In and Around Berlin: Freedom, Identity, and Place

by Ashley Allen September 9, 2022

Berlin’s relationship to freedom is tangled, to put it lightly. During the Cold War, the city sat divided. Germany found itself sectioned into four occupation zones that included three “Western” zones occupied by the British, French, and United States, and one “Eastern” zone under Soviet rule. When the deutsche mark was introduced in West Germany in the spring of 1948, the USSR responded in June 1948 with the Berlin Blockade, limiting the allies’ access to sectors of Berlin. Two different German states were created. The West founded the “Federal Republic of Germany” in May 1949, and a few months later the USSR responded with the creation of the “Democratic Republic of Germany” in October of the same year. In order to keep people from leaving and to save East Berlin’s economy, there was a Soviet push to cut off land access to Western-occupied sections of Berlin. This eventually resulted in the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961. 

Skylight of a train station in Berlin

A train station in Berlin.

Physical and psychological remnants of Berlin’s turbulent history remain throughout the city today, even after the destruction of the wall. I found glimpses of these taking constructive form in gatherings against discrimination. For example, the Berlin Pride Parade in late July vibrated with a spirit of love and freedom that seemed especially poignant and restorative, given that it was veiled in the shared memory of Nazi persecution.

Traveling around Berlin this summer was a humbling experience. I just barely managed to exit the United States via a United Airlines-sponsored flight path from hell — after my initial flight was delayed, I missed all of my scheduled connections, resulting in an entire re-routing and an unexpected (but granted, not so terrible) edible-infused night stuck in Chicago. Running a day later than planned, I boarded my nine-hour flight from Chicago to Vienna and found that my seat assignment, to my amusement, was squeezed in the very last row of the plane, and put me next to a large man who was spilling over into my already tight seat.

Upon arriving in Vienna, I somehow managed to scamper off the plane, through the passport check, and to my connecting flight’s gate just in the nick of time. Sprinting through the Vienna airport in a panic-driven frenzy is not the type of workout that I’d like to repeat again. As my body unclenched in the relief that I was on the plane that would finally drop me in Berlin, I told myself that it couldn’t get any worse from here. Admittedly, I should not have been so quick to let up, as upon landing in Berlin, I realized that all of my luggage had lost its way.

Eventually my cameras and clean clothes caught up to me and I found myself in the indexical city that served as my home base for the summer. I was in Berlin completing two courses, including a German philosophy class (shamefully taught in English), and a modern European history course. I was also overseas completing a few freelance writing projects. While jet lag may have hit me hard, the culture shock and resulting disorientation hit me harder.

This was my first experience traveling for longer than a week in Europe, and only my third time stepping out of the United States. I was highly aware that I did not belong here in Berlin. Even though I had read about it before my departure from Texas, the cold, straight-faced German stereotype caught me off guard as it rang true more times than not in my curt interactions with locals. The forced smiles and “how are you” pleasantries that went unreciprocated verified that I was far from home, and these mannerisms quickly vanished from my social repertoire.

Later, while conversing with a local 19 year old I had met at dinner, she told me that Germans tend to regard these American greetings as insincere. I realized that with the novelty of traveling abroad comes a seemingly inexhaustible amount of embarrassing social and cultural blunders. For the most part I tried my best to shut up, blend in, and assume the position of stranger. 

It was odd to take up space in Berlin — a place with a written and tumultuous history of American presence. At the turn of the century, the USSR and the United States rose as the two great global powers. The inability of the two to resolve differences diplomatically resulted in America’s presence in western Europe. The United States proclaimed the promotion of democracy domestically and abroad, an endeavor jolted some years before by Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points” speech delivered in January 1918. This speech marked the end of American isolationism and the beginning of American internationalism and interventionism, asserting the United States as a global power. The U.S. defended its position in Germany during the Cold War as a means of restoring democracy, the self-determination of people, open diplomacy, and the reduction of armaments to ensure lasting peace.

Flash forward to now: freedoms are not being upheld domestically in the United States. While I was in Berlin, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, making for a very sad and confusing day. The hypocrisy was baffling — a country that touts self-determination as an excuse for years of foreign occupation decided to deny half its population the capacity to choose for themselves. The frightening future of living as a young woman in the U.S. made me want to stay in Berlin, even with the city’s high taxes and steadily increasing cost of rent.

Don’t get me wrong — nearing the end of my two months in Berlin I was desperately homesick, especially after coming down with COVID-19, the dreaded virus I had avoided for over two years. After over ten days in hotel quarantine, my body somehow produced a negative COVID-19 test, which luckily happened just in time for my planned trip to Kassel, Germany to visit Documenta 15. The international art exhibition, held every five years, was only a few hours outside of Berlin and offered sprawling venues of experimental art that I desperately wanted to explore.

Sculpture of a man standing on a narrow metal beam with his arms outstretched

Stephan Balkenhol, “Man with outstretched arms and white shirt,” Munich. Photograph by Giacomo Spagnoli.

Poking up out of the Friedrichsplatz horizon line in the middle of the city of Kassel stands the lofty tower of the Church of St. Elizabeth. This church would have added to the many that I had uninterestedly glanced past during my travels, if not for the strangely familiar sculpture included inside its tower. The open-air tower allows for a craned-neck view of the carved sculpture, which is of a man with outstretched arms balanced atop a golden ball. Dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, the wooden figure does not particularly stand out in a crowd. The only aspect working to break apart his mundanity is his eye-catching elevated position. However, I knew that I had seen a variation of this figure before, as the combination of his two-toned outfit, upright pose, and raised placement struck a chord that I couldn’t immediately place.

After some intense googling, I connected the dots. I hadn’t seen this exact statue, but I had encountered a similar group of figures a few years ago in a work titled 4 Figures by artist Stephan Balkenhol, in the collection at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Come to think of it, this wasn’t even the first time I had seen a Balkenhol sculpture during my time spent in Germany — there’s a similar, plain-dressed figure seemingly floating in mid-air between two buildings near Marienplatz in Munich. 

A lush and narrow alley with foliage and moss growing around stones

Philosophers’ Way (Philosophenweg) in Heidelberg.

Balkenhol roughly hand-carves each wooden figure, retaining a chipped away surface that emphasizes the natural characteristics of his chosen material. The surfaces are not smoothed or altered to mask their material origin; it is clear that the figures stem from what was originally a tree. Additionally, the hand carving process lends the finished sculptures a certain timelessness and authenticity, apart from standardized mechanical production methods. However, although each figure’s surface slightly varies, their black and white paint, ordinary outfits, facial features, and columnar stances are highly standardized. This, along with their elevated positions, grants the figures a certain level of natural objectivity that goes unparalleled amongst humans.

Serving as a contradiction to human nature, the Balkenhol figures are devoid of that which is innately human: perception, consciousness, and subjectivity. Perhaps Balkenhol was pondering existential questions such as “who am I” and “what am I doing” here — questions and doubts that tend to appear often within our stream of consciousness. The task of unboxing regimented and named aspects of our identities is perhaps best channeled through art. I think this process can also be channeled through what the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel calls the “moment.” In Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit, he explores this instant in the section titled “Sense-Certainty”; he explains it as the immediate knowledge of what simply is that occurs before assessment or judgment come into consciousness. This moment of knowing occurs in the present, the moment in time before the future and after the past. Balkenhol’s figures symbolically stand here at the ineffable place of knowing. They are stuck in a hung phase of consciousness where narrative is nowhere to be found and time is immaterial; here, for a moment, we are allowed to simply be.

While sometimes I am able to achieve a similar, fleeting state of internal peace where I feel no different from anything or anyone else, the feeling is always only momentary. In Berlin, at a point in time where I was struggling to locate and name my own identity in an unknown place, the Balkenhol figures offered a comforting and relieving presence in their vague sameness across different locations. After a summer of attempting to find myself and ultimately failing, I recognized the freedom that comes with staying unnamed. I realized that feeling lost is not necessarily a hopeless state, but one of manifold possibility. 

Sculpture of four male figures wearing white button down shirts and black slacks

Stephan Balkenhol, “4 Figures,” 2000, painted wood, 62 x 19 x 14 inches. Collection of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Museum purchase, Sid W. Richardson Foundation Endowment Fund

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