“I have to run through Peckham! At Night!”
Waking up singing “I was a Teenage Anarchist” and “Gone Mad”, lazy 11am breakfast reading a new book, afternoon of grinding and roasting spices, prepping roe deer meat from the local Wildfleischhandel, shopping for dinner and the week, baking a pile of banana energy bars, murdering up a Baltistan curry while chatting with Gala, eating said curry while returning to book, bit of sci-fi telly with cardamom chocolate, the apartment soaking the whole day in rich scents and cooking, and now all that but 2 hours of the day done. I just want to remember about a perfect a day as I can have.
One other from Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Pieter Aertsen’s De Keukenmeid / Le Cuisinière from 1559. I think there’s a similar one in Gemäldegalerie or some other museum I’ve been to more than once — he painted the same work more than once — but I really love this one, her expression and posture; I reckon she’d be good value for post-work hanging out. I would say yes to a beer at Le Fontainas any night of the week.
My flatmate is the best flatmate. (Was fully delicious. I scoffed it in bed while hooning the Regenbogen Autobahn. And followed it with a block of chocolate. Also was the full moon. Oh! And taken with my new, sci-fi iPhone SE. First images even.)
I only care about white asparagus season because it means rhubarb season.
Yesterday, Tuesday, up hours before dawn without much sleep anyway, on my bike in freezing fog, through Kreuzberg, Hallesches Tor, up Wilhelmstraße by Brandenburger Tor, crossing the Spree, Luisenstraße, Invalidenstraße, skirting Berlin Hauptbahnhof, through the construction along Heidestraße, onto Friedrich-Kraus-Ufer and into the Ausländerbehörde.
Marie, my lawyer the last some years arrives shortly after I do. We sit in the E1 waiting room on wooden benches racked with anxious others waiting for their number to chime. Half an hour after my appointment time we’re still waiting. Marie goes in search, moving through the building in ways I alone never could. This is why I have a lawyer, or from her perspective, why she is assisting me.
It’s slightly over two years since I began the grind towards permanent residency in Germany, or an Aufenthaltstitel with unbefristet Niederlassungserlaubnis as it’s called. Two years of acquiring documents, more documents, back and forths, hitting walls and dead ends, being navigated through the system by late-night emails and phone calls from Marie, seeing the system tighten and close up the grey areas, the older ways of living in Berlin increasingly proscribed and delineated. Months of silence as my application was lost, the Behörde in chaos, Berlin city elections, new regulations, having to repeat collecting all those documents to fill in the gaps for those six months, the date of my current residency permit expiry drawing near then passing, more letters from Marie to them, more weeks and days and hours of collecting and changing and updating documents, filling in those gaps.
And finally a stack of paper about 2cm high fulfilling the requirements to be accepted as a permanent resident. There were lot of nights not sleeping these last weeks, and drinking the edge off this. Marie more than once telling me it was going to be ok; me preparing for the worst, pragmatic about outcomes for those who fall into those grey areas. Every time I’ve walked through the Ausländerbehörde, sat in those waiting rooms, I’ve seen that same anxious pragmatism on the faces of people, alone, in pairs, small groups, families. I’ve done it alone every time but this, and there’s no way the outcome would have been positive without Marie.
After all that preparation and waiting, the outcome is entirely dependant on the person sitting opposite. I’ve had a gruff old dragon lady of the ‘hard but fair’ school, a young woman of the Willkommenskultur type years before that word became common parlance in Germany. I’ve also had a young woman whose face could not conceal the disgust and physical discomfort at me, who explicitly turned that bigotry into an interpretation of the regulations to try and deny my residency renewal. This time, Marie said, “He’s new, he seems really positive.”
I barely see him. He’s young, friendly, we three sit in his office while I complete a German language test to prove I’m at least B2, all looking kind of bemused at each other, at the questions he’s reading to me and my answers. “Describe the room you’re sitting in.” “Well, there’s a big window, you can see the Spree out it, and Wedding on the other side, there’s some tables, a calendar on the wall … umm … some shelves, a computer, buncha chairs—” “Yeah, I think that’s enough, eh?”
More waiting. Marie runs off again. She’s carrying a pile of folders, I’m not the only one she’s cutting a path for here today. Then back into his office, collecting all those documents I’d handed over, collecting my passport. Marie hustles me down the hall, “Show me,” she says. “Nie wieder, Frances, nie wieder. You’ll never again have to come here.” And there beside that headshot I took on Monday, underneath my name, it says, “Gültig bis: unbefristet” and “Art des Titels: Niederlassungserlaubnis”.
It’s not a place for celebration. It’s a place for anxiety, fear, disillusionment, heartbreak. More than once I’ve gone through the process and been spat out with a Fiktionsbescheinigung, a temporary piece of paper because my application wasn’t complete to their satisfaction, a function of the idea or romance of living in Berlin as an artist and the increasing liminality of that within the bureaucratic system here. On the wall in the waiting room was a poster of a young, smiling woman wearing a hijab. Underneath it said, “Ich bin Berliner”. I’m not sure that was a comfort to the women in the room wearing hijab or coming from Middle Eastern countries—or born in Germany with the vagaries of citizenship here. Whatever celebration and relief I have, it’s tempered by knowing for others yesterday didn’t work out as they needed.
I rode along the Spree, into Wedding, stopping at Leopoldplatz for the small market, bought some excellent German bread, cheese, and some Hirschsalami, feeling weirdly like I belonged, stopping at Uferhallen to visit Dasniya for Tuesday morning Shibari. Which led to Tuesday afternoon eating of those supplies, along with glasses of gin. It was the morning after a wanker stole a truck and drove it into the Weihnachtsmarkt at Breitscheidplatz in West Berlin, killing 12 and injuring close to fifty.
Without Marie, my Tuesday and today would be very different. Without my friends here in Berlin and spread across Europe, likewise. Marie Ellersiek is the most excellent lawyer and I owe her so many bottles of wine. Dasniya Sommer and Katrin Sellerbeck supported and helped me in so many ways, and lamb curry will be cooked. There are many others, and thank you to you all.
Icke bin Berlina.
Off we go with mediæval art in Valenciennes. And the very first thing is an a winged altarpiece by Pieter Coecke Van Aels of L’Adoration des mages, and guess who’s there? Nah, don’t, just look at that beautiful left wing.
A sad theme throughout the smaller salles was heavily varnished works like this facing outwards to uncovered windows. There were diffusing blinds, but only drawn three-quarters of the way down. Works like this I had to assemble from multiple images, or in this case, photograph from the side, above, or combination of unflattering angles and fix the mess in Photoshop. There’s only so much fixing of specular highlights and distortion software can do, so call these approximate.
And directly to Hieronymous Bosch. Never easy to call a favourite (because of all the mawkish adoration—kinda like the Mona Lisa, except the Mona Lisa is actually crap), but fuck me if he wasn’t on some strong acid. It’s some Salvador Dalí-shaming levels of freak.
Opposite that, and this gives an idea of how small the museum is, how quick it moves through epochs—we’re covering about a century in these three works—one of those Le banquier et sa femme pieces which I love cos it’s actually The Banker and her Employee. I’m all for historical revisionism right here. There were plenty of successful female merchants and guildswomen in the middle ages and renaissance, and reframing the possessive if nothing else helps regard works with slightly lesser unconscious contemporary bias. And I like she being all boss, “Count my money while I read important shit.”
Into the main hall. It’s called the salle Rubens for a reason.
Let’s divert and do some context: the outer wing salles are about 35 metres long, 12 metres wide, 8-10 metres high to the roofline, topped with steep glass atrium. The whole place was reopened in September after a two-year renovation, concurrent with quite a few restorations. There’s 400 paintings and 160 sculptures on display, of which I stupidly committed to blogging ninety-nine. But we’re talking size here. Both of those 12×8 metre end walls are filled to leaking with a single Rubens each.
I had a moment of vertiginous comprehension right then of art in Europe. In Australia seeing a Rubens is the province of special Once-In-A-Lifetime touring exhibitions in the National Galleries—Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra—and of shelling out $30 or more for the privilege, probably a camera ban too, extremely unlikely to be these massive, monolithic almost 100 square metre pieces. In Europe, I wander into the equivalent of Albury–Wodonga, pay 4.50€ and have a hall where each of the works has the surface area of a room and they’re all fucking Rubens or Maerten de Vos or Caravaggistis or you know, like digging up your backyard and finding a Roman burial chamber.
The first and smallest is a de Vos, another L’Adoration des mages and it’s a charmer. And cos photography doesn’t tell you anything about how big or small a work is, in this case the figures are about lifesize. You’re probably thinking, “But Frances, it’s all religious shit right there. WTF?” (Coz I see your eyes glaze over when I talk about this shit, just like they do when I go all Nürburgring 24h on you.) And you’d be right. But you’re wrong. Ignore Mary and the Holy Family for a second and look at the crowd scene. Look at the clothing, the headdresses, the people. Look at the camels. Look at the elephants!
Next to that, another de Vos, La Sainte Parenté, which I love for its wall-to-wall women.
And opposite, Rubens’ Le martyre de Saint Etienne. The brushwork, movement, light, photos don’t really convey this, especially with its size. And for size: his Le Triomphe de l’Eucharistie, one of those end wall pieces. We’re talking not quite double life-size here. And check out the babes at the bottom. Totally, “That’s my Fetish!” right there.
Out of the salle and into the small ones. Jean-Baptiste Vanmour is a very interesting guy, as his name indicates. Portrait d’un dignitaire noir is the size of a large book, buckets of glaze and subdued tones and requisite naked window lighting glare. It’s a full-length piece, his clothing is sumptuous. This is about the best I could do, and even then the colour balance is iffy.
And then a goat. Any museum without goats, I am not interested. This one had at least three.
I’m whipping through some rooms here, until we get to Jan Cossiers’ La diseuse de bonne aventure, which I realised in the Louvre is a bit of a northern European theme (pretty sure I’ve seen this subject in Gemäldegalerie). The rich young fop who has his purse cut on one side while getting his palm read on the other. I’m not sure if the message is, “Gypsies. amirite?” or “LOL Fop!” slash “Doin’ it for teh lulz.” Anyway, Baroque memes.
Approximately next to that, drunk family and bagpipes. Thank you very much, Jacob Jordaens and your Les Jeunes piaillent comme chantent les vieux, quite a bit for the pleased woman on the right and her glass. You know you’d get your drunk on with her.
In the same chamber—I think, one of the smaller quartet ones anyway—is the brilliant Architecture animée de personnages by Jacobus Ferdinandus Saeys. He was seriously into painting architecture, but it’s personnages here, the women in their mad clothing, hats and parasols, and the principally the prancing guy filling up the empty lower left quarter, tripping gaily with two dogs and a red parrot matching his boots and scarf, dressed in black and yellow stripes, a feather in his turban … in all my museuming I’ve seen none finer. None. Finer.
So I’m just going to stop this first part here, and let you wander through the remaining pieces.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes continues in the Rotonda & salon Carpeaux.
9am on the train from Gesundbrunnen to Hennigsdorf. Eight hours later arriving back, much dustier, dirtier, kissed by hours riding in the sun, David and I, and bearing a 1970’s DDR blue and white coffee set, scored for an incredible twelve euros in Birkenwerder—which I would have never succumbed to if I’d known the scruffy trails we’d plough along later.
We were following the 66-Seen-Wanderweg, which circles Berlin in a 416km loop through lakes, rivers, canals, forests, quite a few small towns, and from which we deviated repeatedly and wildly, ending up in Oranienburg, almost in Sachsenhausen. Some time later we plopped down beside the water at Liepnizsee, ate excellent aged cheddar cheese, aromatic German Essener Art Brot, even more aromatic Wollschweinwurst, nuts and carrots and tart as buggery apples, and drank cups of tea from afore-purchased cups on their matching saucers.
Later again, we doodled around Hellsee and took a proper pause for making photos at the marsh, before barging off into sandy up and down forests until spat out near Rüdnitz. A dizzying 63km in six and an half hours between train stations on beautiful winding, undulating forest roads and equally beautiful forest trails of all types. So now we’ve committed to doing the whole 17 stages.
Ebba, Tova & Gabriel host a conversation with the Berlin-based choreographers Dasniya Sommer and Frances d’Ath, that visited Nyxxx & KokoroTwo & Rökridånfor a working residency the 28th of April-4th of May in 2015. When the conversation starts, we have just participated in a shibari yoga class guided by Dasniya. From this point of reference, we go on to discuss among many other things exoskeletons, religious metaphors and the invention of rope as a parallel to the invention of the wheel.
— NYXXX: Avsnitt #9 — Ropes & Roles