Ex-Embassy Exhibition Vestiges of a failed (diplomatic) relationship

EX-EMBASSY curators Sonja Hornung and Rachel O’Reilly.
EX-EMBASSY curators Sonja Hornung and Rachel O’Reilly. | © Adrian Knuppertz

The EX-EMBASSY exhibition and text series delves into and beyond Australia’s relationship with East Germany.

The prefabricated modernist building could do with a lick of paint. Strangled by a wildly overgrown garden and tagged with graffiti, you would never suspect this used to be the Australian embassy to the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Completed in 1975, the embassy was the largest of the standard-issue architectural models erected by the East German government to accommodate the fledgling country’s diplomatic missions. Designed by Horst Bauer, the extravagant structure also features some rather funky screen elements by renowned ceramicist Hedwig Bollhagen. The faint ‘plock’ of tennis balls hints at the embassy’s private clay tennis court out the back.

The building now houses an artist collective known as Australische Botschaft Ost (Australian Embassy East). The building now houses an artist collective known as Australische Botschaft Ost (Australian Embassy East). | © Sonja Hornung This intriguing building is currently occupied by 35 visual artists, including Melbourne-born Sonja Hornung, whose artistic interest in extra-territorial spaces and work in gentrification struggles led her to study the heritage-listed former embassy. Since 2017, she has built up an extensive mass of historical material relating to the site, including prior projects by other visual artists. Hornung soon realised the burgeoning archive, and the geopolitical era it describes, had far too much depth and potential for one person to unpack on their own. “It made much more sense for me as an artist to take a step back and invite other people to get their hands dirty in that material and then use the site as a platform for their own independent work,” she explains.

Larger issues outside the frame

One of the first people Hornung approached was the Queensland-born writer, artist and curator Rachel O’Reilly. That first meeting evolved into what is now the EX-EMBASSY project exhibition and text series. EX-EMBASSY’s scope was expanded to take in larger issues of place and identity, justice and material memory beyond the Westphalian frame of the two states’ relationship. For the project’s first phase (a second is also planned, pending funding) five artists and five writers, including Aboriginal practitioners from Kamilaroi, Quandamooka and Wiradjuri countries, will produce a series of performances, installations, moving images and specially commissioned texts.

Mosaic elements in the foyer. Mosaic elements in the foyer. | © Sonja Hornung The project seeks to revisit the Cold War, yet go beyond the East-West divide to explore the contradictions and narratives that have fallen between the cracks. For instance, despite sitting firmly in the capitalist camp, Australia was the second Western state to recognise the GDR in 1972 – long before Great Britain or the US. According to Hornung and O’Reilly, “the Whitlam government’s agenda challenged its inherited position within colonial modernity and the ‘East’ and ‘West’ configurations of the Cold War, while the foreign policy of the period tends to receive less attention.” The GDR also spent decades cultivating favour with Australia, Britain and other Western countries as part of its refusal to be typified as a Soviet ‘puppet state’ and to develop much-needed trade alliances. Yet at the same time, the GDR openly criticised the Australian state’s perpetration of colonialist injustices and its territorial ambitions within the South East Asian region.

Beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall

While the Cold War moment of the embassy’s operation is the dominating timeframe, EX-EMBASSY’s investigation extends beyond the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the way to the here and now. The former embassy building is one of many publicly-held sites in East Germany that were rapidly privatised after Reunification. Today – like so many other historical buildings in Berlin – it is slated to be converted into a luxury residential complex. As such, the project also provides an excellent opportunity to examine the asset grabs of the 1990s and the ongoing real estate speculation in Berlin, as well as the related erasure of historical sites and ‘public forgetting’ within gentrification processes. The artists currently subletting spaces at the site are working hard to prevent it from becoming another textbook example, whereby artists and other creatives add value to buildings and spaces, making them attractive to developers, who then transform them into more lucrative commercial sites. Time will tell whether this magnificent concrete monolith will succumb to the city’s hunger for high returns on investment, or continue to serve as a place for dialogue and experimentation.

Inside the former Australian embassy. Inside the former Australian embassy. | © Sonja Hornung The EX-EMBASSY exhibition will be launched in Berlin-Pankow on 4 August 2018 and features artists Megan Cope (Quandamooka); Archie Moore (Kamilaroi); Sonya Schönberger (GER); Sumugan Sivanesan (AUS) & Carl Gerber (GER); and Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (AU/UK), among others; and writers Ben Gook (AU); Sarah Keenan (AU/UK); Peter Monteath (AU); Rachel O’Reilly (AU); and Nathan Sentance (Wiradjuri). An exhibition website will make the artworks and texts accessible to audiences in Australia and around the world.