joshua neustein texts
by Amnon Barzel

If anywhere is everywhere, then Deutschland Bilder privileges the world with Germany as a starting point. It's cosmopolitan consciousness, it's traditions integrate and interpret art made in its confines. Berlin, Tel Aviv, Venice, Majdanek figure more than random instances. As we pronounce the names of these places they bring pictures to mind, deep structures deform the perspective, we need to cool down the implications and the possibilities.
How shall we enter Berlin? Perhaps by following in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin, through his essays. Einbahnstrasse and Childhood in Berlin[1] we may move past places loaded with historical stratification, to the inner spaces of Gropius Bau, to the installations made for the exhibition, Deutschland Bilder. Tracking Walter Benjamin of 1920's threads us in and out of familiar sights made more familiar by approaches in another time and another traveler. But we are in Berlin 1997. We pass the Wall which Benjamin never saw, which we no longer see, but feel so deeply. We walk in the Grande Alee, fitted by Albert Speer's street lamps, we face the Brandenburg Gate, see the DDR Tower of communication on Alexander Platz, nearly touching the tower of the Rote Rathaus. We turn to the forest of cranes in the skyline. Berlin is re-building its heart which was a wasteland of ruins, a no-mans land for 50 years. What wee see in these places is beyond what we see with our eyes, the point of convergence of historical ground swells. The tectonic movements, which make the place an ever erupting lava of memories. Paul Celan, Edmond Jabes and Mahmoud Darwish wrote "To remember means to forget what our eyes have seen."

In the installation Aschenbach by Joshua Neustein, a magnificent crystal chandelier is hanging from the high ceiling and lowered to touch the floor. On the floor is spread the map of Berlin, made of ashes. "What had been the floor is now something else, an expanse of indeterminate dimensions holding the map of the city, the site of the museum -at a certain point of it's history. The map is enlarged so that it's drawn streets have become paths that contain the visitor's movements through the space, very much as if one were walking through the city itself.[2]

Neustein's strikingly evocative installation would be easy to read as an allegory on Germany's recent past. A Jew from Danzig exhibits ashes in Berlin, what can it be? Neustein rejects such an interpretation. He passionately denies historic connotations and wants to banish memory from the realm of art. Immediately he qualifies that statement "not to banish memory from politics, scholarship, from schools and libraries."

For this artist, the work of art should occupy center stage and re-interpret the world with reference to itself. If we ever vest our faith in the victory of art over the needs of museums themes and institutional requirements, we must overcome history; like the Kantian individual with the quest for the sublime that must, need be a lonely search. It is dangerous when the passions for the sublime becomes a collective rage or a national agenda.

The Aschenbach installation seeks an internal relationship with the city The metaphor addresses an emblematic vision of Berlin through the fictional lens of Thomas Mann's protagonist in Death in Venice. The main character in the 1912 novella is Aschenbach, an aging artist (Neustein's age) who struggles with two sides of his temperament —the Nordic rational organized character versus the romantic, impulsive, Southern sensibility. Gustav Aschenbach named after the great musician who died in the year Mann wrote Death in Venice. Mahler the Jew, submitted to social pressures and for the sake of his music, converted to Catholicism. (perhaps, Benjamin's Exile Mind when he wrote of Berlin in Spain, was also 'converted' in his race and gender ? The Film by Visconti Death in Venice.. (see your letter "her mit tzu") the experience on a metaphorical level is clearly intended to be transformative.[3] Neustein's Aschenbach is yet again a commentary on a commentary, twice removed.

Neustein's idiom has been nurtured on a supposition that the real world is incomprehensible and can only be understood by turning to fiction. This follows Giambatista Vico's and Levi Strauss' example. Vico the great Renaissance philosopher and father of the study of mankind as a science, looked to myths to understand the present. Myths are poetic wisdom to deal with the world not directly, but at one remove. Myths are man's attempt to explain the world as he sees it, to explain society and it's structure. As the structuralist view true nature of things lie in the relationship between perceiver and perceived, that the objects perceived are not discrete components but interactions, even events.

Aschenbach means 'a brook of ashes in German. The word play of a stream of ashes filtering the material through Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. In the novella the protagonist Aschenbach is appalled and desperately struggles against a conspiracy of silence about the plague that rages in the city. The authorities keep it quiet, not to scare away tourists. Their priority is economic. Eventually Aschenbach colludes in the collective silence, for selfish reasons. His priority is lust. (German predator, Polish Youth as plunder) The sexual conversion of Aschenbach, the religious conversion of Mahler -how does it connect to the displacements of Neustein's art?

Neustein chose a novella about a German fictional author modeled on a converted Jewish composer. Mann turned him from a musician to a writer. In a metamorphosis, late in life, the protagonist transforms from a rational, Germanic heterosexual, founded on order, to a romantic Mediterranean type, enthralled with beauty. Is the conflict between the Nordic and the Southern in Death in Venice, a replay of the Rites of Passage" in Mahler's conversion from Jew to Catholic? Are we asked to witness the path of transfiguration and abandonment? Does Conversion have its sexual side ?

The next item on the installation inventory is the chandelier. Arthur Danto references Neustein's fixture to the chandelier of Adolf Menzel's painting of Flute Concert of Frederick the Great at Sans Sousi. Playing the flute under the magnificent chandelier, is this a transformation of the warrior emperor into the delicate muse hallowed by the crystal light? Menzel as court painter paying homage to his liege. What does Neustein transform with the chandelier? Not his own emperor, surely?

The ashes made into a map erupts from a cartography into an ontology. The map of ashes then is a fictional flight or is it an allegory on Berlin, as the mythic Phoenix Bird that rises out of the ashes. Is then the chandelier the Phoenix bird made of ashes just as the light made by electricity is part of the carbon cycle? Or is this chandelier Menzel's figuration of the German spirit in its glory? The ashes are compulsively self ravishing and Neustein escapes the history of Berlin to return via Venice via Mahler. Berlin is the capital of loaded history and Venice is the ash tray of Western culture. The cruelty of imposing diamonds on ashes (Slavic Germanic) . We can recuperate endless analogies. Emanuel Levinas writes "perception is the primordial act of being.. and is exercised to the same purpose as the other acts of being; without derogation of the spiritual. In a recent letter Neustein remarked "I believe that Aschenbach the installation is as much a personal exploration of my origins and about writing myself into the history of this city."
In maps above all, the impossible dilemmas of existence take on life. The map is an imaginary that insinuates its factuality. We are starkly confronted with a mapping impulse, to order the incompatible world into will and representation. The map that is the receptacle, no more than an emblem, patterns of an endless additive information, is not a representation of the world as we see it, but yet it's most expansive and accurate code. It is the frontier where the locus we live in is will and the object as sign is representation. Inside and outside the map come hypnotically together.

We return to the mapping cityscape of Walter Benjamin, given a specific inflection for our own journey to and through the Martin Gropius Bau. What is this place? What place was it? Again we turn to another writers perspective in order to see our reality.

We must look to the art of mapping to find emancipation from our limited figural vision. The cartographic aesthetic presents the world as artifact, as abstraction, as will, as theater stage where millions of swarming lives play out endless patterns of their daily dramas.

"Art for Adorno is less some idealized realm than a contradiction incarnate. Every artifact works resolutely against itself, and this in a whole variety of ways. It strives for a pure autonomy, but knows that without some heterogeneous moment it would be nothing, vanishing into thin air. It is at one being for itself and being for society; always simultaneously itself and something else, critically estranged from its history yet incapable of taking up a vantage point beyond it.."[4]

Finally we do not summon objects separate by themselves but in relationship to other objects. The map is that mis-en-scene where the connections are played out. The map beckons us to look to detail, to look closer. The map demands that we skew our eyes into the microcosm and when we see inside the elaboration, the magnification, it is because it is present in us.

[1]Walter Benjamin, Illuminationen Suhrkamp taschenbuch 345,1977 ed. Siegrfied Unseld

[2] Arthur Danto, cat. Light on the ASHES secca P.31

[3]Danto, ibid

[4]Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of Aesthetics, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford UK 1990 p.350

Amnon Barzel, Deutschlandbilder, Gropiusbau, Berlin, 1997.