Dresden: art movement in genesis

Adam Jasper Smith

7th Floor building, Dresden, Germany

7th Floor building, Dresden, Germany

Pirnaischer Platz, an asphalt covered transportscape at the centre of what was once the Baroque city of Dresden, is not exactly the sort of place where a traveller would expect to find solace. Highways intersect around pedestrian islands accessible to each other only via subterranean tunnels. Slowly crumbling Baroque and Communist-era palaces stare down blindly on commuters below, their windows broken. The commuters are waiting despondently for public transport, their bodies puffed out to implausible dimensions by the multiple layers of clothing needed to protect them from the frigid, moist air. They avoid eye contact with each other in a way that evokes the anonymity of cities with much bigger populations than Dresden’s mere half million.

Nor is Dresden the sort of place that one would expect to feature in discussions of the Utopian. In so far as Utopia means “no-place”, Dresden is already Utopia. The city is deep enough in the former German Democratic Republic to feel uneasy with the West, unsettled about its past, insecure about its future. Almost bombed out of existence by the British, occupied by the Soviets, Dresden was not a hotbed of discussion and revolt before the fall of the Berlin Wall. That status is more often accorded to Berlin and Leipzig. If a city, as Freud once observed, can have mental pathologies in the same way as an individual, then Dresden is insecure and depressed, aware that ever since the rise of Prussia, it is a city that has had things done to it rather than doing things itself. Perhaps only sharpening the sense of having fallen, Dresden is also a repository of European high art. The enormous collections of the Alte Meister and Neue Meister galleries would be considered significant by any European capital. These 2 poles, defeatism and conservatism, make one very small movement in Dresden all the more extraordinary.

Standing over Pirnaischer Platz is a single dominant structure. The building is astonishing. An aggressively ugly piece of Stalinist architecture, managing to be both shabby and authoritarian at the same time, its ludicrous stern pebblecrete columns in classical proportions arrayed around a squat tower. Attached to the columns are iron hoops, rusted shut. They used to support flagpoles, dozens of them. In its previous incarnation, the building was a neanderthal bearer of bunting. It gives the impression of being wet and cold even in bright sunlight. Now, at about 8 o’clock in the evening, it seems almost camply sinister.

Our destination is at the top of this building, in the rooms behind the columns. It is here that one of the most interesting ongoing conversations among contemporary artists in Germany is being developed, extended and sometimes mocked. A jour fix is taking place, a regular meeting of artists, theorists, filmmakers and students. Every Friday at about this time people file into the foyer of the tower and ride the elevator up. The lift looks infernal. Either the sprinkler system has been disengaged, or it was never installed, because the air in the elevator compartment is blue with cigarette smoke. The 7th Floor is the only level occupied. In the main room, between 30 and 60 guests sit around a central table, on benches or chairs improvised from various objects. The way in which the furniture has been arranged and the rooms have been left undecorated emphasises the sense that this building has been squatted, and that its rooms are somehow being used without their consent. One half expects to see a picture of Erich Honecker’s disapproving visage on the wall, but he’s been taken down to make space for a video beamer.

There is an artful sense of spontaneity in the decorations here, an attempt to maintain the feeling of always being at a beginning. Nothing is established, nothing is traditional, there are no rituals or codes that cannot be said within a few seconds: everyone gathers around the Stammtisch, the table; someone speaks for an hour; everyone stays and gets drunk. The bar is made of a couple of planks of wood resting on a fridge and some empty beer crates. You have to pay, but beer is sold at one euro a bottle, little more than what it costs in the supermarket. Your opinion is as good as anyone else’s, but a well constructed argument will get more attention, and a new idea raised in the presentation will spark conversations that spin off and propagate themselves for hours.

The concept is unprepossessing, but the 7th Floor has managed to attract speakers and presenters from across the German speaking world, from Hamburg to Zurich and Cologne to Vienna. On the May 14, the Austrian architect Hannes Böck showed his video studies of postwar West German buildings. The videos comprised static shots, painterly composed, with the ambient sound included with the film. Very little happens. A bird sings, a pedestrian walks by, and a cloud scuds over the building, casting its facade in shadow for a few seconds. Böck’s idea is that film left to run captures the aura of a building far more effectively than a single photograph could. The aura is what he most wants to measure. The buildings he films have all been designed by Nazi architects, whose services were desperately needed in reconstructing postwar Germany. Their structures have a heavy authoritarianism about them that cannot be described by discussing their formal properties alone. Hence the need for film, the need to capture how monolithic the structures are in shifting light, and how they dwarf movements of humans, transforming walking into a sort of insectile scuttle. The films could have been seen as a sort of plein airpainting, as micro remakes of Andy Warhol’s film Empire, as architecture documentation, history, or even a form of sociological research. There is no reason to make a choice between these descriptions.

On the 6th of February, the Berlin artist Beatrice Jugert presented attendees with documentation of her rituals of political ceremony. Unlike Böck’s video installation, her event was compellingly interactive, complete with flag raising ceremonies and the singing of fanciful hymns. Beatrice Jugert has been actively investigating conceptions of Utopia in her art since the year 2000, and as part of her project created seven seperate nations and attempted to import them into reality, opening embassies, issuing visas, creating social rituals to allow the citizens of her fictive nations to identify with their new “mother country” or “father land”.

It is also noteworthy, considering the absence of funding for flights or hotels, that there has been a steady stream of international guests. Professor Mary Jo Bole from Columbus, Ohio, presented her sculptural work there on the 30th. The Estonian collective Mooste Külalis Stuudio arrived on the 10th to discuss exactly what it is to be a local art movement in a global world.

And why do you care? Why are you here, when you could be at opening number 4 zillion in Berlin, or at the Kunsthaus in Zurich, or anywhere with decent catering and an identifiable cloakroom? What the 7th Floor offers is the glimpse of a movement in its genesis. It barely matters if it wilts: it could give rise to a new Documenta, a new Fluxus, a new vocabulary in international contemporary art. It may well do so—all the prerequisites are here, including an indifference to failure. Or the 7th Floor could disappear without a trace. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What is significant is that the 7th Floor presents a non-institutional forum for art, a space without the imprimatur of an institution, sponsor or guardian. The core group behind the events consists of graduates and students of the Dresden Academy of Fine Art, Hochschule für Bildende Künste Dresden (HfBK). Their project is delegitimated art, the bastard child of state funded institutions that turn out generations of engaged, critical artists who cannot anticipate any support from the institutions and corporations who define the royal road. The 7th Floor is a statement of autonomy, the right to continue assembling, developing and extending ideas without permission or support, but also without ideological rigidity. The movement undermines the existing institutional order of art, not by denouncing it, but by ignoring it.

But if you want that cloakroom, the building that best embodies that institutional order is less than a kilometre away. The Oktogon, with its glass cupola graced by a golden angel, is the official gallery of the HfBK. Exhibitions here are opened by state ministers, and visited by the chief executives from the local AMD microchip factory, from the Volkswagen plant and from Philip Morris—all of them significant sponsors and collectors. No one ever pays for their drinks at an Oktogon opening; they are always brought, in the internationally recognised manner, by a liveried servant. There’s nothing to fear in being seen there, no rancour or enmity to be suffered from the artist run initiative up the road. Beatrice Jugert, for example, gave her presentation on Utopianism at the 7th Floor even as she prepared her exhibition, sponsored by Philip Morris, at the Oktogon down the road. It’s more an attitude of gentle condescension, a sense that the honoured guests at the Oktogon don’t, well, understand very much. A clever artist tells Philip Morris what they want to hear, but she tells her friends the truth. Speaking the truth to those in power is not always the best idea.

For those travelling through Germany, the 7th Floor publishes its program on the web (www.stock7.de), and welcomes potential contributors. Knowledge of German might make reading the website easier, but is not a prerequisite for contributing, and certainly not one for attending. Rudimentary accommodation is routinely offered to contributors. The organisers can be contacted at: post@stock7.de.

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 9

© Adam Jasper Smith; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2004