Monday, February 2, 2009

The Museum of You (2): Somebody's Home in Leipzig

Socialism has to start somewhere
(The Lives of Others)

Wild new Ubik salad dressing, not Italian, not French, but an entirely new and different taste treat that's waking up the world.
(Philip K. Dick, Ubik)

Justine and I left Italy in October of 1997, and spent much of the last six or so weeks in the country getting rid of stuff. Actually, we had planned to go for at least a couple of years - the hold up was that I had to earn the exemption from the military service - and I had had some time to change the mindset I grew up with vis-à-vis my things: namely that they'd stay mine forever, barring the odd change of heart or swap for item of similar value. LPs, favourite furnishing, books, memorabilia of various kinds: I never really envisaged having to give them away, certainly not all at once. Therefore I grew up a hoarder. Of books and music, especially, like most people of my age and circumstances.

The prospect of moving to New Zealand, even though it may not be forever, changed all that. Justine's mindset was already that of a light traveller, but for me it took some adjusting. Long story short: I learned to stop hoarding. And we got rid of whatever we couldn't fit in the luggage for the plane and the two big boxes to be sent by ship. Justine's beloved jeweller's desk and some books were sold, while the rest we gave to friends: stereo, television, more books, some furniture, a conga drum I don't despair to play (badly) again some day. And an answer phone, with its little micro-cassette still in place. The answer phone went to our good friend Caterina, who some years later got together with a chap called Max. And it was Max who, during an IM chat a couple of years ago, told me they were going to return the cassette, and that I should listen to it.

They did, and I did. Turns out my father had left one of the messages still recorded on the B-side.

We lost dad in July of 1999. The message was left in late September of 1997, shortly before our departure. It was brief and mundane: he and mum wanted to know when I was going to swing by and teach them to use the PC I was leaving behind so they could communicate with us. Brief, mundane, and possibly a little impatient. But we had no other recording of his voice, and to hear it like that, without warning (although I did have an inkling) had an undeniable effect. The sense of presence that recording technologies are able to provoke is very familiar to us all, and yet in the precise moment it occurs so often a source of astonished surprise. But it was in this case a somewhat uncomfortable presence. Because of that hint of impatience, perhaps? It was so rare in him. For whatever reason, I still don't know how I feel about the tape. The best analogy I can come up with is that it's as if this was the only photo we had of him, and it wasn't a terribly flattering one. But it remains a unique record of somebody so dear and so missed, and naturally I'm very grateful to our friends for giving it to us, and am treating it with utmost care - I made in fact an mp3 of it right away for extra safety.

How to curate the museum of you is one of this blog's recurring topics. What we do (and what to do) with our stuff, with the benefit of hindsight or, sometimes, foresight. In this sense the returned tape has to be seen as a most fortuitous addition to the collection, something that we didn't anticipate would one day become precious. Had we remained in Italy and kept the answer phone, in all likelihood we would never have bothered to inspect the tape. So departures, too, can aid. Giving things away.

A most irreverent segue. Some time in 1989, a 24-year-old man leaves his apartment in Crottendorfer Straße, Leipzig for the last time. But it isn't a long-planned departure: he leaves food in the fridge, a cup of coffee on the table, dirty dishes in the sink from the night before. The most salient things we know about this man is that he spent a year in jail and that the police wants to speak to him in relation to a mysterious audiocassette. His name hasn't been made public. But the accounts of the discovery focus not on the person, but rather on what he left behind, and more specifically on a number of consumer products made in Eastern Germany at the time and since discontinued: Marella margarine, Vita Cola, Karo and Jewel cigarettes, Elkadent toothpaste, some liquor or other. Says Mark Aretz, the architect that entered the apartment for the first time in almost twenty years last November, while inspecting the soon-to-be-renovated building:
When we opened the door we felt like Howard Carter when he found the grave of Tutankhamen. Everything was a mess but it was like a historic treasure trove, a portal into an age long gone.[1]
I know what some of you are thinking: he's going to read way too much into this. And I'm not going to disappoint you. Because, seriously: it was barely twenty years ago. I know a certain wall fell in the interim, and the world won't be the same again, but Howard Carter was looking back some four thousand years; and what rocked his socks wasn't the pharaoh's toothpaste either.

Post-Fredric Jameson, we've learned to recognise this fetishistic attachment to the most insignificant details of our immediate past as 'a tangible symptom of an omnipresent, omnivorous and well-nigh libidinal historicism'[2]. And of course the demands of surface realism - of getting the tiny details just right, of evoking the past with the sharp exactness of a product label of yore - are highly instrumental to this particular project. Hence the well-nigh libidinal excitement of the media reports: we travelled back in time, and what we found were margarine and cigarettes and socialist cola.

It adds a delicious layer of irony that this scenario could so easily have been written by the authors of a recent film that grappled with - or, according to some, is at the forefront of - the phenomenon of Ostalgia, or nostalgia for the East: Goodbye Lenin!, in which an ardent supporter of the Socialist Unity Party who wakes up from a coma after the fall of the Berlin Wall is spared by her children the possibly fatal shock that this piece of news would bring, and nursed in her apartment as if the DDR still existed. An illusion that involves - among other things - transferring new products into the old, familiar containers, for without the meticulous preservation of the surface reality of everyday gestures and objects, time itself could not be stopped and rewound.

Jameson coolly describes what Philip K. Dick had feverishly inhabited, but with no less precision, for his stories of false and implanted memories are also about the past as commodity, and about carefully crafted illusions of authenticity, while another real, which may or may not be the real real, threatens to burst through the cracks and assert itself at any moment - as it does in the form of a statue Lenin hoisted through the streets of Berlin at the end of Goodbye. But it's a discussion for another day. Today's story was that of a modern archaeological dig in the middle of Leipzig, looted for objects of absolutely no value, while the sole ancient inhabitant left, taking perhaps the contents of the museum of him. I hope he did.

Update 21 February 2008

Alas, he didn't. A correspondent in Germany got in touch to reveal the rest of the story as it has since emerged in the local press. She writes:
A Spiegel journalist found out what had happened to the guy who had lived in the flat. In the English article it just says that he was "a 24 year-old man who had been in trouble with the authorities" (not unusual for the GDR) but it turns out that he had as a 22 year-old apparently said to a border guard that he wanted to go West (as a kind of joke - see also Milan Kundera!) so the authorities (not surprisingly) locked him up for a year or so. His parents set up the flat for him and he lived there for a few months after his release but then he was thrown out of the GDR (put on a train with a one-way ticket to the West) in September 1989. In November the Wall fell and he visited his parents in Leipzig that Christmas. He had found a job as a carpenter in Lower Saxony. On the 19th of September 1990 he was on his way back to Lower Saxony from a building site in Hamburg in a minibus with colleagues when the bus crashed and he was one of those killed, dying of head injuries in a Hamburg hospital on September 21st 1990 aged 25. His parents still live in Leipzig.

[1] Statement originally made to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. For the translation I referred to the CNN article.
[2] Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, New Left Review (No. 146, 1984), p. 66.

Author unknown. East German Apartment Caught in Time Warp. January 29, 2009.
Fredric Jameson. ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. New Left Review. No. 146, 1984, pp. 53-92.
Benedetta Perilli. Qui Crottendorfer Strasse, Lipsia, la casa dove il tempo si è fermato. La 27 January 2009.
Matthias Lüdecke's photos of the apartment can be viewed here

Goodbye Lenin! (Germany 2003, dir. Wolfgang Becker)

Bonus Track
Self-Referentiality - Where Would Blogs Be Without It?

A couple of maintenance notes: I never explicitly acknowledged the kindness of my friend PFB, who set up some time ago on a page hosted by the Politecnico in Turin the 'printer-friendly' version of this blog you can find in the sidebar. You have to right click on a post's title first (the blog's homepage address won't work) and the little app will format it nice and ready for printing, if that's how you roll. I personally don't, but I used it today to (finally) do a proper backup of the posts thus far. I'm sure there are better ways, but I found saving in html the pages thus rendered a very quick way to stash away the posts, whereas I'm not interested in keeping a record of the changing content of the sidebar itself. I'm sure that by tweaking the script on PFB's page you could backup the whole of the Internet that way, given but world enough and time.

Also: as of last week (and also on the sidebar) it is possible to subscribe to this blog via email, an idea I shamelessly purloined from Harvest Bird's recent beautiful site redesign. Thought you might like to know.


Paul said...

A curious case; I wonder what the response would be to finding a similar apartment in Italy, New Zealand or Britain. None of these countries made as definite a break with its past as did East Germany, so the apartment might not seem so peculiar. Besides, here and elsewhere, we have fetishised objects from the recent past - chopper bikes, tape recorders, etc; we have also embraced those parts of the visual culture of the 70s and 80s we find appealing or amusing.

Perhaps an apartment found here would here would be too much to bear - not just the colourful playful things from the past but also the harsh 80s reality.


harvestbird said...

On Kristallnacht in 1938,
one of the city's most architecturally significant buildings,
the 1855 Moorish Revival Leipzig synagogue,
was deliberately destroyed.

After the devastation of the war,
the restoration and reconstruction of the city
were carried out under the communist policies
of East Germany.

It is reported that on one occasion
Bach became so upset with Görner's playing
that he snatched off the man's wig
and threw it at him.

merc said...

Bach I will forgive anything.

Kowhai said...

Well NZ of course has this
to offer.

Giovanni said...

Wow, Kowhai, that virtual tour is quite something. While looking for our house we did find some that looked like they had had the same tenants since the forties or fifties (one even had an old timey washing machine, the manual agitator type), and you could smell the disinfectant and see various other signs indicating they probably didn't leave except - in the most optimistic hypothesis - to move into a resthome. Walking through those was a little bit sad and felt like an intrusion. But this is clearly something else, the work of somebody who meticolously preserved the original look and feel; not because they had to, but because they wanted to and could. I wonder what Mr Hatherley would make of it.

Paul: yes, of course 1989 is a breaking point that gives a particular significance to this find. And the West as you observed has already marketed to death all the objects and styles that mark its recent epochs. But even so I find it telling that locating some long lost marge would generate such rhetoric. Telling of what, I'm not so sure. On a possibly related note, the conventional wisdom seems to be that Goodbye Lenin! was a facile film steeped in such superficial nostalgia, whereas The Lives of Others cut deeper and dealt with harder truths. I actually found the opposite, I thought Goodbye was the smarter film, precisely because it dealt with the paradoxes of surface realism, whereas Lives fit the usual redemptive formula (bad guys did bad things) that exempts society and individuals from looking critically at their past.

HB and merc: I shall celebrate Bach and this topic by playing a game of Gyruss or five. Now, where's my mame emulator? See that you made me do, the morning is lost now.

Anonymous said...

Just to clearify some things: Moorish Revival aka Neo-Moorish is one of the exotic revival architectural style, that were adopted by architects of Europe ajnd Americans in the wake of the Romanticist.

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