The Country is Still There
Photos from the GDR
21st August 2009 – Photography has supreme power over our memories. But what does a recorded moment of real life tell the generations that follow? And what in particular does it have to say about the GDR, its everyday life, its political rituals, unreasonable demands, and abysses – a self-contained area for collectors, yet one about which there is continuing, bitter debate as to who is entitled to interpret it. However, this is a debate that never really interested photographers from the Ostkreuz agency. While they don’t claim to know more about anything, they have always taken a closer look than others. Moreover, even without the safety net of a Basic Law – which a Berlin exhibition recently elevated to the position of prime prerequisite for true art – they took the liberty of using their art to show a relatively uncomfortable and unvarnished life.
Five Ostkreuz photographers – Sibylle Bergemann, Ute Mahler, Werner Mahler, Harald Hauswald and Maurice Weiss – have laid out a gruelling obstacle course of memories in the House of World Cultures in Berlin in the form of 150 black-and-white photographs that were taken over a period beginning in the early 1970s. Some ordered by newspapers, others taken on the photographers’ own initiative, these photos did not always appear in print. The title of the exhibition sounds a bit odd: ‘East Time: Stories from a Past Country’. The country is still there, and so are the people. It is just that the great theatre of the world enforced a change of scenery twenty years ago.
Against the storm
Among them are many well-known photographs, some of which have since attained iconic status. For instance Sibylle Bergemann’s tragicomic series about the construction of the Berlin monument to Marx and Engels; Harald Hauswald’s flag-bearers on Alexanderplatz struggling against a storm – not only an actual storm, but also the storm of history; or Ute Mahler’s reluctant anti-heroes who are just following orders and marching past the members of their government, high up on their tribune and so far removed from reality, during a May Day parade.
Photos from the GDR © FAZ.net
But again and again, just when one believes that one has identified everything – both the signs of the downfall and the dogged obstinacy – exhibition visitors come across images with which they are not familiar. Werner Mahler’s depiction of the brutality of work in the coalmines is shocking. The image of naked miners toiling in what is obviously searing heat puts one in mind of nineteenth-century working conditions, but the year is in fact 1975 and the place is the supposed workers’ paradise, the GDR. Sibylle Bergemann’s ethnographic study of uniform, claustrophobically small living rooms in a P2-type high-rise building that appear to be strangely uninhabited are also surprising.
With an assured style, they focus on a world that has disappeared; never denunciating, absolutely moral, and always up close and personal, a closeness that the subjects permit and return, not always with joy, but always with trust. This lost world moved to a slower beat and kept the official and the private – which had to be protected – strictly apart. The grey-and-black-and-white of great GDR photographs, which is nowadays often rashly interpreted as sadness, reveals to those who take a closer look an enormous variety in an endless range of rich tones. It is everything, but very rarely middle-class, and it never experienced an economic miracle.
Documents of a parallel world
As a result of the anniversary of the fall of the Wall, photographs of GDR society are currently on display in a number of Berlin exhibitions, each of which has a different focus. Under the programmatic title ‘Free Within Limits’, the Museum of Decorative Arts is showing an exhibition of fashion photography. One could say these photographs are documents of a parallel world, because the aesthetics of the fashion in the photos were different from those of the state-run HO chain stores, and the beautiful women and girls were very close to the ideal of the photographers and designers, but not to that of the working woman and mother as the SED saw it.
In the Academy of Arts, Matthias Flügge and Thomas Heise artfully present a ‘Transitional Society’ and have used the work of photographers like Ulrich Burchert, whose fantastic photos are not very well known. Burchert shows the removal of Fritz Cremer’s unfinished sculpture ‘50th Anniversary of the October Revolution’ from the Academy in February 1989, which was dragged through ‘Wall country’ to an unknown destination.
The era highlighted in the ‘Transitional Society’ exhibition is very clearly defined: the final, leaden decade of the GDR. The photos are almost without exception portraits; it is an ambitious photographers’ exhibition that tries to bring together the work of all those who made East German photography so unique by giving it its own poetic language, naturally in black and white. Within the confines of a small space, a panorama of a society is created; a panorama that records the lost world of workers in the same way as it records the wealth of private citizens, art, everyday life, the uprising, and the resignation: documents of a growing sense of being a stranger in one’s own life. The revolt against the system, writes Matthias Flügge in an all-too-brief introduction to the exhibition, was for a long time above all a revolt against melancholy. At the very least it was a rejection of a prerequisite consent to a difficult everyday life that one can see in the faces of the subjects, which, when taken as a whole, create a jigsaw of stagnation.
Pictorial evidence of the revoltArno Fischer’s photos of the last night before reunification hang side by side in the Academy on Pariser Platz with Roger Melis’ magnificent studies of social environments. Melis’ photograph of a lone woman speaker at the Party congress seems to hint at the impending downfall, which at that time still seemed inconceivable. In Christiane Eisler’s pictures of martially done-up punks, gazing with a friendly yet unapproachable expression into the camera, one sees the contradictions of the official self-image of the GDR. These boys are pictorial evidence of the revolt of the final Wall generation: anyone who lived like that would eventually break out.
Many photographs in the Academy exhibition show how perception changes over time. What did the photographer Helga Paris see when she photographed the young Sascha Anderson? In the photograph he is listening to someone, perhaps during one of the legendary, forbidden living room readings. We see a reflective man, listening carefully, almost hidden in a corner, his portrait reflected in a mirror. The year is 1981, long before anyone knew about Anderson’s nasty double life and his betrayal of his best friends and artistic colleagues to the Ministry for State Security, and yet today it is exactly this double life that springs to mind when one sees the photograph.
A prologue to the exhibition includes posters by Lutz Dammbeck and Manfred Butzmann. These are not messages from the Central Committee of the ruling SED, but from the lives that people really lived. The effect of one of Butzmann’s telling posters is still shocking: the poster reads ‘Stalin made us happy’ and features a collage of hymn-like children’s essays written on the occasion of the dictator’s death. Beneath it is a note explaining that in the year of the Great Terror, the age of criminal responsibility and the age for sentencing people to death was lowered to 12. The exhibition ends with a separate cinematic chamber that quickly exhausts the visitor with its claustrophobic size and cacophony of layered, simultaneous voices. This is a pity: the films and audio recordings are deserving of an exhibition of their own.
Whether the viewer can put together an image that actually clarifies what the GDR may have been like on the basis of these exhibits is another matter entirely. The major Academy exhibition deserved a catalogue of the same quality as the carefully edited volume produced for the Ostkreuz exhibition. Instead, all that was produced was a meagre brochure. The references to accompanying events cannot make up for this deficit. And one asks oneself why a self-contained major exhibition of East German photography was never arranged. In a year that has unleashed an overpowering flurry of memories, an exhibition of this kind might just have opened for us the time capsule that was the GDR, which, despite the variety offered by the various exhibitions, ultimately ends up keeping most of its secrets to itself.
is a features editor for the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 21.8.2009.
Übergangsgesellschaft. Porträts und Szenen 1980-90 [Transitional Society: Portraits and Scenes 198090] runs at the Academy of Arts on Pariser Platz until 11th October. The accompanying brochure costs €3.
Ostzeit. Geschichten aus einem vergangenen Land [East Time: Stories from a Past Country] runs at the House of World Cultures until 13th September. The exhibition catalogue, published by Hatje Cantz Verlag, costs €39.80.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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