Remembrance is the keyword: The exhibition EAST (for the record) at the Leipzig Museum of Contemporary Art (GfZK)

Andreas Krase

Four rogues stand before the camera. Looking like they have just escaped from a camping ground, brushing the straw sheepishly from their hair: "Saalfahrt, canoeists – portrait with self-timer", 11 September 1989, a picture by Max Baumann. Next to the photographer stand Frank-Heinrich Müller, Thomas Wolf and Andreas Rost – almost the entire year of 1988 to graduate from the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts in photography. This image may be viewed as symptomatic for the entire project and it also has a particular affinity. Not only does it depict three authors and, with Frank-Heinrich Müller, the curator of the photographic section of the exhibition. It also offers a clear illustration that, even as the political turmoil in the GDR reached a boiling point, daily life went on apparently unaffected. The budding artists were working in the provincial backwaters, documenting historic settlement structures and industrial buildings. It was only later that this revealed itself to be a final pause in the historic process before the post-war era in this Germany came to a sudden end - and many of the structures so recently documented vanished.
Before the wheels of the history machine build up speed to mark the 20th anniversary of the "peaceful revolution" of 1989, a remarkable project sees the light of day in Leipzig: "EAST". Frank-Heinrich Müller has selected contributions from a total of 70 authors, with these charged with fulfilling two conditions: they were to have been taken at a clearly defined point in time between 01 August and 31 December 1989 and record a specific moment of personal reminiscence from the viewpoint of the photographer. The exhibition is the result of extensive research, undoubtedly a mammoth task requiring both energy and hard work. The project paper named a "Generation 40 +" for both target group and participants – a large number of them drawn from the photographic collection of Verbundnetz Gas AG overseen by Müller, as well as from his personal periphery. And yet, as far as content is concerned, the project extends beyond the regional confines, as it is not restricted to the territory of the former GDR: an example of extreme distance is provided by Wim Wenders, with his two photographs of one of the remotest regions in Australia.
Offering a somewhat different view on the autumn of a German revolution, the concept of the exhibition is oriented towards examples of history being written in authentic material, much like the "echo sounder" of Walter Kempowski. However, there is one general difference: the retrospective was consciously completed by the respective contributors themselves. The photographers were invited to unearth precisely those images that have not emerged as the iconography of this historic process. Although a number of these are present nonetheless - demonstration photos, images of the opening of borders and the subsequent migration from East to West are here in small numbers. The focus, however is upon photographs whose significance is based upon their having been taken at the time of these events, the special, private perspectives. "Even during the Nazi era we still had twelve asparagus seasons," wrote Max Goldt. Whilst history is made and subsequently takes the concrete form of significant occurrences, time deteriorates into myriad independent particles. Everyday, random events that are pictured may give rise to a lustre reflecting their incorporation into the historic process of transformation. In the exhibition this function is performed by the comments of the artists that accompany the images, written accounts of the circumstances in which the pictures came to be taken. However, this is not pursued to the point where the photographs serve the purpose of mere memory-inducing triggers. The presentation takes the form of an image-text alignment for mutual enhancement, although both levels of reflection also function independently of each other. A text booklet available at the exhibition enables readers to familiarise themselves with the recollections of others, with the photographs offering a visually disparate parcours through that time.
Chronologically arranged according to days and positioned according to a mathematical-looking principle, the photographs form random narrative patterns on the walls of the building in which they are exhibited. In turn, they construct a tale of their own, utilising the surrealist-poetic approach of a meeting of the unrelated.
The exhibition summarises the incredibly versatile process of far-reaching social transformation as experienced as a consequence of the peaceful revolution, a fractured image with different angles of refraction: a picture puzzle, although one with the capacity to expand the image-assisted collective memory of the events.