Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany

Sara Blaylock, Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022), 328 PP.

Artists infiltrated state culture by meting out its excesses. They tested the hard-line intolerance of cultural innovation advertised by cultural bureaucracy. They hedged their bets on the threats of state security forces, and won. They identified with and sought approval from each other, even as they benefited from the advantages of the state culture whose approval they foreswore, but whose financial incentives they enjoyed. In their dedication to creative autonomy, experimental artists exposed a core vulnerability in state power – namely, its reliance on a unified national culture to reflect its communist ideology. (pp. 4-5)

With this quote from her book Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany, author and art historian Sara Blaylock breaks with the official-versus-unofficial-art dichotomy established in the historiography of the art of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) by East German art historians, and places herself in a line of mainly English-speaking researchers such as Seth Howes and Sarah E. James, as well as German curator and art historian Angelika Richter. This dichotomy was introduced primarily in the context of the German-German image controversy (deutsch-deutscher Bilderstreit) in order to save the unofficial art of the GDR and to integrate it into Western discourse. In 1990, artist Georg Baselitz, who had moved from the GDR to West Germany in 1958, fundamentally denied any value to art from the GDR, since according to him there could be no art in a dictatorship. The resulting German-German Bilderstreit still has an impact on today’s art discourse, making it difficult for art historians in Germany to think, research, and write about German art beyond black-and-white clichés. This makes American and other outside views, like Blaylock’s, all the more important, as it situates art from this period within a broader, more complex understanding of all its contradictions and contingencies, and interactions within the socio-political context of its time.

Similar to Richter’s book Gender Criticism, Performance Art, and the Second Public in the Late GDR (2019), Blaylock introduces the term “parallel public” to locate the experimental art of the 1980s within the entire GDR art scene. Blaylock states, “It thus defines the scene as parallel public to reveal how artists engaged with the state to both exceed and expose its core disjunctions“ (p. 5) “Moreover, the idea of a ‘parallel public‘ draws attention to the ways in which artists used the apparatuses of official culture (that is, the ‘first public sphere‘) to advance their own agenda.“ (p. 16.). This “parallel public“ commits itself to art, community, and interdisciplinarity that state socialism had sought but failed to inspire.

Blaylock divides her book into seven chapters and a coda. Several chapters are individually dedicated to different artists who lived and worked in the GDR during the 1980s and whose artistic practice is characterized primarily by an experimental approach, including such genres as performance and body art, which in the classic understanding of art in the GDR (painting, sculpture, and graphic art) has only lately gained recognition and entry into the art historical canon. The first chapter analyzes the works of female artists Christine Schlegel, Verena Kyselka, Cornelia Schleime, Else Gabriel, and Gabriele Stötzer, whose surveillance by the Stasi resulted in various political confrontations. In Chapter 2, Blaylock examines the body controlled by the restrictions of a dominated society through the photographs of Thomas Florschuetz and performances of the AutoPerforationArtists, one of the first German performance art collectives who started when they were still studying at the Art Academy in Dresden. The next two chapters are dedicated to the films of Cornelia Schleime and Gino Hahnemann, as well as the photographs of Gundula Schulze Eldowy. The program of the first Intermedia Festival in Dresden (1985), an art and a music festival that united various social and musical groups from punk to jazz, is the subject of Chapter 5, followed by a discussion of the collective works of the Erfurt Women Artists’ Group (1984-1994) in Chapter 6. In the final chapter, Blaylock turns her attention to the “DIY public sphere,” as she meticulously “reconstructs” and recounts histories of Samizdat publications and  the Leipzig-based gallery Eigen + Art (still active today). In the book’s coda, Blaylock summarizes the works she discusses within the context of the GDR and embeds these artists in international discourses and movements. However as she notes, this art always refers to its GDR context and can’t be understood without this context, raising the question how to identify this art: “Is this GDR art or art of the GDR?”

Blaylock’s research is based on thoughtful and meticulous archival work and original evaluation of her various materials. For example, the many Stasi files kept on artists –secret files created to monitor, control, and, of course, bully artists – became important sources for reconstructing the exhibition histories explored here, including–in addition to openings, performances, and other events–the genesis of significant artworks. Blaylock reads these along with other resources to create a more complete image, using the Stasi files in a unique, constructive way, rather than to simply document instances of censorship and other restrictions imposed on East German artists by the state. Blaylock further conducted interviews with important figures of the time, since not all events and actions leave traces in the form of archival material. Her descriptions of the works she reviews are captivating, as she employs an ekphrastic approach, using a vivid, pictorial language that brings the individual works to life.

Blaylock argues that 1980’s GDR experimental art “not only diagnosed a weakening state, but also served as its antidote: a mirror and a foil to official culture.” (p. 5). However, the author does not simply put these experimental artists in opposition to the official discourse or the restrictive state apparatus. Rather, she shows their entanglements with the official art system, from whose privileges they profited and whose values they partly adopted, but whose set ideals they no longer believed. This was a generation of artists born into socialism, no longer shaped by the horrors of World War II, and who, because of the reality of material scarcity, strongly doubted the future promise of the utopia of communism and no longer felt committed to it. Blaylock therefore sees their artistic endeavors not so much in combating the state, as in undermining it in order to gain a certain freedom. Blaylock’s reveals that this is much more than just a matter of reflecting the absurdity of ideological transfiguration. She describes this very impressively in two places: “Instead, artists undermined state authority through forthright rather than covert projects that redefined the space of culture. Guileless, adoptive and persistent, artists proved to be wily targets, immune to the conventional tactics of state control. That immunity, I argue, is symptomatic of a systemic problem of state culture, which by the 1980s could no longer dictate, let alone maintain, a coherent state.” (p. 5) And again, “Paradoxically, the value that experimental artists held for their place in the world as creative people mirrored the value that the GDR’s official mandate placed on culture. Although they did not seek to advance a specific political agenda, artists had internalized an almost utopian idealism about art’s possibilities that was in part indebted to the national culture within which they had been raised.” (p. 7)

In this context, Blaylock develops new categories of analysis, such as autonomy and authenticity, that she positions beyond a reductive, pejorative Western gaze and the one-dimensional classification as oppositional or dissident art. As a result, these categories allow her to illuminate the tense interrelationship between the artists, the state, the official art system. According to Blaylock, these artists developed mainly “new vocabularies for representation”: “Simultaneous to the corporal turn in photography and performance art was the ascent of an increasingly incisive form of portrait photography, as well as a commitment to self-documentation on Super-8-film.” (p. 89) Likewise, “An investment in multiple media was paramount at that time, a proactive move that reflects a moment of excited, even frantic, exploration of the self and artistic possibility.” (p. 107). For example, in the collective working method of Gabriele Stötzer, whose photographs and films foreground the intimate work of a group and her comrades-in-arms, Blaylock sees above all the creation of a community in solidarity.

Blaylock applies the concept of autonomy to this art, a concept much praised in the West German context of postwar art. However, she does not simply impose the Western concept of an art free of political ambitions and political instrumentalization, but rather redefines autonomy in terms of self-empowerment and mutually supportive group formation. This is especially true in her analysis of the the works of various female artists who did not play victim when confronted with their Stasi files. On the contrary, states Blaylock, “Theirs is a history of creative self-determination. While certainly notes of victimization remain present, and are even at times foregrounded, a sense of gloom and despair do not dominate in these artworks, which excerpt, recontextualize, and restage the archives their makers were never meant to see. In contrast, through these projects, Kyselka, Schlegel, Schleime, Gabriel, and Stötzer invite their audiences to consider the ways that East Germans, and especially artists, persevered in the face of a constant threat of observation.” (p. 52) In their works, they ironize the petty-bourgeois and often false-fact-based interpretation of their lives by the Stasi.

Even though it is difficult to draw these conclusions from works that, for the most part, portray Stasi surveillance after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that is, retrospectively, Blaylock in Chapter 1 proves that Stasi surveillance did not turn artists into paralyzed, frightened victims. Instead, “Their artworks show that the ambitions of the state security system [intimidate and discourage from artistic work] must be distinguished from its achievements [in the case of these artists did not cause their resignation].” (p. 27) In this context, the establishment of the Erfurt Women Artists’ Group in 1984 – which over the years made films, music, and painted collectively – also takes on a new meaning. Blaylock understands this collective as a kind of niche society whose existence was a function of the stable material existence offered by the GDR to its citizens. In this content, Blaylock quotes the sociologist Wolfgang Engler who notes, “Precisely because social life was secure, people could experiment in their personal lives with insecurity, with unusual thoughts, with more open, more spontaneous ways of life.” (p. 188)

Blaylock’s classification of artists as “antipolitical” follows Klara Kemp-Welch’s definition who, in her turn following Vaclav Havel, understands “antipolitical” as “political outside the sphere of power” (p. 10) thus adding another dimension to the category of autonomy. Notes Blaylock, “In this regard, their production of a parallel public is not so much countercultural or dissident as it is anti-idealistic and realistic.”(p. 10) Thus, artists did not withdraw from a political stance; rather, they sought forms of political expression in the critique of the prevailing political situation, which they perceived as restrictive and ideologized. Autonomy, in Blaylock’s reading, means neither one’s detachment from politics nor abstaining from it; rather, it refers to the freedom from repression.

Blaylock also very prudently deals with the issue of authenticity, another category often overused when it comes to experimental art of the 1980s in the GDR and its networks of distribution such as Samizdat publications, the gallery Eigen + Art. For Blaylock, authenticity describes an unrestricted form of self-expression and uncensored access to public possibilities of representation. On the one hand, this implied reappropriating one’s own body in a highly institutionalized society that claimed interpretive sovereignty over the body for itself. In Florschuetz’s photomontages of body parts and the performances of the AutoPerforationArtists, for example, this is acted out as a form bodily self-determination. On the other hand, authenticity aims at true, unadorned reality, as expressed in the photographs of Gundula Schulze Eldowy, who documented the lives of her neighbors who lived beyond the prescribed norms of socialism. In her photographic portraits, Schulze Eldowy depicts the relentless process of aging, the madness of dementia, and the effects of hard work on life, which has nothing in common with the heroic images of labor depicted in the official art of the GDR. “Essentially, from the self-abuse in the Auto-Perforation Artists performances, films, and installations to the metaphorically divided body in Thomas Florschuetz’s self-portraits to the portrait photography of hard laborers by Gundula Schulze Eldowy,” states Blaylock, “visualizing devastation at the most intimate level of the body became an important tactic for artists to both differentiate themselves from the norm and to identify the GDR’s internal hypocrisies.” (p. 114) Gino Hahnemann’s recourse, in his films, to the German cultural heritage–the same heritage that was claimed by state for its for self-legitimization – can also be placed in this context. Here, authenticity refers to the re-appropriation and expression of the filmmaker’s cultural roots and their interpretation.

Within the context of body politics and self-agency, my only real criticism of Parallel Public, especially as a woman from East Germany, is Blaylock’s assessment, in Chapter 7, of the situation of women in the GDR as unequal and repressed. It is undisputed, as Richter points out in her already cited book, that there was no real equality for women in the GDR since in a way they faced a kind double burden of working and tending to the family. However, compared to West Germany, the situation of women in the GDR was very progressive, as they independently earned their own money. Maxie Wander’s book Guten Morgen du Schöne (1977) underlines this by giving voice to several women who are narrating their personal stories.

Blaylock also contextualizes East German experimental art of the 1980s within the international art world, taking it out of its often-isolated consideration, and without forgetting that this work was often created without much international exchange. She notes, “East Germany’s ‘intermediality‘ mirrors performance theorist and artist Bojana Cvejić’s description of Yugoslavian experimental art in the 1970s and 1980s as intentionally ‘unburdened’ by aesthetic categories, and made by artists ‘indifferent to the imperative of branding themselves through the genealogy of medium-specificity or style.’” (p. 183) Thus, the experimental art of the 1980s is also “unburdened” by Western art categories and exists, according to Blaylock, parallel to Western art. Blaylock’s strength is that she places this work at the interface between East and West, at that geographical border (and gateway) between West Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc where it originated.

 

Constanze Fritzsch
Constanze Fritzsch holds a doctorate from the Catholic University in Eichstätt-Ingolstadt and is a former member of the research project À chacun son réel (German Forum for Art History, Paris) and a former assistant curator at Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Currently she is working on a research project on post-socialist transformation in Eastern Europe.  She has been on the academic staff at the Bauhaus University in Weimar and worked as an academic assistant at the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art in Paris. She has curated several exhibitions in Germany, France, and Croatia.