Upon his return from the Holy Land in 1278, the abbot of a small church 100km outside of Prague walked around his cemetery carefully spreading a precious handful of dirt. The abbot had been to Golgotha, before leaving he filled his pocket with earth and returned to forever join his dead with the very place Jesus was crucified. Once this news spread the abbot was overwhelmed with requests to bury loved ones in the newly blessed land, believing that the communion with their God in the afterlife would somehow be facilitated by this act. Combined with the plague, over time the cemetery and adjoining ossuary were overflowing by the nineteenth century.
In 1870 a wood carver named Frantisek Rint was hired to sort through the bones. Instead of storing them, hidden from view which was the more traditional approach, he was overcome with creative inspiration and used them instead to decorate the interior of the humble cathedral. Working with the bones of more than 40,000 full skeletons he constructed an elaborate main chandelier, coat of arms, four pyramids, and many other decorative elements combining the bones with the previous decor. One of my last afternoons in Prague I left the city and traveled to Kutna Hora to see the Sedlec Ossuary for myself. Confronting the remains of 40,000 people displayed in such a manner in such a small space produced an unusually clear view of how intensely humans enjoy construction. How at times our desire to build – to produce form and volume, can outweigh our fear of death. A ceaseless yearning for permanence, for the way to leave something behind unchanged by personal expiration date. In the case of Sedlec, the wood carver even left a signature in bones on the wall of the church, for all to see and understand that this was his work, that he had created something beyond himself. The afternoon was lovely and a gentle air shifted around the trees in the cemetery outside as I explored ancient headstones and took photos of stone angels bathed in shadow. I left Prague shortly after, taking the train north to Berlin. Arriving late that evening, it was all I could do to drop off my bag and locate the nearest restaurant – which much to my surprise resulted in an Indian Curry shop.
Walking around the neighborhood the next morning revealed that I had ended up in a culinary United Nations. Open air patios sprouted brightly colored deck umbrellas and block after block presented me with a different corner of the world from which I could nibble. After a very stylish Thai lunch I continued my investigation of the area. Arriving in Berlin was like stepping into a detective novel, I was curious to find the truth about a country and especially about a city, used so many times by Hollywood as a symbol for the evils of a war that took place before my time. The dead of WWII were long gone, erased by biology and tradition, the shattered foundations of their architecture remained and construction was everywhere. Modern day laborers worked feverishly to resuscitate the damaged body of their city. Traversing the city it was clear to see that the current plan of the people in Berlin was to hybridise their traumatic history with a hyper international future. In many ways Berlin appeared to be humming right along with the new age of commercialization and international jet-setting, very different from how the city had been obsessively represented half a world away in California. To more fully embrace this new insight I perused the sale racks at H&M and bought some olive-scented hand lotion from The Body Shop, not once did I witness any suspicious activity. In fact everyone I met in Berlin seemed to shed an ever more embarrassing light on the subconscious image of the city I had constructed.
While not entirely interested in destroying my new sense of the past being set firmly behind, I walked across the city to visit an exhibit depicting the rise of the Third Reich and eventually of Adolph Hitler. The exhibit was situated near what had been identified as the “Fuhrerbunker” a building that had many decades before been demolished and then ignored or covered up so as not to begin a Neo-Nazi pilgrimage to the site. The exhibit was temporary and they handed visitors headsets upon entry and a calm voice led me down and into a partially excavated area with remnants of walls clearly demarcating rooms that had once been used by the Nazi government during the war. Mostly black and white photos of people, ceremonies and images of violence were used to explain the progression and politics of the Nazi movement. Once I had been led through the entire exhibit I returned the headset and quietly left the ruins, lost in a cloud of reflection for the rest of the day.
The Berlin Wall, which divided West Berlin and East Berlin under Soviet management was physically demolished in 1990. Short sections remain as a part of Berlin’s historical legacy and on my last day in the city I went to walk along the wall. I hadn’t realized that over the years the wall had been covered by a collage of paintings, graffiti, posters and direct messages. For more than half a century the wall loomed, manipulating the daily lives of citizens on both sides, forcing them to redevelop their identity as Eastern Germans or Western Germans. A monumental structure crossing the city and restricting movement and as a result affecting the local economies neighborhoods at a time. As the Cold War surged, the wall came to represent a power struggle between two alien forces and the paintings as a way to reclaim a specific physicality in relation to this foreign struggle. Painting on the wall transformed it, redrawing the lines of personal and political. Drawing and redrawing, painting and repainting; until the wall fell metaphorically within the boundaries of the emotional terrain of the Germans themselves. Once the wall was brought within their psychological territory, the paintings took on an ability to act as permanent testimony, regardless of what the next uncertain day brought to the artist.