Else Gabriel

Else Gabriel was the sole female artist in the East German performance art group Autoperforatsionsartisten [see my entries on two of the other artists, Micha Brendel and Via Lewandowsky]. I asked her how that was for her, and whether it was accidental or not, and she replied with an ambiguous answer, stating that it was both “on purpose and by accident.” She talked a lot about working as part of this group, and the very tense, aggressive and harsh situation that they found themselves in. Essentially, she said, “no one could hurt us more than we did in our inner circle,” which is why they stayed and worked together – as a sort of self-destructive self-defense.

Their aim of their work, she told me, was not to push against the state, not to necessarily be overtly political or subversive, but rather, “to create [a type of] art that didn’t exist in the GDR.” Because of the situation in which they were living, and the fact that they were working so closely with one another, the artist said that their art ended up being “rolled into their own existence,” so that one could no longer distinguish between the two.

Else was the writer of the group. She wrote texts that accompanied each performance, not necessarily a script or description, but a reflection of the piece, which she described as somewhere between dream and reality. What struck me was the instinctive way in which the artist worked. She spoke of her writing almost as a compulsion, and expressed it as a need to get the words out. At the time, she recalls, she was young, and interested in creating. Consequently, she said that she didn’t really analyze the work at the time. That is not to say by any means that it was done without self-reflection. Rather, the artist allowed the text, words and expression to flow, rather than restricting it by questioning what she was doing. She also described herself as a perfectionist. She was working in the 1980s, and she was typing the texts on a typewriter, so if she made a mistake, she would have to start all over and type the entire page again.

She described the Allez! Arrest performance as a metaphor for life in the GDR. It was like “in a zoo. …You were already trapped in the GDR,” so by creating the performance in the manner that they did, where the artists were locked in the gallery for nearly two weeks, they brought this situation closer to home, and involved the audience in it. The public was allowed into the gallery during only a 2-hour window each day, which was similar to the situation at the time, when East Berliners were allowed in the West for only a few hours, before they had to return.

Outside of her work with Autoperforatsionsartisten, Else also did solo performances, as well as performances with her partner, Ulf Wrede, and since 1991 the two have worked together under the name (e.) Twin Gabriel. One particular visceral solo piece by the artist was ALIAS/The Art of the Fugue, performed in June 1989 at the White Elephant Gallery in East Berlin, in which she dunked her head into a bucket of pig’s blood, which had been sitting out for 48-hours. With the smell emanating through the gallery, it resulted in making one of the viewers physically sick.

Immediately after the dissolution of the USSR and the reunification of Germany, the artist renounced performance for a while, saying that she had had enough of it. Later, however, she eventually returned to performance with her family, and even including her children. For example, in Kind als Pinsel (Kooperatorka), she uses her daughter as a paintbrush, holding her upside down and dipping her hair in ink so that she can paint on the floor. In this way, she combines her roles as mother and artist.