Der große Schwof
Feste feiern im Osten. Von der Stadt aufs Land
Tina Bara, Christiane Eisler, Gerhard Gäbler, Harald Hirsch, Jürgen Hohmuth, Bertram Kober, Werner Lieberknecht, Ute Mahler, Olaf Martens, Roger Melis, Florian Merkel, Barbara Metselaar Berthold, Andreas Rost, Jens Rötzsch, Maria Sewcz, Gabriele Stötzer
“Historians have found that in all cultures 30 to 40 years form an epochal wave because this is where communicative memory begins to transform into cultural memory.”
Partying, dancing, drinking: “Schwofen” has always been considered a welcome outlet for pent-up energy. People meet spontaneously or organized, in private or unofficial, often specially created places. Every country and every society has recognizable characteristics. Even and especially under restrictive conditions like in the GDR.
This exhibition is a photographic celebration of remembrance: a carefree way of celebrating in a country that no longer exists. About its lively subculture, which gives an image of its inner state – beyond all clichés.
Celebrate celebrations: Photographers tell stories of their generation. Their images range from exclusive, even anarchic clubs to private bohemians and everyday niches to the stiff rituals of official state celebrations, from rural communities and traditional customs to the urban party scene. While things might have been a bit more exquisite and less cordial, at least at the beginning, everyone was usually in each other’s arms at the end.
All 31 artists involved in this show were born in eastern Germany, 26 studied at the Hochschule für Graphik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, seven left the GDR, six are no longer alive. None of them have a carefree, unbroken biography.
In the texts that accompany the photographs shown, they themselves provide insights into their lives, their artistic views and the situations in which their pictures were created. As part of this exhibition, you can also see films in German with detailed interviews: eleven artists report on their specific living and working conditions.
Beyond all the clichés of the gray East, the presentations in Cottbus and Frankfurt (Oder) show a most surprising piece of everyday culture – lively, colorful and surprisingly diverse. While the exhibition in the Dieselkraftwerk Cottbus focuses on ironic observations on the sidelines of official state events, the exhibition part in the Rathaushalle Frankfurt (Oder) looks at festivals in the village and in the city.
“Der große Schwof – Feste feiern im Osten”: The exhibition is more than a museum document of remembrance. It brings together photographers who were among the best and most famous in the GDR. The quality of their work deserves attention, preservation and dissemination across borders – as an important, often underestimated part of our common culture. And that should be celebrated here. Enjoy yourself!
My selection for the exhibition includes recording situations from real celebrations: a music festival where a PUNK band was playing, an emigrant wedding party on our farm and the day I ate hashish cookies for the first and last time.
But the meetings to photograph the body images were also a kind of „celebration“ for me… a concentrated state of exception, a parallel world to „real“ life. Overall, everything had to do with feeling the body differently, being in a certain rebelliousness and exciting ecstasy. FIXED is also a contrast to letting go… society was tight and rigid and the images refer to the desire to break out of it…
Photography captures something, but also lets it go – for an open story.
Tina Bara, 2023
Party at Rudi’s
On the afternoon of November 13, 1982, in the Berlin sleet, I walked with Rudi across the coal yard where he was employed as a woodworker and was supposed to split wood. I wanted to photograph him at work, in contrast to the evening party, I wanted to portray him in his work environment and with his colleagues without like-minded people. The coffee break marked the end of work and so I had a good opportunity to photograph the punks who had arrived earlier than expected during their preparations – the mice were fed again, their hair was done and the ripped trousers were also repaired. The apartment was filled with punks who had arrived, the music got louder and when the fun was about to start, it was already over. Men in green uniforms had arrived and ended the party, personal details were taken and two were picked out, who were also taken to the station and who only returned hours later with blue wrists. The rest were sent home, not without pointing out that the incident would be reported to the relevant authorities in their home towns. I was assured that there would be a report to my university.
I was later able to read in my Stasi documents that we were 34 people from all districts of the country and one person from West Berlin, aged between 16 and 25 and dressed in a punk look.
Christiane Eisler, 2017
Giving a pictorial expression to my attitude to life under the conditions of actually existing socialism served as a means of escaping the paralysis that arose from the powerlessness of being at the mercy of this system for an indefinite period of time.
Hope for change grew after the peaceful Monday demonstration on October 9, 1989.
However, the freedom gained in the process of social upheaval was also accompanied by disillusionment for many people.
Thomas Kumlehn about Harald Hirsch
Harald Hirsch exhibits his photographs almost simultaneously in Halle and Berlin. However, the more direct selection can be seen in the “Am Weinberg” gallery (Halle): Here it remains just a series. The conventional character of this report serves the artistic purpose. Years of research resolved the ideological view of May Day. After all, Hirsch is not a trained press photographer. He did not want to accept the disciplined reality of reality from the outset. The psychological moments inherent in the organized process fascinate him.
The demonstration has no history and no future in Hirsch’s photographs. The ambivalence of timelessness and authentic content creates the tension of the performances photographed. From May Day in Germany in 1890 to May Day in the Soviet occupation zone in 1946, not only did a lot of time pass, but the attitudes of the organizers and participants also changed significantly. The anti-attitude became pro-attitude when it came to domestic politics; However, the internationalist banners remained intact and were effective. The photographs also contain the emotional temperatures of the young people who were “anticipated” at the beginning of the history of the GDR.
I rarely discover a specific time in a specific room in the series of images, although Hirsch is proven to have been present at May Day for three years.
The vital beginnings of the “standard bearers of many hopes” are over. Longings that could be formulated subjectively gave way to limited, objective solutions. Being seen on the marching block is at least as important as being there. Hirsch confronts my knowledge of history with the current situation. Perception and concept apply equally. Stereotypical thinking falls through the sieve of social development.
In the catalog of the Potsdam district art exhibition in 1989, I wrote about Harald Hirsch: “If you compare the “Flag Bearer” as a single image with the “First of May” series, created since 1985, to which it undoubtedly belongs, all I notice in the catalog is the icy seriousness of someone asserting people to their place. With its multifaceted expressive values, the series confirms to me the fatal dualism of what is significant and what is meant.”
published in: Fine Arts. Magazine for painting, sculpture, graphics and book art, applied arts and crafts, No. 7/1989, Berlin, p. 14
CCD – chic, charmant und dauerhaft (chic, charming and durable)
At the beginning of the 1980s, a “loose association with an anarchist character” (Stasi original sound) came together in East Berlin for the opening of an exhibition with photos and self-sewn clothes. Thrown together by a shared interest in wild life and the otherwise limited possibilities, creativity exploded and great fashion performances were celebrated with the audience. Virtually everyone knew someone who could and wanted to contribute something, regardless of whether it was self-designed, sewn, glued or knitted clothes or gold hairspray, fake jewelry, real wigs, spotlights, stage equipment, sound equipment or artificial fog – in a society of scarcity, everything was needed. Anyone who was exalted and extroverted enough was allowed on stage. Diversity was a given for us, but unimaginably provocative for the officials and Stasi officials watching. As a co-organizer of these spectacles, I, as a photographer, helped create my own exotic world of motifs without jumping over the wall. Every performance was unique, boredom and mainstream were not tolerated, the motto was:
“NEW YORK IS WHERE WE ARE!”
No matter whether in the apartment of the photographer Helga Paris, in the youth club of the Berlin State Museums, the HdjT (House of Young Talents), the Berlin Ratskeller or in the Association of Visual Artists, we celebrated and were celebrated.
Frank, my friend and master carpenter, acquired the former town estate of Markranstädt near Leipzig in the mid-1980s and thus saved it from decay.
This time a private concert was organized by DEKAdance from Dresden for the annual summer party on August 26, 1989. As a preliminary program, Frank, his roommates and friends had rehearsed a special cabaret number.
They presented pieces from original songbooks by the FDJ and SED. The litany of propaganda songs was so exaggerated and distorted into the absurd that a liberating laugh filled the room. There were also guests that no one knew. But at this point, a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, this no longer had any consequences for those involved.
The carnival photos were taken in the mid-1980s at the Dresden Art Academy.
The carnival was considered legendary back then. There were already famous juggler festivals in the 1920s.
The walls were hung with strips of paper and sometimes painted illusionistically. Those were the years of the big wave of people leaving Dresden. Accordingly, the moment was celebrated. The loss of a friend or acquaintance could happen any day.
The painting departments as well as stage design and make-up design certainly played a role in the opulence of the festival.
At that time I worked at the photophysics department at the TU Dresden and at the same time photographed the children’s street carnival, as well as celebrated and photographed at the art school. I only enlarged the photos in black and white, although they were exposed on ORWO Color and only made color scans of them last year.
UM: 1988 assignment from the publication “Das Magazin”: This was the first time I heard that there was striptease in the GDR. I found the idea of going on stage and taking your clothes off strange. The editorial team had given me dates for events, which we then attended. I then took some more photos beyond that, the topic had started to interest me and I wanted to take more pictures about it.
IT: Were there any problems when you pointed the camera at people? After all, you photographed not only the people on stage, but also those who were consuming the performances.
UM: No, not at all. But the atmosphere wasn’t the least bit wicked: the performances took place in bars, discos or in places like the Kulturpalast in Karl-Marx-Stadt, where classical concerts were usually given.
This had an effect; the rooms were bright and functional. And the strippers, who had no real dance training, presented themselves in a naive, almost touching way. It seemed likeable, but sometimes unprofessional. Especially when dancing in a group with male bodybuilders, the movements were rarely synchronous. What I found remarkable, however, was the audience, who were very happy and relaxed about it. Mostly it was a diverse crowd, men, women, couples, joking and laughing – not at the women on stage, but with each other. That also seemed almost naive. The events sometimes had something of a cultural program with naked people.
Ute Mahler in an interview with Ingo Taubhorn
Roger Melis, four citations
“For me, photography was rarely about capturing a special, unrepeatable moment. The moment that I kept trying to track down was the one in which the special, the extraordinary, the accidental falls away from people and things and they reveal their essence, their peculiarity.
“Perhaps the real adventure of life is not to seek out the unknown, but to find one’s way into the known. I find the truth of the unsensational exciting.”
“I have always seen my most important task as creating haunting images of people, if possible in their natural living and working environment, and not stealing their soul, but rather approaching them carefully with – I deliberately choose the antiquated word – Reverence for the individual, which everyone deserves.”
“The job situation was always such that I didn’t have to conform to other people’s standards, and that was the crucial thing for me. I was and still am responsible for every picture I published. I was able to live up to my own standards and, in a sense, my entire existence was in service only to myself. Not forgetting the dark side, I can certainly describe my way of working in the dark idyll of the GDR as romantic.”
“Nemo” was the motto of the 1983 Leipzig HGB carnival, for which the entire accessible university building was traditionally decorated. The second year of study turned the basement into a submarine, while the ocean lapped in the atrium. The photographers Jens Rötzsch, Reinhard Münch and Florian Merkel portrayed the happy crew and took photos of each other, while several painters provided support with textiles and stylistic advice. Jens made slides from the photographs, which he painted over in color and projected into the atrium. The black and white prints were painted by the painting class on the walls of the submarine facility.
Barbara Metselaar Berthold
Celebrations in East Berlin 1980-84
There weren’t that many meeting points in the other Germany. In the smaller towns it was relatively clear: people ran into each other almost every day. The rituals were fixed. The evening belonged to one or two bars whose favor had not yet been lost. Everyone knows everything about the other. That includes help, but also narrowness.
Things were a little different in East Berlin. The “scene” was not so easy to understand, not so clearly structured; If you were new to the city, access was rather difficult. Once accepted, however, we saw each other at lunchtime in the espresso “Unter den Linden” and in the evening at “Fengler”, in the “Wiener Café”, in “Mosaik” – until it was inevitably closed due to urgent renovations, in the hope that Circles may fragment. In any case, there were still some non-private trading points for information and heartbreak. It is not uncommon for us to feel tired of seeing the same faces and similar stories every day – often presented under the auspices of who knows the worst and tells it in the most amusing way. Sarcasm instead of change. Collective powerlessness, made bearable.
Inevitably, the question arose about the party at the weekend, the island in boredom and aloneness – which many people almost compulsively headed for. So there was usually a celebration. And the dancing begins with the Stones at the latest. It’s easier than talking. Drink anyway. For a shorter or longer period of time you felt so comfortable, so young and so close to others. Keywords are enough if you have known each other for ten years; the reference system was clear. A secure emotional base, nothing bad could happen that night.
It was necessary to defend oneself against the overwhelming, expanding gray of every single day. This is how a “neon festival”, a “tropical festival” came about. A touch of exoticism, a touch of decadence, but most of all the longing for the flight away. The exuberance didn’t always go against the grain. Private problems descended on the individuals and, with increasing alcohol consumption, out of them. Maybe even then it was still better to be comforted in a celebrating crowd than alone in the dreaded four walls.
At midnight, at 1.30 a.m. at the latest, there was the inevitable turning point: “West” said goodbye and drove towards the border. Until next time… Sometimes only half was left behind. Both parties were disillusioned. After that, the unnecessary discussions about going or staying began again. It led to no result – of course not. But the reality of the schizophrenic city had broken in again, right in the middle of the tropics.
Barbara Metselaar Berthold
It is often coincidences that lead to unusual events, and sometimes events are only recorded through an unlikely coincidence. When I asked the photographer Andreas Rost how he came up with the idea of documenting the Leipzig pageant in February 1990 and whether he had to pay the unimaginably high entrance fee of 300 DM, he replied:
“Yes, people who know me well wonder how it came about that I took part in a pageant. My lack of appreciation for anything fashionable is well known and as a young revolutionary in the winter of 1990 I hardly had any time for pop cultural events. But even a pageant at that time still needed the façade of high culture and Wolfgang Leonhard provided that in Leipzig. Word had gotten around to the Round Table that the famous author would be visiting the city. I was curious about this legendary person and I wanted to meet him. The scene I found in the Hotel MERKUR was so overwhelming in its misery that I quickly forgot Wolfgang Leonhard. Just like the photos I took of him.”
From an interview by Jan Wenzel with Andreas Rost in “Uncovering the Year 1990”, Spector Books, p. 114
Leipzig at the end of July 1987, friends and acquaintances fled the city. Over 100,000 “guests” have announced themselves. Nobody knew that it would be the last gymnastics and sports festival in the GDR. I had just inherited two collection albums of cigarette pictures “The 1936 Olympic Games”. In addition to Leni Riefenstahl’s films “Triumph of the Will” from the Reich Party Day trilogy 1933-1935 and her “Olympia” films from 1938, these were the impetus for me to deal with this visual and formal language, to quote and interpret it. After visual models initially influenced my work, literary ones were later added, such as “Mass and Power” by Elias Canetti or the essay “The Ornament of the Mass” by Siegfried Kracauer.
“With Syberberg pathos and Technicolor, exaggerated by flash and long exposure, the shadows of the Greater German past become visible like a ghost. … A different flag, a new spirit, is unmistakably blowing here; But the penchant for monumental stage magic and the rituals of mass summoning remains unbroken. A picture of the twilight of German history.”
(Peter Sager on “Jens Rötzsch – The Magnificent Republic”, ZEITmagazin No. 14/1989)
The insensitivity and low color stability of the films, whether ORWO, Agfa or Fuji, led me to work with flash even in daylight. Over time, this developed into a design tool that, among other things, gave me the desired effect of flat colors, similar to classic comics. The aim was to structure the “talkativeness of the color”. In addition to the use of 6 x 6 medium format cameras, which gave me the dissecting wealth of detail, the use of color negative films as opposed to color reversal (slide) films gave me the opportunity to make necessary corrections in exposure and color in the photo laboratory. I didn’t take any excerpts from the original recording, as the original negative edge shows. My goal was always the single image, not a report.
My photographic works are determined by the reaction to material and movement-emphasized constellations and the resulting intuitive image creation. I tried to break away from a photograph that describes reality, from a documentary understanding of the medium, in order to offer multiple possibilities for association. The close view, the hard-cut detail and spatial overlaps are elements of the exciting composition.
Maria Sewcz, Berlin 1988
when i was released back to the gdr in january 1978 after a year in prison because of my political commitment and also against the expatriation of the critical singer wolf biermann, i said to myself – now you go into art, you won’t be arrested immediately. i didn’t know what i was going to do, but i needed time. i had no intention of giving up, but knew that i needed allies to survive in this socialist dictatorship. i took over a private gallery in 1980 and bought an exa 1 b camera for the invitations that i sent out on document paper. in 1981, the gallery was liquidated by the stasi, which at the time saw all self-organizing groups as hostile to the state. the stasi called this decomposing, as they wanted to “unnerve, isolate, and make their subject feel lonely and even commit suicide” down to the most personal level. at that time, i had the “toxin” operation, that is, a secret procedure that was supposed to put me back in prison for anti-state agitation, running against me.
when i started making photo series with women, expressing injuries through their bodies and starting to search for female archetypes against the centuries-long silence, the ims (unofficial employees of the stasi) who surrounded me called me psychopathic. women were used as muses or mattresses, but did not make themselves the object and subject of art. the underground scene at the time, in which i was the only one able to publish my texts or show super 8 films, were mostly men who stigmatized me as a feminist. that’s why i built my own foundation. these were the punks in erfurt who presented themselves as public objects from 1982 onwards. they occupied a house on kürschnergasse in erfurt, where music was made, sewn, painted and exhibited. in 1984, i founded an artist group with other women in which we made films, fashion object shows and performances and repeatedly went into public. we held a joint exhibition there in 1986, which was also liquidated by the stasi. none of the women were with the stasi. we set an example for other women’s groups in erfurt, which formed the “women for change” in 1989 and were the initiators of the first occupation of the stasi in erfurt. everything else is history.
Gabriele Stötzer 09/05/2023