From Jena via Cologne to Stonehenge: the photographic exhibition "East for the record" at the Leipzig Museum of Contemporary Arts illustrates the way the GDR and the rest of the world looked in the upheaval of autumn 1989
BY ROBER SCHIMKE
August '89. GDR citizens are heading west via Hungary, for one final summer searing heat hangs over the part of Germany ruled by the SED. Leipzig artist Maix Mayer photographs the belly of his pregnant girlfriend. Berlin photographer Tina Bara puts the camera aside and is not quite sure why.
A few weeks later, at the end of December, Evelyn Richter photographs a bedraggled pair in front of the Brandenburg Gate, it is raining. Tina Bara packs contact prints in a box, marking it "Resumption of own work from January 1990."
A time period filled with different memories, all of which are linked to one event: the fall of the Wall. These reminiscences are currently being recounted by 76 photographers from East and West at the Leipzig Museum of Contemporary Art. For the exhibition "East for the record" they have selected photographs associated with private recollections from their archives, taken between the end of August 1989 and the beginning of January 1990.
Chronologically ordered and accompanied by short texts, the pictures provide a concert of voices regarding the final days of the GDR - from its dog days to the parades marking the 40th anniversary of the republic and on to the fall of the Wall and the following winter, the obsolescent border defences bearing a gentle covering of snow.
A photo by Ursula Edelmann has the appearance of a clichéd image from the former West Germany. In September, at the Frankfurter Museumsuferfest, she photographs three lavishly-costumed ladies copying the poses in two paintings by Renoir and Kirchner. This cosmos is at least as far removed from sooty Bitterfeld or the "green frontier" in Hungary as it is from the present-day Federal Republic: would a Kirchner or a Renoir be exhibited on Museumsterrasse like this today?
On 11 September we see young Leipzig photography students in a rowing boat on the stinking River Saale: a defiant predecessor to "We're staying here". One picture further and the river has reached Jena, later it will become the Elbe: a small family poses on a bourgeois sofa beneath a Dresden Canaletto scene and portraits of Hölderlin, Goethe and Thomas Müntzer. Uwe Tellkamp could not have composed this better himself.
But it is precisely this contrived image, the circumstances, the fact that these evidently randomly collected events personally selected by the participating photographers with such appropriate narration that give pause for thought. Is this a charming narrative bluff or the madness of historic coincidence?
The exhibition alternates between personal reminiscences and external experiences. Photographer Karin Wieckhorst describes how she obtained a rare artist's visa at the beginning of September and drives to Cologne in her Trabant. There the vehicle is damaged and repaired in a Porsche garage, of all places. An amusing tale that ultimate evolves into world-historic proportions: on 09 October Wieckhorst arrives back in Leipzig, 70,000 people are demonstrating there, over their heads hangs the threat that Leipzig could become a second Tiananmen Square.
One day later, in a photo by Peter Oehlmann a tourist hurries past the monoliths of Stonehenge - symbol of perpetuity - and looks at his watch: what is the rhythm of world time in these days?
Excursions to Bucharest, where Ceausescu is in the process of being deposed, or a photographic souvenir of the fall of the Wall by Wim Wenders - he contributed the image of the Australian termite mound - link the events to the rest of the world. Contributions from Regina Schmeken or Barbara Klemm underscore the claim of the exhibition of bringing together East and West, artistic and documentary sides.
The scenes that follow are those at the embassy in Prague, the dancing on the Wall, quiet astonishment and the beery bonhomie of unity. The exhibition comes to rest in a provincial setting. Whilst the pock-mocked Berlin Wall has long become a symbol of the reunification period, on the morning of New Year's Day 1990 photographer Alfred Seiland gazes upon the border town of Mödlareuth, a village idyll of church tower and meadow on the border between Thuringia and Franconia.
76 photographers, 76 views of that autumn, which changed two German states. Photographer Matthias Hoch best summarises this chorus of reminiscences. "Hundreds of thousands of people had one common goal," he writes. "It was fantastic, yet lasted for only a world second. After that the goals, wishes and expectations drifted far apart."