Berlin: a city between the worlds, a city between east and west, a city that is only what its people believe it to be.
Dutch artist and photographer, Erwin Olaf, attempts to approach himself with personal definition with his series about the city, “A Homage to Berlin.” I tried to understand his artistic vision during my visit at Wagner + Partner, the institution in Berlin where Olaf’s exhibition is shown, by speaking with the artist. His photographs are timeless; they convey a simple message, and an unparalleled aesthetic.
Erwin Olaf is a photographer with a vision. He has quite the impressive resume: exhibitions all over the globe, including Hasted Kraeutler, Museum of Arts in Moscow, and WAGNER + PARTNER in Berlin. The list is endless. However, I would expect nothing less from one of De Grootste Niederlander, or “The Greatest Dutchman,” a public poll he was voted to be on 10 years ago.
While seeing the series for the first time, I recognized the dark, melancholic tonality, the black and brown in almost every picture, and the strong dominance of the showed protagonists. We see children, children in the role of grown ups, even more as decision makers, the guiders, as the beings over the mature human. It feels uncomfortable, frightening, and true. I asked Erwin Olaf why it is children that dictate the photographs. He told me that there was a key moment at an airport, where he understood the power of children in our time. Children guide their parents, they emboss the present, and they own the future as the secret ruler of the world.
What has all this to do with Berlin, you may ask? When you find time to let the photographs sink in, you’ll find all kinds of personal answers.
Placed in the idea of the roaring twenties, the children don’t appear to be naïve or innocent; it may be a symbol for the Germans of that time. The shadows are threatening, and they shrink on with a time of terror. Whether or not this is intentional will remain a mystery, for the Artist wants to allow the spectators to interpret the art on their own. He tells me that he wants to ask questions, not to give answers, and that he wants to stimulate your own ideas as a viewer; it really got me thinking.
This series, composed of about twenty Photographs, is placed in a long gone Berlin. This impression originates almost only through the clothes of the children. One time there is a little girl dressed in a leather dress with fitting gloves, one time it’s a souped-up boy in a custom made suit. We recognize the intention without getting our noses rubbed in it, an art that Erwin Olaf masters like no other.
He has chosen seven special places for this series, including the Free Manson Lodge in Dahlem, and the City Hall of Schöneberg, where Kennedy shouted his famous words “I am a Berliner.“
I asked Mr. Olaf if he, too, is a Berliner, and I find the answer in his past. Fascinated from the city, he traveled here before the wall came down and then again, and again. Sometimes he would come for only a few days, and then return for a few weeks. This time, he stayed for two weeks to give himself the opportunity to understand the city even more, to experience it even deeper. He said this photo series made his bound to Berlin stronger, and he thinks about the option to move here after all. A great success, if you ask me.
Olaf’s photo series was an eye-opening experience for me, as a Berliner. I got to know the city in a new way, a chance to see it in a different perspective. I saw its past that I never experienced, and it felt like smelling the dust of old wood and the scent of the polished leather while looking at his work. I felt like someone was explaining my own city to me, but I was not mad, because I knew that Erwin Olaf understood it very well, something many Artist before tried to do and not only Bowie.
But I want to know more about the work; I want to dig deeper. Is there more than this wonderful homage to the capital of the Germans? What do the old ladies have to say in the photographs? Which meaning do the supporting protagonists have in relation to the shown youth?
Erwin Olaf explained that the elders are embittered, that they feel sorry for their loss of youth. He told me that they are jealous of their pasts, manifested in the child. He said that he pictured the stages of life, all in the setting that is Berlin, but that the kids are always the leading part of it.
What does that tell us about Berlin? I find my very personal answer in the agility of this city, because just like children in this historical settings are the Berliners in their home. The City is old, but its citizens are young.
The renowned artist shows us, once again his view of things with this exhibition: not romanticized, not bloomy, but clear and real as it can be. He succeeds one more time in not revealing what can be only found inside us.
I find my city in these photographs with its historical look and youthful charm, its dark past. I also see homage to the twenties, as well as to the childish dominance, and I recognize the power of youth and possible bitterness of maturity. But most importantly, I understand that all this is Berlin. A City destined to stand forever, on the eternal search for identity and with the constant growing up of its citizens, bound with shadows and darkness. And then I see the genius behind this man, Erwin Olaf, who is able to show all that without making it obvious.
Erwin Olaf is well deserving of the title, Grootste Niederländer, but now I can also say, “He is a Berliner.“
Olaf’s exhibition will be on view until November 16th at Gallery WAGNER + PARTNER, Strausberger Platz 8, 10423 Berlin.
By Denny Walentin reposted from NYArts Magazine.