Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Walk to Duisburg

This far into the journey a potential 40 kilometre walk holds few fears, and though the hills and mountains that have formed my backdrop in the mid Rhine have gone and i'm preparing for the flatlands of Holland there is still much pleasure to be found in the minute variations of light, the bright grey clouds, the limiting lines of sky or water, the bridges, their graffiti, the neat rows of trees; the way my path seques from forrest to open stretch, to village hinterland and back.

The light is playing dark tricks today, very photo-friendly and a reminder for some reason of the annihilating blurred light that cast few shadows which I experienced for so long in northern Italy all those years ago now on the first stage of the journey. I am walking from Dusseldorf, I start from Joseph Beuys street, to Duisburg.

I do though have a few fears about the latter as I know it was pretty much destroyed by blanket Allied bombing in the second world war. But whatever I find there will, I insist, be spaces of interest. And the art museum here does have Kiefers, eight of them. I can't wait.

As I walk I think about my conversation with the art dude last night; he's German but art takes him around the world. I'd assumed for a long while that he lived in Dusseldorf, but he was only there to teach; he lives in Paris.

"Why Paris?"
"Why not, I always wanted to live there, and now I have a place in the second. it's not big but, hey, I live in Paris."

And why not? Europe for all it's faults and flaws and Berlusconis is an amazing place, and now I know that if I need extra "energy" I just need to hop to Shanghai.

I am hungry by the time I hit Lieversberg. I have passed the massive Dusseldorf Messe complex and marvelled at more container ships and burnt out the camera battery taking essentially the same photograph over and over in search of the perfectly lit sky, cloud, river, boat combo. There is wifi and it's not summer any more so most of the diners are inside. The usual snitznel fizzy water double espresso fags lunch and afterwards I load the photos from the camera onto the iPad. My waiter clocks me. "Did you see the light this morning? It was magnificent on the river."

I agree and then receive a list of detours I should make for high-end nature photography. I jot the names gratefully, but for another trip, another kind of experience. I've long acclimatized now to my sense of nature, which includes every "ugly" pylon and pig farm and haven and industrial complex. I know from David Blackburn's marvellous The Conquest of Nature how unlike Tom's rhine is the river I walk; and when he took boats, when he rowed with his ex-pat English mates as now on this part of his trip, the tides and the banks and the complexities were far greater than those which confront all on the Rhine today, yachtsman and skullers, container drivers and cruise ferries (there's nothing doing from Dusseldorf to Duisburg today though, maybe it is the end of the season, or perhaps Duisburg isn't quite Versailles). I suspect the latter.

It's very hard to explain the pleasures of the very slow: tantric walking is cool - Sting would approve, and Mrs Sting too, I suspect, if she could bring her cook along - it makes for a very intensified looking, a miss-nothing attitude to trees and skies, and a lot of turning around to make sure the guys going in the other direction aren't having a better time.

Then came the blocks of power stations, pumping a white smoke into the ether that is the colour of Tintoretto's clouds, eerily whiter than the rest of the sky furniture. More photos ensue. More farms, long flat Kiefer landscapes - truly on this stretch the mis en scene is pure Kiefer. Grunged into a thick dense and textured world in which field and factory and sky merge into a giant live poster for German industrialism. I guess I am in the Ruhr. I veer inland to get a closer view of the factories and then tack back towards a shipyard cum container haven. There's a giant bridge looming on my north-western front and I assume this is Duisburg. Then a village, but lost from the river and my GMap not, er, 100 per cent, I ask a woman coming out of a hairdresser's where the centre of Duisburg is. It's 15 kilometres away she says. I don't believe her and so she very kindly packs me into her Audi and drives me 10 kilometers inland, leaving me in a bleak casino and international phone call shop heavy suburban hinterland that despite my love of all things bleak makes me feel quite, er.... bleak. I've walked a long way today, then been driven, and for the next two hours I walk the suburbs, which is pretty tough. Finally I hop a tram for the last stop and then I am Duisburg central railway station. I have no hotel booking and so I start walking into the centre.

OOOOfffff. If the Champs Elysees had been re-imagined as a pedestrianized set of shopping malls from the ninth circle it couldn't have been more uninviting. This is a new town; the bombings must have taken away everything. Eventually I find tourist information on the ground floor of a huge smug mall, nestling next to a plethora of plastic international cuisines. Only the extreme friendliness of the staff prevent a mini breakdown. And even then I am soon contending with "Fantastic selection of restaurants in the malls, and there is a stunning waterfront complex..." We book a room and I ask. Where's the best cup of coffee in town?

The answer, thankfully, isn't Starbucks. I try desperately to get away from the mall-ish vibe of the entire centre with little success though my hotel isn't bad tucked away in a square that feels a little "older", except that there are a lot of Messe delegates drooling around speaking that Orwellian Deep Dive Bollox, like religious converts to the God of Ayn Rand. I ask again about nice places at reception and am sent to the Waterside complex, a walk that is not aesthetically in my top two million. And then I am staring at a row of identikit restaurants where, inside, identikit people listen to Duffy and Sade. I turn around, go home, and skoff the mini-bar. At least in the morning there is Kiefer.

First thing this morning, before i left Dusseldorf I phoned the largest Kiefer collector in the world and got his secretary. Yer man was in Paris with The Man. I was told to call back tonight. The phone rang for an age without voicemail. OK: tomorrow.

When I will also be in search of the best coffee shop; because with coffeeshop comes the possibility the staff might recommend somewhere else that is not mass-produced, that's how it really works: forget online, this is word of mouth....

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Art Haus

The first towne that I came unto was Dysseldorp a faire towne of Cleve-land, situate hard by the Rhene, which is famous for two things, the one a magnificent Palace belonging to the Duke: the other the residence of the Dukes Court here.

With the scrubbed up shoe sellers - there is a shoe convention at the Dusseldorf Messe I've discovered - I take a leisurely hi-tech breakfast with herrings and wifi. Long after the iPhone voice mails have been left and final make-up and hair reconstruction achieved by the boy and girl delegates here, I'm still noodling away. I write this, a beginning of something:

Who ate all the Sushi?

“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual
guarantor of independence is profit.”

The world isn't getting warmer,
Forlorner, more medicated
Or self-obsessed. Every corner
Forms a wi-fi hotspot; the Fed
Finds no evidence for arrest;
The heir apparent reneges
His bonus, cites the very best
Reasons. Sports seasons pass like plagues

The main art gallery in Dusseldorf, and boy is Dusseldorf an art city, is split into three discrete buildings spread around the city. My first port of call is the Kunstsammlung, which "can be characterized as one of polyphony and contrast" the website states. I am more inclined to see it as a temporary show, Move It, which I missed in London, and the collection which is largely twentieth century and totally mouth-watering. At the ticket desk I'm told that the second building is closed today, there's an opening tomorrow for Jordan Wolfson from New York. But, as for the third building across town, promising spectacular video installations, there's a free shuttle bus every fifteen minutes. This is all very impressive.

In the main gallery space for Move It, three young dancers are limbering up as I wander the work, stopping for a good while first in front of a trusty Pollock. Another exhibit, by La Ribot, is a collection of folding wooden chairs that lean against a wall; each has a quotation of some sort and can be used to sit anywhere for artistic contemplation. One quote reads:

Without Walking I Would Not Be Able to Make any Observations.

I think I am going to like it here.

I near a plank based balancing act of art and the dancers, as one, rise from the floor, say good morning in accented English (how did they guess?) and ask if I have any questions.
"Er, what is this all about?" I am not the first to start my interaction in this way...

They are Fatima, Monica and Else, from Venezuela, Switzerland and Sweden; young dancers who interact both with the crowds who walk the show, and with their iPhones, especially programmed with a series of movements created by the piece's creator, Xavier Le Roy. I tell them about my walk, within a minute or two we have taken four chairs from La Ribot's art and are sitting in a semi-circle discussing stuff. I mention the arts cuts in the UK, Else, who knows London well, says, "perhaps this is a good thing, subsidy creates a sense of entitlement, I think the work will get better. My work is better when I have earned the money to produce it, you know, by selling tickets, having a job, I'd rather sell tickets at the cinema to make money than get an Arts Council Grant. It focuses creativity. I like the recession, it makes us change the way we think, Britain needs it." The others are not so sure, dance festivals are great - and yes they don't pay very much for all the rehearsal time that goes into a work, but "I do expect to be paid something," Fatima says. They are more interested in my walk and its dynamic, in a sense it is a far slower - and less graceful - version of their own piece: interacting with whatever comes along and following, in a way, a set of rules (in my case Tom Coryat's, not Xavier Le Roy). Later, after I have experienced the rest of Move It, including 30 mins lying on the lid of a leather facsimile of a piano surrounded by speakers, in solitary confinement as I endure/enjoy most of Boris Charmitz strange video piece about the impossibility of capturing "dance" on camera - full of grunts and sex and stuff - the show's dancers are interacting with more visitors. I like this, it makes the show move. Ushers an unusual rhythm into what could be a stately progression. Oh, but upstairs....

At the river this morning, early for the latest moody cloudy photographs that obsess me, I find myself on Joseph Beuys street. And I know more treats are in store. Dusseldorf is home to one of the very great art schools, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Look it up of Wikipedia, but the short list of the long list includes: Demand, Polke, Richter, Kiefer, Beuys, Gursky, Struth..Peter Doig teaches there....

It is an industrial power house of post war German (European) art. One of those places that would have been great to study at; like MIT in the 80s, or Oxford in 1930...

Upstair in the permanent collection Beuys work stands out for me, entombed in a pair of rooms, mythic and visceral and I'm struck with Ted Hughes-ish feelings about mortality. There is a gorgeous open window by Picasso from 1919, all gray and dark lime and pale blue and I spend more time on this simple piece than many others; it is overload, but without many visitors....pretty perfect. An elderly invigilator does a dance in front of me, "I am Moving It," he says, rather sweetly. There are huge photo works by Gursky...It is like Christmas. No Kiefer though....Hmm.

I spend hours here, then cross the street in the first rain for a long time to the Kunstalle Dusseldorf: it is a proud large space that dwarfs the work and I can't get excited; neither by the 50 percent off in the museum's cafe, The Salon des Amateurs - which is utterly empty.
It is nicely furnished in faux leather and if there were people...
.....I note it down as a potential space in between. Half heartedly though, I mean who in a city with a thousand bars, the longest bar in the world, would come here?

A spurt of photography in the rain, dark clouds, spots of light, modernist architecture, school kids truanting over fags, and then I take the shuttle across town, out of the old zone and past malls I'll never visit to Ständehausstraße and the K21 part of the experience. A gutted out stadthaus now a wonder of light and space; in the basement fields of video installations, Steve McQueen is first port of call, loud and thonic and an entire theatre to myself in the gothic dark. A three video piece by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, the Strasbourg born artist. Three evocative enigmatic films about place. On a wall Dominique states: "Having been a prisoner of literature for two years or more, captured by a triangle formed by Enrique Vila-Metas, Roberto Bolano, W.G Sebald, three stoires of Robert Walser and J.C Borges, it is impossible for me to present anything else here than three short stories which can be seen or read in any order." It is if she has lived my life. I watch the slow films, one by one, and piece my own narrative. The films are shot, I think, in various locations in Sao Paulo. All I remember is that I first ate sushi there, many years ago. Now I'm writing about sushi as a metaphor for something utterly other. The work is mesmeric.

There is much good young work here, but on the third floor a simple exhibit of newspaper front pages from September 12, 2001 - in multiple languages and from many places - slows me to a standstill. The tenth anniversary is in a few days.

Back at the Einhorn I chat to an American who has lived here for a few years; she followed her heart, after tango took her to Buenos Aires. A paired down life of adventures; a past sadness I sense but don't want to explore. We are similar, I think.

Later I jot that cathedrals are like railways stations, museums like cathedrals once were, and it is only in found spaces that we are able to impose a clear sense of individual meaning. I have no idea what this means now.

The greying of Dusseldorf with the rain sends me home and I watch a film named The Hangover, which is oddly funny in its way, and then with the heavens still thundering I wonder about dinner. I have had an art overload today and I could just Einhorn and be done with it, but my spaces in between antenna is buzzing and so I make for the dark and empty looking Salon des Amateurs where there are a few people drinking; older, corduroy-types, bearded, dare one say fatter? Smokers outside. I go the bar and order some wine and then later go outside for a cigarette. Jens is about my age perhaps. "Ah, English...You know that tonight is a poetry recital? How is your German?"

I mumble: Goethe Institute two week course, back this up with my undying devotion to Heine and Durs Grünbein. "Yes, but how's your German?"

"I love the sound and assonance of poetry, I'll make do without meaning," I say. I explain my trip, "Ah, do you make a sentimental journey?" Jens asks. "Yes, indeed, just like Laurence Stern, did you know he invented the phrase in his book about travel -"
- Jens does. I feel a bit stupid. He probably translated Sterne into German I think. I stumble back inside and take my place at the bar. The cafe is full now and the poets are pacing, warming up like retired footballers playing in a charity tournament. One of the organizing men, not so old, not so young, is wearing flares - which is a first on this journey. I note down, this poetry can not be any more impenetrable than the iconography of Joseph Beuys, or the reasons why I spent time in Cologne drinking as parties partied to Neil Diamond-playing brass bands. These are my fates.

The first poem, from a spectacled, slightly nervous man, seems to be aus dem hinterland - and I'm feeling: hey poetry this is easy....and then there's a long one which involves the names of many, many German footballers through history, so that's a breeze. Then a Romanian woman reads a very long poem in German about the last days of the Ceausescus in Bucharest. And while I understand not a word I have lived in Bucharest for a little while and - as it were - know the story.

The drink break does come, though, with a little relief. In fact there is little for me. Jens is introducing me to other English speakers, an Englishman who has lived here for thirty years who writes plays and poetry and the "definitive guide to the Ruhr" as he put it. I am a little grouchily yeah-yeah where are the Germans, but put it down to tiredness. Then I am introduced to the next poet, he promises to dedicate a poem to me. Thus, back at my place at the bar, I am subjected to stares of abject pity as the poet explains how I understand bugger-all.

His poem is onomatopoeic, lots of Germanesque sounds and nobody much laughs. whoosh, sploosh, mooosh....I don't know. There are many more poems and the audience seems fretful and then it is break time again.

"They weren't laughing with him, they were embarrassed," says a young woman. "It's a tough crowd here and everyone knows everyone." The woman's English is very good, what do you do, I ask.

"I am a satirist," she says, without irony.
"How's it gong?"
"Not so well...."

The crowd disperses but I go back inside to write and end up talking to a guy from the art academy. "did you enjoy the poetry?" I ask.
"I wasn't listening, I just came for a drink while I worked." All the time he is scribbling in a notebook. "A writer?"
"Yes, but now I am just writing a to do list for China, I am off tomorrow."
We talk for about an hour, he tells me about Liu Xiadonj, He Yanchang, Li Gang and the thriving Chinese art market. "I used to go to New York for the energy, all gone, now that energy is in Beijing and Shanghai," he says. He's read everythjng, teaches at the academy, writes, does deals in China, and is generally pretty cool. Finally I tell him about my Kiefer obsession and he casually jogs down the number of his biggest collector for me. He lives here. OMG, as they say. Epic win. It's late when I get home and there is not a shoe soul in sight.