Biking in Berlin

Catalog Essay by Karin Lelonek

American artist Nancy Murphy Spicer arrives in a springtime Berlin in 2010 from her adopted home country of England. She brings the usual items in her suitcase that everyone carries when visiting a new city for the first time: a city map and a city guide. Then she makes the important decision to rent a bicycle, the best of all methods to get to know a city, especially Berlin. 

Her biking forays around the city are initially chosen in relation to art studios, galleries, artist-run spaces and museums. Rarely, however, does she ride to her destination directly. She takes detours with spontaneous turns here and there. She feels her way through the city, exploring the rhythms of the street, a flâneur on bike. Thanks in part to Berlin’s notably bicycle-friendly design, she moves about freely, fully aware that a brief two decades ago the Berlin Wall required Berliners to take very different routes. Murphy Spicer traverses the former borders of zones and sectors effortlessly, unselfconsciously cycling across the unified Berlin. She records her cycling routes on her city map, to orientate herself and to remember. The standard tourist map becomes her geospatial diary. Curious forms emerge, giving rise to the shapes in this place, the works that now comprise the Biking in Berlin series. 

Large and small shapes collide, overlap, float apart, connect to one another. Some are color and some are the negative space left after shapes have been cut away. Viewed from a distance the works give an appearance of being very spacious and the colored areas seem to be smooth. Islands float on an airy base as if it were possible to move them and combine them into new constellations. Up close, the shapes have a very different feel, a strong physical presence from the accretion of paint. You can imagine brushing your finger across the surface and tracing the shapes in relief, the flow of the brushstrokes tangible. And what seems close to perfection from a distance now reveals small irregularities that have not been corrected nor camouflaged by the artist.  Each shape preserves and amplifies its own individuality and imperfection, and it is this imperfection that invites the viewer to explore more closely, to have an intimate dialogue with the shapes just as the artist herself has done.

Murphy Spicer disassembled her printed city guide and used the pages themselves to create these works. The outline of her biking paths became the most prominent shapes. Smaller shapes began as images in the guidebook — architectural details, close-ups of streets, monuments. She cut out these small elements, painted them and, in some cases, reinserted them into the page, often intersecting or floating closely in relation to the larger shape. Clues to the origin of these smaller shapes are painted over, the literal reference masked by layer upon layer of paint. Only the shape remains. And yet, all elements of this dislodged and collaged Berlin are connected to the city. Color has been a way into this work, according to Murphy Spicer.  Color serves as a means of animating shape, for perceiving and observing shapes in interaction. This multilayered dialogue of color and shape is created in the spirit of the peripatetic cyclist, deliberately serendipitous, entering new territory with open eyes and anticipation.

Berlin is a fitting subject for this work. There is an enormous diversity of shapes that comprise the city, the intended or unintended result of art, design, architecture and changing borders. Murphy Spicer’s work reveals her keen awareness of this. The physiognomy and layout of Berlin has changed in its recent past like no other major European city. The destruction during World War II, the separation into sectors by the Allies, the building of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Wall and the reunification of the city — all of these events cut, dismembered, and rejoined the city over and over again, changing its texture dramatically. The continuous process of overwriting, deleting and rewriting is ongoing. This city has constantly re-formed itself, storing its past in the evolving layers of space that is Berlin today. With the Biking in Berlin series, Murphy Spicer has added her own layers, her traces of personally experienced space, to the stratification of Berlin. This reference to the lived experience within the larger timescales of history makes the series so intriguing, the evanescent shapes inviting reflection on the shapes of one’s own personal trajectories in this place.

The eclectic, vibrant cosmopolitan capital that we take as unbounded Berlin today is still imprinted in collective memory and the spatial memory of the city with what used to be East and West. Today we move about the city with ease. In the midst of daily routines, rarely do we recall that such fluidity was impossible for most of the second half of the twentieth century. The immediate sense of freedom within the space of the city that cycling brings expands and deepens as we become more conscious of the historical forces that have shaped this place. Perceptively, this makes Berlin even more ample. The small works reflect the multi-faceted metropolis: various shapes, layers and surfaces, its imperfections, its rough edges, its constantly dislodged and collaged spaces. Within the economical containers of these small works lies the universe of this place steeped in histories, the intimate trajectories that define our everyday lives and the larger contours of history that comprise Berlin.

Adaptation from Karin Lelonek’s German text

Translation by Susanne Christine Nestor

Karin Lelonek is an art historian who lives in Berlin and works as an independent curator and author with a focus on photography and architecture of the 20th century. She has organized exhibitions at many German institutions including Kunsthalle Bremen, Kunstmuseum Ahlen (photographer Lothar Wolleh), Akademie der Künste Berlin (architect Hans Poelzig), and Berlinische Galerie (Friedrich Seidenstücker) and Akademie der Künste Berlin (Poste Restante).