Conscious Inability: Gabriele Stötzer’s Archive at Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig
Conscious Inability: The Archive of Gabriele Stötzer, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (GfZK Leipzig), March 3, 2019 – March 2020.
Conscious Inability: The Gabriele Stötzer Archive at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig (GfZK Leipzig) takes a long deserved in-depth look at the work of Gabriele Stötzer (also Gabriele Kachold, *1954), one of the central representatives of feminist art in the late GDR. Conscious Inability: The Gabriele Stötzer Archive is a long-term research and exhibition project: over the course of one year, from March 2019 to March 2020, three exhibitions will highlight different aspects of Stötzer’s artistic practice and political activism. The artist Paula Gehrmann (*1982) created the display infrastructure for all three iterations of the archive show, which is organized by GfZK curator Vera Lauf together with independent curator Luise Thieme. The first installment ran until June 23, 2019.
Gabriele Stötzer’s oeuvre ranges from prose writing to visual practices and includes performance and political activism. Her work often involves bodily actions performed with her own body or collectively. However, textile works, photography, and film also form part of her artistic practice, reflecting very specific East German strands of feminism during the 1980s. Stötzer turned more decidedly to art after her release from the notorious Hoheneck women’s prison in the late 1970s. There, she had been a political prisoner serving a sentence for her involvement in the Erfurt petition by artists and intellectuals against the expatriation of singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann, who after his infamous concert in Cologne in 1976 was denied reentrance into the GDR and consequently deprived of his citizenship. For many this was not only an act of state despotism but also the beginning of the downfall of the GDR. Stötzer often recounts her experiences in prison as something that determined her approach to female solidarity and empathy. She received the Order Pour le Mérite of the Federal Republic of Germany for her important role, after 1989, in organizing the preservation of the Stasi (State Security) files that the GDR had been keeping on many of their citizens. The urgency of Stötzer’s diverse artistic practice during the 1980s and her writings reflecting on this time have to be seen before the background of these events.
The project’s title, Conscious Inability, is part of a quote by Stötzer and refers to a strategy of infiltration of social and artistic norms, of confronting tested and approved systems with notions of uncertainty, care, coincidence, and intuition. In each of the three iterations of the project, selections of Stötzer’s Super-8 films, drawings, photographs, artists books, costumes, and textile works are presented alongside notes, newspaper clippings, and posters for shows, which often only lasted for a few days. During the first show here under review, photo documentation from Stötzer’s infamous, self-organized underground corridor gallery in Erfurt in the early 1980s can be seen alongside excerpts from her extensive Stasi files. All this is complemented by a reading area with many of Stötzer’s own books, which were published during the1990s, as well as catalogues and exhibition booklets for shows from the 1990s that showed her work from the ‘80s.
By presenting all this material together, the curators insist that this archival exhibition spread out over three iterations, and archival presentations in general, need to be read and understood alongside materials that reflect upon the artworks’ own historicity. The focus of this exploration of Stötzer’s private archive is the relationship between art production and surveillance: as was the case with many other artists (and not only artists) in the former GDR, Stötzer’s every step was being meticulously documented by, among others, spying friends in the service of the Stasi. Conscious Inability: The Gabriele Stötzer Archive provides answers not by simply highlighting the complex political context of Stötzer’s artmaking, but—in a manner consistent with the artist’s practice—by asking questions that mobilize Stötzer’s art and its situatedness within the GDR’s system of oppression.
The display infrastructure created by Leipzig-based Paula Gehrmann is composed of a tightly placed ensemble of connected shelves, screens, and room dividers made from black steel rods, MDF plates and Plexiglas. Upon entry into the archive, these visually strong elements provoke an equally strong bodily response in the visitors. They must negotiate their movements carefully, as the corridors between the different parts of the scenography are sometimes quite narrow. The tips of the steel rods dangerously jut out, and boards and shelves block entry into certain passages, or impair the ability to see other parts of the structure. This archive does not invite you to look at it from the comfortable vantage point of vitrines positioned at just about the right height. Instead, one has to constantly stand one’s ground in this obstinate archive: standing on tiptoes in order to catch a glimpse, getting down low, or changing one’s perspective to suddenly be confronted by one’s own feet, a fragmented image in a mirror next to a series of photos, or film projection of Stötzer negotiating her own naked body. These images appear and reappear in different versions—large photo series mounted between Plexiglas, on postcards, painted over, in artist’s books—testifying to Stötzer’s insistent usage of images of the body as ever-changing zones of probing resistance. In her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (2000), political-philosopher Susan Buck-Morss writes:
Whether camera image or easel painting, whether filmic montage or architectural design, what matters is that the image provides a sensual, cognitive experience that is capable of resisting abusive power’s self-justification. Visual ‘art’ becomes political in this way. It makes apparent what the phantasmagorias of power cover up. […] The original field of aesthetics is not art but reality—corporeal, material nature. Hence, ‘Aesthetics is born as a discourse of the body.’ It is a form of cognition achieved through taste, touch, hearing, seeing, smell—the whole corporeal sensorium. To be alive is to feel—pain as well as pleasure. It is the a priori condition of existence, the precondition for both culture and history.(Buck-Morss, Susan. Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. MIT press, 2000, p. 101.)
Stötzer’s practice is emblematically summarized by this quote, as she always insisted on the centrality of the body in order to claim political agency. Stötzer acted in a system that relentlessly controlled the physical movements of its citizens, while at the same time officially espousing heteronormative private sexuality and the equality of women in all areas of life. In a discussion between herself and Paula Gehrmann organized on the occasion of the exhibition, Stötzer mentioned that she was simply taking literally the officially propagated idea of artmaking as an integral part of good socialist citizenship.
In this way, both through her artistic practice and through the group actions of the female collective Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt (renamed Exterra XX after 1989), which she co-founded, Stötzer appeared to reclaim a fundamentally socialist idea.
Conceived as a relational structure that is both functional and aesthetic, Gehrmann’s exhibition display helps to physically develop both an understanding for, and an entryway into, Stötzer’s complex relational practice. Gehrmann designed the show as a collaborative process that translates GDR 1980s subculture into a display method. In the process, among the shows devoted in recent years to “great but forgotten woman artists”, the exhibition charts new terrain. Gehrmann is interested in the notion of “assistance” in the widest sense. For her, this is a way to solicit a conversation, to challenge received ideas, and also to become a collaborator. Gehrmann doesn’t want to see empathy as weakness but as an act of generosity, as a foundation of feminist practice. In this way she actualizes the historical material, but in a manner that is slower and demands more time from the visitors who (also physically) position themselves in relation to these materials that vividly and insistently speak to the GDR’s repressive societal structure and its conformism in all walks of life.
While in the West (and in part also throughout the Eastern bloc) feminist body art was fairly established by the 1980s, and while many now-iconic performances and actions had taken place even a decade earlier, in the GDR, the decision to pursue such experimental practices was one of very few (and dangerous) avenues open to artists who wanted to negotiate issues of identity on their own terms. Their biggest problem was the GDR’s “equality claim,” the fact that as a “classless” society, East Germany had a strict anti-discrimination law for both women and men, with the result that small feminist movements did not take off until the 1980s, at a time when other gender and sexual orientation discourses started to gain minimal recognition in unofficial circles. Thus, it would be wrong to compare Stötzer’s work to other feminist body-based practices in the West or in other parts of the former Eastern Bloc, even though they sometimes do share similar forms. The feminist theory that grounded such practices in the West was simply too far away from the GDR. With her actions, Stötzer, who describes her work with other women as “pure,” aimed to negotiate and explore what she called “the unspoken” (das Unausgesprochene) in female identity. And while it certainly was a way to rebel against the system, it was not its sole motivation.
The photo series on display in the show, as well as Stötzer’s Super-8 films, testify to the artist’s intuitive way of developing her standpoint, sometimes through almost archaic body actions. For example, the “Roman armor” draped over one of the display shelves is a costume made out of empty Coca Cola cans, a rare, coveted and collected material in East Germany. This armor, created for an underground fashion show and shot by Künstlerinnengruppe Erfurt, was placed at the center of black-and-white photographs showing Stötzer’s performances and body art actions. An armor made from the remnants of the ultimate consumer product of the West fundamentally questions the individual body’s subjection to power in the East German dictatorship: an artistic provocation.
The three iterations of this exhibition project translate the notions of hybridity inherent in Stötzer’s work into the physical space of the museum, thus presenting different taxonomies through the methodology of exhibition-making. The connections with other shows that were going on at the museum at the same time added to the complexity of the project. The conditions for its perception were constantly produced anew, amplifying certain doubts provoked by archive fever in the arts: the classification of knowledges via power structures, dominant cultural hierarchies, and historical embeddedness. Thus the first show in the series occurred at the same time as the exhibition anarchive, which reflected on different archival practices in the work of Georges Adéagbo, Stephan Köhler, Rosa Barba, Andreas Grahl, and Ricarda Roggan. The second part is being shown at the same time as the solo presentation of Clemens von Wedemeyer’s Majorities, which deals with the past and present phenomenon of mass mobilization, the representation of crowds, their political and psychological impact, and the (im)possibility of subversive action. The third iteration will look at themes of collectivity, interdisciplinary working methods and topics such as solidarity networks, friendships, and allies.
For Stötzer, who comes from writing, art was first of all a way to continue to be politically active after her release from prison in 1978. Art offered her the advantage of being less determined, but also more open and collaborative than writing. The artist mobilized artmaking as a sphere of action located outside of the norms of the state that had declared her an outcast because she refused to take a job. On one of her better-known postcards on display in the show, Stötzer’s typed sentence is layered over a black and white photograph of the backside of the legs of two people walking down a street, away from the viewer: “staying on is also a decision, the refusal to leave.” The postcard’s display in Gehrmann’s relational exhibition architecture introduces verticality into the horizontality of the archive. In this show, the question of form is posed not only with respect to the materials—which are so powerful they could also speak for themselves—but form is actively created with them. This is a way to employ and actively reuse the materials on display, asking questions about surveillance, feminist practice, collectivism, and whether an ideological void can be filled with art. This unusual engagement of materials throughout the shows does Stötzer’s practice more than justice, as it is an intelligent physical processing of her constant action against, and through, what is possible under conditions of impossibility.