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Wall fetishism?

Av: Christina Parte

The fact that Eija-Riitta Eklöf (1954-2015) passed away a few years ago would have gone unnoticed had she not been in love with the Berlin Wall. In Lars Laumann’s filmic portrait Berlinmuren (2008), we hear the late Eija-Riitta speak as we are introduced to her world through a collection of objects in her immediate surrounding. This combination of live footage, personal mementos as well as archival material stages her special relation to objects in a subtle way. Eija-Riitta was a self-declared objectum sexual, who was sexually and emotionally attracted to objects with a rectangular form, parallel lines and a dividing function. She saw herself as an animist not a fetishist and believed that all objects were living beings, which were not only invested with a soul but also communicated directly with her. Her home in Sweden was animated by a large number of cats and an equally large amount of scale models including fences, bridges, guillotines and the Berlin Wall. Eija-Riitta allegedly married the Berlin Wall in 1979 and changed her last name from Eklöf to Berliner-Mauer. Ever since she had first seen the Berlin Wall on TV in 1961, she had felt an intense attraction to him. In Berlinmuren, we learn that Eija-Riitta visited her husband several times in situ but mostly contented herself with self-made scale models of the Berlin Wall, which she treated as living extensions of the original. 

Film still, Lars Laumann
Berlinmuren, 2008
video for projection
23 minutes 56 seconds
© Lars Laumann, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

In one of the photographs taken at the Berlin Wall and shown in Berlinmuren, a woman with dark sunglasses kneels against an individual segment, a smirk on her face. What looks like a fairly conventional snap shot, shows Eija-Riitta leaning against and touching the Wall, while in the right-hand corner of the photograph the scale model of an earlier generation of the Wall strikes a similar pose. The small but essential detail could easily be overlooked if Eija-Riitta’s loving hand on the Wall’s base together with the white shopping bag scattered in front of it did not point towards the model, forming an unlikely love triangle.

The fact that the Berlin Wall fell and was eventually demolished, was experienced as a catastrophe by Eija-Riitta, who championed object rights and denounced the demolition of the Berlin Wall after its fall. In Berlinmuren she admitted to having repressed the traumatic event and preferred to see her husband as past his prime. Lars Laumann’s montage of postcards, photos and film clips foregrounds her loving rather than sexual relatedness to objects. Nevertheless, a fetishistic structure of desire vis a vis her object choice comes to the fore. Despite her personal disinterest in politics, Eija-Riitta was well aware that the Berlin Wall embodied the division between capitalism and communism in a city cut into two halves. The overabundance of Berlin Wall models -some of them playfully obstructed doors- accurately revealed their domineering function in her personal space. 

The all too often painfully divisive impact of the original objects she felt sexually attracted to -think of the guillotines!- was displaced by the use of scale models but not entirely erased as the accumulation of obstacles in her house confirms.

Neither on her website nor in Laumann’s video is the Wall as an actual fortification system with its frontline and hinterland walls, its watch towers and death strip ever shown. Eija-Riitta exclusively loved the Western Wall, in front of which she posed for photographs to be taken, with or without a model wall in one of her hands. In this way, not only the Berlin Wall’s symbolic character and historical dividing function but also its material structure was negated, only to re-emerge in slightly distorted form. 

While capturing the arrangement of objects in Eija-Riitta’s house, Laumann’s camera focuses at one point on the attentive eyes of a black cat, comfortably resting in the space between Western Wall model and window. Staring at the viewer from the other side and scanning the terrain in front, the cat’s gaze ironically alludes to a border guard’s weighty responsibilities. The cat is backlit which heightens the effect of being watched and the whole scene reminds of the brightly lit death strip behind the frontline wall in nocturnal, divided Berlin. Eija-Riitta tolerated her cats, whose photographs appeared lovingly side by side with pictures of the Berlin Wall in her house, but she feared them just as well. She felt that her feline companions posed an existential threat to the models’ existence. Unlike the military guardians of the Wall, the cats could always knock over the models and, on the symbolic as well as structural level, overcome their divisive function. In Eija-Riitta’s topsy turvy world cats played games with walls and walls could perish. 

Rather than dismissing Eija-Riitta’s relation to objects as fetishism tout court, this is fetishism with a twist. While Freud taught us that the fetish’s function was to cover up an unwelcome sight – the mother lacking the penis – Eija-Riitta fetishized the dividing agent that created lack in the first place. Instead of phallic plenty, painful forms of division calmed Eija-Riitta’s nerves and delighted her senses. Eija-Riitta did not crave re-unification but welcomed the Wall and was captivated by its form.

The fetish as symptomatic signifier, according to Laura Mulvey, points to a psychological and social structure that disavows knowledge in favor of belief. The fetish is characterized by a double structure. Its spectacular form distracts from something, which needs to be concealed. However, the greater the distraction, the more obvious the need for concealment.

The more harmless and beautifully crafted Eija-Riitta’s scale models appeared, the more disturbing their function in reality, from geopolitical division to beheading, became. Even though Eija-Riitta lived with her objects in a subject to subject relationship, treating them as beings, some of them allegedly wanted to be put on display and thus became objects to be looked at in her small museum or to be hung as pictures on the walls of her house. 

Eija-Riitta seemed particularly attracted to the forbidding character of the first generation of the Berlin Wall, whose concrete block structure was finished off by a y-shaped line of barbed wire. While martial and threatening in reality, Eija-Riitta’s Wall turned into a piece of domestic bliss. As neat embroidery, the first generation of the Wall became perfectly fitting wall decoration.

Film still, Lars Laumann
Berlinmuren, 2008
video for projection
23 minutes 56 seconds
© Lars Laumann, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

By keeping the form but changing the size, material and context of her object of desire, Eija-Riitta appropriated and subverted a symbolically charged and highly contested border wall. Her strategy epitomized a dangerously cute aesthetics, which, in contemporary Japanese culture, as Sianne Ngai points out, is characterized by ambivalence, the oscillation between kawaii and kowai (cute and scary). Takashi Murakami’s Pop Art-inspired trademark Mr. DOB figures, which range from cute incarnations of a cartoon-mouse-like figure to rather disturbing images of beings dominated by their eyes and bare teeth, serve as a good example. Ngai defines cute aesthetics as aesthetics of powerlessness, where the exaggerated cuteness of objects can also provoke sadistic impulses of the subject, who derives pleasure, not from cuddling the cute object, but from testing the object’s resistance to rough handling. In a dialectical reversal, the subject’s veiled or latent aggression can turn into explicit violence. Whether behind Eija-Riitta’s militant activism for object rights was also a desire to master and control them is up to speculation. She certainly turned the issue of the Berlin Wall’s demolition into a political tool when vehemently criticizing so called wall peckers, people, who chiseled off pieces of the Western Wall as personal mementos or for profit after its fall in 1989.

Even more upsetting for Eija-Riitta was the fact that individual graffitied pieces were eventually auctioned off, sold or sent to museums and private collections around the world. The Berlin Wall was not only mutilated but exploited and turned into a commodity for sale. Only one framed newspaper article recalled the traumatic event of the fall of the Wall on the 9th of November 1989 in Eija-Riitta’s house. In her eyes, the Berlin Wall was a German being, who belonged to West and East Germany, which should not have been reunited. The only way out of the dilemma seemed to be screening off an event, which for most of her German contemporaries was greeted with wonder, joy and disbelief. Eija-Riitta’s imaginary identification with and empathy for the Berlin Wall as vulnerable, deformed being, was nurtured by the object’s resistance since some parts of the Wall are still standing. The ability to withstand rough handling, Sianne Ngai argues, shifts control from subject to object, which persists and resists. The aggressed mute object returns as an impotence on the part of the subject and thus, while ruinous and downtrodden, the Wall has not entirely vanished and remains an obstacle for the living. 

Anthropologist Roy Ellen sees the ambiguous relationship between the control of objects by people and of people by objects as one of the defining characteristics of fetishism. Ellen emphasizes the universal human character of fetish-like behavior, which can be found in everyday practices of anthropomorphism and the tendency to conflate, in semiotic terms, the signifier and the signified, the tempting belief that the representation equals the represented object. It is therefore not surprising that graffitied fragments of the Western Wall were kept by many Berliners and tourists as souvenirs, trophies, even relics or turned into commodities for sale. Almost overnight a forbidding military fortification system had become accessible and many desired a piece of the Wall. In the end, the Wall rather than being terrifying, turned out to be terrific.

The successful appropriation of Berlin Wall fragments after its fall reminds of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, which had also turned from symbol of state oppression into symbol of freedom. Already in 1789, the potential for the commodification of the fragments of a formerly threatening object such as the Bastille prison was identified by French revolutionist Pierre-Francois Palloy. He started trading in miniatures of the Bastille carved from the dismantled blocks of the former prison. 

The conspicuous consumption of the Berlin Wall however, has a longer history, which is due to the Wall’s paradoxical status. The Wall as fortification system and object of division between East and West Berlin and its ever changing, aestheticised Western façade not only deterred and enraged but also impressed, fascinated and confused the Western onlooker. The continuous technical improvement of the different generations of the Wall went hand in hand with their aestheticisation. Quite intentionally, art historian Michael Diers argues, GDR strategists hoped that an aesthetically pleasing, at later stages whitewashed, Western façade would eventually turn the Wall into an invisible monument. While monumental invisibility was countered by a Western onslaught of colorful graffiti and faux-naïve wall art in the 1980s, the emerging aesthetics of the Western Wall’s façade prompted the growing commodification of the Wall. 

More and more tourists wanted their pictures taken in front of West Berlin’s number one attraction and graffiti writers and Wall artists sought a short cut to fame by leaving their marks on the Berlin Wall. The spectacularized stretch of the Western Wall between Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie functioned as a screen screening off the GDR fortification system and the imprisonment of GDR citizens. Instead, it reflected back its lively, graffitied side to the West. The sheer abundance of inoffensive, if not cute, images overriding the sparse presence of political graffiti, the excessive shine between Checkpoint Charlie and Brandenburger Tor in the 1980s, barely veiled the fetish’s structural violence: a simple, all too often fascinated than sympathetic, look across the Western Wall from a Western observation platform destroyed the illusion. The Berlin Wall was built in reverse order. The fortification system faced East not West. The actual frontline wall was the hinterland wall followed by signal fences, watchtowers, dog runs, control strips, anti-vehicle barriers and finally the fairly insignificant, frontline wall, generally known as the Berlin Wall. 

Brought wonderfully to the foreground through Eija-Riitta’s provocative desire for the Wall’s existence is the underside of the Berlin imaginary. Despite its symbolic relevance and visual saturation, the Western Wall played only a minor role for military strategists and could easily be appropriated for other purposes. Not only Eija-Riitta mourned and rejected the loss of a highly contested object.