How German Is It?
The Reconstruction Of A Nation's Identity Enters Artistic Debate In A New Show At Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art.
By Margaret Regan
JULY 19, 1999: IN BERLIN LATELY, architecture is the big question. The government of a reunified Germany is removing itself from Bonn to Berlin, the grand old capital whose buildings are a mix of old Empire grandeur and World War II rubble, of Nazi pretension and Communist numbness. There is no end of opinions of what to do with them. Is it enough to install a new transparent dome on the German Reichstag, the place where Hitler launched his regime, to convert it to a democratic seat of government? Can the Communist people's palace, a monument to totalitarian bureaucracy, be retooled for a government that will, one hopes, be more responsive to the people?
The raging debate among Germans about how architecture reflects history and shapes mentality is described in an article in the July 5 New Yorker by European correspondent Jane Kramer. As she puts it, "The irony of (Nazi architect) Albert Speer's legacy is that Berliners seem finally to believe in the power of architecture as much as he didäThey like the transparency of the Reichstag domeäbecause they think it will somehow guarantee that openness and democracy thrive in the Reichstag."
The right buildings, Germans are hoping, will correlate to a new German identity that's still in the making.
Interestingly, a number of the artists in the German show at Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art here in Tucson are similarly preoccupied. Curated by Artforum critic Yilmaz Dziewior, who lives in the art center of Cologne, Who, If Not We? offers up a sampling of works from six young German artists. They use the expected range of new materials (from video and photography to children's colored markers and men's handkerchiefs) and they deal with a number of themes, but the ways in which the built environment entwines with culture comes up as a subject again and again.
Gregor Schneider has the most ominous take. He's been building false spaces inside his apartment ever since he was a teenager. He constructs rooms within rooms, leaving creepy, narrow corridors between the new and the old walls. He pushes for verisimilitude, installing electrical outlets in the new walls and plastering them to make them more "real." He cuts windows into the new interior walls, too, and positions lamps beyond them to mimic the effects of natural light.
Schneider lets the outside world in on his secret space through photographs and video. Three color photographs reveal the rooms to be dingy and gray; and with their overpowering corners and walls and ceilings, they're more claustrophobic jail cell than the grand "guestroom" of their title. In the 26-minute video, "Nacht-Video, Haus ur, Rheydt," the rooms are empty of people, and cameraman Schneider is unseen as well. The only sound as Schneider rushes the video camera through the claustrophobic spaces is the loud stomping of his feet.
The camera has an immense amount of power. It knows all and sees all: none of the nooks or crannies is safe from its gaze. It journeys relentlessly, quickly, everywhere in the apartment, examining the known outer rooms, the new inner spaces and the interstices between them.
The piece touches on issues of technology and privacy, fear and safety, even what's real and what's not. But given its German origin, "Nacht-Video" suggests a specific narrative. It's almost impossible for an American viewer of this disturbing work not to think of Anne Frank's Secret Annex, that famous suite of rooms concealed within an Amsterdam office building; or to think, more generally, of all the hiding places uncovered during the Nazi reign of terror. Schneider's tramping feet make the same sounds we imagine Jews in hiding could hear in the moments before they were found. They had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, from an all-powerful government.
The tumult over the meaning of architecture in contemporary Germany suggests other interpretations as well. Whether intended or not, Schneider's strange assemblage of rooms-within-rooms can be read as a parable of contemporary Germany's search for an identity embodied in bricks and mortar. Will a refurbished building always be rotten at its core, corrupted by a history of terror and concealment? Perhaps every new place, like Schneider's rooms, is bound to be contained by the past?
Kai Althoff's "Ettore," a childlike drawing made with felt-tip pen on paper, seems at first glance infinitely more cheerful than Schneider's "Haus ur." Althoff has used a cheery storybook style of drawing, and his colors are a joyous palette of orange, green and pink, like a children's book printed in a limited number of colors to save money.
A medieval house presides in the background of this six-panel story: its pointed roof and thatching reside in the Germany of fairy tales. True to the genre, a magical golden snowflake tumbles from the sky, but like all fairy tales the story moves slowly toward fear. Against a progressively darkening background, a child is separated from a group, a man narrowly eyes a little girl, a boy snatches her away. The fairy tale house may represent a romantic idyll in the German past, but its underpinnings are as dark as Grimm, as real as the witch hunts of the Middle Ages.
Tobias Rehberger constructs architectural spaces out of bright colors too, but his are without malice. He tears shapes out of colored paper and glues them to his surfaces in painterly fashion, adding deft drawings in pencil. "Museum" is a jaunty piece in bright yellow and green papers, a new museum perhaps kindly disposed to the new materials of contemporary art. Manfred Pernice makes collages of the three-dimensional variety: they're consumerist sculptures made from coffee jars and candy boxes. More interesting are the drawings that seem to serve as architectural renderings for these gentle critiques of consumption. They're fine line drawings interspersed with colored pictures torn from magazines.
Cosima von Bonin deconstructs what we might call the architecture of gender. She stitches homely men's handkerchiefs into patchwork quilts, the quintessentially female craft. The handkerchiefs are all in brown plaids (read male), a marked contrast to the usual rambunctious colors and patterns of crazy quilts (female). Von Bonin is aiming for a humorous paradox here and a mild poke at gender stereotypes, but her work is also full of affection for the kind of men who carried handkerchiefs like these. They're dying now, these men who came back from the war, loved women, fathered children, went to work and rebuilt a shattered world. The architecture of their lives, like their handkerchiefs, may have been plain, but it was sturdy and honest, a fine model for any reconstruction project at all.
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