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

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.