East Meets West in Berlin

Berlin is a city that literalized the split between East and West during the Cold War. Nowadays, although the political divisions between both sides of the city no longer exist, the physical traces of the post-war era not only remain, but are being increasingly highlighted in an attempt at recuperation of the distant past, after being quickly swept away in the immediate post-Wall period. Nowadays, visitors to Berlin can observe traces of the Cold War all around, as they straddle brass markers on the sidewalks indicating where, in the currently free and open space, the physical barrier of the Wall once stood, and places such as the DDR Museum and the Palace of Tears, the former border crossing at the Friedrichstraße Train Station, offer a vivid glimpse into the socialist past.

I traveled to Berlin to meet some of the artists who had been involved in performance art in East Germany in the 1980s, and also to meet other artists who have relocated there from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the city is a veritable Mecca for artists across Europe. My trip also coincided with a conference on Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere, which brought together a range of scholars all focused on performance in Eastern Europe. So, it was a jam-packed week.

I began my stay in Berlin by traveling two hours south of the city, to Golßen, near the village where Micha Brendel, one of the Autoperforationsartisten, currently lives. I spent the better part of the day with him, listening to his stories about this performance art group from the 1980s and their work, looking through his archive of photographs, and even watching some videos. Later in the week I met with Else Gabriel and Via Lewandowsky to hear their side of these stories. Via also spoke in a round table at the Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere conference.

I also had a long-awaited meeting with Tanja Ostojić, who is originally from Belgrade but currently lives in Berlin. We had a very performative meeting on the playground while her son climbed on the jungle gym in the background. At one point we took shelter under a slide as a rain shower started, together with another mom, who was pretty surprised at our in-depth conversation about art, politics and performance in the sand pit! My trusty notebook still bears traces of the drips and drops that tried to subvert my notetaking process as we spoke!

Tanja is an artist who has long been interested in borders and migration, so I found it an interesting coincidence when the Belarusian artist that I met in Berlin, Marina Naprushkina, asked me to meet her at a bar called Heimat. It was 11AM on a weekday morning, and I was surprised to be meeting at a bar, but when I arrived there I learned that she was the owner, and the bar was mainly closed during the day, but in the evenings it became a social meeting point for migrants and refugees from a local camp in the neighborhood. While the artist doesn’t necessarily see this social club as an artistic project, her artwork is very much political, so it is difficult to distinguish her work as an activist from her work as an artist. One of her main ongoing artistic projects is called Office for Anti-Propaganda, which she started in 2007, as a platform to examine various forms and manifestations of political propaganda. As Marina spoke to me about the real-life concerns for political and artistic freedom in contemporary Belarus, I was struck by the parallels between the current situation for her as an artist working in Minsk and the situation for East German artists just three decades prior. 

I have been coming to Berlin for many years now, ever since my first visit to that city in 1994. Since then, the Wall that quickly disappeared in 1989 has been subtly re-erected, in the form of a brass zig-zag underfoot, reminding one of the dividing line that once was. Potsdamer Platz has been rebuilt into a shiny postmodern metropolis, complete with shopping mall and Cineplex. A few blocks down, you can visit the former headquarters of the Secret State Police, and see one of the last remaining chunks of the actual Wall still standing. Checkpoint Charlie has become a circus of tourists, and the former entrance to West Berlin at Friedrichstraße is now a museum. In may Eastern European cities nowadays, past and present coexist side by side, but in Berlin this juxtaposition is somehow more poignantly felt, perhaps because of its liminal space in the Soviet sphere – a redolent zone where East literally met West, and the Iron Curtain was visible in the form of a reinforced concrete wall.

El Lissitzky's Proun Room in Berlinische Galerie

El Lissitzky's Proun Room in Berlinische Galerie

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.