Ostkreuz: An Origin Stopped in Time

Wolfgang Kil
Translated by Chris Egger

"It is as if someone had pushed open the windows..." With these words Stephan Heym began his speech in front of 700.000 demonstrators on Alexander Square in Berlin on November 4, 1989. Still unbelieving, yet full of hope, the old poet greeted the fresh [political] breeze that had blown into the land of spiritual, economic and political stagnation so unexpectedly. And he could not foresee (nobody could foresee) that this wind should be only a prelude to a very powerful storm: a storm that, a mere five days later, was going to completely destroy the state, which had been ruined and become unrulable.

When, after the windows, the doors flew open, too, in that unforgettable Thursday night, the day of reckoning had come. Ever since then it is appropriate to speak of the German Democratic Republic as something of the past. November 9 sealed the end and the fiasco of a historic project. What remains are textbooks full of political insights and millions of lives that bear traces of a peculiar cultural experience. Everything in this landscape will change; cars and billboards, towns and villages, the water in the rivers and the air we breathe, probably even the expressions on peoples faces. Just one thing should not be expected for a while - origins.

Outside its borders much has been said and judged about the role that art and artists played in the social environment of the GDR. Depending on political appropriateness the affirmative, even propagandistic character of the "state art" was lamented, the mediocrity of a "non-avant-garde province"smiled at or the rebellious spirit of the non-conformists as well as the chic of an exotic scene celebrated. All of these points of view were justifiable though none - in the scheme of things - was just. Because where does it exist -THE art or THE artist?

Photography is no exception. It, too, has never existed as a GDR-specific version. If there is supposed to have been a difference at all we have to search for it behind the pictures or around them; a very peculiar moral ambition of the photographers and a very direct, almost hungry interest of a broad public in their products. And mutual respect, which in m any other places has long been considered naive and gullible; but here it still worked, this missionary hope. Almost to the end wholesome skepticism was not able to undermine this unquestioning trust in pictures: photography must show us what exists. Stopped time.

The work of the photographers at the same time suffered and profited under the hair-raising equilibrium disorders and behavioral problems in the "Closed Society of the GDR". As long as the mass media, completely forced into line, reproduced illusionary worlds bridled with propaganda, as long as they put a taboo on every serious social conflict a nd thereby tried to ban reality from public consciousness, the desperate role of an ersatz-public fell to the art media. Writers, film and theater directors, rock musicians as well as photographers took on that troublesome part of reality which was not al lowed to exist in the press or on TV. Accordingly, public interest in the messages of those artists, who dealt with everyday experiences, was strong and at times even enthusiastic. It was directly proportional to the lack of interest with which the offici al propaganda was met. What was in demand where pictures of real life [In German: "Abbilder"], not wishful projections ["Wunschbilder"]. This provided the artists with a lot of attention and the motivating feeling to be needed and to have responsibility. Be it in Dresden, where the audience of the mammoth art shows was counted by the hundreds of thousands or (for example) in Berlin, where a small gallery tucked away in a small side street attracted thirteen thousand visitors in six weeks (during a spectacular one-person show of a young woman photographer) the situation was the same: constantly sold out theaters, notoriously out of print books and endless lines outside exhibitio n doors. We can not blame the artists for the fact that the often over-stressed and self-flattering aura of an art-friendly GDR or of a reading-culture GDR can actually be attributed to a considerable degree to a deficit in non-art areas. They simply rea cted to the unsatisfied desire for public communication ["Selbstverstaendigung"] and it greatly influenced their conception of art.

Maybe at this point a short explanation is needed why in the GDR all types of photography, even photojournalism, could be thought of as an artistic achievement. On the one hand the number of independent photographers who, with their work, would have nothing to do with the censorship of the official media, had grown in the late 70-s to such proportions that the "Verband bildender Kuenstler" [Association of Plastic Artists] formed a special Study Group Photography. This opened considerable possibilities for development. Even in this artists association every photographer still had to secure his/her own material existence - in any way possible. But at least with the status of "artist" there were possibilities to participate in extensive cultural activities (e.g. grants and stipends, study visits, exhibitions,...). On the other hand the independent photographers became quite distanced from their original bond with the printed media (i.e. the thinking in categories of usability), due to their complete self-determination and the fact that they worked basically without instructions. This conception of them selves has in fact brought them closer to the concept of artistic self-expression as opposed to merely transmitting news. The mass media being totally inaccessible to them, even a simple photo documentary could receive the importance of a purely personal message of the photographer - or at least it was common to interpret it as such in exhibitions.

The development of photography in the GDR has been defined largely by the narrative picture until the late 80-s. Photographers with a background shaped by journalism had ventured out to work independently and they were the first ones to stake out that new territory of independent activities which were then called artistic. They became the role models, set the standards for a long time and directed the attention of those coming after them to psychology, to stories and history. For themselves they claimed t he "human interest", since the irrational, the lies of a perfect world and the cynical were so obviously in the services of "the other side". Pausing for a moment, pensiveness, looking as a way of reading, the attempt to get the feel of a certain atmosphe re, metaphors for forelornness or yearning - these were the first signs of resistance with which the artists tried to fight off a propagandistic takeover of their moral integrity. Observations, not claims! ["Beobachten statt behaupten!"]

The road into the uncertainties of an existence mostly without instructions was taken freely and set free certain forces that radicalized especially some of the works of the younger artists who followed and that made them much more outspoken. They took on that rather miserable reality, dissecting it; and what they brought to the surface was shocking and cuttingly sarcastic. Long since there existed two picture-worlds of the so called real socialism and those living in it much appreciated the efforts of those independent photographers who had to rely almost entirely on galleries and art exhibitions as a public forum.

In this way photography in the GDR developed under the conditions of a pressure cabin; little by little, easily manageable, and highly condensed. Contacts in professional circles were close, an intimacy that bordered on confinement, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Even when the mental walls became more permeable and books, exhibits as well as the possibility to travel put the national scene more in touch with trends in international photography most of the photographers in the GDR remained cooly at a distance to the fads and vanities that were so rampant worldwide. The experiences of their own lives remained more important, the moral of voluntary involvement seemed interminable. Success in distant places, as far as it finally occurred, was reason for joy but compared to the unescapable reality of every day life it remained "outside". Here, those who set out to start their careers very soon found themselves outside, literally as well as figuratively. The GDR could never bear more than local greatness. The reason for this might have been the system: without a market there are no top ten lists and no stars. But plenty of insider tips and a mutual attentiveness, a willingness to pay attention to details. And a public to whom one liked to present one's pictures for discussion because it was competent where reality was concerned and inevitably shared in the artists' frustration, mourning and rage. Also the seemingly never faltering believe in the feasibility of the maxim "I want to be active in this world" which, at some time or another, every school kid learned as part of a declaration by Kaethe Kollwitz. In even the most defiant defensive reaction and in the harshest refusal of the existing situation there could still be found a little rest of this believe. And the secret of this peculiar tenacity: affection.

Now the windows and doors are open, wide open. The microclimate in the glasshouse GDR that had been balanced over decades in a painstaking process suddenly lost its equilibrium. The society of the GDR, which has been thrown into the whirl of world markets unprepared, does not only have to restructure its economic basis. It also has to cope with the process of redefining its intellectual fundament. Within a few weeks after the fall of the media monopoly (held by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany) a diverse process of opinion forming through the mass-media had developed. The artists, who up until then had played the role of an ersatz public, were relieved of their function from one day to the next. Only very few of them were at all able to influence the explosion of new problems and questions that they and their audience have been besieged with ev er since. All of a sudden the traditional conventions and symbols, without which communication between artists and their audience is impossible, lost all their meaning. The usual feedback to ones own work that could always be personally felt, now failed to materialize. What happened here is nothing less than the total loss of all cultural points of reference. Due to the economic collapse, work relations as well as the system of commissions and professional associations that had been stable up until now dissolved. And this, also, had dire consequences for the productivity of all artists. But in the long run one thing will be crucial for the survival of the art workers who have been released into the market: it is how well they will be able to cope with the transition into an entirely different value system, from a leisurely and pensive civilization into a fast paced and innovation crazed one. One question that, inevitably, will have to be faced is the one about the meaning of all past endeavors. The new situation can not be had at a lower price than that.