fish in the icy, dirty river and are showing it to the camera. Their rotten winter coats are open and you can see that they are naked underneath; they grin and have only a few teeth left. He can still find such images in the Ukraine. It is not the ostensible ugliness that he sees in his pictures; rather, it is vulnerability and destitution.
Now Mikhailov mingles ironic and melancholic snapshots of everyday life in the two different cultural contexts. In the collages entitled Look at me, I look at water, he has assembled images from Germany, other Western countries and the Ukraine and labelled them with short notes. The images play on scenes from the European artistic tradition, often showing people in allegorical poses. Mikhailov is particularly interested in the difference between his own and foreign cultures.
"Landschaften" - Varda Getzow, Tal, new Synagogue, Berlin
Varda Getzow goes to Tel Aviv as often as she can and spends half her life there. It has always been important for her to exhibit in both cities. Her family roots are in Germany and from the beginning this has been a theme in her work. “I tried to find something in Berlin and I was searching a long time – and I still am,” she says. “My grandfather had a sister who I discovered was murdered in Riga, she was a nurse in the Jewish hospital there. We knew nothing of her.” She found out about her through working on an exhibit for a new Holocaust museum on the site of the Radegast railway station in Lodz. “Is the past an issue?” I ask her. “No, it is not an issue. Before, speaking German was taboo, not for all but for most, and today it doesn’t count at all. I think for many Berlin is not Germany. I don’t think people would also go to Munich or Frankfurt, but to Berlin – it is a must to go to Berlin nowadays; the clubs, the scene. 20 years ago they did not even know where Berlin was. Suddenly it is on the map.”
But has she found a new homeland here? “No”, is her brief answer. She adds: “I like Berlin, I have many friends here, but I am still a stranger.” Getzow is well known for her sculptural work Die Landschaften (The Landscapes). The first she built was Tal in the New Synagogue in Berlin in 2001. Tal in Hebrew means dew, in German it means valley, thus combining the liquid or fluid with the earth-bound. In the round hall on the first floor – with dark flecked marble on the walls and historical columns ornamented with gold – she made a strong contrast through using very simple material: layers of white towels hung and spread over a heap of hospital beds. “Layers are what landscapes are made of”, she told me. “One can only guess what the mountain buries.” She questions whether nature has a memory; what do the mountains carry, what does the river, what does the valley know? Are her landscapes inspired by Israel or by Berlin and her family history? “You cannot separate these. The transformation is not always easy, so I am here and there, change takes its time. But I think the work has received a great deal also from my time in Berlin. It takes life from the history here, although the work itself is very abstract. That’s its character and that’s what I want.”
And while Varda Getzow is amazed at how often these days she hears Hebrew spoken in her Kreuzberg neighbourhood, Boris Mikhailov has already packed his camera and is ready to take off for his homeland, the Ukraine. The diaspora has become a liquid place.
This article was also published in Jewish Renaissance quaterly magazine, April 2012