Thursday, February 14, 2008

A Good Feeling

Nico - I'll Keep It With Mine MP3

Photograph by Martin Parr, from "The Last Resort."

Today I had a good feeling. Having planned to meet my friends from Hamburg, Sonja and Niki, for a rare combination of sustenance and culture, I walked out my front door, turned right, and traced the almost straight line to the Samaritestrasse U-Bahn station. Before I could reach my final destination, Oranienburger strasse, I was required to make two changes, one at Alexanderplatz, and another at Friedrichstrasse.

Normally, such a circuitous route would spark in me some form of anxiety (I tend to be unnecessarily short tempered when traversing the urban landscape) but today I didn't mind. In fact, the whole process transcended me as though by some divine intervention, and while I was making the first change at Alexanderplatz I experienced the wonderful (see how it has been upgraded from good to wonderful) feeling of which I earlier spoke. The feeling was this: for the first time since moving to Berlin, I was not conscious of where I was or where I was going; my thoughts were elsewhere-perhaps I was mentally reviewing a new piece of music, or possibly just reviewing the vacuous space that was beginning to fill my stomach region-but either way, I certainly was not forcing myself to be continuously critical of my every move.

There's a certain self-consciousness, a kind of continual embarrassment, that goes along with being a new person in any place. You have sense that, at any given moment, every capable citizen is watching you, secretly laughing at your every misstep. But today I was just a piece of the machine, an ordinary gear in the ever-expansive clock of human interaction. Sometimes it's nice to be part of a machine, it just has to be the right one.

I arrived early, and spent about thirty minutes in the park, watching the sun's angle decline, appreciating the fact that I was using this civic gift just as it was intended to be used: reading, watching, depositing my cigarette ash in the ashtray provided for me by the government, understanding how parks act as little puddles of serenity, placed evenly around a city to balance out the madness. Parks are almost living proof that everyone, even those in charge, is aware that life is more stressful than it needs to be.

After lunch, we filed into the Martin Parr exhibition. I don't know how much you know about Martin Parr, but before today I knew absolutely nothing. The briefing I had received (from my friend Moritz) was that his work focuses mainly on the grotesque contrasts/contradictions of modern Western society, both at home and in areas of reduced financial prosperity. It is often the work of juxtaposition: statues of the Virgin Mary underneath a McDonald's awning, British tourists stuffing their faces at a Belgian holiday resort surrounded by garbage, sun-bleached couples seemingly miserable on a crowded ocean front.

Interestingly enough, there were quite a few photographs of Glasgow, which is obviously of great interest to me. Some, I did think, were particularly harrowing, specifically the photo of the men's barber shop, the walls of which were entirely covered with images of naked women. However, there were certain photographs that did not fill me with any sense of disgust. I remember, very specifically, a photograph which portrays a Glasgow street, one where most of the buildings have been demolished and thus there remains only one or two tenements, one or more of their sides exposed. In the foreground of the image one can see a Tennents beer sign, indicating the door to a pub. Obviously, the idea is that, amongst such urban desolation, the most popular escape is liquid mental abandon in an aesthetically-impoverished setting, but when I saw this, the first thought that flashed into my mind was, Sometimes life just looks like that.

I lived in Glasgow for three and a half years, and although I was a) a foreigner, and thus, in some ways, a tourist, and b) living in a very nice part of Glasgow, I still lived there, and I still frequented quite a few places that didn't look entirely unlike this one. Glasgow has a kind of grit and I don't think it's something to be ashamed of. During my time there, I picked up on an almost beautiful force, a simultaneous wisdom and madness that allows the people there to be drawn so close to each other, a sort of universal refuge under all that grey brick and grey sky. It is my belief that, an image such as the one I have described, is totally ignorant of that positive energy.

Two other images really captivated me. The first was of an elderly woman wearing a white cap and orthopedic shoes, eating alone in a McDonalds, hunched over the table. Even as I'm describing it now, it's nearly bringing tears to my eyes. I have knowingly done any number of things to destroy my body (drinking, smoking, whatever...), but this woman, why is she doing this? It's one thing to see a younger person eating a processed hamburger but it's entirely different when you see an elderly woman carrying out the same act. All I can think is that, either she doesn't know any better, or it's the only option she can afford, which brings me to my next thought: Why the fuck do fast food companies make this shit available to people?!

Yeah, consumers have a choice, but all people, especially those in the business of distributing food products, must be perfectly aware that not all are consumers are equally educated, and thus they knowingly provide the crutch for susceptible eaters. Drugs like heroin and cocaine are also really bad for you, and often a crutch, but they're fucking illegal, aren't they? I don't know why the powers that be, or people in general (who I suppose are the powers that be) are not bothered by this image of lonely old woman hunched over a styrofoam plate. I just keep imagining that it's my grandmother, who lived as a widow for the last forty years of her life, sat by herself in a soulless plastic box of a restaurant, thinking to herself, Life is so unfair. It fucking breaks my heart.

The second image which caught my eye is one which depicts a slew of tourists at a Brighton beach resort, waiting to get to the front of a fast food queue. It is somewhat of an action/motion shot, causing the majority of depicted individuals to appear blurred. However, in complete focus, at the far right of the shot, stands a boy of somewhere between eleven and thirteen years, his right arm akimbo as he stares thoughtfully out of the frame and into the present. The remarkable thing about this boy is that he has the face and complete composure of a grown man. Not the facial hair and wrinkles, or course, but rather the sense of understanding and inherent wisdom. During my time as a pre-school teacher, I noticed this trait in some of my students. The viewing of this phenomenon always fills me with a mixed sense of wonder, admiration and sadness, for in some ways, to understand too much too young is a hindrance.

Does this boy remember the day the photograph was taken? What was he thinking about? The photograph is from 1985. He must be in his mid thirties by now. As he walks the streets of whichever British town or city in which he resides, does he still have that same glaze of guaranteed assurance? Does he think to himself, I've got the answer-I've always had the answer? And on the day the photograph was taken did he surmise that it was grotesque, that he was grotesque, that the whole situation of Western capitalism was, for all intents and purposes, grotesque? Fat. Ugly. Unhealthy. Probably not, he probably just accepted that day as it happened, for that's how we live, isn't it? An image is capable of highlighting, later on, an essence that was present all the time, but went unnoticed. Its power resides in its retrospective quality.

And I suppose that's why Carr's work, or any artist's work is important, even if it sometimes neglects the fullness of the human experience: Be part of the machine, enjoy and accept the things around you, but don't forget, once and a while, to stop and criticize.