Illustrator and artist Christoph Niemann was in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee yesterday afternoon unveiling a colourful tiled mural in a pedestrian tunnel. Two 40-metre works run along the walls of the tunnel, which leads into the local train station, and depict scenes from Wannsee’s past and present.
Christoph worked with 10×10cm tiles – nearly 20,000 of them in total – and their relatively large size gives the final mural a pixelated, abstract appearance. What gave him that idea? “When my family moved back to Berlin from New York, I wanted to do something for my kids, because they loved the New York subway and I wanted them to remember it,” he tells It’s Nice That. “So in their bathroom, I designed a New York subway map but only using 10×10cm tiles. That meant it became very abstract.”
This was exactly the effect he wanted for this mural in Wannsee. The artwork on your left as you walk towards the station depicts a beach scene along the shore of Wannsee lake. We see a host of beautifully and economically drawn characters: a man with a patch of sunburn on his back; a young girl holding hands with her older brother (a reference, according to Christoph, to a famous German song about swimming in the Wannsee); a woman wading into the lake for a swim. This woman is shown in three stages, with the final stage simply drawn using four black tiles (her hair), two pink tiles (her face) and a few green tiles (her reflection in the water).
“For me, that’s the beauty of abstraction,” says Christoph. “You cannot show detail and you have to work within that limitation. If you saw that final stage on its own, you wouldn’t have any idea what it was showing. Only in the context of the story, and once your eye has adjusted to the low-res, pixelated picture, does it make any sense.” Similarly, in the distance behind this woman, we see the heads of swimmers bobbing in the lake – but these are only represented by single pink tiles.
The right-hand artwork is more historical and grapples with some of the darker aspects of Wannsee’s past. It was in this suburb, for instance, that the Nazis held a conference in 1942, at which the so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was discussed and decided upon. Again, Christoph felt the abstraction stemming from the large tiles was important. The building in which the conference was held is depicted here with a single red window and its reflection in the lake itself is blood red. “I didn’t want it to be gory or like a horror movie,” says Christoph. “Abstraction is the best way to treat this, this moral abyss.”
Working on a mural was a new medium for Christoph. “I couldn’t build a life-size model, obviously, so drawing it was partly guesswork,” he says. But he enjoyed the novel challenge. “I really like that it’s a drawing that you walk into,” he continues. “The very idea of a mural is that you as the viewer move past it and you don’t see it all at once. So I made it to be like a movie as you walk past. At the end of the left-hand panel, the perspective shifts as the viewer moves past – it’s like a camera panning from left to right and then you end on a view of Berlin in the distance.”
The two murals were paid for by Deutsche Bahn, the German railway network. Christoph worked with curator and commissioner Ruth Ur on the project and only came on board in January, so it’s been a relatively rapid turnaround since then. Ruth points out that 40,000 people use the station every day and says, “Every time people walk past it, they’ll see something new”.