Via Lewandowsky

Nowadays, Via Lewandowsky works as a visual artist in sculpture and installation. However, I was interested in speaking to him about his work in performance in the late-1980s and early-1990s, both as a solo artist and together with the Autoperforatsionsartisten. I met with Via after I had already spent the day with one of his fellow artists from the group, Micha Brendel, so I was able to discuss with Via more specific aspects related to his role in their work.

We talked about one of the group’s earliest performances, Die Spitze des Fleischbergs, which took place in the context of an annual school carnival at their School of Fine Arts in Dresden. He described the performance as “a sudden explosion of freedom” in an otherwise “grey reality.” The carnival itself was both serious and radical, and a lot of effort went into preparing for it. The artists wanted to create an “absolute show” that would transcend the daily status quo. He described the piece as “punk, but wrapped in a beautiful narrative poetic coating.” It is because of the circumstances – the carnival atmosphere – and the manner in which these expressions were presented, that they were tolerated. After all, this was a student production, and the authorities tended to treat amateur productions outside of an official capacity (a carnival, as opposed to an official exhibition) a little more lightly.

When I asked the artist about influences, and where they had gotten the idea to work in performance, in a place that otherwise did not support this genre, or have a recent tradition of it – at least not officially – he said that they were aware that such things were possible. They had seen books on contemporary art in the Dresden library, and catalogues at the University from the so-called Giftshrank, or “poisonous  bookshelf,” which kept such “subversive” tomes as the catalogue from Manifesta, for example. In a round-table discussion at the “Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere” conference later that week, in which he participated, he mentioned that it really wasn’t a question of ‘influence.’ Rather, artists had to go after information themselves, and often it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

As for the artist’s role in Die Spitze des Fleischbergs, where he appeared in drag, he mentioned that his reason behind the costume was partly personal – he had just become a father of a baby girl a few weeks prior to the performance, which was a significant life change, and he was interested in gender. He mentioned that he was interested in making a radical change, with regard to his character in that piece, and what could be more radical than changing one’s gender completely?

We also spoke about their diploma work, Herz Horn Haut Schrein. Via described his character, who was dressed as an invalid, as a sick person, who is disabled, and needs artificial support. He arrives on the scene by climbing down from the ceiling like a monkey, in a painful and slow movement, gradually becoming a being. He carries a pouch around his waist, a “sperm bag,” and sews his seeds, which are already formed small paper trees, by scattering them across the stage. Later, both he and Micha enter the igloo, in an act of penetration, following which Else emerged from the igloo, which represented an egg.

The artist mentioned that he resigned from the Allez! Arrest performance because the other artists had wanted to “put him in the role of a victim.” He described the working environment for the artists as “a terrible situation,” and their art was based on railing against the system.

The artist also produced individual performances. In Trichinae on a Crusade, performed in June 1989 at the White Elephant Gallery in East Berlin, he appeared once again in drag – in a ballet tutu, a preferred costume for the artist in many of his performances – with his head bandaged. In front of him was a bundle of animal parts, intestines and waste. The artist began by groaning, making sounds and expressions as if he was trying to speak, but something was holding him back. When he adjusted the bandages on his head, it appeared that pus and parts of his brain came out, which he then began to feed to himself through a rubber hose that he stuck down his throat. Via described this as a “body lecture,” where the lecture was about an anatomy of the self. He commented that the performance was full of “simple metaphors,” but that the main element was the performance as a “mobile version of expression.” He said that because of the ephemeral nature of the genre of performance, this type of work was tolerated, however if the artists had created more permanent objects, that would have been less accepted.

Via works primarily in sculpture now, however his three-dimensional work retains the performativity and expression of his earlier actions. He also remains committed to the political element. One piece that I find compelling is an installation that he did in front of a socialist mural that remains in place in its original location, on the façade of what is now the Ministry of Finance. Zur Lage des Hauptes is an installation that consists of a frottage, or rubbing, of relief depicting a scene from German history from the Victory Column in West Berlin, which he placed in front of the socialist realist tiles; meanwhile he placed a blank canvas in front of the scene on the Victory Column. The idea was that after the Fall, the West was to start with a clean slate, whereas the East has to deal with and confront its past.