It was absolutely forbidden to stop. On the old Bundesstrasse B5 from Berlin to Hamburg, on the stretches of highway between the two zone, it was not permitted to overtake another vehicle if a railroad-crossing was ahead. One was aware of the omnipresence of a couple of Volkspolizisten — the People´s Police — on the street, hiding behind a building. Or they would signal from inside their police cars for drivers to stop, to inspect their vehicle registration papers and driver´s licences, open up the trunk, etc., and impose a fine. It was not only because of this that one lacked requisite leisure and relaxation to observe and recognize, every once in a while, what was glimpsed out of the corner of one´s eye by the roadside while driving through these places on endless journeys, from Staaken to Nauen, and elsewhere too. Accompanying the passenger through the Interzone were archivecturally monotous two– and three-storey buildings, behind high walls or wooden walls painted with inexpensive East Bloc paint.
These constructions, mostly utility buildings stemming from the Nazi years, served as housing during the era of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for its poor occupiers, members of the once glorious Soviet army. Driving past, one saw women hurrying in front of the walls that blocked the greater part of the view, women dressed exotically compared to German standards, hastening home or bustling toward barracks´entrances. Often they had to wait on the side of the streets for traffic to pass.
In winter one could see them wrapped in mufflers to ward off the cold and dampness or wearing thick coats to cope with inclement winter. Standing at several places along a highway that was poorly repaired, riddled with innumerable pat holes, were Soviet military police signaling the right-of-way to incoming or departing military vehicles or giving pedestrians an opportunity to cross. Sometimes, too, one could recognize very young, Asiatic looking soldiers walking around the barracks›entrance. Here they were, representatives of the great Soviet power asserting its might to this point farthest west, symbolizing for the West German or foreigner passing through live evidence of the reality of the Cold War.
As entry to the inner-German boundaries opened after removal of the political corset-strings, and the former occupiers from the Soviet Union slowly but surely released the terrain to the natives, one´s own land and surroundings became the subjects of curious exploration. Field-work had previously been conducted elsewhere. In the old catchword of classical ethnology, »strange cultures« (The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi-Strauss) was a term employed to encompass generally what were its chosen areas of research. But it has become extended now, in recent artistic endeavors, to apply to one›s own culture. Laurenz Berges does not necessitate exotic countries to encounter »the strange culture.« His curiosity for these terrains got filtered, first, through a phase of intense preoccupation with the work of eminent American photographers like Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, and Lee Friedlander. Coincident with this was a year spent as assistant to the New York photographer Evelyn Hofer, where he was introduced to the dramatic light of this very southerly metropolis, with its great intensity of life. Thus, after studies at the University of Essen and the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf (Master Student under Bernd Becher), he was prepared to encounter his own history. The standard for good pictures garnered during these »apprentice years« was unconditional avoidance of clichés.
How can one avoid clichés? The old idea of »photography« actually meant the production of a picture by aid of light (Greek phos, genitive case photos) that inscribes a sign of its own (Greek graphein). During this process, one should pay careful attention not to allow one›s mental idea, i.e. everything one already knows before one sees, to interfere. Of course one cannot strictly adhere to this »standard of purity.« Nevertheless Laurenz Berges attempted to work as little as possible with symbols, i.e. with already well-known signs that stand for already imprinted images, while working five years with the Russian barracks in East Germany. He placed himself inside the rooms and waited until light created an atmosphere that interested him. He waited until weak daylight filled the sparse rooms with volume. This careful construction of the rooms by aid of daylight flowing into them could be compared to the work method of Paul Cézanne.
This inventor of Cubism and founder of Modernism, who stemmed from the Impressionists, waited a long time with Nature — mostly in the Provence — until its colors gradually turned into forms on canvas or paper, giving what had been seen in Nature a corporeal form in the picture, to resemble Nature more truly by bypassing mental preconceptions, in contrast to space as delineated with traditional employment of artistic perspective. This process was sustained by an unconditional desire for veracity, to come as close as possible to Nature, to create pictures where what is depicted lives. If we mentioned above that photography is the art that draws with light, one has to add this qualification to the images of the East German barracks: daylight softens the linearity of narration and logic of the seen history. With its illuminating »smokescreening,« it creates room for atmosphere and remembering mindfulness.
What were the circumstances of life that these pictures tell about? In most of the spick-and-span, abandoned quarters there are only a few objects left, pieces of furniture, inexpensive ornamental and decorative elements. Various beds, mattresses, flower pots, curtains, artificial-wooden wall-panels, flower designs applied with a paint-roller as substitutes for wall-paper, and again and again classicistic doorway-constructions arranged like altars, make up all the components of a still-life of history. In most cases, the rooms had remained intact upon their occupants› departure. An exception is that view of a box-like room whose rhombic-patterned and ocre-hued wall-paper has been badly damaged (Fig. p. 11). The reason becomes apparent once one looks at it more closely. Probably the walls were badly damaged when the wooden (?) floor was removed. Now, one views the room›s naked floor-base filled in with loose gravel. The doorways, acting as gates into darkness, into the not-visible — and especially their pendants: the windows as sources of daylight — play a prominent role on the stages of memory erected by Laurenz Berges.
The thought of empty stages becomes more assertive as an explicit theme when Berges brings in the spare light from left and right to the forefront in gently dimmed performance rooms (Fig. p. 21). In between the light shafts, the narrow, slightly convex depths of a camera obscura open up. The floorboards, still drenched with floor wax, reflect the light›s glow like glittering ice-floes. The floor-planks, forming a rectangle of the stage, point simultaneously to the emptiness of the room›s main body, which usually contains meaning and play. We recognize clearly here how intensely the prose of everyday life speaks to us. Only on second glance does one note, to the right and left, an empty flag-holder flanking the supports of the stage-setting.
But generally one can state that Berges has consciously renounced symbols loaded with definite content. In this way, he avoids the danger of depicting a foregone meaning, of what one has already decided before seeing anything, due to an over-employment of well established images. He would like to challenge rather than entertain. This challenge is mainly contained in the discharge of energy that one has to employ to imagine, with the aid of what has been left over: a few sparse props, what kind of life was led in these habitations. The poverty of the walls, the furniture deemed as a bare necessity, the small sink are complimented — as though they have been touched up by a friendly hand — by efforts to add appealing ornaments, like flower designs or brightly colored wall-paper. These attempts to beautify are also clearly expressed in the concrete column in the middle of the room (Fig. p. 37) covered with »Sprelacard« (a surface-coating commonly used in the G.D.R.) and decorated with a rhombic ornament, or by the pyramid-like doorway (Fig. p. 63), disguised by a light brown plastic-sheeting of imitation sand-stone.
It is no coincidence that this series of barracks pictures commences with a scene of a corner of a room dominated by an window frame at an acute right-angle, without cross-bars, whose view outside is obscured by a colorless, almost transparent surface of a curtain (Fig. p. 7). The empty room›s character is fixed in its narrow bottom-half by a waist-high panel, probably again made out of Sprelacard. While the surface of the wall surrounding the right-angle of the window is naturally rather dark, the right half of the wall is brightly illuminated by the glow of invasive daylight. It is as though one has here a view of the empty artist›s studio of Caspar David Friedrich, as described by the painter Kersting, his friend. In the barracks rooms, the actors — the painter Friedrich and the heroes of the glorious Soviet Army — have disappeared. Laurenz Berges gave life to these rooms only with daylight. This is the only visible actor. With incorruptible clarity it illuminates the rooms, searches for traces of the absent people, and at the same time warms the impoverished dwellings with the softness of living light.
If one contemplates to what extent the medium of photography is capable of artful seduction and falsification too, the question of the »Remains of the Authentic« (the title of an exhibition shown in Essen in 1986) is more than justified. The old, dilapidated mirror that›s been left — we encounter it in dual form, once in light blue and again on brightly colored, flowered wall-paper — confronts us as a classic conveyor-of-meaning out of the pictorial iconography of Western art history. The mirror as portal to another reality, as the slowing-down accompanying the unmediated process of perception and commentary, becomes merely a small-scale doubling — obeying the laws of physics — in Laurenz Berges› work, a tautology of what is present. The skillful positioning of the camera causes the papered wall opposite — an identical view — to appear in the mirror›s field of vision as a small-scale translucent image on the surface lying behind. The literary or metaphysical enrichening of meaning has been avoided by just this design of the image. The authentic appears once more in its small-scale form and hence remains fully open to the viewer›s perception.
In conclusion let us turn again to Caspar David Friedrich›s empty studio. The empty barracks rooms in East Germany become historical dwellings in Laurenz Berges› pictures, »Places of Remembering« (Virginia Heckert). But the traces of history are not only preserved by photography, by doubling. They have been formed into real images. The most important factor in their formation — and to a certain extent also in »actual« history — is daylight (as we have already stressed several times). The view of the sink and, above it, the trace of a mirror that had once been mounted there have been formed in manifold ways by light, which falls in through the unvisible window throwing a weak shadow of an almost imperceptible cross-bar upon the small white porcelain sink and absent mirror. The daylight has taken the place of the mirror as gateway to a different, perhaps better world. As a natural, living force in the creation of form, it overcomes, pushes aside and supersedes the Vanitas motif in a historical process of making an image. It allows past events to become accessible again. The stories of the people in the barracks at Karlshorst, Schönwalde, Potsdam, Wünsdorf and other places are made accessible by Laurenz Berges› pictures and thus tend to get a reprieve from forgetfulness. In his renunciation of heightened perspective, of hasty placing of meanings, by trusting to the burgeoning of an image by carefully modelled daylight, a cycle has come about of »almost epic greatness« (Virginia Heckert).
Laurenz Berges, born in 1966 in Cloppenburg, Lower Saxony, studied at the University of Essen and was assistant to the photographer Evelyn Hofer in New York. He graduated from the Academy of Art at Düsseldorf as Master Student under Professor Bernd Becher in 1996.
This book appears on the occasion of the exhibition: Laurenz Berges — Photographs 1991–1995, held at the Oldenburger Kunstverein (May 7 until June 18, 2000) and at the Kunstverein Recklinghausen (January 13 until February 18, 2001).
Translated by Marc Svetov, with assistance from Petra Schreyer