Opens at 1st of March at Fotopioniere Berlin. Open from 1st of March to 8th of May during normal opening times. Vernissage: 1st of March from 7 – 10 PM.

The New Now

We were shaken out of our busy lives during that cold spring in 2020, when the world ground to a halt due to the pandemic. I remember it as if it were yesterday: I had just recovered from a nasty cold I caught at the funeral of one of my best friends, when the news started rolling in. My strong feelings of wintery sadness were overtaken by the news of lockdowns and state-administered solitude, and an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty.

I know that uncertainty is not an emotion per se, but more of a cocktail of different anxieties, fear, and sadness, with strong hints of confusion and exhaustion. Even now, it is hard to sort out the emotions that these particular events brought up in my inner self. Though in retrospect, I know there was something else, something positive too, maybe some faint signs of wonder, or at least hope.

Maybe part of my hope was sparked by the irony of not being alone in this loneliness. Artists all around the world were doing the same things: feeling lonely, picking up their tool of choice, documenting their views of their restricted lives, trying to make sense of it, sharing it with one another. Or maybe it was this other absurdity: that these new extraordinary lives were all being lived in the most ordinary of places. On the journeys between bedroom and kitchen, our homes and the familiar supermarkets, parks, and avenues, crisscrossing through our neighbourhoods. 

Extraordinary times in ordinary places.


The Places We Ignore

Looking back before 2020, we in Western societies experienced more than a decade of almost constant growth and unprecedented freedom. Drunk on our perceived collective success and peace—chasing foreign places, extraordinary experiences, and emotions—it was only too easy to ignore looming challenges. After all, increasing inequality, a growing sense of isolation and loneliness, and last but not least, climate change, would have been reasons to stop and ask questions—even before the pandemic forced us to do so.

Then, in February 2020, places mostly ignored on the way to more spectacular things suddenly became all that we had left. Eating not in the fancy restaurant, but your dingy old kitchen; working not in the glassy office tower but at the dusty desk in the corner of the bedroom; escaping not to the beach in Bali, but the small parks and neighbourhoods behind the supermarket. It was like ripping the “extra” from our extraordinary lives, shining a light on the tension and interdependence of the ordinary and extraordinary.

This tension can be understood through an architectural lens. Most buildings we pass by on our way to a brighter future are carefully designed by skilful architects with care and talent, and certainly with an intent to rise above the ordinary—yet we still actively ignore them most of the time. Something new and shiny becomes old and invisible within several years, and that is true for architectural objects more so than any other objects in use, probably with good reason. For one, architecture is the discipline of applied arts that must make the most concessions to the ordinary and pragmatic. Doors need to be placed, windows need to open, flats and office spaces need to be affordable and usable for years to come. 

On the other hand, it is the most utilised of all the applied arts. It’s hard not to interact with the building in front of you, let alone the one you live or work in, even if we don’t give it much conscious thought in our everyday life. The closer buildings are to us, the more they vanish into the background of our everyday.

This makes architecture a most interesting object for my artistic considerations. Designed mostly with care and intent, buildings shape our way of living more than any other designed object. All the while, architecture outlives most historical events, economical ups and downs, and other fast-paced trends, which in turn means that buildings leave traces of past hopes and dreams in our immediate neighbourhoods. Isolating these past considerations and choices, looking at them in a present-day light, and how they are now used by ordinary people in their ordinary lives is the topic in this chapter.

I fully acknowledge my luck with being restricted to my particular street, as the Karl-Marx-Allee is one of the most interesting ones in Berlin. It is a broad avenue in the heart of east Berlin, with a rich history and a manifestation of cast-in-stone hopes of a brighter future in a socialist state. It represents the tension between the ordinary and the extraordinary on a political scale. Built to house citizens of the DDR in the 60s by an ambitious East German government that sought to display its prosperity and artistic virtue, it perfectly exemplifies how grand architectural ideas are able to weave themselves into our ordinary lives—and become ever more forgotten year after year.


Escape to an Earlier State

Another commonality of our everyday lives throughout the pandemic restrictions were the long walks we took through our avenues, parks, and forests to brighten up our restricted existences. Certainly, this was a more conscious choice compared to the usual roaming of our built environment between flats, supermarkets and test centres, though we did not have that much choice in the matter either, I admit. 

As a refuge from the chaos and uncertainty, nature offered remarkable solace. I wondered often how even small patches of green positively influence our mental wellbeing. One working theory is that nature represents something perpetual, peaceful, and beautiful to us. Looking at it through the lens of the extraordinary, it seems that nature abstains from being “extra” in any way. Of course, there are plants that are more elaborate than others—but all in all, there is a remarkable rhythm and harmony to plant life. Plants are seemingly unaffected by world events, personal worries, and fear of the future; they promise a retreat to a more enduring, natural, earlier state of being.

Having a graveyard so close to my home that squirrels who live there used my cargo bike to store nuts, meant long walks between old graves and overgrown war memorials instead of a nice park—and with it, maybe a slightly more nuanced interpretation of Mother Nature.

Because the way we encounter nature—even in my graveyard-turned park—is so tranquil, if not for the freshly dug graves that kept popping up at an alarming rate one could almost forget that it was nature itself that brought us this particular plague. 

This is how we see and experience nature in our everyday life: as tamed, groomed, and curated, made by and for us and controlled by us to a large degree, to enjoy, use, and abuse, devoid of death and danger. Long gone are the dark and dangerous forests from our fairy tales, with no more deadly animals and poisonous plants lurking to kill us. We exerted our control over nature to such a degree that we kind of forgot the wild side it has always had. 

Aren’t death and disease as much a part of nature as a lovely summer meadow? Is a hungry wolf not as much a part of it as a red rose is? Colourful warm autumn days chase away brutally cold winter nights, and it seems to me this imagined holistic perpetual state of nature—as much as we tried to squeeze it out of nature itself—is in reality still inherently dangerous and temporary. 


The Ordinary Within Us

True, the strange new world we briefly lived through did not bear to fruition the doomsday prophecies that social media spewed upon us, as ordinary life has mostly returned (and with that, our desire for the extraordinary). It looks as though now we just have to deal with the aftermath: resolving pandemic policies, making peace with the estranged parts of our families who denied the pandemic happened, getting rid of the exercise equipment we bought in hopes of using it more. 

But some cracks will undoubtedly remain, because a lot has happened within us. There was a sense of not just losing oneself in the state of chaos, but also losing a way of life, a somehow weightless way of thinking. These most recent years marked the end of the worry-free world we had grown used to in the first decades of this century. This loss of—for lack of better words—naiveté is something that impacted me almost more than what had happened in the physical realm. We talked about ordinary places, physical places like neighborhoods, streets, parks, and our workplaces in the chapters before. But there is also the ordinary in our heads: routines, entrenched thoughts, views and opinions—all challenged by these extraordinary times. 

Death comes to mind first as having a strange relationship with the ordinary within us—death is perceived as extremely extraordinary, but is in its natural self something very ordinary. It might occupy a place more prominent in my visual interpretation, having a graveyard as my happy place, but the fear of losing loved ones loomed large for everyone. Suddenly, the temporary nature of our being in the world became very tangible.

Change is another important antithesis to the ordinary. Maybe change is a cousin of the extraordinary in sharing a contrast with the ordinary. I have a hunch though, that as much as we chase the extraordinary, we still want to have the ordinary to fall back on, like a foundation upon which we build our extraordinary experiences, and as such we desire it stable and constant. True change, on the other hand, is ruthless in a connected and interdependent world that is complex and unpredictable; even change we desire can have unforeseen consequences on our lives. It converts the ordinary into a space of uncertainty, and probably therefore we tend not to like it.

The physical manifestation of this loss of control over the ordinary was seen all over the city: the standstills on construction sites, the emptiness in our neighborhoods, the little trinkets of unused personal belongings that landed on the streets for lack of a better place to go, empty shopping trolleys waiting patiently to be brought back to home base. Roaming the streets looking for these signs of change, I thought about what it meant for me. To me, change somehow also brings hope for the better. It’s more akin to an unopened door: even if somebody else is opening the door for you, you still don’t know what is behind it, if it’s good or bad or all of the above; there is potential to go either way in this space of uncertainty.

Despite the turbulence and uncertainty of these strange and extraordinary days, it has been in some ways a very constructive and fruitful time for me. The rediscovery of the ordinary as a place of solace—in buildings, parks and our daily routines—showed a way for me to cope with the future challenges we will face.