Written during my summer internship in Berlin.
Every day I come home to my shared apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, I enter the living room to see Fabian on the balcony, grasping a hand-rolled cigarette and staring into the secluded courtyard that hides behind our apartment block.
I’ll make dinner. Sometimes I’ll put in actual effort and sautée some sad-looking vegetable; other times I’ll literally eat a mixture of white rice and peanut butter with a spoon. He’ll still be there, soft jazzy beats bouncing from his cream-coloured Marshall amplifier. I’ll clean up, attempting to make the kitchen pristine enough to be photographed for sale tomorrow (an impressive ability to stay spotless and tidy on Ana and Fabian’s behalf, but I honestly think neatness kind of lacks personality). He’ll still be there, languidly inspecting his array of young bamboos and herbs, among which sporadic shoots of fake greenery are placed to cover the gaps where gardening attempts went awry.
I often wonder what he’s thinking about. I wonder how he can stay there for hours, appearing to doing nothing but chain-smoke. Does he ever feel unproductive? I wonder at what kind of contrast is occurring between the exterior and the interior. Maybe, since he is a psychiatrist on weekdays, he’s reflecting on what he’s seen at work, calming his mind. This nightly ritual could be a period of general reflection — perhaps on work, yes, but also life, family, relationships, politics. I have never asked him about it, though, and every time I come in from work he smiles and directs the focus onto me, “Wie war den Tag?” I feel as if I’ve wandered into his world and clumsily broken something every time.
Once I came home to see pink graffiti scrawled on the glass balcony doors. Excess drips of neon paint meandered down the glass, through which I could see Fabian lounging on the balcony beside the cigarette papers and tobacco piles that were at the ready. This sudden “vandalism” gave the normally minimalist and white aesthetic of the apartment a cheekiness that I never thought possible. “Did you do this?” I asked him, not wanting to make an incorrect assumption (perhaps its artist was Ana) since clearly, this occurence showed that my assumptions about others are so often wrong. Not wrong, but wrong in the sense that they’re not generous enough to allow space to conceive them as creative beings with imaginations and impulses. I unconsciously categorize people too much; if they display their drawings and paintings on social media then they’re An Artist; I imagine that inexplicable Artistic Wheels are constantly spinning in their head, somehow churning out pretty visualisations that they translate through paints or 2B pencils or tablets. For Normal People, I become unreasonably surprised at seeing them exhibit the creativity that is really within us all.
Thursday was Ascension Day, a public holiday. I decided to take the U-Bahn to see The Haus, an exhibition on Nürnberger Straße. The TL;DR of the exhibit is: 160 artists locked into a 5-storey building, each artist gets to do whatever with their own room, building is destroyed on June 1st. I ended up waiting 4.5 (!!!) hours on a cold and windy spring day to see it. But I didn’t mind; the people in line in front of me jumped and danced for warmth with me, shared their food (cream puffs, mini Lindt pralines and strawberries) with me, shouted me coffee, held my spot in line when I bought a chai latte to reverse the blue-ification of my lips and sought a bathroom, and talked to me about Berlin.
Most memorably, they pulled out miscellaneous sketchbooks and a roll of pencils of varying intensities, and sat in line sketching (former) strangers whilst conversing in German and laughing away the hours (you think Germans don’t have a sense of humour, wrong). First, the girl behind us with a nose ring, bright fabric headband and discerning blue eyes that looked on intently as they drew. Second, the man in front of us with a pink shirt, dark rectangular glasses and a closely-cropped head of silvering hair who seemed amused at the proceedings. I marvelled at how well one of them, a tall young man with dreadlocks and tortoiseshell glasses, drew and expressed that I wished I drew that well. He immediately responded, “You want to try?” and passed me a notebook and pencil. My pink-shirt-guy portrait wasn’t fantastic, and I hurried to make it bear some sort of resemblance, as everyone else had almost finished theirs.
A young couple in line with us were also bestowed simple drawing supplies, and we all happily drew on, sharing our works with lighthearted mmms and ahhhs. I’d twistedly thought that the original group would all be fantastic artists, given their enthusiasm for sketching random people. A usual mindset of striving upwards, of always evaluating others and being evaluated for quality, modifies many things into a depersonalised show of skill — like, but are you good? it’s only worth doing if you’re good. Again, I was unreasonably surprised that their works weren’t objectively spectacular. And so what? Art is for all to create. Berlin has taught me this.
When I saw his work, I asked of Fabian what “KEAM 1997” (two parts of the graffiti that I could actually discern) meant. He told me that he’d started painting graffiti as “KEAM” in 1997 — when he was 13. I thought of little 13-year-old Fabian picking up a spray can and laughed, “That’s the year I was born!” Perhaps a dumb little coincidence, but I fancifully thought of it it as a signal telling me, you need to give it a go, too. He gave me the pink paint pen and taught me how to press so that liquid oozes and drips out as I mark out my design, and left me to my whims. I drew Pucci (the snow-coloured, prickly-natured cat of the house) and attempted some graffiti lettering. That was it. Nothing special happened before or after, I just picked up the pen and did it.
Art-making is so easy and so fun, but I attach such daunting significance to it, tying it to self-worth and significance and judgment. I assume that Artists possess inherent qualities of interestingness, mysteriousness and creativeness unable to be accessed or contemplated by Normal People such as myself. (I for some reason don’t seem to regard my own photography as Art.) Excessively esteeming people who create art elevates them into ideals and away from reality, and fabricates a personality divide where there isn’t one. The irony is that it is achingly simple to make art once you just stop contemplating it.
I could see Hugo looking at me intently. The bulky bandage gave him an enormous head. ‘The trouble with you, Jake,’ said Hugo, ‘is that you’re far too impressed by people. You were far too impressed by me.’
I was surprised. ‘I was impressed,’ I said, ‘but I didn’t know you knew.’
‘Everyone must go his own way, Jake,’ said Hugo. ‘Things don’t matter as much as you think.’
– Iris Murdoch, Under The Net.