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The first excursions to East Berlin, 1981

Brief description of the influence of the fact time stood still
in the area surrounding West Berlin during the eighties on the people living there.

By Stefan Hoenerloh

The idea of a utopia was at an early stage the engine behind various attempts to conceive new systems of society. As an artist, one naturally concerns oneself with the creation of alternative worlds and theoretical models. In the seventies, the idea of alternative world models was the basis for all manner of challenging concepts.

Whoever came to West Berlin in 1980 found oneself enclosed on all sides by a zone called the GDR which had surprising similarities with several films and ideas which were important at the time and which could be again today, due to the distance achieved through the passage of time.
It was a utopia which had stalled, one which had morphed into a warped reality.
Thus a certain similarity existed with the artistic alternative world of the 1970s.

It is, of course, sacrilege to describe the GDR as a work of art but it actually did meet the strict definition of one on many points. In the sense of questioning reality as in a 1967 Bruce Naumann work, ”The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” the entire area was an apparently stage managed environment, a piece of object art in the tradition of a Marcel Duchamps. It is, naturally, cavalier and even inhuman to use such words in this context but time does trample over everything. After many centuries, only fragmented knowledge will remain and the fates of individuals will be no longer important. Therefore, one may attempt, today, to view the whole course of events from the outside.

It is a fact that the GDR was a dictatorship the utility or futility or which is sufficiently discussed elsewhere. However, its role as a work of art is not, normally, considered. Such an idea is certainly taboo.

As a decadent person of sorts (in 1980 nearly all "Westlers", as West Berliners were known, were decadent, as they were able for the most part to afford a certain tranquillity due to pleasant living conditions and low costs) a trip to the GDR at the time was something of a museum visit. Many things had been preserved which in the west had been destroyed for commercial, economic reasons, there was an entry fee to be paid (the obligatory currency exchange) and one had to leave the country (the museum) when evening came. If we disregard for a moment the people who were forced to inhabit this museum, as such a viewpoint cannot otherwise be expounded further without predictable resistance, then it was a world of peculiar time periods where the clock turned at an irregular pace.

It was halted advancement; an endeavour to stop time. This was not necessarily the intention but an unavoidable fact. Economics and usage relations seemed not to play a role which led to curious incongruities. This fascinating thing was created by the strictness of the illustration; by the separation. The lack of advertising, the renovation or non-renovation of the buildings by street and the colourlessness bear forth a uniformity as no longer exists anywhere today. A completely unrenovated street with the original paintwork from 1905 has an unusual connection and seems composed, almost monolithic. Just as in a theatre set, nearly all visible parts of the city stand side by side, similar both in colour and shape.

Just like a forest, in which no tree bark is painted pink but everything runs its course, in which decay and renewal have their place, East Berlin was an apparently naturally formed collection of stones, more like rocks in a canyon.
The plinth area was blackened by traffic dirt and the upper floors white washed by the rain, resembling as such a tree trunk covered in moss which no one would ever dare clean off. Just like no-one would paint or sweep out the Grand Canyon, the East Berlin buildings stood like cliff faces flanking the city streets.
Today, however, they have been robbed of their grandeur through an aniline colour, degraded to the level of Lego blocks of which one can no longer distinguish top from bottom. They are functional entities, uniformly coloured and divested of any period influences. Bullet holes have been plastered over and any traces of former residents have been carefully erased. The information collected on a wall over time can no longer tell a story. It is on a par with a library fire.

Today’s colour does not wash out over time, it stays the same uniform colour until the day it is painted over once more. This process may be witness in Rome where the famous chalk colours of Trastevere are being replaced, piece by piece by globalised, European, standard colours. These do not change their shade, this time is now over.
The 365 churches of Rome have been sand blasted, the Pantheon has been sliced up like a cake with each piece renovated differently as no agreement could be reached on which historic colour should be given preference.

One can see, therefore, that it is a process which is not unique to Berlin.
However, just as people are now realising that woods need to be renaturised and primeval forests recreated (a thoroughly modern idea prevalent everywhere) one will later come to regret that 100 year old building colour was ruthlessly destroyed.
Just as one laments the disappearance of the old timber-frame houses in West Germany and the stripping away of stucco in Berlin in the 1950s, one will in future come to recognise that the original period covering is worthy of preservation; as important as pictures in museums or statues in the park. With these works of art, no one is offended by the patina green on copper - so why the objection to patina on buildings?


East Berlin demonstrated a certain similarity with the "Zone" described by the brothers Arakadi and Boris Strugatzki in their book, "Roadside Picnic" which was the subject of Tarkowskij's film, "Stalker". Photography in East Berlin was not without its risks but represented a treasure of separation. Nothing was in the way, no cars, hardly any people, nothing awfully colourful.

Awfully colourful you ask? Why would colourful be so awful? Quite simply: in nature, colourful is something special, not the majority. A flower only blooms temporarily and in certain places. Most of the human realm is relatively brown, colourless and seldom gaudy. This is, therefore, the very nature, which we strive to preserve, yet whose progress we mourn. Why do we not lament the progress of natural colours? Because we are afraid – afraid of nature. Having conquered nature, we want to see it as being tamed, packed in boxes, regulated. We would like to have wolves once more but in a clean cage, please.

This slow change in people’s thinking, starting with the total defeat of nature by the Romans through deforestation through the Villa d’Este where plant cover was partially included in the planning phase, the ordered garden of Ludwig 14th to the unsymmetrical English garden and the now modern, apparent weed garden, found a corresponding process in the architecture and treatment of the surfaces.

What was earlier considered abject, later became stylish. Hence, one can predict with some certainty that the time induced elegance of the buildings of 1980s East Berlin, would be considered museum worthy exhibits several decades from now. Too late, of course.

The overabundance of colours in today’s society, the increased saleability of an object through heightened colour contrast in its design, has led to a shift in what one is used to seeing. Film producers have increased the contrast of their films before they even leave the studio, monitors and printers also do this, a general race for more colour is in force. This is of course not with reflection as taken literally, this treats people as idiots. Only the feeble-minded (of weak senses) require extreme colours in order to recognise something. As such, we are treated like blunted sheep who must be assaulted with radical colours in order to react at all. This is clearly apparent in the ever increasing brightness of the rear lights of cars: one is deemed insensitive so that it is necessary to assault us with light.

In this sense, the GDR was a sensitive state, with low rear lights and fine, tiny signs. Searching and finding was made more difficult and required a higher degree of attentiveness.
In contrast, today’s global state oligarchies seem insensitive and purely economically oriented. The rule of the few (in our case, the companies) has created a society in which the small but wonderful things have no place any more.
Even the brown and natural colours will only reclaim its place slowly; only when the next generation notices that what is being allowed to happen today cannot be the be all and end all.
There was indeed an alternative.


Just as the asymmetrical, wild, natural gardens are becoming modern, future generations will discover that the excess contrast, the monochromacity (homogeneity) and the overly clean surfaces are not actually natural at all.
Only the sky is one-colour, otherwise nothing else in nature.
However, this view requires outriders who enable such things to be recognised.
In this sense, the GDR was also a didactic work of art which enabled us to make certain discoveries. The feeling there was thus similar to the exotic experience of entering a natural history museum. What will we see at the next corner, what will we find in the next cabinet?
The discussion has now not been able to proceed, we have to wait for a new generation.

A generation which hopefully understands that the purely economic considerations of a society are not enough to recreate our affinity with nature. This starts, for example, with the jeans: washed out is now seen as positive. But some time will elapse before we have forward thinking property owners. It is noticeable that advertising likes using rusty old petrol stations, worn and dirty brick walls and crumbling buildings as a backdrop for their models. A setting which hardly exists any more. But why do such developments not occur in the case of individuals in their personal lives? It will evidently take a while for the feeling of composition and choice of colours take precedence over heterogenous surfaces; where the walls are not only punctuated in pubs and cafes but also externally.

In this respect, the GDR was a work of art by accident. But no one wanted it.

The pictures of Stefan Hoenerloh never show anything which actually existed in East Berlin by way of distance from real events. The only imply that in the slow pace of life in those times, there was an idea which is being hotly debated today: slowing the pace of life. This leads to the suspicion that if there had been no outside, if the GDR had been located on an isolated planet, it could have been capable of surviving. There would have been no wall, and no secret police if there had not been an outside world. Only in the constant struggle with the oligarchy, emerging at the time, did the system lose and surround its citizens with hostility. However, in principle, it was a slower form of society in which technical development was in step with the comprehension of right-minded people; the opposite of today's uprooting, where museum exhibits are only appreciated for their marketing value.

Berlin 2009