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Scene in Berlin

Jan Kage
April 3, 2014

When does a coincidence take on a deeper meaning? DW's Insider, Berlin-based art initiator Jan Kage, has experienced a few too many flukes during recent projects. They're making him wonder about metaphysic.

Horse shoe, Copyright: Fotolia/pizuttipics
Image: Fotolia/pizuttipics

I'm not esoteric or superstitious. But there are a few things that make me wonder about metaphysics.

A: The unscathed Mercedes

I was getting our art space SCHAU FENSTER ready for an opening a couple of years ago, collecting the last tools lying around and cleaning up a bit. Agathe Fleury was setting up her fragile sculpture and was the only person around. It was late in the afternoon in early summer in Berlin when the sky outside suddenly grew dark.

Another artist whose name I've shamefully forgotten had already hung his 80 or so black-and-white photographs, all of them the size of a standard letter and nicely framed. His motive for all these pictures was trees that had been damaged by storms, showing black-and-white tree trunks with the branches on the ground, or stumps with the roots sticking up in the air.

Wind blew through the deserted street, blowing some empty cans and old newspapers. I had my back to the window when I heard a long squeaking sound from outside that ended in a dull finale. I instantly turned around to see a tree that had literally just fallen down bounce back from the sidewalk it hit and then lie still next to a parked Mercedes.

"Damn, it missed," I could not help thinking before I hollered at Agathe, "Did you just see that?"

I am definitely not esoteric. But a few things make me wonder about metaphysics.

Jan Kage
Jan Kage's columns, "Scene in Berlin: The Insider," appear on the first Thursday of every monthImage: Stefan Ruhmke

B: The refugee

We recently had an exhibition in Catania, Sicily, where an art space called BOCS suggested an exchange. We do a show there, they do one in Berlin.

We started planning for the show in October last year. The tragedy of Lampedusa had just happened and left a big impact on me. I felt Europe is really on the wrong path if it claims to be a continent of democracy and human rights, but on the other hand has let some 25,000 people drown at its Mediterranean border over the past 24 years. My understanding of universal human rights is that they apply to everyone - not only to Europeans.

We were planning an exhibition from a city that was once divided and where, during the East German communist regime, some 200 people got shot in the back at the Berlin Wall for trying to flee to West Germany. We were bringing it to a place where these modern catastrophes happen when people try to cross a border. A lot of the refugees that make it across the sea come to Germany and some come to Berlin. We have a camp here in Berlin-Kreuzberg where refugees live out in tents to protest their conditions.

We decided to make that the topic of the show. If Europe claims to be the home of human rights but denies these rights to the people that try to come here then the European society is lost, because a society that lost its values is lost itself. So we appropriately titled the show "LOST."

The second thought I had about going to Sicily was more selfish: to escape the long and dirty Berlin winter and enjoy the Sicilian spring, combining the exhibition with a little family vacation. Late February, early March seemed just right. Little did we know that climate change would send some beautiful and warm weather to Berlin and some cold rain down to Sicily. Scratch the vacation part.

My wife, my baby girl and I arrived in Marina di Noto, the beach resort in the World Heritage town of Noto. Of course every summer tourist destination is a sad sight in the winter when it is vacant, and this place was truly depressing. We were the only guests at our dreary hotel.

The morning after we arrived, my wife woke up so sick that she had to stay in bed. There was no supermarket nearby where I could buy food for the baby, so I drove to the city and found a cheap restaurant (which wasn't that bad because cheap restaurants in Italy are still good).

When we returned I took a walk on the beach with my daughter. Around 200 meters down the coast, I saw two fishermen and headed towards them with my baby on my arm. As it turned out, only one of them was fishing while the other one was looking for company - just like I was. He was very glad to find somebody who could speak English - and to find somebody who didn't insult or ignore him.

"My name is Nemat, but everybody here calls me Michele, because they can't remember my name," he told me.

"Good to meet you, Nemat." I shook his hand. "Where are you from?"

"From Afghanistan. I am an asylum seeker."

We had coffee together and he told me his story of how he fled from Afghanistan twice and how badly the Sicilians and the Europeans were treating him. I was stunned. We travel from Berlin to Sicily to make an exhibition about the European dilemma in the way it treats its refugees and the first guy I meet is a refugee!

Like I said, I am definitely not esoteric. But a few things make me wonder.

Refugee boats in Lampedusa, Copyright: Mamadou Ba
Numerous refugees have lost their lives traveling to the European borderImage: Mamadou Ba

C: A cynical coincidence

Thomas Eller - one of the three "LOST" artists, along with Övgü Özen and Anina Brisolla - told us in October when we were planning the exhibition at our kitchen table in Berlin that he wanted to swim on the beach in Catania in his best business suit and have us film it. So this is exactly what we did when we got there in March.

Luckily the weather had cleared up a bit when we got down to Catania Marina. I handled the camera for 20 minutes standing in the chilly surf in my boxers while Thomas was swimming - which gave me a cold for the next two days.

Back in our bed and breakfast, Thomas edited the material for the exhibition and I uploaded an outtake on Facebook. Giuseppe Lana, who runs BOCS but in London at the time, replied by posting a year-old clip from the local Italian TV news. Six refugees had drowned on the very beach where Thomas and I filmed the video.

The boat that had brought the refugees didn't land on shore. Instead the skipper made the people swim the last 15 meters, even though they couldn't swim. They had made it across the Mediterranean in a tiny boat and probably across the Saharan Desert as well, but drowned in the last 15 meters of their journey.

Of course we wouldn't have shot the video at this location if we'd known what had happened there a year earlier. But we hadn't known. Since we had the video, we decided to show it at the SCHAU FENSTER exhibition at BOCS.

There are definitely a few things that make me wonder about metaphysics in a harsh materialist world. And sometimes they hit me in the face.

The second half of the German-Italian art exchange - the BOCS show at SCHAU FENSTER in Berlin - runs from May 30 to June 22.

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