…to change it.
Reconstruction and Disturbance: On Some Force Fields in the Work of Andrea Pichl
“For me, the function of art consists of making reality impossible.”
On July 15, 1964, Horst Sindermann, first secretary of the East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) in the city of Halle, traveled a few kilometers to the western outskirts of the city. There, he ceremonially laid the foundation for a massive new housing development, the first in the country to be built with pre-cast concrete components. The development was named Halle-Neustadt (Halle-New City). At the time, Andrea Pichl was just a couple of months old; she and the vast new development grew up in parallel. She was six months old when two milestones of East German modernist architecture were completed at Alexanderplatz in Berlin: the Haus des Lehrers and the Kongresshalle.
Halle-Neustadt was officially known as the “Socialist City of Chemicals Workers,” but was soon given the nickname “Ha-Neu” by its inhabitants. Ironically, “Ha-Neu” sounded very like “Hanoi,” the capital city of Vietnam, where brothers in class struggle would soon take up the fight against the American imperialist aggressors. Sindermann would later become a member of the SED’s ruling politburo. In his 1971 “popular ballads,” the banned protest singer Wolf Biermann sang the famous lines: “Sindermann, you blind man / You’re only doing harm.”
In 1972 more than 50,000 people lived in Ha-Neu, and by 1981 that figure had risen to 93,000. Today just 46,000 live there. A walk through the development reveals a breathtaking mix of wide empty spaces and giant deserted concrete buildings. The smooth, renovated modernity of the present day exists alongside strange archaic ruins of bygone dreams. Between them, bright logos of victorious global capitalism shine out, strangely bleak. The past visible here in outline is now barely comprehensible; its ideas, names, and objects have all been long submerged. Inevitably, translation and reconstruction are required: one encounters words and sounds, signs and objects, once familiar but now puzzling. They echo from the depths of a not very distant epoch.
It’s a popular game to draw parallels between one’s own time and the world’s time, between private existence and historical background noise, even if generational simultaneity is ultimately little more than biographical coincidence. Anyone born in East Germany in 1964 (that year saw a record number of postwar births in both East and West Germany) can easily avoid having anything to do with Ha-Neu. This is even true of someone like Andrea Pichl, who spent her early childhood in Moscow before returning to East Germany in 1973—the year Walter Ulbricht, the country’s head of state, died. At that time, Pichl lived next to the newly built Allende District in East Berlin, named after Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile who shot himself during General Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
The generation of intellectuals born directly after the construction of the Berlin Wall is situated particularly. The constellation into which they were born was a portent of their own fate. Older East German intellectuals lived through—and suffered through—the dictatorship’s emergence and early brutality. The period was marked by a dominant and aggressive culture of action, encompassing the building of Stalinallee and the television tower in Berlin, the production combines of Leuna, Buna, Schwedt, Bitterfeld, Hoyerswerda, and Eisenhüttenstadt, the deployment of Russian tanks on June 17, 1953, and the building of the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. This social and economic upheaval prompted three million people to flee to West Germany, while others were catapulted up the social scale. For this generation, disillusionment eventually set in, quickly or gradually, in the wake the violent suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 and Wolf Biermann’s expatriation in 1976.
But for the young there was only the agony of dictatorship, the gray torpor, the universal rule of lies, the rampant and brutal stupidity. For those born around 1964, the situation in East Germany was self-evidently rotten, failed, and futile. Quite simply false. Those affected included the authors Durs Grünbein, Ingo Schulze, and Lutz Seiler, as well as the artist Else Gabriel, a member of the “Auto-Perforation” group of performance artists in Dresden in the 1980s. These younger intellectuals were spared the painful disillusionment of their elders—paradigmatic examples of the older generation, the same age as their parents, included authors born in the 1920s, like Christa Wolf, Franz Fühmann, and the playwright Heiner Müller. When the East German state collapsed in 1989, those born in 1964 were just a quarter century old. For this generation, the world outside had long been far more important than the senseless struggles within the GDR. But the struggles they experienced undoubtedly marked them. Refusal and contempt had long been their internalized solutions: emotions boiled up within them to the point of rebellion.
And Ha-Neu? Many years had passed since the housing development was regarded as an aesthetic and architectural success. It was now a symptom of socialism stretching from the Elbe River to the city of Vladivostok, a socialism that built millions upon millions of these “workers’ lockers,” as the concrete boxes came to be called. Heiner Müller famously called them “fuck cells with central heating.” Müller himself lived in one of these settlements, Berlin-Friedrichsfelde, just across from a window that allowed passersby to view the bears in East Berlin’s public zoo.
To simply deduce a particular artistic consciousness from this social world would be a trivial kind of materialist interpretation; it would, in the most banal way possible, fail to grasp the inner logic of the artwork. But in Andrea Pichl’s work there are echoes of time and form. The form can be a reflection of a particular time, its utopias and its failures, a form filled with oddities, impossibilities, and pseudo-realities, stretched between vision and absurdity, an amalgam of past and present. Invisible forcefields are inscribed in her work. In 2014, Ha-Neu made its presence felt just a few kilometers away, in Moritzburg. There, Pichl’s exhibition “Unterkunft Freiheit” (Accommodation Freedom) presented laborious forms of order and discarded dead ends, as well as the rigid compulsion of inhumanity and a minimally invasive but resistant individuality. The futile standardization of housing as the telos of desire. Even today this can have an impact, although now utterly different.
At the same time, what is at stake is the dogged, brittle ambivalence of the twentieth century’s utopian beginnings. Lines from that period stretch into the future, even if they are turned at right angles, as in the 2017 installation Keine Atempause, Geschichte wird gemacht (No Stopping for Breath, History Is Being Made) at the Kunstverein am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Berlin. The title is an adaptation of a legendary line from the 1980 album Monarchie und Alltag (Monarchy and everyday life) by the band Fehlfarben: this amounted to a motto for the 1980s, albeit pronounced with an ironically heroic distance. In the installation, parallel rays stretch into the exhibition space, extending from Hans Poelzig’s designs for the Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, a gigantomaniacal plan from 1932. All this took place in a Berlin location that is itself an adaptation of modernism: the L40 building by Roger Bundschuh, Philipp Baumhauer, and Cosima von Bonin, completed in 2010 on the site of a bombed Poelzig building, and intended to correspond to nearby Poelzig buildings built some eighty years ago. Other participants in the competition to design the Palace of the Soviets, held in 1931–32, included Le Corbusier, Erich Mendelsohn, and Walter Gropius. As with Poelzig, their applications were unsuccessful.
On the margins of the story is a historical irony: Richard Paulick, the head architect of Ha-Neu, had been Gropius’s assistant at the Bauhaus from 1927 to 28. In 1951, Paulick developed another gigantic, never-completed project: a design for an East German government building in Berlin. It would have towered over the banks of the Spree, opposite from the site where Berlin’s Stadtschloss is being rebuilt. In front of the main building was meant to be a parade ground of some 30,000 square meters, larger than Red Square in Moscow. The plan was discarded in 1971, at the behest of Erich Honecker, Ulbricht’s successor. Modernism’s mutations are everywhere. As a child in Moscow, Pichl splashed about in an enormous open-air swimming pool that occupied the site where the Palace of the Soviets was never built.
Time and again in Pichl’s work we see the transformation of these visions in a process that runs from a bold design phase to the sobriety of actual construction, followed by ultimate failure and disintegration. The real utopia is hidden in the forms—this was realized in East Germany by artists as different as Hermann Glöckner and the recently deceased Karl-Heinz Adler. Pichl brings this spirit, transformed and alienated, into the twenty-first century, whether in the sculpture For Ever and Ever at the Mies van der Rohe house in Berlin, or From a Deviating Angle at the National Gallery in Tashkent. Her photo series on the prefabricated buildings of Tashkent highlights the curious remnants of a visionary concrete architecture intended to reconcile ornament with modernism. Both before and after the devastating 1976 earthquake, the Uzbek city was a favorite playground for Soviet architects and city planners, a fascinating laboratory of late modernism amid the slow decline of the Brezhnev era.
Deviation and rule breaking were the only possibilities of freedom in the late GDR. They were exhausting to accomplish and came at a heavy price, even if the state’s repression was weaker than it had been before. In the 1970s, Pichl’s application to the Kunsthochschule Weißensee was refused five times: state security was keeping a close eye on the young woman. Rather than go to art school, Pichl became part of the shimmering and endlessly varied phenomenon known as the East Berlin scene. She became a model for the painter Clemens Gröszer, who immortalized her in his series “Portraits of A.P.” (1983–93). People made a living, continuing to exist while their lives remained on hold. Pichl modeled for the legendary fashion magazine Sibylle. Only after 1989 was she able to study. By then, nonconformism had become an artistic and psychological survival technique deployed against external coercion: conformity would have been a surrender of the self, both morally and aesthetically meaningless. This existential dimension pervades Pichl’s work. It can be read as self-defense against dangerously comfortable convention. As the transformation of defiance.
What results is a curious constellation of past and future. In her 2014 installation Es kömmt darauf an. (The Point Is.) at the Berlin IG-Metall Haus (1930), the most striking of Erich Mendelsohn’s buildings, Pichl celebrated a collection of East German design oddities. Ready-made concrete blocks met surviving metal fences and doors in a caring and insightful arrangement of unlovely things, from the tender to the kitsch-bourgeois. Generously, the existence of these things is not challenged. “The point is …” went Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, written in 1845, “… to change it.” By “it,” Marx means “the world.” And here we see the bizarre reality of this world-changing activity. Pichl’s exhibition “widerstreben” (disincline) in 2018 at galerie weisser elefant reveals how our own existing capitalist reality offers a similar legacy. A panorama unfolds, comprised of strange everyday objects and forms in works on paper and as objects from home improvement stores. These massive and colorful forms shine a bright light on the weirdness of these objects, a weirdness both intense and largely overlooked. A powerful remix: a disturbance running from cheerful to disconcerting.
We know the original kind of remains: taken from ancient Rome and reused in later centuries in a wide variety of buildings, appearing there to new and different effect. These spolia included columns, capitals, inscriptions, sculptures, and much more. The notion that the twentieth century, from its arts to barbarism, will in time become our new antiquity was something Heiner Müller was convinced of, and the idea appears in almost all of his plays. So there is an inner logic to the appearance of spolia in Pichl’s work—significant fragments from the past but also the present, fragments both ideal and real, staged anew, interacting with each other. Here the twentieth and twenty-first centuries permeate each other. We hear both the echo and the new sound. In this way, Pichl’s spolia also reveal the ambivalence of form and its often helpless dream of beauty, which so frequently comes to an ugly and brutal end. What remains is the dogged, antagonistic persistence of a utopia of form, one that is no longer unbroken and that is rather ironically expressed. Anything else would also not be a solution. So forward and never forget, because art has its aim in sight. The point is … to make reality impossible.