This week, stories & images from Berlin & London put me in mind of a personal conversion experience of mine: a brief glimpse from the Other Side.
Red poppies pouring out of a castle to flood the moat…
Luminescent balloons rising over a darkened cityscape…
Miles and miles of white fabric running over green fields…
Tower of London Poppies
Since last July 17, poppies have been spilling out of the Tower of London, flooding the former moat to create Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, a commemorative installation. Volunteers of all ages have spent months placing these ceramic poppies — one for each of the 888,246 British and colonial soldiers killed during the Great War (later known as World War I). Artist Paul Cummins found inspiration for the title in the will of a Derbyshire man who died in Flanders who described, “The blood swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread.” The process of placing the poppies started on the 100th anniversary of the U.K.’s entry into the war, and will be completed on Armistice Day. This resulted in an evolving installation with the red spreading outward over the days and weeks. Daily readings at dusk of the names of the dead reminded observers of the ongoing toll the war took on people 100 years ago.
Berlin Wall balloons
For 28 years, the Berlin Wall physically divided the German capital , from its 1961 Cold War construction by Soviet occupying forces to its historic fall in 1989. Many young Berliners never even saw that harsh dividing line, nor felt the sheer brutality of its mere presence. In the years since reunification, the city has healed and only a few fragments of the former Wall remain as graffitti-scrawled memorials. To commemorate where it sliced through the city, artist Christopher Bauder envisioned a line of luminescent balloons — 8,000 of them in all — marking a pathway he called the Lichtgrenze (Light Border). Along the route, there are also multiple installations detailing specific people, places and events in the history of the Wall.
For both of these contemporary installations, we have scores of photos, video and news stories. Still, nothing can compare with being at the installation: an estimated 4 million will view the Tower poppies, and the Berlin balloons drew thousands of people for just the final celebration. That feeling of being right there — the experience — defies description. I know, for I have been on the Other Side.
Christo’s Running Fence
Admittedly, I started out a skeptic of Christo’s work. I considered myself an aficionado of good art, innovative and avant-garde art, able to appreciate even that which I did not personally like. However, draping large buildings and bridges and such struck me as more “spectacle” than art and Christo seemed to me a slick, highly-skilled con man.
Then, I happened to be in the Bay Area at the time of his Running Fence installation. I still wasn’t too interested in seeing it personally, but since I was living and working in a photographer’s co-op, a group of us piled into a car and headed north to Petaluma County to see the Fence — and in my case, what all the fuss was about.
Driving out there, I saw the Fence as a glowing white ribbon slicing the landscape, playing across the distant hills. As we approached, it disappeared and re-appeared capriciously, like a dolphin flirting with a boat, closer and larger but then gone again from sight. Finally, we reached a stretch of road paralleling it closely where we could more fully grasp its height and breadth — the length appeared infinite wherever you approached.
When we parked for a closer look, I got a much richer sensory experience than I expected. This wasn’t just a static 18-foot high white fabric curtain, but a writhing snake of kinetic movement coming down the wires when a wind blew, undulating the fabric, catching and intensifying the sunlight here and there in a dance of light and shadows.
The physical reality of the installation became clear up close as well, with poles and cables holding top and bottom and metal clips holding the fabric to the cables clinking in an approaching crescendo as each wave sung past, providing an additional auditory element to the whole experience.
Most of the places along the road, barbed wire fence separated us from the Fence itself. We eventually found a stretch of road, though, with no barbed wire we could approach the Fence directly, even touch it. Of course, touching added yet another sensory layer, feeling the coarsely slick canvas-like surface of the fabric and standing against it to feel it slap your back as the wind raced past.
I glanced to my left and then to my right. Small groups of people were scattered alongside parked cars up and down the road, and my friends were wondering around as well. Turning back, I spied the 2-foot gap at the bottom of the Fence. I did a quick double-check both ways — all clear — then rolled under the Fence and popped up on the Other Side. I entered another world entirely. The Fence was still there of course, but now all the people were gone. All the cars and the road were gone. The fence’s waves sang down the wire for my ears only. Behind me, a previously unseen cow eyed me lazily from afar. Over there, on the Other Side, I saw — no, more “felt” — the Light.
No, I cannot put it into words. I guess that’s why it’s “art”. As a writer, I know that some things grow too immense and complex for language. These “things” include music and art and dance and theater. And art links these directly to our own inner Inexpressibles, including our deepest wells of emotion — love, anger, fear, humor, hope, remorse, desire. That merging of inner and outer Inexpressibles opens a wormhole beyond words and logic and reasoning. We say we like art or we love music or we appreciate the theater, but really, all of these we feel in a realm beyond words.
On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, they released the Berlin balloons one at a time, creating a wave of balloons rising over the city and its celebrants. Tomorrow, the volunteers will begin removing the ceramic poppies from the moat, restoring the Tower of London to its historic fearsome visage. Christo’s Running Fence only stood for 2 weeks before removal. Yet even these temporary installations leave an indelible mark on the people who reach the Other Side.