by Michael Kroetch
The Lost Worlds of Berlin
My artist story mirrors that of many of the buildings in this collection in that it has been one of perpetual reinvention and repurposing of identity.
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In early 2007 two of my friends conspired to ship me to Germany. On the plane I made a pledge to myself never to paint again. Over the previous 3 years I’d slaved tirelessly with little sleep to create an enormous body of work, had some nice exhibitions, and perfected a unique new medium (Neo-Fresco) that set me apart and seemed ready to situate me for success. Unfortunately, to gain access to the studio where all of this wonderment unfolded, I’d been forced to make a risky gamble which did not go as planned and put me at odds with U.S. Immigration Authorities. A perfect storm of other bad outcomes culminated in me being plunged for several months to the lowest emotional point in my life, which was seriously at risk because I could see no logical way out of the predicament.
In Munich, after rising up out of my own inner darkness and getting my feet solidly on the ground, I re-invented myself as an English language teacher. I’d only brought one suitcase on the assumption of it being but a two-week visit instead of one that’d last a decade. But the new place suited me, so I had a friend sell everything I’d left behind in the states, and then I dug my heels in. Over the next four years I wrote a book of short fiction and a novel, but fervently kept that promise to myself. No painting. No drawing. The only images permitted were those made with a camera.
I’d been happy and thriving in Bavaria, but eventually love pulled me Northward. And, fickle as that force can be, once I’d settled in, the poetess I’d gone to join decided that she wanted little to do with me now that I was not exotically distant. So, now, in the strange new city of Berlin I was once more pushed to re-invent everything. New friends, new jobs, and a stunningly smart writing group soon re-energized me and within a brief span of time I felt more at home in that busted up and continuously being re-built urban jigsaw puzzle than I ever had anywhere before. It’s cobbled streets and restless hunger for the new spoke to me and made my feet sing.
Having such rich history and an array of world class museums and art perpetually available enthralled me and was a radical departure from my experience growing up in suburban Oregon. As many of its natives say, Berlin is truly a haven for the broken and the botched—and being an expat there further freed me from all cultural expectation. Since birth I’d always felt like an outsider and that I never belonged anywhere. Even as an artist, I’d never felt like a native born one and regularly moved through different media—doing so somewhat intentionally with the notion that it was like rotating crops on a farm, always letting the old soil renew itself while a new field was being dug up, planted, and harvested. Along the way I’d won national theater awards for my work as a playwright, had stories published in influential literary journals, earned an NEA fellowship, and had several art videos win top awards and be showcased in major collections, including having one I’d made with a children’s Fischer Price video camera be chosen by the American Film Institute as among the world’s top 20 videos of 1990.
Not too long after moving to Berlin I found myself journeying with my camera to the lost places that border its outer regions. These abandoned spots were like fairytale locations for me. Reason I say this is that broken buildings have always enchanted me, with my earliest memory being a trip to coastal Oregon town that had recently endured a freakish hurricane with my toddler self being so excited by what I’d witnessed there that (according to family legend) I apparently couldn’t stop talking about the “cracked houses” that I’d seen (mind you, crack houses, at least as we know them now, wasn’t a term that existed yet in that day).
These special locations in Berlin were zones that brought everything into harmony in me. Risk fueled each journey and the time spent inside them. Would the ceiling collapse or the floor fall away beneath me? Adrenalin propelled me forward. Click went my camera. All my impassioned years in art history and various other art classes became burned into the frame of each image I made. The varied skillsets gleaned from storytelling, set design, videography, performative arts, dance, and the many other forms of artistic expression that I’d clenched my talents around over the years all melded. In these lost places I could feel Klee, Matisse, de Chirico, Duchamp, Malevich, Kandinsky, Vermeer, Wojnarowicz, Andre Masson, Hans Arp, Robert Frank, Hannah Hoch and so many others rise up in my blood. Around every corner lurked yet another ready-made assemblage waiting in the raw. I couldn’t push down that button on my camera again quickly enough. The hidden power of the obsolete whispered seductively from these bits of shattered debris left behind when the Berlin Wall fell—the inciting event that had marooned these locations and turned them into non-places.
The majority were former Soviet military enclaves and other East-German limbic zones ghosted by forgetting and decades of neglect. Some were originally constructed in the 1890s or even earlier, and had been re-purposed in widely divergent ways as the claim to their ownership was passed along from one generation or regime to the next. One had experienced a long life as an elaborately festooned dance hall situated alongside a lake (sadly it has been demolished since my trek to see its beauties). During the cold war another bore the staggering notoriety of being a nuclear missile launch site that American spy planes flying overhead every day never saw because it was carefully hidden beneath a forest of trees. Throughout their many incarnations several of the structures became hospitals for those wounded in war, the insane, or had served as sanitariums for those suffering from tuberculosis. This long gone residual sense of healing in them may have been something that I instinctively picked up and may have somehow helped bolster my own spirits even more from that lowest point I’d reached when first forced to flee my homeland.
For six years I pilgrimaged to as many of these lost places as I could. Sometimes with a friend, but also often alone, I would clandestinely sneak in or bribe a security guard to allow access to ground that seemed sacred to me, but which local eyes appeared to construe as forsaken terrain or as a dark memory hole best kept locked up tight. Getting in was usually nearly impossible. Vast heavy concrete slabs often had to be dragged away to enter a cavernous basement, because the regular surface doorways were always extremely well boarded up with bolts driven in to bar entry. On my last quest a 12-foot-high wall had to be scaled. In the process, unfortunately I fell and banged my arm so badly that at first I feared it may have been broken. Such risk underlined the importance of the work. Time was also always pushing hard at my back. The buildings were in such bad shape that they were regularly being destroyed either by their owners or the government. There was no way to be sure if any of these gems would still be around tomorrow. Some were already nothing but a pile of bricks by the time we got to them, whereas others (some of my most favorite ones!) met doom within months of when I had been lucky enough to capture their haunting beauty in my lens.
So I’d collected all of these photos and even created something of an online ruckus by sharing a few of them on social media. But regardless of whatever praise such work received, the end result never satisfied me. The flatness they had on a monitor or even when professionally printed out on high quality photo paper never really did it for me. The potent feeling of drama, danger, and passion that the places had triggered in me was missing. The photos alone were too clean. Too easy. Too safe.
To remedy this problem, fate picked up a sledgehammer and clunked me over the head hard with a huge new problem. I’d fallen in love with a woman from Moscow and married her. But the German government made it nearly impossible for us to be together in Berlin for more than a few months at a time due to visa issues connected to her being a Russian citizen, and the vast influx of already politically-approved asylum seekers flooding in from Syria at the time. As you may know yourself or at least be able to guess, despite whatever emotional hooks Skype may try to promote in its advertisements, what it offers can never replace the feeling of someone’s arms around you. No longer wanting to live in a digital wasteland, my wife and I decided instead to move together to Virginia where her Russian-born mother already lived. And because my wife already had a green card and had secured it nine years prior to meeting me, my previous troubles with the immigration folks would not be an issue or raise any eyebrows. So I traveled back stateside to be with her.
Not that long after my feet touched the ground and my umpteen boxes were unpacked, I decided to break that solemn promise I’d made to myself. I picked up a paintbrush, got to work in a new studio, and began to push my Neo-Fresco medium to the limit of what I imagined it could achieve. (I’d first come up with the rudimentary and experimental elements of this unusual art form clear back in 1993 when several pieces of my video equipment malfunctioned simultaneously, a disaster which had then forced me to let go of my identity as a videomaker, adapt, and shift instead over to painting in order to keep feeding my relentless inner need to create). Much to my surprise, soon after I returned to working with the medium, it became clear that my long dormant crop field of painting had grown quite fertile while I’d let it sit fallow. The results can be seen in the images of the Lost Worlds of Berlin collection. However, it may be best to stand in front of the actual objects yourself, if possible, to fully engage with their sculptured quality and the sense of brokenness in the surface and see if you can resist reaching out to touch it.