Hipsters packed into the back room of a bar in Berlin have their hands full, beers in one hand and something else in the other.
One German man cradles a loaf of dark brown bread. A Turkish woman carries an amulet to protect against the evil eye. Jean-Ulrike Desert, a Haitian-American, pulls out a small jar filled with a brown spice.
“It’s called djondjon,” he said. “Djondjon being an abbreviation for champignon, which means mushroom.”
Everyone’s brought an item representing their culture. In exchange, they get a jar of the Korean pickled dish, kimchi. The kimchi’s made by American artist Kate Hers and her German partner Hanjo Rhee. This is opening night of their exhibit, “Dr. Rhee’s Kimchi Shop.”
“It’s a pop-up kimchi shop that will open for one week only,” Hers said. “It’s pretending to be kind of a shop in the sense that we are not actually selling the product that we have, we are going to barter with it.”
They chose to barter with kimchi because Hers and Rhee both come from Korean backgrounds. They want this installation to spark a conversation about race, ethnicity and difference – and the promise of free food was a good way to get people in the door.
“We thought, OK, let’s ask people to bring something that they think would represent their own nation or their culture,” Hers said. “Ad they’ll also fill out this very bureaucratic form — for example, is your cultural artifact an artwork or another type of national treasure?”
Jeni Fulton, who brought some English tea, puzzled over the form. It looks like one of those landing cards you get on an airplane.
“I’m really not sure about the relevance of some questions,” Fulton said, “like star sign, race, ethnicity. I’m not even sure what the difference between race and ethnicity is.”
Hers wants visitors to experience a taste of German bureaucracy, but also to ponder how to identify themselves. She said after World War II, there was a hesitancy to talk about difference in Germany, and now many people lack the vocabulary.
In the worst case, it can take an abusive turn. For instance, Hers has been called things like “Fiji” on the street, and last year, she was confronted by Neo-Nazis on a train. But she said the problem is often more subtle, like Germans not believing she’s American because she looks Asian.
“When my answer isn’t exactly what they expect it to be, then there tends to be a series of questions that for me are much too private. For example, I would never go up to a white person on the street and say, ‘Where are you from?’ And when they tell me Germany, then say ‘But that can’t be! Where are your parents from? How did that happen?’" Hers said. "It just gets very uncomfortable very quickly."
Many of the Germans at the exhibit seemed aware of the issue. Marco Foersten said he thought it’s because Germany, relatively speaking, isn’t that diverse.
“I think people are curious,” Foersten said. “People really don’t see anyone from a foreign country in Germany that often, and they don’t know anyone from wherever.”
Hers knows the exhibit may only a reach a select group of people, but she still hopes it can help move the conversation forward.
“I mean I know these things happen in New York, too. I’m not saying that Germany is somehow more violent or more racist than other places,” Hers said. “But at the same time I have this feeling that people just aren’t as tolerant or as educated in terms of issues surrounding diversity.”
Hers and Rhee plan to save the items people bring to the exhibit. They hope to tour with the collection and start new collections in other cities — because many places have the same problems talking about difference.