Of all Berlin’s art-related nods to the fall of the Berlin Wall—scenes of the Wall were on view throughout the city-three exhibitions side-stepped the media melodrama to offer a window into East Germany’s cultural life, and into the artistic community that has bloomed in Berlin since reunification.
Ute Mahler, Motofoto für Sibylle, Berlin Prenzlauer Berg, 1978. Courtesy the artist and OSTKREUZ.
The Akademie der Künste’s “Übergangsgesellschaft: Porträts und Szenen aus 1980 bis 1990” (Transitional Society: Portraits and Scenes from 1980 to 1990), organized by Matthias Flügge and Thomas Heise, focuses on growing restlessness and resignation in East Germany society. Forbidden from congregating for political purposes, East Germans attended performances, readings, and concerts, where they could express ideas outside the strictures of “real existing socialism.”
A nationally funded body of elected participants in the arts, the Akademie der Künste was divided into East and West branches beginning in 1950. The exhibition is in part an effort to integrate the artistic history of East Berlin into the westernized Akademie. Flügge und Heise, both elected members of the Akademie, have assembled documentary works depicting the economic and social conditions of the German Democratic Republic in its final decade, and the artwork that was created under such conditions. Christiane Eisler photographed the punk scene while pursuing her bachelor’s degree, but was not permitted to exhibit her work; in the GDR, such communities were neither officially permitted nor granted visibility. Even among self-selecting groups of artists and writers, official GDR restrictions could not be easily ignored; indeed, Thomas Florschuetz’ and Helga Paris’ photographs of writer and artist friends include Sascha Anderson, a prominent member of the Prenzlauer Berg writers’ scene who, in the 1990s, was outed as a Stasi spy.
“Ostzeit” (East Time) at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), a public institution ordinarily devoted to non-European art, overlapped significantly with “Übergangsgesellschaft,” but limited its purview to members of the local OSTKREUZ photography agency, which was formed in 1990 although many of its members were in Berlin well before that. The exhibition ranged from depictions of working and living conditions in the former East to the GDR’s symbolic displays of political power in rallies and monuments to jubilant, decadent moments otherwise uncharacteristic of the time. The latter category includes Sybille Bergemann’s photographs of the weekly ladies’ night at Clärchens Ballhaus (1976), one of the few private spaces devoted to leisure in East Berlin. Ute Mahler photographs amateur models for the single East German fashion magazine Sybille, for which, because of shortages, clothing was fashioned from industrial materials and never appeared in stores. Both series demonstrate the degree to which government policies had invaded citizens’ private lives, limiting resources and narrowing possibilities for self-expression.
Both exhibitions depict a country that, as “Übergangsgesellschaft” curators Matthias Flügge and Thomas Heise state, “no longer exists but has in no way disappeared.” “Berlin 89/09: Zwischen Spurensuche und Utopie” (Berlin 89/09: Between Searching for Traces and Utopia) at the private Berlinische Galerie until January 31, spotlights Berlin’s lightning-speed development in the ’90s. Documentary works like Sophie Calle’s often-exhibited Die Entfernung. Ein Berlin-Reiseführer (The Detachment. A Berlin Travel Guide, 1996) shows photographs of the physical absences left where socialist monuments have been removed, amending these voids with the written memories of passers-by on what these spaces once held. Others document changes that, ten years prior, would have been impossible, such as Michael Wesely’s long-exposure photographs of the Palast der Republik, the former Parliament building, being dismantled. For Lost Island (2004), Karsten Konrad designs a miniature architectural model of the much-beloved, now destroyed Ahornblatt (Maple Leaf) building where East Berlin functionaries gathered for lunch, memorializing the building and the camaraderie of the former East’s cafeterias along with it.
Despite the strong strain of nostalgia—much of it from transplant artists from outside Germany—”Berlin 89/09″ revels in the city’s post-Wall status as a hip hub of contemporary art. Alicja Kwade’s Bordsteinjuwelen (Curbside Jewels, 2008) remakes Berlin’s pebbles into beveled jewels named after streets lined with boutiques and art galleries, critiquing growing gentrification and art-market consumerism. Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s sculpture Klub der Republik (Club of the Republic, 2002) mimics the Palast, but with a throbbing techno beat by Carsten Nicolai that cheekily transposes Berlin’s club scene into its governing body. Compared to the exhibitions at Akademie der Künste and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, which explicitly concern the limits of Berlin society at the time, the Berlinische Galerie addresses the irreversible changes and remaining potential in Berlin, from utopic visions to transforming the city into a playground for corporate development and transient artists. (LEFT: KARSTEN KONRAD, LOST ISLAND, 2004. COURTESY BERLINISCHE GALERIE)