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Wednesday, December 7, 2022

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Something new from the east: Pretty strong

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This exhibition should actually be shown in the National Gallery. Because that’s where they belong, these 50 women with an Eastern background, selected by curator Andrea Pichl. Now they hang in the crooked, difficult-to-play rooms of Künstlerhaus Bethanien. After all!

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There is the photographer Helga Paris with her candid black and white shots of young people, right in the moment and yet far away. Ricarda Roggan is more than 30 years younger and she too is a master of photography. The grande dame of typewriting, Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, shines as always in the tiny paper format. Video artist Yvon Chabrowski, born in East Berlin, lures you into the corner with her claustrophobic techno sculpture. Inken Reinert, on the other hand, piles up GDR type furniture as an intricate sculpture right up to the ceiling.

Portrait of Beate Zschäpe

Else Gabriel, who only recently switched from performance to painting, is also present. In the 1980s she was the only woman among the rebellious Dresden auto-perforation artists. Now she is showing a portrait of Beate Zschäpe. An uncomfortably tortured visage emerges from the small format furiously worked through with a broad brush. “Women are also beasts and brutes,” says the artist.

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Directly opposite is the head of the trustee, Birgit Breuel, thoughtfully immortalized in a realistic painting style. In the background, the workforce is demonstrating in front of the occupied Thomas Müntzer potash plant, painted by the Leipzig artist Susanne Rische in 2019 for an installation by Henrike Naumann.

Uff. So much concentrated woman power. In fact, Pichl initially only wanted to show a few positions. But then she decided, “There must be a lot. Because the artists from the GDR have been shown so seldom.” Pichl has counted in the catalogs and survey exhibitions since the post-reunification period. Sometimes it was 23 percent, sometimes only 14 percent or less: wherever art from the East was examined retrospectively, the proportion of women remained underexposed.

They simply disappeared from history. That annoyed Pichl. It meant a double structural exclusion. In any case, creative people from the GDR often saw themselves punished with ignorance in the art world in the West. Only ten female professors with Eastern biographies are currently teaching at the 22 state art academies in Germany.

Pichl herself is actually an artist. Born in Haldensleben, she was only able to study after reunification due to Stasi repression. Positions that conform to the regime or support the state do not appear in her exhibition. In fact, this is not about a retrospective look at the past. All artists shown are still alive. And they demand their fair share of attention in the current art scene.

Most of the work was created recently. Unfortunately, the catalog designed as a reader doesn’t show them, doesn’t even list them: a real shortcoming, also with regard to cultural memory after the end of the show. The title of the exhibition “What our strength consists of” is borrowed from a Brechtian worker’s song. It certainly rings in the ears of many of the women involved. But nobody objected. Brecht’s text aims at solidarity as a unifying force.

Follower culture loyal to the regime

In fact, there were active women’s networks in the so-called second public sphere in the GDR, beyond the regime-loyal culture of followers. They live to this day. But they did not and do not reach into the museums, galleries, institutions and academies. Women were not excluded from the GDR art scene, especially since the state had taken up the cause of complete gender equality in propaganda. The barriers were more subtle. Artists in the East did not learn offensive strategies for self-portrayal and self-assertion, such as were later needed in the West. “We weren’t brought up to empower ourselves,” says Tina Bara on a visit to the exhibition. She now has a photography professorship in Leipzig.

In the entrance to the exhibition, a cheerful bright red roly-poly bobs back and forth on a screen, tinkling annoyingly. Lisa Junghanß’ video psychogram, created in 2014, causes a spinning sensation: using an unstable camera, she walks through the corridors, cells and offices in Hohenschönhausen Prison, always following a neat waitress. Ebola sufferers tell of other scars and exclusions on Manuela Warstat’s sober documentary poster works. The artist, who was born in Greifswald, studied in Berlin-Weißensee in the 1990s. There, the art historian Hildtrud Ebert gave her students feminist skills, introduced them to Valie Export and Orlan, for example, before she was fired.

Room for room is mixed

The exhibition subtly brings three generations into an immediate dialogue, room by room is mixed. Since the labels are not directly next to the works, a search game begins. Who is responsible for what here? The abstract styrofoam constructions by Erika Stürmer-Alex, who is now over 80, look calmly at the ephemeral sculptures that Christina Kral crafts from broken concrete, everyday stuff, string and scrap plastic. “Don’t get used to it” is a brightly painted canvas work by the young Sophie Reinhold in giant letters that makes you think. Is everything temporary? Many the exhibitedWorks look back, capture places that have disappeared, seek contact with memories.

Jana Müller has teamed up with her father to do this. He was a criminalist in the GDR, which officially knew no crime. The artist views his memories and realities in a growing archive: the immaculate uniform jacket, photographed crime scenes, handwritten notes. Everything is secured like circumstantial evidence. Other artists tackled the phrases of military training, which girls also had to go through, or FDGB party books. A vanished country has shaped these artists, including those whose lives only began a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cover the tracks or document them.

Fortunately, Gabriele Stötzer from Erfurt was already using the Super 8 camera back then in 1988. For her legendary work “Veitstanz / Feixtanz”, changing protagonists wildly swung their arms and legs to the point of exhaustion, in individual furor: a pioneering work of performance in the GDR, where this art form officially did not exist. The artist herself had been in jail.

On the occasion of a panel discussion, the exhibition room is suddenly full of female artists. Tina Bara, the photographer, has come and also the energetic Karla Woisnitza. Else Gabriel is sitting on the podium with curator Andrea Pichl. Their lives, their works of art could not be more different. But everyone experienced and processed the hard experience of the upheavals, the breaking away of the familiar. Many share the insult caused by the lack of response to their work. This evening you are almost alone. “Our strength,” says Gabriel; “It’s true: we experienced two very different systems. We can take different perspectives. That’s potential.”

Apart from their artistic standing, the GDR coinage is actually the only thing that unites all the artists on display. Is that enough as a common denominator? Doesn’t such a feminist niche show lead back to self-marginalization?

On the contrary: perhaps this great show, long overdue, is the beginning of the end of the ignorance of the western art world that is becoming painfully obvious here.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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