Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 18, 2023
Sara Blaylock Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2023. 328 pp.; 81 b/w ills. $34.95 (9780262046633)

Scholarship about art and culture in the 1980s Central European socialist bloc often evinces a certain impatience motivated by hindsight. Simply put, we know what is coming to Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany in 1989. As a result, inquiry is approached through the lens of the imminent political change and sets as its task the diagnosis of the terminal symptoms preceding these events. In Parallel Public: Experimental Art in Late East Germany, Sara Blaylock, associate professor of art history at University of Minnesota Duluth, invites us to slow down and approach this era outside this teleological frame. By engaging with these artists on their own terms, Blaylock introduces an alternative tempo of change in state socialist East Germany that was out of synch with the 1989 revolutions, but radical in its own way.

While Parallel Public continues to pinpoint 1989 as an important year for experimental art in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), readers are invited to prioritize June 1989 rather than the more infamous November 9, 1989, the night the Wall opened. Back in June, a month-long art festival dubbed the Permanent Art Conference (PAC) had appeared at the central White Elephant Gallery in East Berlin as part of a city-wide regional art exhibition. The PAC featured caustic art actions and performances from the Dresden-based Auto-Perforation Artists, conceptual installations, art in public space, and lectures from East Berlin-based artists and critics. A parallel—unofficial— series of experimental work took place at the private “rg” gallery in Prenzlauer Berg featuring artists and speakers from West Germany. As Blaylock argues in this landmark addition to the field of GDR art and visual culture studies, the PAC marked a “dramatic shift in the cultural policy” of the GDR (1). This shift had not appeared out of nowhere and was instead the culmination of efforts by East German artists, art historians, and gallerists to expand the boundaries of acceptable visual art in the GDR—and embolden others to do so as well. This is the story told in Parallel Public. Through the book’s seven thematic chapters, Blaylock charts the proliferation of these experimental practices throughout the 1980s, as artists challenged the guiding cultural policy of socialist realism in the GDR through the creation of genre-bending multimedia works, performance and body art, conceptual photography, and independent publications. Furthermore, these artists explicitly refused secrecy in their formation of this robust counterpublic. As Blaylock argues, “the strategies they used were not acts of subterfuge, but discernible ploys . . . ” (4).

This framing comes as a great revelation and joins a rising chorus of GDR art scholars calling into question stubborn notions of an artistic “underground” and a clear division between official and unofficial art in the GDR. Instead, Parallel Public introduces readers to many artists and gallerists largely absent from English-language scholarship who defiantly pressured the dysfunctional Socialist Unity Party into adopting a more capacious definition of art in socialism. These artists explicitly sought avenues into public life, albeit a more authentic public life that disregarded state oversight and official prohibitions by the Union of Fine Artists. They forged these publics through a wide range of multimedia art practices that gained momentum through their rejection of clear divisions between art forms and their presence in state-sponsored and private exhibition spaces. The increased ability of these artists to be seen and heard in the 1980s, all while deflecting state censorship, reveals the failures of the ruling Socialist Unity Party and its cultural bureaucrats to successfully achieve a hegemonic socialist culture. As Blaylock argues, the sheer variety of experimental practices flourishing in state-sponsored cultural houses, small galleries, and art schools “not only diagnosed a weakening state, but also served as its antidote: a mirror and a foil to official culture” (5). Furthermore, bucking the “underground” label once more, these artists were also not averse to seeking state support for their livelihoods. Many strategically navigated the system to secure freelance artist status, which offered many the time, space, and access to materials that enabled their path to autonomy. Thus, Blaylock demonstrates how artists “used the apparatuses of official culture . . . to advance their own agendas” and forge this parallel public (16).

This book’s meticulous effort to revisit many long-held assumptions on GDR art and society also extends to the overdetermined role ascribed to the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in delimiting cultural production and personal autonomy among visual artists. Blaylock addresses this question head on in the book’s first chapter, which cautions against giving too much weight to the reports of unofficial collaborators (IMs) and other official operations. In fact, there is scant evidence that state surveillance had any significant impact on the spread of experimental art during this time. To interrogate the role of the Stasi in the late GDR and its legacy, Blaylock examines work from a series of female artists engaging with their Stasi files in the years after the GDR’s dissolution. These projects reveal quite plainly the many personal violations of privacy resulting from being targeted by the Stasi, but they also demonstrate how artists recognized the Stasi’s powerlessness to exercise any real influence on their autonomy. Thus, these works importantly disclose how the Stasi’s “ambitions must be distinguished from its achievements” (27).

In the remaining six chapters, Blaylock displays the dynamic variety of experimentation taking place in the 1980s GDR and the manifold ways in which these practices engaged with audiences. Experimental forms emerging in this vibrant counterpublic included the body-based practices of experimental photographer Thomas Florschuetz and the performance art of Dresden-based Auto-Perforation Artists, who flaunted the state’s efforts to forge disciplined socialist bodies. Other artists working collectively, like Erfurt’s Women Artists Group Exterra XX, produced Super-8 film, photography, and performance and embraced a sense of group solidarity that served as a shield against state harassment and Stasi intimidation. The collective also nodded toward the GDR’s elevation of collective labor to legitimize their work, thereby “confronting the state by deploying its own method of unity in culture, unity in the collective” (213). Another salient theme—the artistic will to overcome the many physical and creative hurdles facing East German artists—is well documented in a standout chapter devoted to experimental filmmaker Gino Hahnemann. This chapter documents how the constraints of working in the GDR acted as a “creative catalyst” for the gay filmmaker, who created thirty-one Super-8 films between 1982 and 1990. Hahnemann labeled his works GINO KINO in a nod to his decision to overcome creative constraint by making his own cinema, which freely interspersed homosexual themes and homoeroticism alongside references to German cultural heritage, including towering figures such as Goethe.

The formation of spaces for encountering experimental work was equally consequential. This is illustrated in a chapter devoted to the 1985 Intermedia festival held in a youth club in the East German town of Coswig, located seventeen kilometers northwest of Dresden. Blaylock notes how the festival exposed artists and audiences to a multimedia, interdisciplinary program in a public setting that simultaneously served as an excuse for people to gather. She explains, “Each new innovation in creative practice contributed to the cultural drift that brought East Germany’s experimental artists even further away from artistic convention . . . ” (184). Just a few years later, Leipzig-based Judy Lybke had founded the independent Eigen + Art gallery as an independent gallery for displaying experimental work. Lybke cultivated a form of diplomatic immunity through his contacts with the Western art world and emerged as a beacon for other art spaces wishing to forge their own autonomous gallery program.

This book is also noteworthy for its methods: blending meticulous archival research, interviews, private collections, and skilled visual analysis of performance, film, fashion, and other art forms in order to construct a three-dimensional portrait of the lives and practices of experimental artists in late East Germany and their active, albeit contentious, engagement with the Union of Fine Artists and the state-controlled cultural apparatus. Scholars of twentieth-century art should take note of this work: the first of its kind to capture the dazzling variety of experimental work emerging in what would later prove to be the late GDR, while offering a complex and richly contextualized picture of 1980s socialist culture and experimentation beyond the analytic of “1989.”

"This review was commissioned while the book author was a Field Editor for Exhibitions Midwest. The author was in no way involved in the commissioning or editing of this review. Additional Editorial Board oversight was arranged to ensure adherence to CAA’s “Conflict of Interest guidelines.”

Briana Smith
Associate Director of Studies
Committee on Degrees in History & Literature, Harvard University