Berlin And That – end of the line for Trains Are … Mint.
By Oliver East
Berlin And That is the concluding volume in Oliver East’s Trains Are … Mint; his walking series that’s both an exploration of the wonders of everyday surroundings and a fascinating look at the artistic process. Back in my review of the first Trains Are … Mint volume I said this:
“Trains Are … Mint isn’t about the narrative and the story, It’s about the process, it’s about the experience, it’s about the sheer bloody joy of holding the book in your hands and realising it’s very, very special indeed …. It’s a spectacular success …. one of the most intriguing, complicated, difficult, strange and altogether wonderful books I have read in a long, long time.”
And that holds true with Berlin And That. If Trains Are … Mint was a great debut and the follow-up Proper Go Well High was bountiful evidence of an artist developing, maturing, and finding his unique vocabulary, Berlin And That is East evolving past the narrative constraints he’s set himself thus far and showing fresh confidence in using comics to truly create art.
You could throw the term psychogeography at East’s work in an attempt to pigeonhole it, although if it is psychogeography, it’s very much on East’s own terms – less about investigating the nature of a place than creating a visual descriptor, less about the history of somewhere, more about the beauty of the often unheralded surface details that only come to light when taking the time to walk through them.
(Beautiful full page from Oliver East, perfectly illustrating how East’s visual abstraction of landscapes and buildings has developed through the trilogy. From Berlin And That by Oliver East, published by Blank Slate)
Berlin And That finds him far from his usual stomping grounds around Manchester and in the unfamiliar terrain of Germany. Starting from Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and getting as far as Frankfurt (Oder) on the Polish border, East sticks to his self-imposed rule of staying as close as possible to the train line as possible. And in doing so ends a unique and very special trilogy on an artistic high.
As before, the journey is documented (from memory) in ink washes, with East’s unique and very personal worldview escaping from every page, as he delights in recording every small, insignificant and mundane wonder along the way, finding the beauty and the incredible in unexpected moments.
This time though, East has taken his project a step further, taking the finished pages and passing them onto 52 different people; artists, friends, musicians, scholars and many more, to add whatever they desired. As East says:
“I’m drawing Germany as I normally would then giving the art to friends to add their own graffiti to. I told them it doesn’t have to be graffiti-esque at all, or they could just scrawl ‘Dave’ all over everything, it’s completely up to them, the thinking being that buildings and street furniture don’t get to pick what’s on them so I shouldn’t either.”
But it’s that aspect of the work that truly holds the least interest for me. The inclusion of guest artists adorning the pages with little extras is merely an occasionally pleasing visual distraction from East’s rather unique vision.
(Just one of the 52 pages with guest artists adding their own graffiti – this one is Stuart Kolakovic’s page. From Berlin And That by Oliver East, published by Blank Slate)
But it’s not a terminal mis-step, as it’s easily ignored. Just resist the temptation to skip to the list of extraneous contributors at the back of the book and dive into Berlin And That as if they don’t actually exist. Because freed from those distractions it becomes all about East’s artistic development and the concept of performance art transferred to a comic page. The work here shows a confidence that seems to imply he’s more and more comfortable with what he’s doing, as his techniques are honed and refined to a fine point, almost at times to a glorious abstraction. Yet the strength of his work and my engagement in it is such that it’s well worth the effort to decode his visual narrative.
As opposed to the far chattier Proper Go Well High, Berlin And That is often silent, with pages merely punctuated occasionally by East’s verbal observations. In a narrative sense, it’s not quite as succesful in portraying the mind of the artist, yet as the artwork included in this review must show you, it’s far more successful as a visual journey. East may well have reached the stage where he no longer feels the need to talk over what he perceives as his artsitic failings.
(The perfect synchrony of end of a walk and end of a notebook – just one of those great moments throughout Berlin And That where East’s voice works it’s way onto the page, taking great delight in so many of the magnificent little things around him and the sheer joy of the writing process)
East’s work is really something that can’t really be dipped into, and it has no definitive moment to pick out, but it’s something that work cumulatively, each moment building upon the next until some sort of artistic tipping point, a critical mass has been reached.
With that in mind and with the spirit of East getting in a host of guest artists to add to his book, I present a few lines from a facebook conversation with my friend Mark, who comes at comics from a far more artistic background than I’m able to….. It’s fair to say Mark didn’t really enjoy the first two Trains….
“Can’t see what the fuss is all about, really. East, at the end of the day, doesn’t really seem to have anything to actually say. Its nice, but ‘thin’. Just starting the third one, but kinda hoping its his last on trains.”
But Berlin seems to be changing his mind somewhat, perhaps it’s that cumulative effect I mentioned taking hold? ……
“Finally finished Berlin and That…. Now, i really enjoyed this one. He gave a chunk of himself to it, something to engage with, but also I think he had a wider visual vocabulary which was quite cartographic (even down to suggesting the flow of the lines of trees like contour lines). I thought he was a lot more playful in how he used his panels in his narrative, starting to push forward with his voice. Additional bits from his chums unnecessary. Read all these back to back, so it was nice in retrospect to see his progression.”
Personally, I think that artistically it’s the best of the lot (and certainly not because of the 52 guest spots). But as a work it’s secondary to Proper Go Well High, for the very reasons that my friend Mark enjoyed it the most. I think this is the art book, whereas Proper was the book East put most of himself into, and we got more insight into him as a person. Here we get East the artist truly beginning to use the medium of comics to create a work of art, through both the performance of walking and his subsequent filtering of the walks through his artistic process.
But regardless, I really feel that as a trilogy, Trains Are … Mint stands as a testament to an artist developing, perhaps even creating, his voice in comic form. The three books say very little in a standard sense, they are merely, after all, just one man documenting a series of walks. But what they say about the artist’s own mind, and about the artistic process involved in creating something he believes in passionately is simply entrancing.
It’s been a huge pleasure to share in East’s walks and his evolution. I encourage you to do the same. Sadly for me, East is retreating from print and currently has his latest work; Trains Are … Mint issue 6, available from his website.
I can only encourage him to return to print as soon as he can. I’ll miss walking with him.