Monday, October 5, 2009

The Sprayer from Zurich

Another man found. I tracked down the artist of the street sticks, again with the aid of my neighbour. It seems many of the answers lie just across the hallway.

The street sticks hold quite a story; of one Swiss man born in 1939. But it’s also an age old tale. It’s a story of crime and fleeing to exile; of friendship and harbouring of the underdog; of the battle between authority and popular opinion; the power of controversy to boost the reputation of art; and the cumbersomeness of wearing glasses.

It begins in September 1977 when the street sticks first emerged on the concrete walls of Zurich, in Switzerland. They appeared suddenly and surprisingly, and provoked curiosity and discussion by the denizens of the city. They were always recognisable as coming from the same artist, but each one unique, and sprayed so as to fit in with their surroundings. The figures multiplied quickly but the identity of the graffiti artist stayed hidden for a long time. He sprayed secretly, mostly under the cover of night.

The sticks delighted many people of Zurich, although mostly only other artists and some intellectuals. The people who lived behind the walls he sprayed on did not like the strange stick figures that suddenly greeted them when they emerged from their homes to go to work one morning. The police didn’t appreciate the rebellious artistic expression that was eluding them either, nor did the city council. To them it was a malicious and illegal defacement of public property. They commenced the hunt for the Zurich sprayer.

One day in May 1979, the artist returned to the scene of his last night’s crime to fetch his glasses he had regrettably left behind. The police were there as well, and two years after his first graffiti, the Sprayer from Zurich was captured. It was Harald Oskar Naegeli, who by this time had painted about 900 of his figures around the city, although most of them had been washed away by the council. He was arrested and released on bail to await his sentence.

According to German journalist Hubert Maessen, the Attorney General of Zurich was determined to make an example of Naegeli and his offences. He was charged with wilful damage to property, sentenced to nine months imprisonment and fined 200,000 Swiss Francs. The local artist community was shocked at the severity of the punishment and circulated a petition. But no matter how many signatures were scrawled on the clipboard, the authorities would not back down.

There was only one thing for Naegeli to do. He fled the country and found safety in Germany. He was harboured first by the editor Marianne Lienau in Cologne, where he continued on his spraying escapade. He unleashed around 600 figures on the city’s walls in a series which became known as the Kölner Totentanz, the Cologne Dance of Death. Not everyone liked his street sticks but they were discussed a lot less here than they had been in Switzerland.

After he ran out of walls in Cologne, he came to Düsseldorf, where he sought asylum with Maessen and became acquainted with the artist Joseph Beuys. And the Sprayer from Zurich just kept on spraying.

Meanwhile, the Zurich Justice Department had not forgotten the crafty criminal and were determined to see Naegeli recaptured. They issued an international warrant for his arrest and demanded his extradition from Germany. He was finally caught on the border to Denmark when the artful rogue was attempting to visit his mother. Despite widespread protest by many people including the ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt and the artist Beuys, the Swiss government demanded the German authorities hand him over. Germany was reluctant to cooperate but they eventually agreed. They informed Naegeli, who turned himself in and carried out his jail term in 1984.

This brave move enhanced his artistic reputation greatly. Suddenly Harald Naegeli was recognised in both Switzerland and Germany as a great artist. Museums and galleries exhibited his work. A documentary was made for Swiss TV and he was awarded a prize for his outstanding contribution to the environment of Zurich. But after serving his prison sentence, Naegeli returned to Düsseldorf.

In 2004, the Sprayer from Zurich was vindicated in his hometown and his graffiti formally recognised as art. He had illegally sprayed a wobbly woman called Undine on a building of the University of Zurich in 1978. When the building was renovated, the picture was deemed ‘valuable art’ and covered for protection. Undine was restored and unveiled to the public after the renovations were completed. Other graffiti added nearby has been removed but Undine remains.

A couple of weeks ago I discovered a fresh street stick around the corner from here on the concrete wall of the local petrol station. I know it was new because I had ridden past that same wall the evening before and it was bare. The two jagged hands of the figure were sprayed deftly so they appeared to hold up signs which said, “Do not park here or your car will be towed.” When I returned with my camera the next day, the stick man had been washed away. The Sprayer from Zurich turned seventy this year, and he’s still on the move in the ‘dorf, under the cover of night.

Monday, September 28, 2009


I finally found my man.

I’d been on the hunt for him for months—ever since Sarah visited from Hong Kong in January. We caught up in a brewery in the Altstadt one evening after she’d done the guided tour of the ‘dorf. I asked her what her favourite feature of my adopted city was and she didn’t hesitate. “The giant statue of David with bright yellow pubic hair.”

I was perturbed. How could there be a giant statue of David with bright yellow pubic hair in the ‘dorf without my knowing? Was it some kind of alternate reality? She couldn’t inform me of its whereabouts either because of her lack of orientation here, so I spent the next months riding precariously around the city, constantly on the lookout for a great clump of golden pubes.

I almost managed to forget him. Then, on a blue sky day late in the summer, I rode just a little to the left of my usual way, and passed the Malkasten restaurant and gallery. There he was. No double take required.

David is stopping here in the ‘dorf for several months as part of a tour around Europe. His sculptor is Hans-Peter Feldmann, a Düsseldorf artist born here in 1941. The statue is a nine metre high steel frame covered in Styrofoam and plaster and finished with epoxy resin. The base is a big water tank, filled by the local firemen with 3,000 litres of water in order to be heavy enough to withstand wind or bored people power.

Feldmann is a collector and conceptual artist. He collects toys, random objects, kitsch art, amateur photos and postcards. Then he orders, alters and re-presents his collections, delivering the objects in new lights and contexts. He does this with a wit and mischievousness that challenges the audience’s views of stereotypical images. He definitely achieves this with his replica of David. Michelangelo’s David is a symbol of strength and anger. Feldmann’s David is a symbol of irony and overstatement.

I read in Contemporary Art Daily that Feldmann finds conventional classical and Renaissance sculpture boring. With his changes to Michelangelo’s original, he has managed to simultaneously mock the conventional Renaissance form and taunt us with changing ideals of masculinity and power.

Michelangelo depicted David before his battle with Goliath. Anatomically, everything about him is consistent with a young man at the moment before slinging a stone. His right leg is taut; the left one juts forward in readiness. He is mentally tense, brows fixed in stern concentration, eyes wide open and staring purposefully at his enemy. The slingshot he carries over his shoulder is almost invisible, apparently to signify triumph of cleverness over strength.

Feldmann’s David leans a little more casually and appears self conscious of his pose. His slingshot looks like something he’s using to lazily scratch his back more than a weapon with which he’s going into battle. Even though he’s buffed and muscular, he radiates harmlessness. Up close, his face looks rather vulnerable, and his bright blue eyes stare, like the original, with mortal fear, but more at a vague nothingness in the distance rather than any real enemy in his vicinity.

David is moving on soon, down the Rhine to Cologne. I think I’ll try and get back to see him one last time before he goes. There was a something around seventy-year-old man jostling me for close-ups when I was there and curiously I got a little self-conscious about David. I didn’t get to touch him.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Street Sticks

So...I had quite a few comments about this picture when I posted it earlier with the other photos of Bilk. Compliments to the artist. Then...I found another stick figure on a wall. Then another. And now they keep popping up when I'm getting around in the 'dorf. It's one of those things where you don't know if I'm just seeing them all now because I've got my eye out for them, or if they're being done at the moment. I reckon it's a bit of both. I found one on Thursday on a wall I've ridden past and parked my bike next to so many times, it's hard to believe I would've missed it. Anyway, I've got myself another treasure hunt now. Let's see where it leads us...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The People on Pillars

When you walk out of the main station in the ´dorf, there’s a guy on top of a pillar who takes your photograph. I saw him the first day I arrived here when I wandered out on to the small square, my life on my back, gulping intrepidly at the air of my new town. He was up there above me, crumpling his blue suit as he leaned over his camera, left eye squinting into the view finder, his forefinger adjusting the lens. Turned out he was a sculpture, but I did double take.

A few weeks later I encountered my second sculpture on a pillar — a man carrying a small boy on his shoulders. They eyed me as I rode past on my way to my new job. Since then it’s been a treasure hunt to find all of the elevated life-like sculptures around the ´dorf. There are nine all together and each one surprises you when you round a corner or step off a tram and stumble across a new one. I recently had the buzz of watching on as a mate from Oz did a double take at a couple kissing above a main road.

They are ordinary people, doing ordinary things: A woman carrying a child on her hip on the riverfront; a couple holding hands and surveying the main square; a man striding over the city to work with his briefcase swinging; and a woman called Marlis gazing up at the sky. Just the other day I stumbled across a holiday-maker at a tram stop with his towel and flippers. And my favourite arrived on her pillar in 2006. She’s a lonesome bride in a windswept lane.

Once you know where they are, you get acquainted with them more intimately. You recognise their profiles from a distance, outlined against the sky, or sliding into view from behind a building. And then you get more familiar with their details up close — the way the lump in Marlis’s throat sticks out because she is craning her neck so far back; the yellow flowers on the mother’s dress; the happy, lost look on the bride’s face; and the way the whole torsos of the kissers are pressed tightly against one another.

They are the Düsseldorf Sylites, each one created in polyester and acrylic. The series is a work in progress by artist Christoph Pöggeler, who was born in Münster in the north and studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts in 1977-85. He now lives and works in the ‘dorf. He won the City of Düsseldorf Art Award in 1993 and the Rhineland Art Prize in 2008.

The project began on June 7th, 2003 with the experimental “Stylites – live” exhibition, in which real people climbed on top of five advertising pillars around the centre of Düsseldorf. Individuals of different ages and backgrounds had their time on top of pillars to rap, rave or simply stare back at the curious spectators below. Among the various stylites were a manager, a homeless person, a housewife and a Turkish adolescent.

Suddenly it was not famous contemporaries or historically important figures on pedestals; it was just anybody on a pillar. And the artist turned them into sculptures.

Apparently we’ve been lured to climb on pillars for centuries. It’s thought that St Simeon the Elder was the first guy to get up on a stone column in Syria in the 5th century AD. Apparently he wanted to be closer to god so he prayed, fasted and meditated up there, given food and other necessities by admirers and passers-by. A really determined guy, he stayed up there until he died 37 years later. He attracted audiences of kings as well as commoners, and he was followed by a string of imitators. The word Stylite comes from stylos — Greek for column.

Another high-up art project is taking place this year on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, organised by sculptor Antony Gormley. “One & Other” envisions a different, randomly selected volunteer to occupy the plinth and do whatever they fancy for an hour, 24 hours a day for 100 days. There should be an interesting cross-section of Britain up there. A lot of ranting is expected and the artist admitted he will be very upset if nobody takes their clothes off.

The name of that installation “One & Other” says it all. It’s our desire to be other, to stand out and above the crowd, but at the same time, it could be any one of us. It could be me, or you, on a
If you’re in the ‘dorf, enjoy your treasure hunt.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Soup n Songs

My friend’s mum Anneliese has filled my belly with some delicious soups since I’ve been in the ‘dorf, but to tell you the truth, it’s tricky to find good soup when you’re out. Just the other night, an Irish colleague lamented her lack of success here in the hunt for a worthy soup. We were jiggling our hips at the time, standing at the bar in [Q]Stall. “Ha!” I cried, “look no further.” And I pointed across the hallway to [Q]üche.

[Q]üche and [Q]Stall are two businesses side by side in the Altstadt. On the left, [Q]üche is a tiny kitchen that serves salads, baguettes and the best soups in town. It’s the babe of Julia Renzel. On the right is [Q]Stall, a DJ bar owned by her partner Karlsson. Julia and Karlsson live together in a flat upstairs.

 [Q]Stall used to be Kuhstall (cow stall) and was owned for years by Julia’s father. Apparently it lived up to its name in the old days and used to attract a rough and ready crowd from Bolkerstrasse and the ice hockey stadium, so when Julia’s boyfriend Karlsson took it over, he wanted to define the change. So Kuh turned into Q, which in German sounds the same. Later when the shop next door became vacant, they decided to grab on to it to avoid getting any unwanted neighbours. They played with the word Küche, which means kitchen, and got [Q]üche. 

The soups in [Q]üche are a blend of traditional hearty styles with a modern touch. Last week I had the tomato soup. It was thick, a little rich and spicy, and fleshed out with bite-sized chunks of ripe tomatoes, zucchini and carrot, spiral pasta, basil, pine nuts and a generous pile of freshly grated smelly parmesan. Wunderbar.

The soups come with slices of typically lovely German bread and a dollop of herb butter. They have worked out exactly the right amounts of everything. The butter with its freshly chopped herbs looks a little scarce at first, but it’s the dollop that just keeps spreading. I was full at the bottom of my bowl, and it’s the kind of food your body thanks you for eating. You feel the osmosis of sustenance as it warms your belly.

Julia has run [Q]üche for eight years and makes the soups herself. She takes her ideas from many places but never sticks fast to a recipe. She’s got the feel for what goes well together and told me it comes from her twenty-five years working in “Gastronomie” around the ‘dorf, and growing up in a family in which food and eating were always central. Having the space in the Sauerland, they grew their own fruits, picked them and made marmalades and other condiments such as the apple mousse beloved with pork in this country.

The [Q]üche menu changes daily, and it’s small, which is lucky because it’s never easy to make the choice. The other soups on offer that day were a potato with tuna, cream cheese, parmesan and watercress, and a Thai vegetable soup. It was also hard to resist the spicy lentil salad with mango and pawpaw. [Q]üche caters to all kinds of eaters. One soup always contains meat, the others are vegetarian, and there’s always one with no lactose. People allergic to wheat get extra soup instead of bread.

The soups are about the €4.50 to €4.90 mark and salads are around €6 to €7. If you really find it too hard to choose, you can have one soup and then a Nachschlag (after hit)— a small bowl of another for just €1.30. You can also have a second helping of the same one for this price if the first doesn’t fill you up, or if the flavours simply drive you to greed.

The kitchen is right there in the shop and you can see the big pots of soup simmering on hotplates behind the counter. You’ve got a choice of places to eat. If it’s warm enough and not raining, there are tables outside amongst leafy bamboo on the cobbled street and you can watch the passers-by as they ogle your soup enviously. You can also sit on the bar stools inside and enjoy a magazine or greet new customers as they enter. It’s a small space, but it’s bright, airy and welcoming and you can relax to the familiar clang of the soup ladles. Or you can go next door into [Q]Stall.

[Q]Stall is a larger room with a small square bar in the middle. The thick, mustard-coloured paint wallows on the walls with layers of life and old bricks below. Photos of musicians line the walls. My favourite is behind the bar: Elvis doing the splits so low he’s practically pashing the floor. Olive green pipes and tubes hang low from the ceiling and the lighting is soft. And there are ceiling fans. Not that it often gets hot enough to get them going, but as a far northern Australian in the ‘dorf, I feel instantly at home when I see a ceiling fan.

There’s a variety of clientele eating at [Q]üche during the day: Students discussing their new theories on life, bankers, workers from the galleries and opera house, lawyers from the court, bartenders before they knock on and shop assistants after they knock off. The music playing while you eat is always good as well. During my tomato feast, I was treated to Johnny Cash, Guns n Roses, The Clash and The Pixies.

A sign on the door to [Q]Stall says “Be nice or leave”. And you get the feeling they mean it. [Q]Stall transforms on weekend nights into one of the hottest and simultaneously most relaxed DJ bars in the ‘dorf. It starts to fill up at about 11pm, and by midnight it’s buzzing. The very small dance floor next to the DJ of the night gets packed but dancers only smile as you knit your hips on your way through to the bathroom.

The boss, Karlsson, aka Mr Q, DJs himself every first Saturday of the month in a session called Mr Q’s Record Hop. He plays Rockabilly, 50s R&B, Western Swing and Jump Blues. If you follow the link on the website to his MySpace link, you can see his damn fine taste in music, and while you’re there, check out the YouTube clip of a piece of genius from Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train.

There’s a well-established network of quality DJs at [Q]Stall. The Memphis Train (with gorgeous token sideburns) plays Groove, Rock and Rare Soul Shakers. And then there’s the Beat, whose Dancefloor Jazz meets Indie News and Classics. Last Saturday it was the Takeover DJs (pictured above), with Rare Soul, Funk, Hip Hop, Rocksteady, Indie, Garage and 60s music.

It was the perfect venue last weekend for a farewell to the lovely ladies Claire, Melissa and Sharon who will leave a gaping hole in the ‘dorf.

Kurzestrasse 3, Altstadt, 40213 Düsseldorf

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Summer in the 'dorf

Summer has finally arrived in the 'dorf! We are making the most of it.

Friday, June 19, 2009

NEU!: Music history in the 'dorf

A good mate recently visited me in the ‘dorf, and while perusing a music mag in an airport lounge on the way home, he came across NEU! He put me on to them, I did some research and discovered music history gold. NEU! was two guys, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, who were members of the original Kraftwerk. They left the band early on and formed their own duo in the early seventies. They never had huge commercial success, but have retrospectively been recognized as an important influence on a lot of the music we have and love today. And they did their thing right here in the ‘dorf.

Listen to some of these references. They’ve been cited as an influence, and their first album as a masterpiece, by David Bowie, Brian Eno and Radiohead. Bowie apparently quoted NEU!’s “Hero” as one of his favourite songs. They’re also considered significant for Sonic Youth, Joy Division and a lot of the electronic music styles that have emerged since their time. Stereolab have clearly been shaped by them in a big way. NEU!'S remix “Super 16” was featured in Kill Bill Volume 1. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had Michael Rother jam with them for over twenty minutes on stage at the end of their concert in Hamburg in 2007.

NEU! is listed as one of the big bands in the krautrock genre. Krautrock is a term that was initially coined comically by the British to label the experimental rock music scene that emerged in West Germany in the late sixties and early seventies. Despite the irreverent name though, these bands developed a large following and respect for their innovation.

In an interview a few years ago with The Wire, Klaus Dinger said that the determination to do something different to what was coming out of America and England at the time was very conscious. “I always promoted the individual, the original and so on, and it still doesn’t make sense to play Beatles, or so. It’s quite natural,” Klaus said. “From the beginning I felt we were quite special.”

NEU!’s development was organic. When asked about the line-up, Klaus said they were only two members simply because it was difficult to find people in those days who understood what they were doing musically, that everything else was far away from what they wanted to do. They were very experimental, taking “sketches” of what they wanted to explore into the studio sessions, and seeing what happened spontaneously from there.

From what I’ve dug up, it looks like these guys paved the way for a lot of musicians in various musical elements. Klaus was the drummer, and is credited with having invented the “Motorik beat”: a repetitive 4/4 beat which generates a monotonous and hypnotic effect. Klaus actually called it “apache”, but it was also known as “hammer beat”, “Dingerbeat” and “Neu beat”. It’s the driving force behind a lot of their songs, and at its most effective I reckon in “Hallogallo” and “Negativland” on the self-titled first album.

Their second album, NEU! 2, is considered to be the birth of the remix, and it came about in a great twist of rock fate. The story goes that just before making the album; they recorded a single called “Neuschnee/Super” which nobody wanted to buy. Later when they went into the studio to record NEU!2, they bought a heap of new instruments, and then ran out of money before the album was finished. Then Klaus had what he called a Schnapps idea. They took the single and manipulated it by scratching it, speeding it up and slowing it down, to produce different tracks with which they filled side 2 of the album. Cassetto was created by chewing the tape on Michael Rother’s old cassette recorder. It was considered really subversive at the time and fans thought they were mocking them. Now there’s an Argentinean band named after that track.

And they’ve also been described as punk before punk. Listen to the droning guitar, fast beat and the groaning vocals of “Lila Engel” on NEU!2 and you’ll know what they mean. And in “Hero” on NEU!75, Klaus’s "singing" is rough and raucous, and he directs blatant obscenities at their record label.

Pronounced noy, the name means “new”, and was, according to Klaus, at that time the strongest word in advertising. The album cover designs look like advertisements too. Düsseldorf was already recognized as a hub for advertising agencies, photographers and the fashion industry. Klaus himself was trying to earn a living through advertising. Unfortunately it didn't have too much effect on album sales.

The two musicians split after their third album NEU!75, on which you can plainly hear their diverging interests. They both collaborated with and had relative success in other groups throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties. Klaus Dinger went on to form La Düsseldorf (perhaps another story for another time in the ‘dorf). He died of heart failure last year. Michael Rother still records and produces solo albums.

A compilation Brand Neu! was released as an homage to the band this year with tracks displaying their influence, featuring Primal Scream, Oasis and LCD Soundsystem among others, but the review in Record Collector recommends just listening to NEU! albums. There’s a link to “Hallogallo” on You Tube below to give you a taste test, and you can find a few of their other songs there too.

Although there are countless references to these guys in music articles, I asked around in the ‘dorf but couldn’t find anyone in the flesh who had heard of them. Until Tuesday night. My neighbour Michael was around the right age in the seventies, and an artist, so I went to enquire. “NEU!?” he asked, hoisting an eyebrow at the memory. “Ja. Funny guys.” And he reached into a drawer beside the door and pulled out all three of their albums released between 1971 and 1975. So I’ve had the pleasure all week.

There’s a lot of variety there, and familiarity. I get the sense when listening that I’m witnessing the birth of so many sounds I’ve loved my whole life. At times it’s sparse, spacey and atmospheric, at others tight and edgy. From gently lapping waves to grating machines: Here sweet and ambient, there gritty and grinding.

Describing music musically is not my thing. All I can tell you is that NEU! is all about the journeys. There are mostly no lyrics, so no words to think about. You can just listen to the sounds and ride. The last few nights I’ve been adrift in rowboats, free floating in space, submerged in submarines, and walking through eerie underwater caves. I've been carried along a highway in a cage on the back of a truck, chased by a madman down a deserted beach and through eerie industrial landscapes with no floors.

Now, listen to “Hallogallo” and see if it doesn’t make you wanna take off on a road trip.

PS Thanks for the tip-off TC xo.
The Wire: transcript from interview with Klaus Dinger