Saturday, 9 July 2016

Love is a Birch










The photos above are of  "Maibäume", or "May trees" in Cologne. Traditionally on the night of the 31st April to the 1st May, young men would go out to the forest and find a birchtree, chop it down and decorate it with ribbons and a "May-heart" with the name of the girl he favoured on it. He would then put the tree up in front of her house to show his intentions.

Nowadays, the tradition continues, but it is illegal, in Cologne anyway, to just take birch trees from the forest. Now you are supposed to buy them from an official seller and can even get them delivered, erected and taken down by a "Maibaum-Taxi" service for a price, which doesn't sound quite so romantic.*

This being Cologne, home of the Carnival, there have been known to be shenanigens in the night to 1st May. Maibaums have been known to disappear in the night only to appear in front of another girl's house, the heart inexpertly replaced and another name scribbled on in Edding marker. An unguarded May tree on this night may be seen as fair game. The adventure of finding and putting up the tree is by tradition something you do with your friends. Defending or trying to steal another tree into the early hours just as much a part of it. To steal a tree after the 1st, is seen as poor taste.

The trees are supposed to be taken down by the 31st May, and in return for their efforts the boys (or on leap years, girls) receive a crate of beer and perhaps a kiss or an invitation to dinner.

In July then, when I visited my friends, I was surprised to see the Maibäume still hanging in there on the lamposts and guttering two months later. Were they still there to bring a bit of colour to the otherwise drab facades? Or were they abandoned by some spurned suitor? Were the owners simply "Angeber" or "show-offs", as one friend put it? All the green leaves, symbols of youth, Spring and renewal were long gone, the coloured crepe ribbons tangled and wind-swept. One heart devoted to "Maria" stood more like a paean to love lost, illusions stripped bare just like the brittle dead branches surrounding it.

Or perhaps the story is not so tragic. Maybe the Maibäume are still in bloom on social media, and can wither and overstay their welcome on the street. There is no need to take them down in "real life", as it is already out there forever.

Instead you can post clinking Emoji beer mugs as a reward (forget real beer crates) on Facebook and receive likes from your beloved (and his friends) in a new tradition of self-endorsement and mutual appreciation ad infinitum. Meanwhile the aging Maibaum, erstwhile a symbol of fertility, still clings to the guttering, now a reminder of youth and love's folly in the face of time.

Of course I have no idea why the Maibäume were still there, and it probably doesn't matter why. Though I am glad that they were. Otherwise I could never have photographed the Maibäume that shouldn't have been there on an overcast first day of July.  And found out what I probably knew all along; that love can be a real birch.





* I checked out the Maibäume-Taxi service  in case you might find yourself wooing a sweetheart in Cologne one of these days. It has ten options on offer, starting from 40€ up to 180€. Here is model 5:

"Tree option 5 for €100: Take advantage of the all-inclusive service and have a colourfully decorated Maytree complete with heart delivered to the address of your choice. There in the night to 1 May it will be put up between 20:00 and 07:00 and at the end of the month (at the latest 1 week of June) it will be picked up and disposed of. You will be notified by text message when the tree has been put up. You don't have to do anything. By special request you can have tree 5 with white/red crepe ribbon in Cologne 'look' / FC Köln club colours, or Düsseldorf 'look'."

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

It's No One for Fun
















It's the day before the fun fair and 'IT'S NO ONE FOR FUN', but in a good way. Rides are yet to be unpacked and now stand layered in seemingly impossible smaller versions of themselves. An invitation to 'TAKE MY PHOTO' is still holed up behind bars. Micky mouse and Minnie hover above a carriage draped in green tarpaulin buoyed up with their very own brand of irrepressible and somewhat irritating optimism. Micky's ear is missing so he'll need it.

Cinderella's carriage has a number plate and tail lights as it squats unceremoniously on its trailer. Its pink paint has peeled away. The gold gilt is tempered by a utilitarian non-slip uniformity of bumps. But the fun fair imperfections don't make the scene sad, just more beautiful. Cinderella is always on the way to the ball, and midnight never comes to break the illusion. The ride doesn't go anywhere, just ends where it starts, a story erasing itself as she moves through it, a circular amnesia.* 

'Kunstlich' the German word for 'artificiality' springs to mind at the funfair. Both "Kunstlich" and "artificial" have the word "art" at their root. We may romantically think of art as a "real" or a "true" expression of emotions.  But "kunstlich" or "art-like" is not real or true, just imitation and is somehow thought of as second-rate. It is man-made, an imitation of nature. It is plastic, not the real thing. It does not decay or die, but deteriorates, becomes tawdry, becomes scrap. It has no core like a tree has rings, but is hollow, empty, without substance. The funfair imitates fun and we revel in it. It is a pastiche of itself. Does this make it less fun? Of course not. That the illusion that is fun is a millimetre thick, rusted to boot and is as insubstantial and fleeting as a bubble only makes the experience of fun more real to us. 

Number ones, 1's and No. Ones rule the fun fair, emblazoned on every ride in ever more eccentric fairground font. Freddie Frog, Mega Machine and Mystery House all simultaneously kicking each other off the number one spot of the best rides in town. Shot to the top of the hit parade by their screaming fans though they all celebrate the same gut wrenching song of "oggy oggy oggy". The fun fair where you can be a number one, or a no one, disappear in the crowd or have your picture taken.

It's the day before the fun fair with the promise of IT'S No ONE FOR FUN', a space we can forget our own narratives and destinations for the space of a ride, be a no one, but in a good way. 




*I've just read Jenny Diski's  "Travelling with strangers", An excellent book about travelling without going anywhere and visa versa and finding yourself among strangers in both senses of the word.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

In the Dog House

















My niece and friend in Erwin Wurm's Confessional (One Minute Sculpture) at the Berlinisches Galerie in Berlin. Participants are invited through written instructions to interact with Erwin Wurm's sculptures to be the artwork themselves. In this case to put their heads into the doghouse and confess for one minute. The girls seemed to particularly enjoy this sculpture as this was their second round. More info on the exhibition here.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Neon Lights















neon lights/ shimmering neon lights/
And at the fall of night/
This city's made of light - Kraftwerk

Neon Licht/ shimmendes Neon Licht /
Und wenn die Nacht anbricht/
 ist diese Stadt aus Licht - Kraftwerk


I was trying to edit down my photos today, but instead I ended up making more photos by taking screen shots of my iPhoto library. These pictures were taken of the Hamburger Bahnhof and out of the U-Bahn window, back in 2013 in Berlin. I seem to have got pretty carried away with the shimmering neon lights as I took nearly 150 photographs.  





Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Photo Opportunist














I read another article recently bemoaning that people were taking so many photos of their lives on their mobiles that they were missing out on the 'real experiences', and even less likely to remember them afterwards.

Maybe we are not missing out on a real "experience", if there is such a thing. Perhaps we can also discover an "experience" or even an "existence" through taking photos. The Japanese photographer Gentaro Ishizuka puts it like this in the notes to one of his books, 'Lensman':" In this world of unstoppable time, where no one can grasp anything in its entirety, it may be entirely possible that the reality of these things captured by the camera in pictures, could, in fact, trump one's own reality".

I like Ishizuka's metaphysical approach to photography because it is visually very much grounded in the sober and everyday. He seems, like me, to be a photo opportunist, at least for this project: "My next theme will be things that simply catch my eye when going out for no particular reason, or just everyday things".

He is also conscious of the fact that no matter where he is, he experiences a kind of "déjà vu" with his pictures. "Finally, after this remote journey following the Pipeline (in the Arctic) to its most distant point, I had once again found that scrap factory on Harumi Pier". He goes on: "...perhaps all these things were simply images pulled from one's own consciousness".

From the book "Lensman" by Gentaro Ishizuka


Fascinated by junk that he had discovered in a disused factory there many years before, Ishizuka adds,"Bathed in the faint light seeping through the walls, these discarded radios, television, and other miscellany took on new meaning with a multitude of shapes, shadows and substance. And in that place without a soul, taking pictures in deep meditation, there was oneself". 

And I would add, that as much as there is "oneself" in such places, there is also the "not oneself". The void, the blindspot of the self. This in turn may lend even the most empty of places a soul. Even if we can't see the blindspot, we can try and depict it, experience it. As in Ishizuka's photograph above, we can't see our own backs but it is still an interesting view. 



This piece was inspired by the artist book meet-up in Edinburgh that takes place once a month. 

(The pictures were taken at Fountainbridge in Edinburgh on the site of a former brewery. The Grove is a community garden project also at Fountainbridge. At "The Forge" people can learn carpentry and welding skills in workshops held in shipping containers. The new Boroughmuir High School is also being built there.) Here are some pictures of the same site from two years ago.