Sport 29: Spring 2002
Nigel Cox — Eva from the Tyre Factory
Since the Wall came down, it's all one Germany now. That's the theory. And in fact it is all one Germany—West Germany. The country that used to be the East is in the process of, like the sun, sinking into the West. That is because everything in the East was so terrible—coffee, cars, buildings, all crappy, plus they had the Stasi, the secret police, who were mean, low and dirty. No, best to forget all that.
However, forgetting is not the German way. When at the Jewish Museum where I work we interview a candidate for a job, afterwards my colleagues will inevitably say, ‘Ah, but he is from the former East.’ What they mean is, his second language is more likely to be Russian than English, his education will be of a poor standard, and he will be rather inflexible. There are over four million registered unemployed in Germany and the vast majority of these are from the former East.
The museum is dedicated to exploring how minorities fare in contact with dominant cultures, with the Jews of course as the prime example. However, as I have written elsewhere, the Jewish question is now largely an historical one here in Germany. If the museum is going to stay relevant it must explore the ways that that thread from the past runs through into the present and future. How, for example, do the Turkish minority fare here? How will Indians, who will be coming in increasing numbers to service the country's dopey IT systems, get on?
Thus on a Tuesday morning I find myself in a hired Citroën people-mover—a Picasso, according to his signature imprinted on the steely grey wheel-arch—traveling with four colleagues towards Beeskow, one hour away, east and south of Berlin, and with every mile, the DDR that was rises with increasing vigour—though maybe vigour is not exactly the right word; perhaps exhaustion. Yes, with increasing exhaustion and pallor and dilapidatedness and overgrown sproutingness, I won't go on—the East subsides outside the windows.page 134
I have of course been in the East before. It's folksier than the West, you see the occasional horse and cart, and houses that would make good postcards, everything sags, rooflines and washing lines and jowls, and the shops are full of kitsch. Horrible coffee, mutters my colleague Inka Bertz from the navigator's seat. A red light bring us to a halt outside a florists that advertises ‘Blumen mit pfiff’, and we try to figure how this might translate. Flowers with a whistle? Flowers with puff? They mean special.
A forest of slim trees, open-spaced so that the eye traces paths between them, makes Kiwi Ken Gorbey in the back seat say that ‘this is nearly as nice as New Zealand’.
We pull into an industrial complex where large, low buildings and glowering machines are offset by mounds of stones graded by size. One of the purposeful buildings apparently houses the office of the local department for cultural affairs. Here? Yes, up a grim set of stairs, in a lino-floored corridor that has travelled untouched from the 1950s, is a set of bad oil paintings which indicate a cultural emphasis. We are redirected to another building and also told that we have parked in the wrong place. (It's easy to get such things wrong in Germany; not a lot of she'll-be-right in this country.)
And now here to meet us is the day's first human from the former DDR. Her name is Frau Giesler. Standing diffidently in the grey light of the carpark, she's about thirty, rather thin, has clumpy shoes, any old jeans, a black tee-shirt with CLOTHING DISTRICT in white letters, lank hair, a complexion that has unfortunately suffered land mines, and a limp handshake with averted eyes—this is not how your typical Berlin artnik presents. To combat the mines she has applied a white preparation to the lower half of her face, which makes her look particularly ghostly. Everything about her seems typical of the East—everything is faded here, less present. I know I shouldn't be staring at her (I used to have terrible acne myself) but this is what happens; the colleagues speak in German and I hang in the background and stare.
Frau Giesler is the registrar of a body of artworks that we have come to see. Her boss, Herr Doktor de Bruyn, is unfortunately away at a conference, which is why she is dealing with us.
The artworks, Inka explains to me as we crunch across the gravel page 135 courtyard behind Frau Giesler, are from offices of officers of the former administration, from the halls of former youth associations, from former official clubrooms, from offices of the Party. This then is official art, approved art. Now the regime which approved of it no longer exists, and the offices and halls and clubs have other functions or, more likely, are boarded up. But the art still belongs … to whom exactly? Someone. The new local administration, apparently. What are they doing with it? ‘Well, they are owning it,’ Inka says.
We arrive outside a large building that looks to me like a barn, only taller. No windows to speak of. Paint flakes from the wood. Apparently it once housed the machinery that raised and lowered a lock gate. I can't see any water.
Inside, the lobby is constricted, it's hard to find a place to stand, but here are the first artworks: a waist-high bust of Marx, in bronze, accompanied by two little bronze Marxes and a plaster Lenin.
The first room Frau Giesler leads us into has a ceiling so low that I have to keep my neck bent. At one end a wall has been constructed by hanging a curtain of bubble-wrap, through which an office of second-hand furniture can be seen. In fact the whole place resembles a second-hand shop very precisely—overcrowded, everything precariously arranged, no apparent order. What it's crowded with is art. Against every wall lean stacks of paintings, twenty, thirty deep. ‘They might even have bothered to put a slat of wood between,’ growls Inka, confident that Frau Giesler speaks no English. It's true that I have never seen art treated as roughly as this, or so randomly framed.
Inka Bertz, our Head of Collections, is an art historian and her clothes are much more carefully chosen than Frau Giesler's. They are also much more carefully chosen than mine, but nearly everyone's clothes are more carefully chosen than mine. Today, a day when I publicly represent the museum, I have the Gap from head to toe, the result of a recently enforced Friday-night session with my wife, and now I look … how do I look? I look new. My shoes let me down a little but, old Docs, they were all I could find in the dark this morning. Okay, enough about me. But my new clothes meant I was part of the Berlin art crowd—I could see that—as far as Frau Giesler was concerned. She was answering questions from Inka and also from our page 136 director, Cilly Kugelmann, with caution and great reserve. Yes, these paintings belonged to the Labour Union, the Society for Russian-German Friendship, and to the Party, Cilly explains, translating for the New Zealanders. Now they belong to the Lands of Brandenburg, Berlin and Mecklenburg.
The paintings themselves—let's get this over with—are pretty terrible. Every art movement of the twentieth century is represented here. But each movement has somehow been reduced to the bach-art level. Here is a huge bach-art version of a Léger. A bach-Cézanne, a bach-Chagall, a bach-Lowry—and Lowry was kind of bachy to begin with.
The lighting is weird. It consists of a line of fluorescents at waist-level. I guess this is a concession to the low stud, but it under-lights our faces and casts disturbing Expressionist shadows on the ceiling. Around the walls, narrow-drawered cabinets of veneered wood obviously hold works-on-paper, but I am not encouraged to look.
We move through to another part of the room, where the light is dimmer, but with spotlights. Here each stack of paintings has had the top painting turned so that, in the oval of light, you see the images. It's a display of sorts. A large holiday-colours picture of people splashing in the seaside shallows is explained carefully by Frau Giesler and interpreted for us by Cilly. Cilly is careful to get the date of the painting right. It matters at which stage the politics had arrived. ‘This the late 1970s. You can see that there are different types of people, Slavs and Northerners, and also the black man, so the theme here is the brotherhood of all human mankind. But nobody is looking at anybody else. They are not even looking at us. Officially all people were part of the human mankind family but in fact the law said it was illegal to fraternise with foreigners and everyone kept to themselves. The black man is even further apart from the others and he has his hands out, waiting to have the ball tossed to him—this is possibly symbolic. There are mild protest elements here.’ Well, I had more or less figured most of that, but I wouldn't have had the confidence that what I was seeing was purposeful. Cilly is supremely confident. This political and cultural confidence is impressive, and daunting. She is a Jew of Polish extraction—siblings murdered in the Holocaust, obsessively political, page 137 disillusioned, brilliantly well-informed, but not cynical; smokes 70 a day; loves literature and life, interested in everything. Sorry for the cultural cringe, but talking to Cilly Kugelmann makes me think I should stick to potty-training pop culture subjects like UFOs, Tarzan and Elvis.
Down an alley between paintings we find, leaning against a shadowed wall, two portraits of Russian soldiers. This is different. Each man is sitting in space on a red plank, against a red background, with tightly crossed legs. The uniforms are dark green, the faces are meat-coloured. There is something of Bacon about these paintings, which are by Thomas Zeigler—humans trapped by nothing more substantial than an atmosphere. They make us realize that there really is some art here.
Now we find, several paintings down a stack, a picture featuring Joseph Stalin. The email from Inka which confirmed the travel arrangements for this outing was titled ‘Heading Towards Stalin’, but it turns out that this is the only image we see of Uncle Joe all day. ‘The collection is mostly from the early 1960s and onwards,’ Inka says. ‘When Stalin died in 1953, his image was removed. That's why you don't find it here.’ This one picture isn't great art, it's too literal for that. But it is interesting. Stalin in the foreground, large, dark, surrounded by dark banks of his Party officials, all of them with large red haloes. Deep in the banks, some of the officials have no faces. Further beyond them are skulls. (Maybe this should have been the cover for Martin Amis's new book, Koba The Dread—but we don't care about Martin Amis any more, do we.) There's a hammer and sickle on a red field, an image of happy workers. This was probably a brave painting at one time—it seems to be from the late 1970s—but you wouldn't want to own it.
Happy workers after a harvest. Two well-fed pigs in a sty. Buildings and progress. I know, I know, it's a strain reading about paintings. Just one more. This one was found by Frau Giesler—in a somewhat offhand manner she placed it where a good light might fall on it. It was tall, two-thirds the size of a door, in colours from the khaki sector of the palette—a realistic, naturalistic picture of a young woman in a locker room, probably at the end of her working day. Her large eyes, page 138 filled with feeling, had something of the appeal that you find in paintings of kittens. ‘Kaufhaus kunst,’ said Cilly Kuggelman, ‘department-store art,’ and immediately I saw how it would look in Kirkcaldie's in Wellington, among art-to-go versions of bridges, haywains and waterlilies. However, without wanting to seem enthusiastic, Frau Giesler was trying to get us to look harder at this painting. Inka turned it over and translated the title: Eva From The Tyre Factory. Frau Giesler says that many East German women would have understood this painting. ‘There was a great deal of pressure on women, who had to work all day in the factory and then work in the home.’ Cilly and the others wander away but Inka and I linger. Every time you try to take it seriously, the painting lets you down—just that faint hint of appeal or explanation. Eva's hands are in the foreground, clasping her knees. The hands are practical, strong, but there is still something feminine about their long fingers. Her upper arms, bare, are strong-looking, muscled, but still manage to suggest that if she held you you would be the lucky guy. She is framed by lockers with their doors open; inside them is dark nothing—is this symbolic? That's the problem with everything in this room, the sense that it should all be over-read is overpowering. Eva's eyes, you are supposed to read these deeply, to be read by them, this is all but written on the locker door.
However, the painting is successful in making me think hard about the lives of those in the former DDR. With a khaki shudder.
Other rooms, other voices, all saying the same thing: we are a soulful people living a hard life that is better than other lives being lived anywhere in the world. Four tightly-packed floors—my guess is, fifty thousand pieces of art. Tapestries, collages, mosaics, string-works, mud-works, sawdust-works, glue-works, it's all here. A small room, with only a narrow walkway, where sculptural busts are so tightly shelved that you're careful with your elbows when you turn around. Bronze, plaster, wood, amber, glass—heroic, abstract, naturalistic, bach, every style is represented. Marx and Engels have a much greater purchase on the past than Lenin, but that pointed beard does poke through their bushy ones from time to time. There's too much, you can't really see anything.page 139
As we move between floors I quietly ask Cilly Kulemann, what does Frau Geilser think of this? ‘I think she's proud,’ says Cilly. ‘She was very reserved at first, until she was sure of what we thought. When she sees that we ask serious questions and are well-informed, then she starts to show that she has a regard. Not for all of it.’ Now Ken asks if we can go back to a room we had visited earlier. Frau Giesler turns to oblige and I realise that she does understand English. Quickly, I think back over what I might have said.
We buy postcards of the artworks in the shop of the museum which is associated with the warehouse, shake hands once more with the still limp fingers of Frau Giesler (no one ever gets to hear her first name). She speaks directly to Cilly and Inka but with the foreigners her eyes continue to be averted.
The Picasso-people-mover moves us quickly through a lunch beside a pond, a baroque church within a still-functioning monastery, then on through a succession of treescapes and crappy little towns. I shouldn't brush over things like that, everything was major, especially the church, in Neuzelle; I have never seen so much vaulted, writhing decoration—‘religion as theatre,’ says Inka—and the bones in the little reliquary were high-gruesome, resting in their glass house like something in a Cornell box. At lunch, the cucumber soup was to die for. But we were late and these things had to be rushed through, especially when there was so much museum gossip to catch up on.
Our next appointment was at 3 p.m., in the steelworks of a former DDR town called Eisenhüttenstadt.
The steelworks had once been a major DDR industrial site and was a proud example of how the former East had adapted to its changed circumstances. Our guide, Herr Kumich, told us that he had trained as an engineer and had been devoted to the plant for most of his life. Now he was a guide. We could tell there was something sad about this and gradually it became clear that Kumich was a steel nut. He described chairs made of steel, buildings, cars, houses—he told us that in the town we should look out for steel art works. His enthusiasm for steel made his arms flail about. He was about fifty-five, maybe four years older than me, but a different being entirely—another human, sure, page 140 but an utterly different thing. We both have mild paunches and wear glasses. His hair is greyer. His face and stature remind me vaguely of my dad—same skin tone. But my glasses have frames by Calvin Klein and his are steel. No, I made that up, actually they were sort of clear plastic, but you know what I mean. Generic.
The steelworks—Ekostahl—is immense, ten square acres, he tells us. He squeezes into the Picasso with us and guides us through a quick drive-around. The shapes of the place loom overhead—great chimneys, dark against the sky, stoop-necked like giant birds; miles of fat pipes, intestinal, accompany us, bend over us, stretch away into the distance; trains without drivers haul wagon-loads of coal and ore. But lots of the site seems dead and it transpires that only one of the former big smelters plus one smaller new one are now working. Herr Kumich explains that eleven thousand people used to work here, now it's two thousand. There used to be a coffee bar, a restaurant, a crèche, a bank, a gymnasium—he produces a list of things that used to be here so long that Cilly rolls her eyes instead of translating. Herr Kumich is maybe a little nutty. I guess that's how we think of that kind of over-identification with your workplace.
He was once a research engineer and his task was to see how best-quality steel might be produced without burning so much coal. Then, when the works was sold—again Cilly's eyes are rolling, his history of its ownership since the fall of the DDR would take ten pages—they didn't need him to be a researcher any more and he stayed on in the gatehouse and eventually became a guide. ‘He was one of the lucky ones,’ says Cilly.
I have never been in a steelworks before and have this idea that I'm going to see molten steel being poured. It is gently explained to me that it's a sealed process, you can't see inside, from go to whoa it takes place inside the big furnace complex without human observation. ‘Because you would get burned to cinder.’ Oh. However, we do get to see steel being milled.
This is preceded by a fifteen-minute lecture from Herr Kumich on the milling process. He has his telescoping pointer out from his vest pocket and taps on the multicoloured wall diagram to make sure we are following. Cilly translates what she can but her eyes are rolling page 141 right out of her head. Also it's getting very hot.
When finally we go inside the mill we can see why. Before they can mill the steel they have to heat it. There's the oven, a series of square, squat shapes fifty metres below the catwalk where we, up near the ceiling, are sweating—beyond it, the interior of the great building stretches away into darkness. Through a gap in the oven's plates we can see a burning spot of yellow light, like the eye from Lord of the Rings. Then the oven opens and huge forks go in to extract the slab of steel. It's longer than a cricket pitch, maybe a yard wide and a foot thick. It rides on the forks towards us, glowing fiercely, the colour of the inside of the sun. My face feels as though it's being cooked by its heat. That slab is 1250° Celsius. Everything in the entire mill seems to recoil from it. Burning there on the arms of the forklift, it is one of the most wonderful, terrible sights I have ever seen.
Steel rollers spin, shooting the burning slab along to the mill where, amid great shudderings and gouts of steam, it is rolled back and forth and pressed out until it is quite thin and maybe a hundred metres long. Your eyes, streaming from heat and chemicals, can hardly believe what they're seeing. The end of the slab is now rounded, so that it looks like a tongue—like a long, burning devil's tongue. Then suddenly the elongated strip is shot into a coiling machine, where it is tightly rolled. It's still burning hot. I have to say that somehow I was afraid watching this process. It was as though this was too big a thing to really be happening, or if it was happening then I shouldn't be seeing it.
I staggered outside and told Herr Kumich that his mill was better than all the special effects of every science fiction movie I'd ever seen rolled into one.
Next stop on this explore-the-living-past trip was the museum of ‘Culture of Everyday Life in East Germany’.
The museum, like the steel mill, was in Eisenhüttenstadt. Eisenhüttenstadt was a model town, built to show what the future of socialism was going to deliver. Its clean, wide streets (a steel artwork on every corner) were lined with formations of workers' housing. Balconies hung in the air, footpaths were tree-lined. All very fine, but page 142 these days it's hard to see anything particularly special. Well, there was no graffiti. Traffic moved smoothly. The general air was of a retirement village; the purpose had gone out of the place. But there is still pride. Everything is fresh-painted. The steel art is polished, with trimmed footings. Once, Soviet leaders and workers' tour groups were brought here to glimpse how the rest of the world would be some day.
The museum's glass cubes held fifties kitsch. A blender made of clear plastic—suspended in time. Balls of wool, portable typewriters, bicycles. Filing cabinets, transistor radios, instant coffee: you know, they had everything in the former East. Enclosed within the cases were the things that make an everyday life. I was told that citizens of the former East come here and are delighted to be reunited with the things they once used. This is complicated. Cilly tells me: ‘When the Wall fell, all the people who lived in these towns threw out everything in their houses. The footpaths were piled big with their household effects. They went to Ikea and refurnished. This lasted for two years. Then they became disillusioned with the life the West was offering them. They became nostalgic for their old products. An industry came into being, presenting updated products in old packaging. Now people come to museums like this and get in touch once again with the things they lost.’
That night we ate dinner outdoors, beside a river. Poland was on the far bank. Under large umbrellas, at solid wooden tables, we drank dark beer infused with herbs and ate horse meat—fabulously exotic. The chef, a former navy man, had been to New Zealand; he could pronounce a recognisable version of ‘Wellington’. I'd never eaten horse before, it was delicious. No khaki here, now. As we ate we talked about how people ate horse in hard times, it was considered a hardship food. Horse was for dogs, it usually came in cans. But people eat dogs, too. It all depends. That's what we said, with the broad river flowing steadily past and Polish grass over there and Polish trees and Cilly smoking number 68 for the day, the smoke curling up into the night, and the chef bringing us a complimentary glass of schnapps, which hung gleaming and tasty in the bottom of a tall, slim glass—again, something never tasted before. Definitely. It all depends.