Berlin meets Los Angeles

At the Goethe Institut in Los Angeles, photographers Andrea Wilmsen and Corina Gamma propose a series of surprisingly juxtaposed photographs of two metropolises, revealing how a city can have an "emotional" döppelganger.

Maybe it's not a universal tendency, but certainly widespread: this inclination to arrive in an unfamiliar city and compare it to one with which you're better acquainted. I've overheard hilarious parallels drawn between Amsterdam and St. Petersburg, even Prague and Shanghai, to name a few. Of course, there are many legitimate reasons for two geographically distant places to get the "you remind me of" treatment, including similar climates, for one thing, but also the migration of people and their architectures over time, and the history of wars and international power struggles. Obviously, many such similes are less than flattering — i.e., the old "all big cities are beginning to look alike" complaint. Sometimes, the brain just looks for known cues in unknown territory in an effort to relax.

But history, neuroscience, and gentrification aside, a city can have an "emotional" döppelganger, as well. Whether it lives in the mind of one beholder or many, this poetic idea is more difficult to defend, much less articulate. Berlin Meets Los Angeles, currently on display at the Goethe Institut in Los Angeles, aims to do just that through a series of surprisingly juxtaposed photographs of its two title metropolises. Avoiding familiar views of either city, and instead peeking down their alleyways, around their corners, and up at their skies, this exhibition ties a loose thread around Berlin and LA. Suggestion, rather than logic, keeps that thread from unraveling. After all, these are not photos of Berlin's Karl-Marx-Allee — that 2km long monumental relic of the German Democratic Republic — alongside its likeness in Moscow. These are photos that make a case for the union of an aqua blue trailer home in Los Angeles and a wheelless, graffitied microbus in the back yard of Berlin's Tacheles — an "improvised" artist compound that has since been evicted from the grounds.
Top: Andrea Wilmsen, <em>Tacheles, Berlin</em>. Above: Corina Gamma, <em>Maywood, Los Angeles</em>
Top: Andrea Wilmsen, Tacheles, Berlin. Above: Corina Gamma, Maywood, Los Angeles
Why do the two photos belong together? Perhaps because they both allude to temporariness, undefined and open space, the feeling that, a year from now, both photographs will represent something that no longer exists, at least not in the same context. There is a physical vulnerability inherent to each subject, but also a figurative one — just as it's easier to assume that the Reichstag or The Hollywood sign will still look the same this time next year, it's easier to defend why they "deserve" to be photographed.
Andrea Wilmsen, <em>Kreuzberg, Berlin</em>
Andrea Wilmsen, Kreuzberg, Berlin
Berlin Meets Los Angeles is born of a forthcoming book called Berlin - Los Angeles. Big Dreams. Simple Realities: a collaboration between Berlin-based, German photographer Andrea Wilmsen and Los Angeles-based, Swiss photographer Corina Gamma. On her website, Wilmsen writes that the project investigates two cities to which "people arrive daily in search of a new life, freedom and self-realization." Wilmsen and Gamma's photos are not the stuff of postcards for a reason. Given the remarkably different decades L.A. and Berlin have behind them, the focus is less on what's happened in these cities, than the promise of what might. And possibility doesn't sit still for a camera.
Tight-lipped with subjective commentary, Gamma and Wilmsen both point the camera toward the inevitable chipping away of fantasy… by routine, life, the twenty-four hours in a day
Corina Gamma, <em>Fair Oaks Ranch, Los Angeles</em>
Corina Gamma, Fair Oaks Ranch, Los Angeles
Without getting too Jungian, I should say that when I first learned about Wilmsen and Gamma's work, my response wasn't one of "odd choice," but rather, "it's about time." I've heard it before — this LA/Berlin comparison — and more than once. Colloquially, always from expats, on either side of the Atlantic. Others have defended this argument to me by claiming that the cities are united in their lack of a certain center, their swaths of undefined space. Both seem to posses a charisma rather than a beauty, attracting a large body of "outsiders" in search of rooting through displacement. I would add to the list, then, that both cities are also similarly bruised by the kinds of criticisms currently hurled at them, often by longtime inhabitants: that they're changing for the worse to fit their images; that they're doing away with the very fringes that once defined them.
Andrea Wilmsen, <em>Alexanderplatz, Berlin</em>
Andrea Wilmsen, Alexanderplatz, Berlin
Wilmsen and Gamma make no such criticisms or advertisements. They don't exploit the fantasy of life in either LA or Berlin — arguably, two fly traps for those in search of fantasy. But tight-lipped with subjective commentary, Gamma and Wilmsen both point the camera toward the inevitable chipping away of fantasy… by routine, life, the twenty-four hours in a day. This is how the Alexanderplatz metro station steps look early each morning or late on cold Saturday nights; this is how a cell phone tower disguised as a palm tree looks from the window of a parked car; this is how the drag queen at the West Hollywood Halloween Parade looks to the bystander off to the side, presumably one with beer in hand. These are the unexceptional views unique to their respective cities. Berlin Meets Los Angeles offers no glamour shots, and rightly avoids perpetuating stereotypes (often carried out) in both cities. From the inevitable point of view of an outsider — the photographer, as the transplant in a city of many transplants — this exhibition draws a parallel between two cities struggling to remain unparalleled. Katya Tylevich
Corina Gamma, <em>City Of Commerce, Los Angeles</em>
Corina Gamma, City Of Commerce, Los Angeles
Through 5 February
Berlin meets Los Angeles: 2 cities in the mirror of 2 photographers
Goethe Institut
5750 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles
Andrea Wilmsen, <em>Walls, Berlin</em>
Andrea Wilmsen, Walls, Berlin
Corina Gamma, <em>Downtown Loft Garden, Los Angeles</em>
Corina Gamma, Downtown Loft Garden, Los Angeles
Andrea Wilmsen, <em>Holocaust Memorial, Berlin</em>
Andrea Wilmsen, Holocaust Memorial, Berlin
Corina Gamma, <em>Cypress Park, Los Angeles</em>
Corina Gamma, Cypress Park, Los Angeles

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