Looking out over Berlin
The view is spectacular from the terrace that wraps around the roof of the older Federal Foreign Office building in Berlin’s Mitte district. Visitors enjoy a marvellous panorama. You can look northward and gaze at the TV tower, the dome of Berlin Cathedral and the Humboldt-Forum, the tower of Rotes Rathaus; or southward and enjoy the sight of the high-rises on Leipziger Strasse. However, what you are actually walking round, the premises on the top floor of the building, were for many years a non-building: a structure that had not been modernized it was simply used by the neighbouring International Club as storerooms.
All that changed with the “AArtist-in-residence-Programm”, a Federal Foreign Office project launched together with Landesverband Berliner Galerien. Initially as a trial run in 2008 and then again during Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s second period in office as Federal Foreign Minister, the almost forgotten place was turned into a semi-public space. For three months at a time, a Berlin artist was able to use it – either an artist who has relocated here or who conversely in his or her work addresses themes relating to foreign countries. The Federal Foreign Office is thus conducting a very special form of foreign policymaking on its very own roof: using art to reach out across borders.
The semi-public nature cut both ways. Repeatedly, guests register with the ministry; and the respective roof-artists have to be open-minded. Beatrice Minda has resided here since September und has already received a delegation of Arab artists who were in Germany to visit the Documenta and a group of British politicians. Such interruptions by no means worry the photographer. After all, she not only intends to use the unusual space – where cables still hang from the ceiling and the walls have still not been plastered – to prepare her latest photo book, but also to let the atmosphere of the place inspire her.
Every morning, like all the ministry staff members she passes through the security checks and then takes the paternoster to the top floor, where she walks through the International Club’s dining room, with its beautiful wooden panelling, to reach her temporary studio. Minda is the sixth participant in the in-house residency programme, and was preceded by a sculptor, an installation artist and a video artist. Each of them forged a special link to the setting.
Beatrice Minda has still to create an artistic bond to the place. Her plan is to head downstairs to the Federal Foreign Office archive and study the diplomatic files in old Burma. Her findings may be reflected in the planned photo book, which is dedicated to Myanmar and its history. The images are hung on all the walls in the roof-top studio. “Silent Whispers” is the title she has given her project. And indeed the past whispers from the square images – they are of houses that are in part over a century old and which Minda captured as long shots using a medium-format camera. You immediately forget the world outside, the roof panorama, and are grabbed by the atmosphere of the “inside world”, the title of one of the artist’s other photo projects.
When viewing the images you might well ask: Where do the antlers on the wall come from? Why is there a mosquito net in the middle of the room? What are the Chinese characters doing on the facade? Who uses the hammock inside the net? Over the last three years, Minda travelled four times to Myanmar, each trip lasting several weeks; there she searched for houses from colonial days that are still in use. Today, these are the oldest houses in which Burma’s history is preserved and where its present can only in part be detected. Not all of them were built by British colonial administrators, some of them belonged to important Burmese families who owned silk factories or mines, or by plantation owners from neighbouring countries.
The 49-year-old artist found herself entering a country that seemed like a hidden world where had time stood still. Only recently have foreigners been permitted to step across the threshold into private homes in Myanmar. As the country opens up, so such houses’ days are probably counted – many of the houses of the aristocracy have already been destroyed. “Soon these places will be gone,” Minda suggests. “The houses are worth less than the land on which they stand. Or they’ll get converted into luxury hotels.”
For me, photography is the gateway to the world.
This could also happen with Daungyi, the glorious house with the Chinese characters on the front that was built in 1939 by its owner – he had emigrated from China and traded in rice and beans. During the Japanese occupation it was used as the military police HQ. The owner today, a niece of the man who built it, has lived here all her life. When Minda visited her, the lady was busy looking after the baby of a widowed cousin. Which explains the hammock in the large and otherwise empty room. The brief pointers to history and to the house’s current inhabitants support the images. Minda finds that the camera on its own is not enough, she wants to dig deeper into the mysterious sphere without being voyeuristic, seeks to understand the background in order to paint a multi-layered portrait. “For me, photography is the gateway to the world,” she says.
Minda, who most recently studied under Katharina Sieverding at the Berlin University of Arts, does massive preparatory work for her multi-year projects. For her previous project, the portrait of upper-middle class houses in Iran (where in the days of the Shah Western interiors and notions of comfort were emulated, and in which after the Revolution a libertarian lifestyle continued in secret), Minda immersed herself in specialist literature on the structure and function of Middle Eastern architecture. What the original function of a swimming pool was, why today nobody swims in it any longer and it is instead covered in plants – as can be seen in the picture – is something she offers the beholder by way of explanation.
By the time she started the project, Minda made a real name for herself with her “Innenwelt”, a report from Romania for which her own biography helped serve as the template. She was born in Munich on the day her mother left Romania, and as a child she repeatedly visited her parent’s home country, spent the holidays with her grandparents and aunts, who had remained there. Back then, among the strongest impressions she had were the rooms into which she stepped. She felt it was like travelling back in time, back into the 19th century.
When, as an adult, she wanted to visit these auratic spaces again, it was only to find out that many of the houses had given way to Communist prefabs. Minda set out to search for other examples and discovered a sphere cut off from the outside world in which the inhabitants had tried to continue their bourgeois lives in defiance of the political system. The shape of people’s private lives was something many took with them when the emigrated, as Minda found out when next researching exile Romanians in Germany and France, and among migrant workers on large construction sites. There, she often came across part of her own past.
Minda’s over-arching theme is cultural identity, irrespective of where she is in the world. Her next project may lead her to South America, but she does not yet know for certain. In the mean time, she is enjoying her three months as Artist-Resident at the Federal Foreign Office. Today, cultural work at the ministry is undertaken by cooperating with others. What better proof could there be than the artist up on the roof who is so eager to find out about the life and history of other countries.
Photos: Fotos: Thilo Rückeis (4), Beatrice Minda "Iran. Interupted", Hatje Cantz Verlag
Author Nicola Kuhn
is an editor for the visual arts with Berlin’s “Tagesspiegel” newspaper.