Even when intensely focused – on Coryat, his route, the Rhine, just finishing, the detail of everything from light to the often mythological names of the container ships that cruise the river – I am also living the bi-polar existence of multiple personality, at once deracinated and simultaneously acutely gripped. It’s what they used to call being a generalist, before post-modernism and the digital made seductive ahistorical overtures, willing a constant present upon us that my own lifestyle choices in London and New York, fuelled by Wallpaper and label-dependance alike, did nothing to refute. I think it must have been first a few fraught weeks in Cairo, followed by several years living in Eastern Europe, that refreshed my visceral need for a sense of the something beyond the download and the wifi; discovering by accident the work of Thomas Coryat I was given, like Mathew Barney is the early video work I experienced in Basel, both the limits and the potential for delicious inventive variation, that inform this staccato journey.
Some of my All About Eve lives at this moment in Duisberg morning include the doctoral scholar, seeking moments of understanding when confronted by early religious art in the kunsthouses of Switzerland and Germany; the would be poet, checking proofs on a private collection I’ve written (and where does this impulse come from, the pieces are formal and metre-strict, not the free verse of escape but the prison of order…?); the traveller missing home and its pleasures, a belated family life (travelling themselves now, in America, across Europe by car…); the writer trying to find a harmony that might inspire a book proposal for this project that isn’t either labyrinthine and pretentious or a guide book; the lover of Kiefer and the reader in English of Heine whose two week German language immersion is proving unsurprisingly inadequate.
Another life that is increasingly impinging is that of researcher for a radio programme I am going to make next year; I need to understand an architect, and occasionally on the trip I read some of his pieces tucked away in the Papers app on the Ipad. He seems so wise, so thoughtful in his ability to meld old and new; the requirements of monumentality and those of the solitary individual; and his dates and passions mirror those of my own father, who died a couple of years ago and the anniversary of which is today – in brutalist Duisberg.
It’s not hard to feel stupendously ignorant on a journey such as this; too fast to dismiss, or too taken with the superficial; or similarly quick to rush headfirst over the top about something, a painting or a building, a bar where people were friendly. An Englishman always takes his time, Eartha sang, but it can’t always be true, sometimes we too – and perhaps increasingly – are a little premature ourselves.
Which is how I arrived for my cathartic Kiefers two hours early and stuck in the modern watery redeveloped wastelands of Duisberg, I sat down and had a little weep for a while.
A few weeks later, in fact two days back in London, I am at the tube station waiting to travel to the British Library for the first time in three months. My clothes are clean for a change and I have my fancy headphones back. On the floor, dirty and well-trodden, is a pull out section of this morning’s Financial Times. For some reason I am drawn to it: the supplement is titled: Doing Business in North Rhine-Westphalia; and on page four a long feature on the redevelopment of Dusiberg’s former bulk cargo harbour. It is one of those very strange moments; the scruffy supplement is open in front of me now, sitting in the British Library, recollecting the last three weeks of my journey. I read about Norman Foster’s grand plan, about the “targeted” investment, the switch from cargo harbour for the local coal and steel industry – we are in Ruhr-Land – towards being a “logistics hub”. But mostly I gulp in horror at the sentences about “luring residents and tourists with a mix of museums (including a Lego museum), shops and restaurants.”
I’ve been here last night and today, on a restlessly emotional day, the vision is grim: neither the neo-futurism of Canary Wharf (from where I’ve always imagined the Blade Runners of the late twenty first century will operate, chasing not facsimile humans but their algorithms), nor the Truffaut-esque Alphavillery of La Defence. No science fiction flies here, no sense of Super-Cannes just an acute embarrassment that this is probably all Britain’s (and her Bomber Classes) fault.
I can’t even bring myself to go into one of the cafe for a coffee, so I snuffle around taking grey photographs and wait for the art museum to open. In the FT’s relocation guide to Westphalia – Where to Live; Schools; Shopping and Leisure; Transport Links are the sub-heads to the article – there’s not a mention of Duisberg, it is all about the Bonn, Cologne, Dusseldorf triangle, and prose so deathless Bomber Harris might have written it. Anyway…
At eleven the doors to the museum-kueppersmuehle finally opens and I scurry around its nihilistically white high ceilinged rooms, taking in epic photography by Hans-Christian Schink that covers the entire ground floor. I’m not sure what to think, the work is very precise and at times seems overly simplistic, but gradually as I middle-agedly take in that I have been to many of these photo’s environments, I warm to Schink’s bleak tourism. It is as if the the desire to efface any suggestion of an emotional response has been removed, and a cold technocratic vision judges silently. I think of the work of Nadav Kander, of whose photoshopped images these remind me, and I have learnt to like those very much…and anyway this is just the foreplay. Crowds bussed in from somewhere arrive and I play a game of hide and seek with them as they are umbilically linked to a guide and so I move wherever they are not. As in Dusseldorf the museum is a cathedral of chilly calm; but without those interactive dancers. This is a museum of solitary introspection; at least it favours no visions of the bleak outside.
Once again, though, it is the permanent collection that excites me. For years now I have found in Anslem Kiefer’s work some kind of synthesis of the very public and the intensely personal. I find it almost mind numbingly emotional. The work is huge in scale and ambition and so resolutely serious as to suggest it comes out of no obvious post war tradition, except that – as here – the thickness of the paint and the broad, architectural sight lines, make for a post-religious kind of sacredness. Anyway, I am moved and thus immobile in each of the two rooms with Kiefer’s art, four and four. I scribble and stare for hours, like a monk with a bunch of stations of the cross to consider.
I will write at length one day about the work but it seems to me that it personifies the state of being in-between, the betwixtedness of my journey and everybody else’s. I spend much of my life at desk 2178 in the British Library until recently unsure as to why this space is so conducive to work. Now, having delved through the essays of Colin St John Wilson, and the work of Alvar Aalto, I understand their obsession with this state of in between, the relationship of the out to the in; the concept of threshold. Kiefer’s work seems perpetually on the threshold, neither exploiting the allusions, the quotes, the familiar buildings he paints, the mythological, the huge dead fields, nor ignoring their potential for being remade. He seems to be able to paint this state of betwixtedness at the grand scale without making the viewer cowered. His work is assertion, but not i feel confrontation. Wilson writes: “We can still be moved deeply by buildings yet have no adequate terms to deal with the fact,” and this is how I feel about Kiefer. Wilson compares the sensation to sexual attractiveness…I think I prefer the idea of alchemy.
Or Wordsworth’s: “unknown modes of being.”
There is other work: Richter, being colourful. Polke….But my lessons were well learnt with Kate, just a few pieces today, at length. There is a sliver of sunlight when I leave the museum and I wander back into town in search of the best cup of coffee. I realize as I yomp the mall boulevards that the image I have see most often – consciously, for I’m sure I’ve blocked out the MacDonald’s signs – is the H&M carrier bag. Today there is a contagion of them.
The best coffee shop (non Dutch meaning) is nice, but hardly the Cafe de Flore in Paris where Sartre wrote that man is condemned to be free. White and stylish and a myriad of people who look as if they have escaped a mall pass through. I try to write. “Art is with us,” Nietzsche writes, “in order that we may not perish with the truth.”
I have a friend who has done well by his books, after a shaky start. These days he and his wife have relocated to Carmel and Hollywood has called, but when I knew him well he swore by shopping mall cafes. He could write longhand or on a laptop 5000/7000 words a day and then tear them up without remorse if he saw fit. I’ve arrived here via the harbor wharf, Japanese businessmen scurrying around, the Hitachi Europe offices are here; the “City” museum….phrooofff…..then a tram to the university district in search of life – but there is none, negatively none, it is a vacuum of inaction. A university….Hmmm.
The cafe Fino’s virtues are that it isn’t on the main street and the coffee is good and that’s about it. I ask a stylish couple where to eat tonight: they say there are great restaurants at the cargo harbour development. I die a little more and keep speed drinking espressos. I start to write a poem about in betweenness and their spaces….
At my cafe window seat the owners have left half a dozen copies of the latest IKEA catalogue. I think back to Kiefer’s monumental Brandenberg painting that’s in the kueppersmuehle, It is both the colonnaded facade and the liminal space in front, dark and thonic, “In the back of every dictator is a doric column,” Herbert Read once wrote. Somewhere in my tweeted universe I have read about the founder of IKEA again, those far right links much stronger than suspected all those years ago….When I die the music may be German techno in Hell, maybe not, but the decor will definitely be IKEA.
The questions mount: where does everyone go at night? Where are the students? Is everybody doing their anthropological research in the shopping malls? In a tiny fragment of the old town that has been dug up a sign in several languages explains how everything was destroyed in the war – I really should detour and go to the Ruhr museum in Essen.
It’s a strange feeling, elated from Kiefer, experiencing a kind of betwixt epiphany, and yet stuck in an oasis of zombie-future world. On cue Sade comes on the cafe soundtrack singing Your Love is King, for a few weeks in the early 80s this was the sound of sophistication; then the diurnal soundtrack of shopping. A sax solo! Oh yeah, Lady Gaga has made them hot again. I yearn for some music so slip on my iPod and listen to a French samba version of Blur’s Girls and Boys.
I make the gallery DKM too late, but the owner opens up for me with a big smile and goes to find me English texts and says I must to Bochum where there is a great show. There’s an Asian theme here and ever since the Dusseldorf Dude I’ve been aware of the Chinese influences in art: following the money.
My poem starts: Spaces in Between are pockets of resistance, fight escalated prairies of market perfection…..hmmm
“Bolero is good,” echoes in my mind as I finish the last espresso – how could they recommend the harbour places of Immelhafen?….I ask the coffee guys if there is “anything like this, but, you know, in a bar?” A bit of head scratching and then with the aid of my Gmaps they say – well there is one place……er…..here. That’s not too bad.”
I wanderweg back to my hotel and then on a largely domestic back street find a promising looking (there is graffiti) narrow bar that’s not yet open and then as I am crossing the square of my hotel I see a sign for the Film Forum. Film Forum means Jean Luc Goddard. Means not 3D. Means a heartbeat of something. I head straight for its cafe. It’s about 6pm now. A sense of darkness as late summer descends. And people. There is an Italian Film Festival happening.
People talking, not carrying H&M bags. Free wifi. The poem gets knocked off. A lovely older couple who’ve just seen the new Woody Allen, or perhaps an old one, ask me if I am famous as I look like an actor. Loving this. There is a different drum beating here and even the music has pretensions of being ok. Men wear belted jackets; women in berets. Silver hair is allowed. Here the fascism of the mall is being fought, centimetre by centimetre.
I go to the narrow bar I’ve found and very quickly the owner is telling all about it. Different of course, an artist has built the mis en scene; its not for everyone. A hint of Tingerlay, but it ain’t him, but I am happy. “We had to work for this,” she says. She tells me about a story she’s seen: two American guys who walked around the world for a bottle of whiskey. This place is a home to ponytails and how rarely I imagined I’d welcome that sentence. I start talking to Stefan at the bar, he’s a sound engineer, wanted to be a rock and roll star but now just makes soundscapes for films, yes he makes films too, it may be a pick up, I’m not really sure but I am smiling away, freed from IKEA. There’s a long conversation about the genius of Douglas Adams, to which I can’t contribute a huge amount but I do try – throwing in that I used to play tennis with his wife, and commission him to write for me at Wired – and that does the trick.
In the end it always pares down to will people talk and Stefan talked; there was life here. I head, a little squiffily, to the bar recommended by the cafe folk. It is easy to miss, a door, nothing fancy.
Finally: men who dress like Jarvis Cocker, women bereft of H&M; ambient Duane Eddy minimalist music. A vibe. It is midnight. I have found the uber space in between. Yay me. A stranger would find this bar, unmentioned online, once in a million goes. The music switches to “The Selector” a ska song I bought in Brixton when I was eight. Teary now, obviously. The owner is a Munsterman, that’s German Munster, but has been to Irish Munster recently in a kind of why not way. He’s red-haired could so easily be Irish. I’m talking to lots of people now, the music is cool, there’s a 20 year old Seberg who is off to study film in Hamburg, full of excitement and fear with blonde bob; there’s guys who are musicians, and then I am dragged off to meet an older woman who sits on a raised dais, wearing all black – a famous actress I am told. Soon I have met her son as well, he’s just back from Iraq where he’s been doing theatre therapy for fucked-up soldiers. These are my people. The notes from my Moleskine from now on are a little tricky to transcribe. However…
The actresses son launches into a vitriolic attack on Sir Norman Foster and how the people of Duisberg would like to sending him packing down river – actually it was a little more visceral than that, but this is a family blog. “If you are from Dusiberg you hate Norman Foster, that’s the bottom line.” There are places like this, the people tell me, but they are unusual. The townies would rather go to Dusseldorf or Cologne, we build something, just something here.
Then there is the history of the local football team. “It’s shit, always has been, but we are proud – so proud – our fans are famous and even been taken up by Bayern Munich fans. It’s a history thing. We’ve always been the poor relative, and nobody who isn’t from here will understand. MSV Duisberg, I’ll write it for you. [The only clear piece of writing on that page]…The Actress often performs here; she’s just back from a one woman show about Goethe. Faust. Bliss. She promises to send me a poem she has written about Duisberg. We swap emails. Thomas a primary school teacher tells me about the problems, the drugs sure, the sense of this not being a boom town, having been eviscerated and never really recapturing a post war soul. Except that it is all over this bar. The actress is Kristina; at some point she dubs Seberg as the town Lolita – certainly she has been around the room several times and now she’s back with us as Kristina recites a little Goethe. It’s about 2.30 in the morning and all is well. I have one of those late night booze-inflected epiphanies. Two in a day. I think about my dad and stumble off to bed. In the morning this is in my in box:
Poem for Duisburg
I didn’t choose you,
rather been caught by you.
Probably we suit to each other.
The longer I know you,
The more we seem to be similar.
Too proud, to be offended.
Wide city to the one who does understand.
Having had better times.
But even worse of them.
Even you are an eldest sister.
Younger ones are snivelling.
Your governors are
The Third world of governors.
Your worldly wisdom
Is the high amount of cares.
Even you don’t make holydays.
Such a kind of thing we don’t need at all.
You make the championship
And show a sweet Blue
On the tower of the municipality.
Happy without triumph.
If you were allowed to wish something,
You’d give a party like me.
If you are sick,
You don’t open the phone like me.
No one loves you because of vanity
And you don’t answer love by symbols.
You were misused as armour
And did receive your ruins.
Now your are sold out
As old model.
And you know it better:
The city is then place of its humans,
If foreigners take you as a brave one,
They don’t understand:
You just cannot get out of your skin.
Your harbours are buried alive,
Your chimneys are blasted
And ceremoniously rust your giants.
But your breath is long,
Even if you got asthma hundred times.
You go on continuing –
But not to survive!
You are devote to life!
I take a train half way to Rees, my next stop, because I am old and hung over and I am sure Tom took a boat here. Bleedin’ cheat. It is a Friday and I walk through a lot of stinky farm land, see many horses and cows and stuff. But I am still thinking about Duisberg and its spirits of resistance.