Dance of Association

Gertrud Sandqvist on Lars Ramberg BE-magazine Berlin 2001

Names give a place its identity. Memories and expectations are connected to the identity. A name allows us to recognize something. For this reason, namings and renamings are ideologically charged—so strongly, in fact, that regime after regime sets out to change the names of central locations upon seizing power. Here, it is not a matter of cosmetic, but rather of real changes—through the change of the name, one history can be extinguished and replaced by another.

New settlers and imperialists know this. One need only read the names on a map, from the Roman Empire to the Wild West! The name is the foundation of language, and the language that is being spoken is not the mother tongue, but the language of the victors.

The Norwegian artist Lars Ramberg took a neon sign he accidentally happened upon, “BERLIN OSTBAHNHOF”, as a point of departure for tracing Berlin’s history. (1) When the name was last changed in 1998 from “Haupt-” to “Ostbahnhof”, only the letters “HAUP” had been replaced with “OS”. The subtle changes in regards to the chromatic warmth and luminosity of the neon gas with which the two new letters stood out from the rest became a sign for Ramberg—not for the new order, but rather for the way in which the changeover in power had been carried out. When the neon sign was dismantled from the train station, he was able to purchase it for a symbolic price, and he dreamed up a nomadic life for it: a homeless name, wandering back and forth between the railroad junction points of Europe as a stowaway on a normal passenger train.

The German railroad network was responsible for a smooth transportation throughout the 20th century, both of camp prisoners as well as of travelers on the Interrail. To send one of the most heavily charged station names on a trip throughout Europe attributes a new identity both to Germany as one of the countries in Europe with the strongest multicultural character and to Berlin as the city with the largest Turkish colony in Europe. In the meantime, Berlin stands out less as a central power than it does in regards to migration. And trains are the means of transportation used by the new great migrations.

The renaming of “Hauptbahnhof” into “Ostbahnhof” stands, of course, for the fall of the Wall, not only in Germany, but of the wall in the rest Europe, as well. If the twenty or twenty-five years after 1989 have also been characterized by a laborious process of reunification accompanied by considerable economic and cultural difficulties, then the next step for Europe has to be to comprehend its radically changed role in the world community. It’s time now to repair the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries, a far worse catastrophe than the conflicts between European states.

Euro-centricity, the national state, the patriarchy—the founding pillars of bourgeois culture are eroding away. Yet an indignation in the face of the Other, the foreign, hasn’t diminished—in the worst of cases, it’s recast into new positive concepts. One of these is called “regionalism”.

Lars Ramberg’s artistic strategy defines itself against this background through referring to basically insignificant, apparently straightforward situations and then revealing their true potential as meaning-laden, symbolically charged contexts of objects and actions.

Thus, in several projects in the mid-nineties, he enacted interventions within communication and information contexts. One of these picked up on the typical Swedish custom of meeting together for a cup of coffee at every workplace and every clubhouse room to exchange information on various levels. In Peoples Palaces all over Sweden, he replaced the usual standard coffee cups with personally accumulated Norwegian collector cups, thereby rerouting the discussions during the coffee breaks onto unforeseen paths. With another project, which was shown in 1998 in Høvikodden outside Oslo, he turned himself into an information object. He had a well-known advertising agency, which was also responsible for the museum’s press campaigns, work up a “profile” of the artist Lars Ramberg and then exhibited the result in the directorial room of the museum. For someone with some understanding of contemporary art, it was strange to take note of the result in its combination between uncomprehension and business acumen. If Lars Ramberg had followed the well-meaning advice of the advertising strategists as an artist, his artistic career would have soon been over.

The greatest misunderstanding during the agency’s compilation of the profile involved the concept “communication”. Whereas the artist equates communication with dialogue, including all its open ends and questions, the agency thought of information or manipulation. When one speaks in advertising of “communicating” something, one really means a one-way street along which the receiver forms a connecting link between the message and its consumption. Occasionally, this distortion of the concept of communication finds its way into politics, as well, not to mention all the PR people of our modern society. Another area in which language is used on the one hand as “communication”, but on the other to conceal an existing state of affairs, too, is in political rhetoric. Germany has a long tradition in this area. The demand of totalitarian regimes for “Newspeak” is sufficiently known. The current political formation of will which finds its expression in various kinds of catchwords is more open and innocuous, yet the type of manipulation of the public through positively charged or neutral words standing for a less than tranquil reality is the same. In this respect, the work Berlin Ostbahnhof is a good example for Lars Ramberg’s artistic method. The points of departure are the purely visual fascination for the aged neon sign and the observation of the variation in color temperature between “OS” and the original letters. Lars Ramberg adds other associations to this observation—following a concept of Gille Deleuze on the usage of art as an “aggregate” which creates a new quality of meaning and understanding. Through Ramberg’s way of forming this aggregate, a certain connection between thoughts and ideas is provoked in the viewer, one which is just as winding as the railway network laid out over Europe and with just as many nomadic junction points as the odyssey of the homeless neon sign. The viewer is called upon to take part in a playful dance of associations. In this respect, it is the viewer who completes the work.

(1) The resulting project ‘Berlin Ostbahnhof’ was exhibited in Studio I of Künstlerhaus Bethanien March, 2000

Gertrud Sandqvist is a critic, principal of Malmö Art Academy, Sweden and founder of the Scandinavian Art magazine SIKSI ( later NU).

The text was published 2001 in the B-magazine, Berlin june 2001.