Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Berlin: I thought it was the Japanese flag...

While in Berlin I saw what I thought was the hinomaru, or Japanese flag. I assumed that this was the site of the Japanese embassy. When I walked to the actual building, and even around it once, I saw that the building was actually the Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart (Museum for Contemporary Art). And next to the Japanese flag was a flag featuring a red basket. What the...?

I did some investigation but couldn't find out what was going on with the flags. Finally I contacted the museum itself and they were good enough to provide the answer. It is a piece of art by Christoph Niemann. Here is a brief explanation:

Niemann, born in 1970 in Waiblingen (South Germany), is an internationally prolific illustrator, designer and author, and divides his time between Berlin and New York. He has designed front pages for ‘The New Yorker', ‘Spiegel', ‘Time', ‘Newsweek' and the ‘New York Times Magazine'. His works have featured in solo shows in galleries in New York, Paris and Ljubljana. His exhibition in the Transit Museum in Brooklyn will open in November. Among Niemann's latest publications are ‘I LEGO New York' and the children's books ‘Der kleine Drache' and ‘Subway'.

His works often feature easily discernible pictograms, which are arresting for their inventiveness and fine sense of irony and can appear both simple and complex at once. For a cover of ‘The New Yorker', for instance, Niemann transformed the elements of the American flag into ingredients for a barbecue. His blog, ‘My Abstract City' is a regular feature on the New York Times' website, where he variously relates the history of the Berlin Wall by weaving paper strips together to form images, reconstructs famous New York sights using a minimal number of Lego blocks or illustrates his personal relationship with coffee by painting with the beverage on serviettes.

Niemann's icons play with the human mind's propensity to create narrative links and to read meaning into abstract signs. While the flag for the Hamburger Bahnhof, with its red circle on a white background, would otherwise be instantly recognizable as the Japanese flag, as it flutters over the museum roof with a basket attached beside it, it suddenly resembles a basketball.
Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - News - Information.

Here is a photo of some of his other work (photo borrowed from

Apparently he has traveled and lectured in Japan. I have posted about visual symbolism involving the Japanese flag in the past. How do you feel about his messing with Japanese symbols? I wonder how Japanese school teachers would feel?

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