Interrogating the ‘Shuttered Society’

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Christian Borchert, Familie W. (Schutzpolizist, Montiererin) – Family W. (Policeman, Factory Worker), Berlin 1983

The exhibition ‘Geschlossene Gesellschaft’, literally translated as the closed or the shuttered society, is a survey of art photography in the German Democratic Republic 1949-1989 currently on display in the Berlinische Gallerie in Berlin. It is a timely exhibition which brings together the works of artists and photographers working in East Germany under the heavy weight of state censorship, political repression and growing social dissent until the eventual collapse of the GDR in 1989. The official art form endorsed by the state was called ‘socialist realism’: an integral element employed by the regime to promote the benefits of socialism and maintain order amongst the masses. Yet rather than succumbing to the brutal ideology of Stalinism in the GDR, the photographers in this exhibition appear to question this ideology by representing a society constantly investigating and questioning its identity and place in the world.


Jens Rötzsch, Pfingsttreffen der FDJ, Ost-Berlin – Spring Meeting of the Free German Youth, East Berlin, June 1989


Erasmus Schröters, Frau in Rot – Woman in Red, Leipzig 1985

Many photographs on display initially appear to represent a harmonious relationship with the regime. For instance, Jens Rötzsch’s photograph shows a group of young women waiting to perform for the spring meeting of the Free German Youth – the official communist youth movement of the GDR. While the woman in the foreground obligingly smiles, the expressions of her compatriots further back in the image are far less laden with celebration. This was June 1989 and the regime was already crumbling from within. Erasmus Schröter’s photograph ‘Woman in Red’ is a candid reference to the dominance of communist ideology in the GDR. On closer investigation, the woman’s expressionless face signifies a sense of numbness provoked by a lack of freedom and a lack of opportunities in the dying years of the GDR.


Peter Oehlmann, Ohne Titel (aus der Serie ‘Die Stadt’) – Untitled (from the series ‘The City’), Berlin 1987


Matthias Hoch, Halle / Saale II, 1988

Peter Oehlmann’s photograph of so-called Plattenbauten, mass housing-estates, on the outskirts of East Berlin is an eerie document of the socially and culturally impoverished living conditions millions of East German citizens were subjected to. In Oehlmann’s photograph, this urban landscape is represented like a labyrinth out of which there is no escape. Matthias Hoch’s photograph of the interior of a Mitropa canteen in a train station appears to ridicule the working conditions in the GDR: with the exception of two hours in the morning, the canteen is open from midnight to midnight every day of the week. Hoch photographed public places at night so that that they appeared like empty theatre stages. In the photograph, the repetitive cycle of work, commute, eat and sleep is punctuated by a cluster of rather pathetic looking plants on the top of the food display. The image is a depressing remnant of an amazingly inefficient and labour-intensive socialist system.


Sven Marquard, Ohne Titel – Untitled, 1986

Despite being locked into a repressive regime, the title of the exhibition ‘Shuttered Society’ is nevertheless slightly misleading. Precisely because East Germany was so closed off from the rest of the world, particularly from the capitalist West, young East Germans looked to the West with a growing sense of curiousity. It is impossible therefore to view Sven Marquard’s 1986 photograph of a male nude without reference to the American photographer Nan Goldin. In fact, Goldin has visited and lived in West Berlin since the early 1980s. Goldin once said: “The only place I feel myself and comfortable and feel real love for my friends is Berlin.” Goldin’s iconic slideshow “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” was first shown in Berlin’s Kino Arsenal Cinema in 1984 and had a tremendous impact on the artistic community at the time. Marquard’s image is likely evidence that the wave of Goldin’s impact would splash over the concrete structures of the Berlin Wall from West to East Germany.


Matthias Leupold, Im Kino / Teil II – In the Cinema / Part II, Berlin 1983

Artists working in the GDR were under the constant threat of professional marginalization, surveillance, political pressure and state punishment if they fell out of favour with the regime. It is therefore understandable that most photographs on display are subtil and cryptic in their apparent criticism. An exception is Matthias Leupold’s photograph of a young man standing up in a 3D cinema, shouting at the screen with anger, while others continue to watch the film. This stunt was set up by the photographer and a friend, both of whom were immediately kicked out of the theatre after causing a ruckus. The photograph poignantly references the growing dissent in a political system which was finally brought to its knees, not by military force or foreign intervention, but by its own people. III Originally published on the foam blog.

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