Stuart Holt says a sad farewell to one of Berlin’s most beautiful photography spaces….
The first time I visited the C/O Gallery in Berlin it was deep winter. It was oppressively dark outside and the thick snow on the ground made a satisfying crunch as our collective boots marched towards the former post office on Oranienburgerstrasse.
I was not yet very familiar with Berlin and somehow the city felt very Cold War to me—or at least cold; grainy and moody like one of those old black and white photos of East Berlin in the GDR-era.
Once inside the venue, I needed to visit the men’s bathroom. A window framed a view of the courtyard below and I watched a group of men sitting and smoking on wooden crates. They were illuminated by a fluorescent light that cast its ray in a box shape around them, illuminating the snowflakes drifting gently down from above.
“Fuck, that is such a cool picture,” I thought.
I’ve returned to C/O Berlin many times since, most recently to say a sad farewell after hearing it would be closing its doors and moving to new premises in West Berlin. I always visit the toilet, mostly just to look out of the window again. During this last visit it was broad daylight and I could see what looked like bullet holes sprayed high up on the courtyard wall.
Images of Nazi firing squads and ruthless Russian soldiers passed fleetingly through my mind. Or was this just imagination? Maybe the holes were caused by some other activity. But then why would they disappear lower down? Was it because they were within easier reach to be filled in and painted over?
When I turned to leave, I happened to look upwards the ceiling and spy, in a place you would only find if you were to specifically look, a casually written statement. It said: “you have nothing”. Its strange location and manner of presenting itself makes it feel like a special message, a secret whispered to me. Then I remembered the venue’s imminent closure and thought to myself: “Fuck, that is such a cool picture.”
It’s no doubt foolish to write an article about a building without fact-checking the facts about the bullet holes, the history, the dates. And while it would be easy to do so, my love of photography is not a love for those things. It is a love of storytelling, ambiguity, suggestion—and not a little nostalgia.
And that is what made the C/O Gallery, an old post office with a basketball court upstairs, for me, the greatest place to see photographs in the world. It’s a venue literally built on stories: letters and parcels in fact, which were once contained within its cavities, protected by the thick steel doors that still remain today.
The walls remain heavy with layers of paint, tiles, brick and wallpaper, all witness to personal histories and former ages we can never truly know. I honestly cannot think of another gallery in the world where the visual richness of the venue becomes an extension of the photographs that hang on the walls. Where you can see images even when you’re not looking at the images. Where you can see photos even when you’re in the toilet.
And this is why, while I have seen Liebewitz, Frank, Crewdson, Lindberg elsewhere, I shall always remember the time I saw them here, when they really got under my skin.
It was C/O that taught me how profound the connection between art and context could be; and is why I am incredibly sad to see the space handed over to property developers who have promised to retain the magnificent façade but have remained ominously silent on what will happen to the (hi)story-filled interior.
In the relatively short time I have been in Berlin, I’ve seen several of these profound spaces disappear, from Bar 25 to Tacheles. When we lose these places, no matter the spin or the future promise, it’s a little like losing a friend, or at least a person we were acquainted with and inspired by.
Which is why, on such occasions, it feels important to say cheerio properly; to take a moment to acknowledge the times you shared together.
C/O Berlin relocated in 2013 to the historic Amerika Haus in west Berlin, where it continues to put on excellent exhibitions. The former Postführamt was internally refurbished and now contains the offices of a medical technology manufacturer.