Today I saw a ghost…

In 2006 Germany experienced World Cup fever. Berlin was hosting the football championships and every cafe, bar and restaurant showed the matches on giant TV screens. Round about that time, in a city already full of street art, the work of a new artist caught my eye. They were stencilling hoofprints onto the pavements.

DSC04401

I set up a blog to document them and a Google Map. I found that road railings had been painted red and white like showjumps, with evergreen trees cycle-locked to each side. The hoofprints would approach them then “jump” the rails and disappear. Some street events full of prancing people pretending to be on horseback were staged, though sadly I missed them. I found them in other cities and other countries too – people started to send me photos of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the time I had no idea how to begin what would become If Wishes Were Horses. It was a very academic text, short on life. The book was born the moment I realised that the graffiti was part of it. Shortly after I finished the book I found an interview with the artist, who said she began the work because she felt that while male sporting passions were celebrated by the World Cup, women’s equally great passion for sports was often belittled. So she covered the city with imaginary horses.

It’s over a decade since I started collecting the hoofprints. Today I saw one I’d never spotted before and which must be one of the last survivors. The ghost print is on the edge of the pond in the Weinbergsweg park in Mitte. A cross country water feature for Berlin’s imaginary herd? Here it is modelled by Otto the dachshund.

IMG_2211

East Berlin’s surfaces are pied with graffiti: spray-painted ‘tags’; paper cut-outs gummed in peeling layers of palimpsest; stencils of hand grenades, bananas, political slogans and dachshunds; giant murals by professional street artists that cover five-storey fire walls. Walking through the same district every day, you notice fresh ones as you might clock a new species of flower emerging from the ground, or tune into a different birdsong <use normal spaced en dash throughout>— a kind of urban nature trail that changes with the seasons. Because I never saw any artist at work, the images seemed to sprout from nowhere, a little bit of subconscious bubbling up to the surface like a rash or a dream.

The hoofs were new.

I first saw them on Kastanienalle — Horse Chestnut Avenue. A trail of white hoof prints the width of my spread hands appeared next to the pavement and walked across the pedestrian crossing. Someone had meticulously cut out the stencils and made their way across the road, spraying one, then another, in a pattern I recognized as a walk: the two left hooves struck the ground close together, the two right hoof prints were spaced wide. One, two, three, four. An invisible pony. When it reached the kerb, it vanished.

A little while later I found a second set, which sauntered across the road at Veteranenstrasse and marched up to a mysterious ‘Equine Institute’, where a bridle hung in the window. There the invisible horse planted its front hooves squarely on the doorstep, as though peering in. A third horse walked clean across the middle of a busy junction outside a police station. Up by the Mauerpark there was a fourth set, which approached the metal railings by the road. A section of the railings had been painted in red-and-white stripes like showjumping poles, and chipboard ‘wings’ had been strapped to the sides. As a finishing touch, two evergreen plants in pots had been placed on either side and fixed to the rails with bicycle locks. The invisible pony cleared the showjump and clattered off across two lanes of traffic and a tramline into the park, where it appeared and disappeared, walking the length of an old stretch of the Wall.

After that it was as though the pony were everywhere, or he had a herd of friends trotting around Berlin at night, always just round the corner, always after I was asleep. I began to look out for the pony every day, to see what he’d been up to the night before. He’d make skittish circles outside a coffee shop, or hobble across Stargarderstrasse like a deer with all four legs roped together.

I couldn’t predict where he would appear next, so I just had to go out and walk, covering miles of Berlin’s broad, grey pavements in the pursuit of the invisible ponies. My friends reported sightings, which I mapped. One horse crossed through the dingy, red-brick cloisters of the Oberbaum bridge, which linked Friedrichshain in the east to Kreuzberg in the west, while another pranced down the red carpet before the stars at the Berlinale. A third pegged across Alexanderplatz and a fourth propped up the counter at a sausage stand, resting one hind hoof.

It was as though a herd of those elusive, magical horses from the pony books I’d read in my childhood had somehow slipped through into my grown-up, urban life. Now they flickered in and out of view, for ever on the next page, like the mysterious Water Horse in Patricia Leitch’s The Black Loch, which surges out of a dark lake at midnight, or golden Flicka, always disappearing over the Wyoming hills, escaping the whirl of a lasso. The spray-painted spoor was the only clue that they had been there.

One night, on the trail of a set of hoof prints on Christinenstrasse, I passed an empty office filled with blue light. There, behind dirty windows and under a bare wire that dangled from the ceiling, was a life-size model of a black horse, who looked out into the street with ears pricked. Behind the rain-streaked glass he seemed absolutely real. I thought he might flare his nostrils and sigh, his sides rising and falling, then turn back to pace the room.

“He had survived.” Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse

coverThe horse on the cover of Ulrich Raulff’s impressive new book is soaring, bridleless, riderless and all but headless. It has the fuzziness of distance but also the heft and hairiness of life; it is both figurative and real. In tracing our extended exit from the long 19th century, when horses powered nations and shaped the way we thought, Farewell to the Horse attempts to ride both these steeds. Equus caballus is, Raulff explains, a ‘living metaphor’ that can ‘carry not only humans and other loads, but also abstract signs and symbols’ and has ‘more meanings than bones’. When we unharnessed the horse from our omnibuses and ploughs and replaced it with trains and tractors, we lost not just horse power but one of the life forces of Western thought as well.

My thoughts on Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse for the Literary Review.

The Transit of Hermes Has Begun

Good luck to long riders Tina Boche, Peter van der Gugten, Zsolt Szabo, and David Wewetzer who have embarked with their Criollo, Haflinger, Kabardin and Karabakh horses and a stallion called Hermes on a ride across Europe organised by artist Ross Birrell. Their journey from Athens to Kassel is an artwork called The Transit of Hermes for, well, the Greek god, but also Hermes the stallion, who is a rare Greek breed called an Arravani. documenta 14 are tracking their progress:

Hermes, then, is a courier, an intermediary, an animal envoy, an angel messenger. But the destination of his message (whatever it may be) is not Kassel. Neither is Athens its point of departure. It is in the relay, in the coexistence of companions: the community of riders and horses who, through the project of the ride, embody “the movement that transports… not toward another thing or another place, but towards its own taking place.”

The Horse Ghosts of East London

I had some time to kill near Liverpool Street Station in London yesterday and remembered a quest I’d started to put together earlier this year, before it was cut short by health problems. In The Age of the Horse I’ve tried to write a sweeping, single-take overview of all the ways in which horses powered Britain in the nineteenth century. While some, like this cartoonist, thought that the advent of the railways would put the horse out of work,* in fact we used more horses than ever before once the tracks were laid (and how were they laid? Using horse power). More goods and people were in circulation thanks to the steam engine, and so more horses were needed to carry them to and fro from the stations.

The railway firms owned huge numbers of horses, and of course they had to be stabled near the stations and yards in the very centre of towns. These stables  were impressive but functional buildings, and many of them are still standing in London. Yesterday I visited just one of them.

IMG_1383.JPG

These are the former stables of the Great Eastern Railway on Quaker Street. Now known as Silwex House, it was until recently packed with artists, but now they have been cleared out, and according to Spitalfields Life, a Travel Lodge will move in. I did try the chipboard panel that had been nailed over the door by developers, but couldn’t get in. Someone else had had a good go at hacking through it. I’d read that the building still contains elevators for the horses – presumably carrying them up to the level of the raised abandoned railway just behind the building, although I couldn’t see a structure linking the stables to the viaduct.

If Travel Lodge get their way, three floors will be added, along with 250 bedrooms. English Heritage, The Victorian Society and The Spitalfields Historic Buildings Trust are objecting. Over the road, I found some street art showing the artist-horses running away from the police.

IMG_1384IMG_1385

And just around the corner was what looked like another stencil of a workhorse:

IMG_1386

On my way there I walked past the Bishopsgate Institute, where, according to the invaluable Spitalfields Life, the floor of a nineteenth-century livery stables can still be found intact – plus horse pee – in the cellars. Click through for images of the buildings, past and present.

I hope to visit the other old stable buildings in the future before they vanish, and to see what ghosts are left of the horses that made the city great.

 

* it did indeed make the coach horse all but obsolete – you can see the coachman in his distinctive coat bemoaning his lot on the right of the picture.

Hitler’s Missing Horses Found Hidden in Rhineland Warehouse

The German tabloid Bild just broke a story about the huge statues of horses made for Hitler by the sculptor Josef Thorak. I’d just come across Thorak’s work while looking into the symbolic role of horses under the Nazis, and seen images of his workshop, and the hefty Aryan steeds he turned out. Thorak was the sculptor chosen by Albert Speer and Hitler to decorate their gross new capital city of “Germania” with its colossal domed hall and endless triumphal avenues.

I didn’t know that two bronze “Pacing Horses” by Thorak used to stand in front of the Hitler’s chancellery in the centre of Berlin, in a place now given over to DDR-era housing and a brand new shopping mall. Bild found an image of one of the statues in place, here, with the original piece in German. Getty has a shot of the Austrian sculptor in 1942, sketching a horse from life.

According to Bild, after the fall of Berlin and the destruction of the chancellery, the horses were taken to the small town of Eberswalde, just up the road from me. At least, this is where they were next seen, in 1950, on the playing field of the local Russian barracks. Over the years they were climbed on by kids, painted gold, shot at with guns, lost their tails and had them fixed again.

They were officially re-identified by the art historian Magdalena Busshart in 1988, but weeks after she published her findings in early 1989, they disappeared. Bild speculates that the sculptures were sold by either the Russian Army or the DDR authorities (or both, working together) in order to raise some desperately needed hard Western currency. Nobody heard anything of them until two years ago, when Busshart was told that if she paid a large amount of money, she would be told their whereabouts.

This week police busting an art-theft ring found the pacing horses in a warehouse in Bad Dürkheim in western Germany – a long way from Eberswalde. They were accompanied by two Klimsch sculptures from the Reichs Chancellery gardens and a four-story high granite relief by Arno Breker. Apparently the horses have been on offer on the blackmarket for between 1.5 and 4 million euros in recent years. Now a decision has to be made as to whether they belong to the federal government or to Thorak’s estate.