Posted December 12, 2013
Peter Oehlmann and Jens Rötzsch were two photographers best known for their controversial work in the German Democratic Republic during the late 1980s. Their projects focused on everyday life in the GDR before the fall of the Berlin Wall, which culminated in the September 1988 exhibition, Protokoll-Strecken: Bilder aus dem gesellschaftlichen Leben (Protocol-Areas: Images from Societal Life), at the gallery Eigen+Art in Leipzig. The title of this exhibition is significant because it plays on the compound noun Protokollstrecken, a highly bureaucratic term describing the artificially beautified area, usually thronged with waving children and tightly controlled by The Ministry for State Security (STASI), which foreign state guests passed by on official visits to East Berlin. Once hyphenated, the term Protokoll-Strecken became a satirical and nonsensical inversion of GDR bureaucracy as it revealed the desperate attempt to project the image of a functioning state apparatus.
Oehlmann’s black and white series of photographs Graulandbilder (Grey-Land-Images) are a visual condemnation of ‘real socialism’ in crisis and a depressing representation of boredom and repetitiveness in the GDR. Although Rötzsch’s bright and colourful photographs create a visual contrast to Oehlmann’s work, this contrast only elevates the impression that both artists consider the GDR to be a farcical and redundant entity. It is, however, not individual images that explicitly criticize the state. Rather, it is the exhibition as a whole, the series of photographs by the two artists in close vicinity and in contrast to each other that creates not an explicit but an implicit criticism of contemporary life in the GDR.
Since government officials nervously observed any signs of social dissent in preparation for the annual trade fair in Leipzig, the Volkspolizei, or the People’s Police, visited Oehlmann and Rötzsch’s exhibition before the opening. As none of the images explicitly attacked the regime, the censors could not object to the exhibition, which consequently became extremely popular. In this regard, the semi-legitimate status of the gallery Eigen+Art is significant. The name of the gallery itself is a double entendre, which can be translated as ‘an individual’s art’ and ‘strange’. Established in 1985, Eigen+Art was able to circumvent tight government control by actually establishing itself as a workshop that artists from the artists’ association VBK could rent for an agreed fee. Although aware of this loophole, state security apparatuses were not able to suppress the emergence of a ‘second culture’ that thrived on playful, satirical and subtly subversive representations of the GDR.
Marco Bohr is a photographer, academic and researcher in visual culture, who currently holds a position as Lecturer in Visual Communication at Loughborough University. His publications appear in a number of edited volumes on film, photography and visual culture, including: The Contemporary Visual Studies Reader, Frontiers of Screen History, On Perfection (ed. Longhurst), the book series Directory of World Cinema and the book series World Film Locations. Marco is on the editorial board for the forthcoming journal East Asian Journal of Popular Culture. In 2013 Marco was awarded a Japan Foundation Fellowship for his ongoing research on the photographic representation of post-tsunami landscapes.