Rooms Made out of Light and History

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