Market Hall Surrealism: Berlin's Dong Xuan Center

Display of hanging lamps and signs, Dong Xuan Center | Courtesy of Julianne Cordray
Display of hanging lamps and signs, Dong Xuan Center | Courtesy of Julianne Cordray
Photo of Julianne Cordray
9 February 2017

Traversing the lengthy corridors of Dong Xuan Center, Berlin’s large complex of Asian market halls, is an architecturally and visually surreal experience. A single, narrow path through the center leads from one end to the other of the vast warehouse buildings, each with the same setup. Glimpsing into each stall gives the distinct impression of peering into a film set. It promotes a distanced mode of viewing, almost a voyeuristic peek into small, contained worlds, each different yet overwhelmingly similar to those that came before. The stage set impression and artificial nature are further conveyed by the cubicle-like shops, with walls ‘propped’ up to form partial enclosures within a larger connected space, rather than separate rooms. It is visually interconnected, meshing an abundance of colors, lights, textures, and patterns. Here are some of the visual highlights.

Artificial Flower Shop, Dong Xuan Center

Stalls flooded with synthetic plants of every color and variety facilitate an intriguing visual/sensory experience. It is a bit claustrophobic, with small passageways tucked behind overgrown floral arrangements and beneath hanging vines. The sheer abundance and vibrant color palette, consuming most of the available surfaces, produce an out-of-place space. Intriguingly devoid of recognizable locale, unanchored to a particular setting.

Lights, signs, and light-up signs, Dong Xuan Center | Courtesy of Julianne Cordray

Amongst the market vibrancy, a number of shops offer an assortment of lights and light-up signs. Passing by one of these stalls offers a glimpse into a club-like atmosphere, though eerily quiet, with lights of every color flashing and blinking, calling out and grabbing your attention, silently.

Stacks of yarn, Dong Xuan Center

In a more toned down stall, stacks of yarn in every shade, coated in glistening plastic bags, line the shelves and spill out into the aisles. In the hazy glow of the overhead lights, the reflective packages and phosphorescent colors have a dizzying effect, amplified by the volume and variety of available yarns.

Supplies for a nail salon, Dong Xuan Center

Separate from the actual nail salons operating within the various market halls, there are also places supplying salon equipment and accessories. Such technicolor spaces, comprising components from the rest of the market, vibrant floral arrangements, flashing light-up signs and brightly painted walls, set an oddly abandoned stage. Rows of plastic-covered seats in a variety of colors make the visually loud and busy space seem especially quiet and deserted. Juxtaposed with the lively scene of nail salons just down the hall or across the way, the absence of bodies in chairs that are arranged in a similar manner is all the more pronounced. This sensation, combined with the plastic, retro-inspired design of the equipment, produces a disorientation of time and place, further playing on the artificiality of the atmosphere. The space appears to serve one purpose (that of the nearby patronized nail salons), though its actual purpose is this very appearance.

Fragmentary mannequins on display, Dong Xuan Center

Along the narrow pathways through each of the market’s halls, displays of knick-knacks, toys, and fashions line the walls on either side, advertising the plethora of related items within the shops, before passersby are close enough to peek inside. These items are displayed on fragmented mannequins. Rows of heads adorned with assorted hats, scarves, and headbands. Pairs of legs showing off legging patterns, hands modeling jewelry. The combination of colors, textures and patterns on each fragmented mannequin composes a multimedia assemblage. One that acts as a guide to the many offerings throughout and can be taken in upon first entrance into the market halls.

Bric-a-brac, Dong Xuan Center

While some market stalls specialize in a single product or service type, there are also plenty of stalls that offer an array of seemingly unrelated items such as bric-a-brac and novelty items along with home décor, housewares, and electronics. Displays of figurines and miscellany wrapped in plastic produce a dynamic interplay of layered visual and textural qualities, whose overall effect heightens the sensation of artificiality. These juxtapositions between the functional and the representational, and the tension between passive spectatorship and active participation, presence and absence, pervade the market’s atmosphere.

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