“There is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.”
~Leonard Cohen, Anthem
As Michael Kroetch explored the abandoned 19th-century buildings that inspired his series, The Lost Worlds of Berlin, he felt as if he’d returned to childhood. “Because no one can be sure what happened in these places, your imagination runs free.” He took photographs, but for him they failed to elicit the true thrill of the structures. So, after a decade of being put on hold, his own inner drive to paint artworks of astounding beauty and mystery was revived.
Kroetch has brought to life the gritty zeal of the long-deserted buildings in the pieces of this exhibit not simply by rendering what he saw, but pushing further as if constructing the physical rooms anew with underlying foundations of wood and plaster. The finished artwork presents sagging walls, chipped paint, smashed windows, busted-up floors, and droopy ceilings as fragments of grace. Bathing the lost rooms in an ethereal light that illuminates both their past and present, the artist revitalizes them, yet also immerses us in the presence of absence.
By using of his own unique new creative medium, Kroetch establishes a multidimensional surface that invites the viewer to enter the enigmatic rooms. He evokes in precise detail what a visitor might see. Thin layers of acrylic, ink, gel, resin, tissue, and other elements combine to call forth the stylish ruins. However, it is the gold-copper “healing light” in some cracked surfaces that adds an extra touch of magic.
While making The Lost Worlds of Berlin series, Kroetch brought into play the notion of Japanese Kintsugi pottery, a traditional craft utilizing broken ceramic pots that are reconstructed with their shattered remains reunited and cracks sealed by gold. The resulting vessels are laced with gold patterns that call to mind the objects’ past, yet lift them to a delicate new level and way of being perceived. For Kroetch, using the alchemical gold and copper to amplify and fill in the destruction so evident in his rooms represents for him “a process of healing them, and at the same time, the imperfections in myself. It’s a strengthening exercise, transforming what could be seen as faults into points of power.”
From early 19th century’s formality and the riots of color and patterning in the late romantics through to the spare, yet highly ornamented imagery of Jugendstil, or the Bauhaus style so linear and utilitarian in the 1920’s, and later Socialist Realism’s affection for bulky concrete, clearly Berlin’s design canon has seen many changes over the years. Likewise, the buildings in these artworks have undergone many alterings, having survived various wars, regimes, and shifting politics. For example, when soviet troops occupied East Berlin and most of these buildings, the GDR likely put their own mark on the sites, furnishing them with little more than serviceable office and barracks equipment. Yet all such variations in design ceased in 1989 when the iron curtain fell and the buildings were left to fester for 30 years.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
~The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats. 1919
The paintings in The Lost Worlds of Berlin depict an endpoint of cultural and architectural history. Yet like the city itself, they exude a potent romanticism—not only of passion, music, light and color, but one also strongly focused on the pitched battle between annihilation and creation, ruin and form, stability and catastrophe. Although the deserted buildings now exist outside time, paradoxically they’re also an intersection of multiple chronologies and generations of experience that simultaneously rise forth to become visible through multi-layered weaves of peeling paint and torn wall paper.
Everything Is Illuminated reveals a small, cave-like room swathed in morning light that shimmers in the gold-copper filled cracks Kroetch fissured into it. Similar to all his work, its plaster matt-like border resembles a doorframe. As one peers in, other relief layers emerge, along with peeling walls and leaves blown in through partly ajar doors that lead out to brilliant greenery and fresh air. Traveling through this intimate enclosure - a child’s bedroom? a small sitting room? – we may imagine the periphery adorned with rose paint or geometric Deco wallpaper.
The artist’s work continues with an even more powerful application of the transformative copper-gold in The Room that Dreamed it was a Cloud. A slightly larger room, this one seems to have swallowed the sky. Puffs of white and blue float toward our own space. Tree-like floor-to-ceiling gold-copper filled cracks carry a hint of long faded Jugendstil décor while fallen ceiling plaster reveals the space’s underlying brickwork. Before the space became a GDR military office or East German Stasi secret police interrogation room, a sinewy Jugendstil end table could easily have held a stained glass reading lamp with an eroticized woman forming its base.
Kroetch also frequented great rooms with public purpose. Furtive Light presents a rounded space with a high-windowed wall. It seems in better shape than the prior two. But what happened here? A hall for receiving guests? Small banquets? Is the stenciled marking on the floor all that remains of military order? The squares of dappled light hovering over this floor seem almost sonorous, yet their transitory immateriality also articulates the same lack of belonging found in many pieces of the series.
The Lost Waltz transports us back to a stunning 19th-century grand ballroom. It’s as if the sparkle, laughter, and music has been fused to the mystical light now illuminating the room. Cracks filled with branching streaks of copper-gold belong here as much as when the hall was newly built and brimming with bejeweled revelers. The windows may reflect interior candelabra or be marred with graffiti. Either way, countless phantoms of bygone eras still dwell here—as too does a long forgotten wine bottle.
On some stairways in Kroetch’s works we trip over the impossible world of Maurits Escher. Space and architecture no longer conform to three-dimensional expectation. In the paintings Escher and The Rising, which each depict the same vertigo-inducing stairway from different perspectives, 21st-century life’s disorientation catches us up. Although the stairwell may have been built in a more regulated time, in Kroetch’s vision it feels neither safe nor sensible.
The artist says he sometimes found the structures wedged into normal Berlin neighborhoods. “Getting in is always tricky, but once you are—wow—the debris can be so astonishing and vibrant. Nature, insects, animals, microbes, and decades of weathering have altered everything. They are the latest occupants, artisans, and cutting-edge designers.” He calls the apocalyptic seeming edifices ghost buildings. Once new, now ancient, vulnerable, and falling to ruin—the interiors of Kroetch’s The Lost Worlds of Berlin series exude an other worldly presence. His artistic ingenuity and creative vision transform them into multi-layered metaphors, through which light whirls backwards and forwards in time. These are unforgettable images, not only because of their historical resonance but because they may be augurs of the future as well.
Florie Gilbard. 2019