Kim Phillips Doctoral Defense: “Conjured Spaces: Representation and the Recurring Past in Post-Unification Berlin”

Doctoral Defense by PHD candidate Kim Phillips.  This study considers three temporary, site-specific installations that for brief moments haunted such sites in Berlin during the first volatile years after 1990.

Behind the mask of new architecture rapidly transforming Berlin’s visage in the years following Germany’s reunification in 1990 lie profound anxieties over the nature and implications of the city’s reconstruction in the face of an irresolvable past and an unclear future. A disenchanted and destabilized eastern population, resurfacing questions over the definition of “Germanness” and the German nation, and the sudden collision of two incongruent narratives of the National Socialist and communist pasts frustrate the city’s desire to present a unified identity in the first years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. To access this terrain, my dissertation departs from the focus of much of the published literature on the post-unification city and looks not to Berlin’s urban regeneration itself but rather to the more unstable spaces between architecture: those more marginal or unresolved sites and surfaces which, in states of flux, paralysis, or neglect, are more vulnerable to (and revealing of) the possibilities of appropriation and disturbance.

This study considers three temporary, site-specific installations that for brief moments haunted such sites in Berlin during the first volatile years after 1990:

Shimon Attie’s 1991-1992 photographic projections entitled The Writing on the Wall, the 1993 simulation in canvas of Berlin’s demolished Stadtschloss, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapping of the Reichstag in 1995. Visible only fleetingly amidst the solidity of the city’s built landscape, it is the very impermanence of such representations, I contend, that afford them their critical power. Drawing upon theories of memory, trauma, and desire, I argue that these installations can be brought to bear directly on the contentious politics of memory and identity that permeate Berlin’s social and spatial practice in the years following 1990, exposing anxious edges of “Germanness,” desires to recuperate (and repress) certain historical narratives, and ambivalent sites of fixation in a city negotiating its new role as once again capital of a unified German nation-state. In this way, they provide narrow windows through which we might glimpse the unquiet space that operates behind a redefining city’s scripted surface, and the pasts that lie in wait there. The task of this dissertation is to explore that space.