Sunday, June 21, 2009

Ich bin ein Berliner/Dollar to Euro Exchange

"Stanke", which is a name nobody would want, is German in origin. It's spelled the same as "Danke", and therefore should be pronounced "Ston-ka", as in "Danke Schoen". However, once rural America got hold of the parents of my great-grandfather at the turn of the last century, our name came to rhyme with "Thank Ye", hence Stanke sounds exactly how you suppose it shouldn't. Pretty funny I guess, unless the joke is on you. So much for my German roots.
In January of 2007, I took my first leap into the international artworld. I had entered a contest during 2005 and won a chance to participate in a groupshow in Berlin. The piece I chose to take was a dollar bill made entirely from plastic army toys. It was quite large, and I planned to bring it with me as checked baggage on the plane, thus combining shipping costs with travel. The level of anticipation I felt was high. This would be big for me not only in my career as an artist, but also as a symbolic return to the country of my origin.
I built a crate that met the size and weight requirements posted on Northwest Airlines' website, and e-mailed the dimensions and my flight number to customer service just to be sure I'd be allowed to fly with it. They said it would be fine.
Along with the dollar, I brought two other pieces: a giant milipede made from army men, and a portrait of George W. Bush made from chopped up army men inset in cast resin.When the big day arrived, I took an oversized taxi to the Newark airport and got into line. When I reached the counter, I was informed by the ticket agent that my box was too large to meet the international size limitations for checked baggage. I showed him the printout of my e-mail from Northwest, and he said there was nothing he could do. Either the box needed to be 6 inches smaller or it needed to stay in America. I never wonder why New Jersey gets a bad rap. Hmph!

Few times in my life has stress been so thorough: this was really bad news. Frantically, I ripped the box apart and tried to rebuild something a bit smaller. I figured if I smooshed the sculpture as much as possible and wrapped the whole thing in ductape I could make something suitable, however, the clock was ticking, and by the time I finished making my crude replacement, I was too late. The flight would leave without me and my art. When I tried to change my ticket, I was told that I could apply the credit from my missed flight, but would have to buy another at full price, for about 2000 dollars more than my original discount ticket had cost: fat chance! I hired another cab to bring me and my crate back to Brooklyn, wondering how I'd be able to show my face.
Fortunately for me, I wasn't prepared to give up. I looked into one-way tickets and found something I could afford, leaving in 12 hours. I stayed up that night rebuilding the box again. The dollar bill would be rolled into a tight wad. I called the airline and talked to an agent in person, told her all about my box and my fears, and was promised that I'd be able to bring it on my flight. The coast was clear, and I was still going to make it in time for the installation.

On the way to the airport, my cab-driver, whose English was no better than any of theirs, began driving in the direction of LaGuardia. "No! No! Es el aeropuerto incorrecto!" I blurted from the backseat in my rudimentary Spanish as I began to realize his error. "Yo necesito JFK!" "Si, Si" he appologized, "Lo siento. No problema." But all the sorrys in the world wouldn't make the flight wait for me. "Rapido! Rapido!" I yelped, sitting on the edge of my seat the entire ride, and cursing all traffic ahead.
I got to the gate with 5 minutes to spare. Check-in went smoothly, and my box disappeared onto a conveyor belt behind the ticket counter. 8 hours later, I was looking down at Berlin.
Strange full-block Russian buildings dominated the east, interspersed with bomb-damaged pre-war blocks that the Russians had planned to demolish in the early 90's. They'd all been repaired by developers and occupied by an influx of new, young immigrants over the last 2 decades. This was cool. Creativity and potential were everywhere.
Some sights were similar to Brooklyn, yet distinctly European in style.
I got to the gallery, in a part of the city called Friedrichstein.
Taking a cue from the curator, I installed my Milipede in the window, snaking up the wall and around a corner.
Seen from outside, it was definitely eye-grabbing. Take that Berlin! Stanke schoen!
The opening was well-attended, with live music and approximately 20 artists represented.
I recieved a special award from the curator, and a bag of fancy chocolates. That's me on the right.
The wine flowed freely, and before long, everyone was good and sloppy.
Thus ended my entrance into the international artworld. Whew!
Over the next few days, I set out to explore Berlin.
I saw the parking lot where Hitler had ultimately commited Fuhrercide. Nice gravel!
In the street near the Reichstag, a brick line marks the former location of the fabled wall.
Not far away, evidence that freedom has indeed prevailed, you can pay too much for bad coffee at Starbucks.
My path took me to Mitte, which is the rising art center of the city. A huge building called "Tacheles" had been squatted by artists following the revolution, and now houses nightlife, studios, and gallery space. I was lucky enough to make an appointment with one of the directors whom I'd contacted with images of my work.
My timing was very serendipitous: they were looking for a new artist to occupy the front window, and were offering me a chance to do just that. So for 2 months that spring, people from all over the world saw my giant Milipede crawling across the battered concrete floor. I donated the piece to Tacheles when the display changed. I'm not sure what ever happened to it. I recently saw in the news that the original lease is ending, and the artists are struggling to keep the building, which has become a creative Mecca. Developers are eyeing the sight like lofty vultures as the property value has skyrocketed in recent years. It truly might be the end of an era.
Eventually, nearly running out of time and money, I bought a one-way return ticket, to the USA, leaving my sculpture of the American Dollar stored at the house of a generous friend. This was both to avoid a hassle at the airport as well as to force me to return for the next big opportunity, which has not yet materialized. Symbolically, it has remained sealed in its crate, waiting for my return. Since then, the value of our currency has plummeted, and our leadership has changed drastically. I often wonder when again it will see the light.
Soon, I hope...

1 comment:

Mario Marchese said...

All of your work is very inspiring.