»The not-fitting is my starting point.«

Elske Rosenfeld, Hugging Angela Davies, Still image, 2020. © Elske Rosenfeld

For some time now, artist Elske Rosenfeld has been exploring dissident politics and artistic practices in the former GDR and the period around 1989/90. Her work features simultaneously in two exhibition projects at the nGbK, both on view during Berlin Art Week. We spoke with Rosenfeld about US civil rights activist Angela Davis and the power of embrace, about historiography and depots, about dissidence, dissonance, gaps in funding policy and the problem with the word ›collective‹.

Your work ›Hugging Angela Davis‹ is included in ›Neues Deutschland‹, an exhibition on view during Berlin Art Week at the nGbK’s station urbaner kulturen in Hellersdorf. Originally created for an exhibition in Dresden, the work explores Angela Davis’s 1972 visit to the GDR as a Black civil rights activist and communist from the US. What did Davis represent in East Germany?

Authorities in the US imprisoned Davis in 1970 on suspicion of terrorism. The result was a number of solidarity campaigns for her release, most notably in the Eastern Bloc and East Germany in particular. These campaigns were apparently first initiated by the population; the state seized on it afterwards and moved quickly to spearhead the campaign. After all, support for a person like Davis was a convenient way to appeal to a younger generation whose lived reality was moving further and further away from what was endorsed by the state. Davis toured a number of Eastern European countries after her release to thank them for their support. One of them was the GDR. The GDR government under Erich Honecker was keen to make use of Davis’s ability to mobilise people. Clever as that may have been, it proved to be a double-edged sword for a controlling state like the GDR. Because doing something like that also stirs up emotions—enthusiasm, identification, interest, solidarity—that are at the same time uncontrollable. Things always get out of hand. So instead of the expected 3,000 people turning up at Schönefeld Airport to greet Davis, it was 50,000.


Your work is specifically about a GDR woman who—contrary to protocol—hugged Davis in the city centre, is that right?

Exactly. There was a strict protocol for the visit. The first rows were supposed to be occupied by members of the Free German Youth (FDJ), of course, but Erika Berthold, that was the woman’s name, got there in time with her pram and simply waited. That’s how this embrace came about. It was completely unplanned. But I was also interested in this encounter between the two women beyond the breach of protocol. My work deals a lot with the history of dissidence—and that means with a project that does not fundamentally reject the socialist project but wants to improve it through criticism. Erika Berthold herself came from a family of functionaries but distanced herself from the party when she met the son of Robert Havemann, a very well-known GDR dissident, and started a family with him. The two lived together in Kommune 1 Ost. But Angela Davis is also an ambivalent figure, at least for Eastern Europeans: while a member of the Stalinist-oriented Communist Party of the USA on the one hand, her biography as a Black woman was at odds with the official narrative of state socialism. The embrace of the two is where these differently fractured political desires and movements collide.


What interests you about these kinds of physical gestures?

Physical gestures can often express things that could not be said in the verbal paradigms of the day. There was a huge potential for conflict between these two people. Berthold, for example, was denounced by the Stalinist communists who courted Davis; there is also the matter of a white woman’s projections onto a Black one. I found it very beautiful that this whole, stubborn complex of problems and conflicts found expression in a gesture of embrace, a proposal coming from the body. Had the same sentiment been expressed in words, it probably would have been rather grating. But it becomes possible in this embrace, if only for a brief moment.

Elske Rosenfeld, Hugging Angela Davies, Installation, 2020. © Elske Rosenfeld

Would you say this is a recurring element in your work, to seek out breaks or discontinuities in supposedly unambiguous accounts and to complicate stories that tend to favour a seamless narrative? Would you characterise that as a way of working?

I couldn’t call it »seeking out«. For me, the discontinuities are more of a starting point. I find myself always at points that don’t neatly fit into the stories that are usually told. This is especially true of my experience of the years 1989/90—the question of what kind of political moment we are dealing with here and how little it can be grasped—both in discourses on the GDR and in terms of the so-called ›reunification‹. I find many of these narratives to be contradictory, which in turn leads me to topics and materials that can be used to put this dissonance in concrete terms. The ›not-fitting‹ is always my starting point.


You are also involved in another nGbK project on view during Berlin Art Week: the exhibition ›… oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende‹, which deals with methods and motifs developed in the former GDR that have became illegible in the post-1990 German cultural system. What are these methods and motifs? Is it possible to name them?

We just noticed that there is now a new generation of younger artists who refer to their East German backgrounds in a positive and productive way, but that there is relatively little knowledge or connection to the actual artistic ways of working and people who once worked in the GDR. You see a break there, an interval of at least twenty years where East German art practices and methods had almost no visibility at all. One way of accounting for it has to do with biography and society, a lack of networks and economic means. That was certainly a factor. But you could also argue differently: The art field as it presents itself today stands in continuity with the art scene of the West at that time. And the approaches and qualities of art produced in the GDR might not even have been considered art after 1990. People like Georg Baselitz actually claimed that the GDR had no art at all. But how did this GDR art constitute its value? And what makes it so different that it is not recognised? Might it not also have the potential to challenge the dominant narrative? So, we were interested in how specifically artists worked back then and why it seemed so incomprehensible after 1990. Take the term the ›collective‹, for example, which is actually a very tricky and problematic word. Because even if there was an affirmation of the we or the collective in many artistic approaches found in the late GDR, it was not the kind of collectivity that was demanded by the state. It had to do with dissident forms of collective being. The modes by which art and life were or were not distinguished from one other were very different from those in the West.


How do you conceive of ›post-unification‹ in the context of the NGbK project?

We define ›post-reunification‹ very broadly, from the late 1980s to the present. What we’re looking for is continuities and breaks. And we are looking for ways in which that which has been left overlooked or covered over by the dominant Western concepts and values, but has not disappeared, can be revisited. For example, in the exhibition we work with the concept of the depot. A great deal of GDR art quite literally disappeared into storage after 1990. And even if that means it was initially made invisible, it was also kept. This is dormant material. It can be brought out and brought back into the present.

…oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende: Gender before Gender. © Elske Rosenfeld, Anna Voswinckel, Suse Weber und Gina Pietsch & Heide Bartholomäus

…oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende: Stasisauna. © Elske Rosenfeld, Anna Voswinckel, Suse Weber und Wolfgang H Scholz

Do you see any changes in the engagement with GDR history and GDR art over the past years?

Yes, a great deal. For me, it came unexpectedly. I started engaging with the topic in 2009/10. Back then, I wrote personally to every artist who had worked on it, because I was so happy to see that there were others interested in the same thing. Now it’s become something of a hot topic. Why? Well, if you want to be cynical and pessimistic, it has to do with a right-wing shift in the East. Increased interest in GDR topics might be an expression of concern about these developments. But there are also positive things about it: Many stories that have not been heard or told for a long time are now being told. You could even say that we are at the beginning not only of a reappraisal of the post-reunification years, but also a new direction in research. Until about five years ago, there were two tracks when it came to GDR history: one was the GDR’s unjust regime, the SED dictatorship and the Stasi, and the other was this rather ridiculed Ostalgie thing, that nostalgia some people had for life in communist East Germany. There wasn’t much room in between. Especially when it comes to art history, there wasn’t much. But some important books have come out in the past four to five years. A younger generation is engaging with practices of the time using the vocabulary of today. That you didn’t see before. But that also means not reading GDR history in its own language. Moreover, vocabulary adopted from the West is also often changing. This is a very important point as far as I’m concerned: the tool you use changes when you apply it to a history for which it wasn’t made. These discussions have been going on for a long time in other countries in Eastern Europe.


To what do you attribute the delay in Germany?

There are a number of factors at play there. To start with a specific example: I only recently had my first West German exhibition. Until then, I had invitations from other German-speaking countries, from Austria and Switzerland, but never from West Germany. Because there is, or at least was, a bias there. It’s easier for Austrians and Swiss because they have a certain distance and don’t have to think about or grapple with their own role, with the overwriting of the East by the West in the post-1990 period. Secondly, German nationalism and the longing for unity tends to suppress certain cultural differences or deviations. And thirdly, the post-GDR period is difficult to address in international research contexts. This is also a funding issue: for a long time, there was no money to research GDR topics in this country, and no one in Eastern European contexts wanted to give their money to rich Germany. The result was a kind of double exclusion, a vacuum between two sides. I think Germany and its cultural institutions should undoubtedly make up for this with an appropriate funding policy.

… oder kann das weg? Fallstudien zur Nachwende
16 SEP—7 NOV 2021
Opening 15 SEP, noon

NGBK. station urbaner kulturen / Hellersdorf
›Neues Deutschland‹ mit Akinbode Akinbiyi und Elske Rosenfeld
19 SEP—4 DEC 2021
Opening 18 SEP, 4pm