History repeats itself (or doesn’t)

Photographs documenting civil disobedience from the 1970s and 1980s seem strangely far away, and the black-and-white photographs of mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons and atomic power plants appear like scenes from another world. Today, these images seem ‘more past’ than comparable documents from the GDR; perhaps this is because they depict a Germany that was constantly in the process of disappearing, so that the breaks, even for the participants, could not be clearly defined, whereas the conflicts and everyday life of the GDR have been far more frequently reawakened in the media due to the turning point marked by reunification.

Images are mobilized whenever events and their history have to be renegotiated. After once serving as evidence or even themselves assuming an active role in historical events, a select few later become the object of different processes of evaluation that extend the negotiation of past conflicts into the historiography or raise new questions from the present perspective. When it comes to the GDR, now no longer existing, the images of mass meetings, and later demonstrations, that togehter with those of heads of state and functionaries, extend the history of a totalitarian state to its peaceful conclusion, and in this way illustrate a historical happy end. The anti-nuclear-power movement and the peace demonstrations of West German 1970s and 1980s, in contrast, are more difficult to piece together into a coherent whole. The still unresolved conflicts are perhaps still too current. The most prominent example of ongoing debates from that time is ongoing argument on the abandoning of nuclear energy, but also the shift in power relations during the red-green government after the fall of the Berlin wall did not bring a happy end for the debates around matters of peace policy in sight.

Regina Weiss’ installations are concerned not with the sucessful conclusion of historical eras, but rather with various layers of memory. History is presented in her work not as a closed narrative, but as an archive that focuses on visual elements of everyday life. Not the authenticity of her memory or the reconstructed historical moment stand at the foreground of her works, but their fundamentally fragmentary character. Like an archeologist of recent history, she salvages individual scenes and motifs, uncovering them and examining them for their ability to make a statement and their potential for restaging or reenactment.

Her intention to make protest forms of the peace and anti-nuclear-power movement in the 1970s the starting point of her artistic work in Frankfurt am Main was already formulated at the start of her fellowship. From the perspective of one whose childhood experiences were influenced by these surroundings, she began her artistic research on visual forms of protest, a field that was also indirectly decisive for the later founding of the Green Party with first non-aligned voters’ groups in Frankfurt am Main. Regina Weiss was born 1975 in Nürnberg; in the very year when for the first time the construction of nuclear power plant was sucessfully stopped (Whyl Power Plant), and the movement – to a degree hardly imaginable today – had proven the efficacy of direct resistance on the streets. It was the time when the peace movement expanded to encompass broader and broader circles, by the mid-1980s bringing hundreds of thousands of people to streets, the first mass movement of the post-war period with concrete political goals that was able to mobilize across all social divisions.

Regina Weiss’ engagement with her own memory and research results in a selection of ten documents from the years 1976 to 1986. The press photos of direct street confrontations published by various magazines at the time come from archives: demonstrators with placards around their necks on the very front lines, stones being thrown, participants brutally taken into headlocks or carried away. The spectacular scenes then served as the model for reenactments.

Weiss than has the scenes and gestures acted out in an empty studio, but now withdrawn from context and in costumes that announce their over-coded character at first glance. The effect of the reenacted pictures is unsettling and confusing. For the visual codes – the parka, the Palestinian scarf, the white dove on a blue background, and a poster carried in front of the body – in the colorful representation seems strangely familiar and obscenely harmless. But the gestures, the masking, the silent protest, the staving off of an attacker, and the stone-throwing, all seem spooky, archaic, and stylized. As if these living dead brought a collectively repressed era back to consciousness, only barely disguised by the visual language of fashion photography. A dissonance emerges, perhaps only preliminary. For it is precisely the specific accessories of the anti-nuclear movement and the peace movement, charged with real political meaning, that have not yet been appropriated by the so-called radical chic and the fashion industry and recycled, whereas masking and militancy and also the formerly subcultural codes of the rapper scene have long become part of the standard repertoire of the mainstream pop industry. Yet, even in relation to the peace dove, the possibility of fashionable (always already relativizing, ironizing) quotation seems no longer inconceivable.

From the movements to radical chic

Diedrich Diedrichsen, a theorist of popular culture, points to ‘anti-fashion’ as ‘the formula which helped the 1968 generation to open up culturally apolitical backwater’, and thus describes a time of innocence in which ‘an awareness of the coded character of the elements mobilizied was not yet present.’ A perspective that seems hardly possible to take today, since at the latest with the end of the 1990s almost all codes for all contexts have become fashionably available, leaving aside for a moment the realm of representative politics. Regina Weiss studies this transformation of meaning, the possible emptying, but also the disappearance of forms of expression and symbols, and the question of what effect these still have today.

By removing individual persons and groups from the context of press photography, often marked by violence, and always marked by direct confrontation, a coded image emerges. Direct action becomes a pose. The clothing is reconstructed close to the original, but the pins, bags, and posters, as we notice on second look, are intensionally enlarged, details like writing and concrete slogans are reduced in favor of a schematically suggested intimation. The acted out scenes, just like the uncommented street performances that form a second layer of the work, seem to raise the question of how the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s can still be understood from today’s perspective – indeed wether they can still be understood at all. Weiss’s reenactments produce individual subjects whose gestures of protest have in their repetition congealed into a pose.

Her visual spaces, wether in the studio or on the street, are on the one hand test spaces, and at the same time displays. The over-sized codes, with which Weiss has equipped her actors in their surroundings find a new context that unproblematically replaces the old one: the white cube just as, in the street space, advertising the flirts with radical chic and the logo of Dresdner Bank.

Artistic engagements with history and narrative often develop around ‘materials’ that in historical discourses are considered of minor relevance. Perhaps they are documents that cannot be subjected to the interests of the dominant narrative, because they index things absent in this narrative because they are too banal, or because they point to the fragmentary character of the central lines of this narrative. To the extend that the humanities and also history in the past century become an object of critical self-reflection, the interrogation of history has also become an important subject of fine art. Artists of the postwar generation, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski und Hans-Peter Feldmann, but especially also the key representatives of conceptual art of the 1990s, Renee Green, Mark Dion, Lorna Simpson, and also the neo-exprexionist pioneers of the Gesamtkunstwerk Jonathan Meese und Thomas Hirschhorn, to name some of these approaches and traditions, have questioned historical narrative structures, thematizing their omissions and exposing the potential of dramatic exaggeration or fictionalization that is inherent in them.

Between the surfaces

Regina Weiss’ artistic works develop from the link of subjective biographical approaches with her research, which she pursues in various directions: her starting point does not lie in the historical framing narrative, but in the visual material of everyday life, and leads from there through the various layers of memory and media reporting. An empirical approach, that is, access to historical, not fictionalized material, is here again possible, and at the same time remains questionable when it comes to its authenticity. The performative nature of memory itself, the logic with which the fragments of recorded history of one’s own memory are imported into the horizon of expectation of the present – this ‘movement’ stands at the foreground of the works by Regina Weiss documented in this catalogue.

Weiss develops her work group Filmset based on photographs by Sybille Bergemann. We all know the need to try to imagine people on the street as they are in their private surroundings. From this desire and the question of the difference between private spaces in the GDR period and now, she builds miniature reconstructions of the living rooms Bergemann photographed in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In a second step, video recordings of passersby are made and installed into the photographs of the reconstructed everyday interior scenes. Montages that correspond to the search for an everyday life history and draw us to combine it with our own experience: They are not the authentic settings, nor do the outfits, let alone the identity of persons unknown to her, attest to the historical reality of the GDR. Weiss combines the standardized commodities of the GDR with their historical Western counterpart and the products offered by current large cheap manufacturers and furniture stores. It’s hardly possible to make out the difference. In a first installation of the work Filmset in the framework of the exhibition Unbekannte Schwester, unbekannter Bruder at Kunsthaus Dresden (2003/04), Weiss shows excerpts of her own approach. The miniature model of the apartment that serves as a film set can be seen on a worktable, and the walls are covered with passages from interviews on the post-wall years and pages from product catalogues. From this installation, in the Cologne exhibition ‘Deutschland sucht…’, Weiss developed a sculpture in disguise of a piece of furniture that unites the parallels between a West and an East German promise of affluence, and the same time exposing its paradox: mass supply and individualization at the same time. From a collection of stickers, which, as details and mementos of her own socialization – with symbols also available as accessories – only apparently break through the normative order of the furniture (unforgotten for all who grew up in the 1980s is the easy combination of ‘Atomkraft – Nein-Danke’ (‘Nuclear Power? No Thanks!’) with ‘Ein-Herz-für-Kinder’ (‘A Heart for Children’) and the first brand logos, there is a direct line leading to her later work, Movement.

Weiss explores everyday materials, surfaces, and environments. The personal narrative can only be suspected behind the props and scenarios, it is interchangeable. The approach to one’s own experience as well as to generalizable history must accept reconstruction. In the unavoidability of its restaging, and the incompleteness that allways must be complemented from today’s perspective, present and past are difficult to separate from one another. Thus in the installation House in T., Regina Weiss’ MFA thesis project, childhood memories are interwoven with the gaze from present. From a house built in ‘a typical 1970s German housing development’, the materials are left behind that in their formal abstraction and presence communicate an impression of the goals of its builders and residents: a massive square of heavy wooden boards rises in the middle of the installation, above an also oversized fleece made of new wool. In the background on small displays, the outlines of family photographs can be glimpsed, superimposed with images of interiors and a landscape with bulidings on it, probably the surrounding of the one-family dwelling, the materiality and atmosphere of which is evoked by the sculptural structure in the center of the installation. The remembered architecture, like the outfit and the gestures of the demonstrators and the interiors of the 1960s and 1970s in the other two works by Regina Weiss, remains strangely timeless, although the effects of individual details are certainly bound to one historical site.

They are always historical navigations that are constitutive of Weiss’ own present, and have not yet taken on much of the patina that characterizes encounters with earlier phases. She consistently avoids any use of photography as an ostensibly authentic document of the time the photograph was taken. Her focus on surfaces and design might seem at first surprising, But it is also an adequate reaction to the formation of the neoliberal subject since the 1980s, whose coded proofs of identity, even when it comes to everyday life, extend much further than had ever been imaginable for earlier ages. From anti-fashion to apartment design or ‘design’ of food, the differentiation of individualities has by now reached all areas of life and is inconceivable without consumer decision-making – even refusal.

The artistic work of Regina Weiss becomes the archive of what could be experienced, and the possibilities for decisions that already lie anchored in what is available to experience. In contrast in particular to the positions of newer conceptual art of the 1990s, she treats history not as a construction, as an apparatus of power or regulation, but instead as a process of approach, and herself as part of this process. In an artistic approach to the object by the combination of a conceptual way of working and material aesthetic study, Weiss counters master narratives with the stuff of empiricism. Her works do not ask what needs to be remembered, but rather what can be remebered from a given, always subjective point of view.

Wether other subjectivities and values are after all concealed in the interstices, between button and jacket, sticker and bookcase, wall and wooden floor, the elsewhere always already molded codes and our decisions, that like phantasms escape through the gaps in the given programming and in so doing can create their own arrangements in a secret location: that is the question of the other side of the history to which we are subjected in her works.

Text: Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz
Translation: Dr. Brian Currid/Birgit Kopf