Restless Bodies. East German Photography 1980-1989 curated by Sonia Voss. Exhibition Review

by Maya Hristova

By Kateryna Kostenko / Edit Eglė Juocevičiūtė

Modern Germany lives in the radiance of diversity, freedom, unbridled creativity and endless youth. The first rays of this radiance appeared through cracks in the concrete more than three decades ago, in the concrete of the Berlin Wall, which wanted to leave this stage of its history far in the past.


Exhibition „Restless Bodies. East German Photography 1980–1989“ curated by Sonia Voss at the National Gallery of Arts, Vilnius. Exhibition views by Gintarė Grigėnaitė (2022)

The exhibition "RESTLESS BODIES / East German Photography 1980-1989" at the National Gallery of Arts in Vilnius tries to look into the last and little-known decade of the East German authoritarian regime. The exhibition was initially conceived for the Rencontres d`Arles 2019 with the support of the Rencontres d`Arles curatorial research scholarship. The curator of the exhibition Sonia Voss explores how in the conditions of continuous control and absolute denial of individuality and the erasure of the culture of the flesh, there stands the artist. Photographers, using the prism of photography, observe, document and create a new reality, all the energy of artists focuses on the representation of reality in the context of corporeality as a powerful emotional tool. The thread of corporeality that unites photographs has been explored, in some cases through dramatization, in others in complicated and hidden self-reflection. In the early 1980s, a completely different, more subjective and hybrid language of photography emerged than the art of photography of the past, which could counter social taboos.



The exhibition presents the works of 16 photographers: Tina Bara (1962), Sibylle Bergemann (1941-2010), Kurt Buchwald (1953), Lutz Dammbeck (1948), Christiane Eisler (1958), Thomas Florschuetz (1957), York der Knoefel (1962-2011), Ute Mahler (1949), Eva Mahn (1947), Sven Marquardt (1962), Barbara Metselaar Berthold (1951), Manfred Paul (1942), Rudolf Schäfer (1952), Gundula Schulze Eldowy (1954), Gabriele Stötzer (1953), Ulrich Wüst (1949). In their works we can see the energy of people stuck under the cover of repression and oppression, we see marginalized and isolated bodies, a symbol of life that does not subside even in the most uncomfortable and terrible conditions.We see lonely people in the crowd, society and unwavering attention to the unknown object in the frame. The photos here appear to us "naked" not only in the literal sense, but also in the metaphorical. Before us literally appears the spirit that tears the body to battle.


Sonia Voss divides the space of the study of East German photography of the 80s into a number of sub-themes, which allows us to take a more structured approach to the knowledge of certain aspects of the work of local artists. Our route begins with an immersion beyond the official rhetoric of optimism, in which we see real people, their relationships and attempts to "live together", documented by Ute Mahler. Noting and observing real situations, movements, emotions already force us not only to perceive the visual in front of us, but also to reveal ourselves, feel empathy and look for ourselves in pictures.


Having opened up and given ourselves to the exhibition at the first stage, we are painfully thrown over the ruins reflected in the works of Gundula Schulze Eldowy. The landscapes depicted in the Berlin on a Gog's Night series were shot as if in the first days after the end of World War II, although the series was actually shot in 1980. Especially painful and ironic today is the photograph with the ruins of the house, on the facade of which is written the well-known expression "Nie wieder krieg" (Never again war). We see the same ruins in another series of nude portraits of friends and acquaintances in 1984, where the ruins are not literally documented in photographs, but documented in the bodies of those portrayed and in our perception of these bodies, which already exposes the problem of destroying culture of body. Nearby, we see vivid emotions caused by the reconstruction of the city of Halle, which were captured by the camera Eva Mahn. Sincere indignation, rejection, mixed at the same time with one's own helplessness, is shown in the photos.


Sven Marquardt, a rebel photographer from head to toe, began his career in the 1980s. Drawing on his own boundless imagination and inspired by film art, he creates in his films a new, completely unique to the realities of the GDR, aesthetics. His pictures are theatrical, shrouded in a haze of mysticism that envelops sexuality. The heroes of Sven Marquardt's photographs are candid, dramatic, created in sometimes neglected places, immersed in deep light contrasts, which further emphasizes the emotionality of the pictures. The photographer and his models sublimate their own environment, creating a world somewhere between morbidity and tragedy and glamor. The characters in his photographs are transformed and set free despite their severity and tension. Barbara Metselaar Berthold, another prominent representative of East German photography culture that flourished in the 1980s, worked with documentary photography. In her drive series "Feste in Ostberlin" (Festivals in East Berlin), she documents how young people, defending themselves from the "ever-increasing grayness of everyday life", immersed themselves in dance and bacchanalia. Photographs taken at parties in Prenzlauer Berg show another way to freedom - a way of ecstasy and fun everywhere. Sven Marquardt and Barbara Metselaar Berthold in their projects do research on the fight against grayness and the desire for freedom, but the characters in their work, built on the same idea, are completely different. In turn, this comparison expands the understanding of the context of East German art of the 1980s.



The whole exposition is built on such bright contrasts. Each photographer found his identity in art, they aroused the narrow intellectual and artistic "circle of trust" of East Germany, which then affected the German art of today. Special emphasis should be placed on the unique curatorial work of Sonia Voss. She feels each picture, the specifics of each artist's work, reproduces the rhythm and nature of the pictures in their display. Being in the exhibition space of the National Art Gallery, every visitor can see the unclosed walls, the space itself is exposed in front of us, revealing their secrets and hinting that the reflection and research is not over and has even greater depths. The video series with Tina Bara's works with the photographer's comments evokes special emotions, watching which everyone has a clear sense of communication with the author and everyone has the opportunity to feel the pictures on a deeper level.An important aspect of the chronological line that closes the exhibition, which indicates the dates and key events in the life of Germany in the period from 1945 to 1989. This line not only reminds us of the context in which photographers created, but also everything that preceded this period and what influenced the lives of each of the artists.


This project pays tribute to the freedom of spirit in creativity, ingenuity and perseverance in the search for their own identity and the desire for sincere protest. The works of all 16 photographers are a direct and true demonstration of the impossibility of living behind concrete and gray walls. The faces and objects we see in the pictures, and the people behind this culture, are direct evidence of the fall of the Berlin Wall and its transformation into a grain of sand.


Image credit: Gundula Schulze Eldowy, Berlin, 1987

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