A Slice of Berlin in Los Angeles

There’s a small show, at the inconspicuous and informal gallery space of the USC Hillel Center that packs a large conceptual and emotional punch. Nicole Cohen and Marisa Mandler, recently returned from years of living abroad in Berlin, take on the sublimely melancholic idea of absence. It’s difficult not to feel a sense of absence when you think of Berlin. It’s a city of empty spaces. You can always find an open seat on the train or the bus. You hardly ever get stuck in a traffic jam. You hardly ever bump into someone crowding your personal sidewalk space. The city itself is a symbol for absence.

Marisa Mandler starts out the exhibit with a literal but spectral and very beautiful interpretation of the concept. On black paper she has layered bleach compounds in a process that has yielded orange/yellow blueprint-like images of would-be ’40s diesel engines. At once precise and scientific, the bleach eats away at the paper in rather random ways, making some lines blurry, but the images seem to come out of the darkness. They materialize out of the black paper, but when you look at the blurry lines caused by the precarious bleach, you get a sense that this is a drawing sculpted.

In a nearby sound installation, Mandler explores the absence in an experience of the world where no one point of view is central. One voice recounts the written record of one minute’s worth of occurrences and another one immediately takes over, disorienting the listener. The most touching of her work on display is a small found object piece, acquired at a Berlin flea market. It’s the jacket to a Polish mountain climbing book, one would guess from the ’60s, on which, written in German with red ink, are the words “Friendship knows no boundaries…”

Nichole Cohen’s work is more focused on place and the connections we make to it and therefore the absence that materializes when we move somewhere else. There are the small-scale videos – candles, a girl lounging on a sofa, talking on the phone – projected through mini projectors onto still images fixed behind Plexiglas that invoke the specters of empty spaces, interiors once occupied and lived in. Empty perfume bottles invoke a similar nostalgia, but the eeriest of Cohen’s works are her magazine cutout/collage series. Pages from old German leisure women’s magazines boast uplifting messages about life and fashion with visual advertisements, but the faces of the models are cut out. They look like people in your distant, faded memories, reminding the conjurer of the empty space created by the passing of time.

A portion of the Berlin Wall in L.A., east side

This is a good occasion to mention the ten concrete slabs of the Berlin wall on display across from LACMA at 5900 Wilshire Blvd. It’s the largest remaining segment of the wall which once divided East and West Berlin. It belongs to the Wende Museum based in Culver City (there’s a riddle for internationalism), and has been painted over by various American and German artists. When it first arrived in the US in 2009, artists like Shepard Fairey, L.A. muralist Kent Twitchell and Berlin-based Thierry Noir, were invited to paint certain sections of the West side of the wall. This year, in a project exploring issues of censorship, murals were painted on the Eastern side of the wall by Dean Stockton, a British multimedia street artist, Los Angeles-based Marquez Lewis, and Jasmin Siddiqui and Falk Lehmann who grew up in Germany on different sides of the concrete barrier.

Viewing this, one can imagine the despairing sense of separation and absence the wall once generated, disjoining families and friendships, creating a distinct Here and There, for over 28 years. If you walk around to the Eastern side of the wall, the one facing away from the busy Wilshire Blvd, you get the sense of the isolation it invoked in the years it was not merely a symbol but an actual barrier with dire consequences for those who dared transgress its boundaries. The difference between that which it was then and that which it is now is itself a melancholy absence: the proof that time takes away the meaning of an object. But then again, it also imbues it with another.