I grew up in America, and when I first came to live in Dortmund in 2010, I couldn't speak a word of German. When you have this experience, it's akin to temporarily losing a sense. You suddenly live in an insulated world, with much time for observation.
I immediately felt something was askew in this city. The landscape is strikingly grey for months on end, with a high, uniform, grey cloud cover that envelops most of northern Europe from October until May. Weeks pass without shadow, without the contrast in light and dark. Streets, often dark and wet from the twice a day drizzle rain that falls, offer the only contrast in the landscape during these months. The density and height of the cloud cover seem to deny the existence of objective values; each individual seems to struggle for significance.
My uneasiness wasn't only a result of the weather, though. Dortmund seemed a lot like the places in America that had lost their reason for existence, like Pittsburgh or Detroit, which had fallen into decay after their industrial decline. But unlike America, here in Germany, there is an affluence which hides decay and decline.
I noticed empty landscapes, or landscapes filled with shopping malls of varying levels of affluence — from Kaufland to the City Center Mall. And in these environments, were the people. People who seemed to be sleepwalking, as if they had given something away, which they later found they could not live without and couldn't get back — like Zampano in the final scene of La Strada. People who seemed lost, albeit distracted by all of the possibilities of buying cheap products made in China.
I didn't really understand Dortmund until I saw Haiko's photographs. The bleak and shadowless landscapes, the grey, hour-less skies. The landscapes brutally bulldozed into anonymity in preparation for a new life, and a new kind of people — man made lakes intended for gated communities which had exclusion in their plans. The middle class was forgotten in this social redesign, just like it has been in America.
His work speaks to all of the unanswerable scenes I've observed on my own. Haiko has the native perspective which brings understanding. His landscapes pay tribute to what was once, but is now gone, and never in a sentimental way. They meditate on the reality, and leave you with the realization that you have seen something dreadfully important.
Pat Arnao is a visual artist from Brooklyn, New York.
She spent more than two years in Dortmund on an artist residency.