Spotted an interesting title on the June cover of the trendy Monocle on the newstand yesterday. If I remember correctly (I did not write it down, thought I could get in on the web. But I was wrong), it’s something like “Ich bin ein Berliner …..immigrants from the former East.”, about the only complete German sentence I can understand from taking a four-week intensive course about 40 years ago. (The other sentence I know “Ich lieber dich.” simply has no application for most non-German speaking people in their life time.)
What a coincidence. My wife and I travelled with two Berliners to Beijing last month. An artist couple, the husband Alexander is a sculptor-painter-set decorator and his American wife Sommer a chereographer and stage director.
Alexander grew up in former East Berlin, made his career decision at about five or six, a leader in his school days. Made his name very early in his career. When the East Germany regime collapsed with the Wall, he was about twenty. But strangely, he takes this watershed change in his life quite calmly, does not have much complain about his 'former' life under communist rule, and not much praise about his current life under capitalist freedom and prosperity.
And just as coincidental, during the week we spent together in Beijing, Alexander’s fellow sculptor in the Chinese capital Ai Weiwei(艾未未) was incommunicado after being taken away by the authority. Presumably feeling suffocating and unsafe in his homeland, Ai had just bought a gallery in Alexander’s city and planned to emigrate. If not for the incident, these two artists, both “grew up under the red flag” （在紅旗下長大）as the Chinese say, may meet in Beijing and soon again in Berlin to share their work and experiences. But now, I doubt if they would meet any time soon.
As a matter of fact, it was the first Asian trip for Alexander and Sommer, planned long before Ai’s incident. Alexander was more interested in seeing what China was like, especially art works in public spaces than plunging himself into the Chinese art sea.
We don’t know each other before this trip, happen to be on the boat at the courtesy of an artist friend from Hong Kong who has a SOHO in Beijing. No, not that famous glass tower in the so-called CBD area, but an apartment decorated in the style of a New York loft in which our host works with Beijing artists for their joint projects.
The works that Alexander showed me in his Mac are in general pretty abstract, even carrying a sense of darkness (http://www.alexanderpolzin.de/). But the one scuplture which makes Tel Aviv University its permanent home is so transparent even for an illiterate like me, and indeed would resonate with many Chinese. It is the upper part of a person with his or her mouth blocked by a raised arm extending from one side of the body to the other. And that person is not anyone, but the father of Western philosophy Socrates. (figure) A well-known art work about this ancient Greek tragic figure is a painting showing him taking poison in accorddance with the sentence he received for ‘corrupting’ the youth by asking them to ‘question’ conventional thoughts. As later generations may think stupid, Socrates refused to go into exile and chose to become a martyr for seeking the truth. This attitude towards authoritarian sentences against freedom of expression and thought was repeated about 500 years later by Jesus of Nazareth, now Palestine.
Alexander’s works are basically expressions of his thought. If there is a political overtune, it’s minimal. In sharp contrast, the works of Ai are pure protests. I am not sure if they have values as art other than that. Judging from his behaviorial art in which he wears nothing except covering his genital area with a symbolic penis while at the same time, using homonyms in Chinese to kind of ‘deface’ the commnunist party （2 figures）, Ai is tryiing to use expressions as vulgar as possible to provoke a regime which in his eyss may be the most vulgar on earth, get them to lose temper and throw themselves on him, thus exposing how insecure the regime is.
In Chinese, one may say Ai’s strategy towards the regime is以毒攻毒 (treating poison with an even stronger one). And the sympathy that he receives in China is a sign of the sickenss of a society in which suppression and reation continue to escalate in a multually reinforcing circle. It may be that Ai does not mind if he pushes to the point of make and break. Since in that case, there will be revolution like the one which knocked down the Berlin wall in late 1989, in Chinese another 蘇東波. And being an artist, he may not too concerned with a possible societal chaos or economic standstill.
So, Alexander’s attitude towards the former East German regime is very different. But judging from his Socrates sculpture, he is against suppression of expression.
Indeed, Alexander does not seem to be a typical Westerner to me, far from the confident and expressive Americans whom I see more often. But it does not means he is cold and self-centered. Although tall by East Asia standard and with the good look of a movie star, he is shy, taciturn, humble, with a gentle and sometimes mischievous smile which you see in a traditional Eastern child.
Only when he cracks up on good jokes, almost jumping on his chair gag, gag, gap……, or when his eyes shine on sweets, especially chocolates, he shows his Westernness, more like an American kid. And only in the way that he is particular about everything well planned ahead of time and pursuing a spotless hygiene condition, you see a German in him.
As for Sommer, although she was the one that did the most talking while Alexander sat and listened repectfully (and smiled), we unfortunately did not hear much about her work. Other than that, the only question I have about her is if she chooses to be a stand-up comedian, an English-German bilingual one, she may be able to create a phenomenon.
When we parted, I suggested that they visit Japan next time, guess the neat, clean, order, tranquility of Japanese aesthetics will fit perfectly with Alexander. Indeed, they immediately name Miho (美秀) Museum, the one designed by the Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei (貝聿銘) near Osaka as their first choice.
Best from Hong Kong to Berlin.