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Self Directing. Women Artists from the GDR and the Expansion of their Art in Performance and Actions

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The dilemma of action and performance art in the GDR (i.e., in the time of state socialism) was that it was barely visible or allowed to exist. Attempts to enter into the public with a process based art practice were strictly prevented from the cultural political side right up until the late 1980s. When the idea of a section for "action art" arose in 1983 at the IXth Congress of the Association of Visual Artists in the GDR (VBK) the president at the time, Willi Sitte, clearly struck it down. In East German art academies there was pure and simply no place in the curriculum for a fine arts programme in which the concepts of Fluxus, happenings or Land Art could have been taught. Even in 1987, the scenic-performative diploma of the so-called Auto-Perforations-Artisten at the Dresden Art Academy could not be evaluated due to "a lack of criteria for this art form".

Time and time again there were initiatives to officially establish interdisciplinary methods in Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig or Karl-Marx-Stadt, but these were regularly thwarted by the stipulations and prohibitions of the party and governance1. Only during the GDR's last year of existence, did the art association develop a new way of dealing with transgressive forms of performance, installation and environment art. Thus, the first event that exhibited performance art as an equal alongside painting and sculpture was authorized in 19892.

Nevertheless, there was an abundance of illegal happenings and actions within the unofficial art scene already in the late 1970s. Against the background of the official art doctrine of figurative, realistic and ideologically aligned "Socialist Realism", inter-medial works that deliberately induced intersections between visual art with literature, music, experimental dance and film, opened up new aesthetic and political dimensions. Whether it was the environmentally critical Land Art performances, or so-called ‘plein airs' by Clara Mosch (a group of artists from Karl-Marx-Stadt), the performances of the Berlin artist Erhard Monden which were oriented on the Beuys based concept of "social plastic" or Lutz Dammbeck's media collages that illuminated the blind spots in Germany's view of history - all of them implemented an "extended concept of art". As forms of process art, the body-paintings by Cottbuser allround-artist Hans Scheuerecker, the music performances by Helge Leiberg, the excessive appearances of Klaus Hähner-Springmühl and the absurd rituals of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten transcended the dogma of a traditional work aesthetic once and for all. Stagings of the independent theatre troupes Zinnober or Medeatheater, readings at Wilfriede Maaß' pottery workshop (a central meeting point for oppositional artists), punk and rock concerts by the Leipzig band Wutanfall or Schleimkeim from Erfurt, appearances of the East Berlin fashion troupe chic, charmant & dauerhaft or the fashion theatre from Allerleirauh and the numerous baroque artist (children) festivals or Frühlingssalons at the Dresden Art Academy saw themselves as events of resistance, aimed against the official cultural programme and the dominating concept of art and culture as enriching "socialist thought and feelings"3.

The reception during the last 20 years ensured that the chapter of action and performance art by male artists in the GDR was passed on to a large degree4. But what significance did artists such as Christine Schlegel, Cornelia Schleime, Gabriele Stötzer (previously Kachold) or Erika Stürmer-Alex, have for artistic transgression and the development of more process based art forms?5 How can this chapter of East German art history be reconstructed from today's perspective?

Gabriele Stötzer, Schrei Carmen, 1982, 10 Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografien, jeweils 18 x 13 cm, Courtesy Gabriele Stötzer, © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Gabriele Stötzer, Schrei Carmen, 1982, 10 Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografien, jeweils 18 x 13 cm, Courtesy Gabriele Stötzer, © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn

Exterra XX , one of the few groups of women artists in the GDR, was creatively active for more than ten years6. In performances, fashion shows, and concerts the Erfurt artists nakedly explored the ins and outs of their own boundaries in self-designed costumes or with wild action painting. In 1989, the group was allowed to officially perform for the first time. At the joint performances Verena Kyselka took over the function of the belligerent news reporter: Since she was barely understandable behind a partially closed face mask, the current state of politics and culture that she cited were distorted. The relationship between the sender and receiver was therefore presented only as interference. In her numerous experimental actions, Gabriele Stötzer (now known primarily as an author) and her colleagues from Exterra XX discovered a body language that introduced radical counter-images to the predominant pattern of representations of women and emphasized the symbiotic interaction of female bodies. With the playful implementation of organic materials like eggs or hair and with methods such as painting, bandaging, deforming and fragmenting these actions move between the erotic ritual of Meat Joy (1964), one of the well known early feminist performances by the American performance pioneer Carolee Schneemann, and the visualization of the vulnerable female body in Glass on Body Imprints (1972) from the feminist artist Ana Mendieta. Whereas, the images of the painter Cornelia Schleime have received attention from a broad audience, her body actions from the 1980s are, up until now, barely known. During two plein airs in Hüppstedt (in Thuringia), photographic series of stagings in which she painted herself and wrapped herself in wire and fabric were created. By later painting over the photographs, the normativity of the original in a progressive act is nullified and an oscillating space between documentation and fiction opens up. In Cornelia Schleime's performances and Super-8 films, the wrapping of the head and body is funnelled into breathtaking images of physical and psychological restrictions, similar to the etchings and performances of the West German body artist Annegret Soltau. In addition to her painting, Christine Schlegel, who similar to her colleagues Cornelia Schleime and Gabriele Stötzer, created numerous artistic Super-8 films in the early 1980s, continues to adhere to this interaction between film and performance up until today. Her collaboration with the independent dancer and performer Fine Kwiatkowski stands for this continuity. Their collaboration, founded in 1984/85 with their first common film Strukturen I, spans copious projects up until their film, music and dance performance Cocartoon (2000). Karla Woisnitza, whose artistic endeavours were mostly focused on co-operations with other artists, was already the initiator of various actions at the end of the 1970s. In her own work, experimental stage and costume designs as well as self-sewn doll objects are transformed into fragile and expansive environments made of earth, sand, silk and hybrid material bodies, reminiscent of the French artist Annette Messager's installations.

Up until now, the painter and sculpture Erika Stürmer-Alex, whose sculptures take up the surface aesthetic and colourfulness of Niki de Saint Phalle's Nanas, has been an authority only for an inner circle of East German artists. Her work has been appreciated on a public level far too little. She opened her studio and farmhouse to generations of both male and women artists, transforming the yard into an outdoor space for spontaneous theatre in which the actors and audience moved freely about. To this day she fights against an elitist concept of art and instead supports an art meant for common use. In that she comes from making objects to using objects, she explores the corresponding relationship between figure and space. In Land Art actions, with self-made costumes she embodies abstract sculptures, setting them in motion and transferring them into new arrangements with other objects.

Cornelia Schleime,
Cornelia Schleime, "Mund auf, Nase zu", 1982, Tusche auf Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 21,5 x 30 cm. Courtesy Cornelia Schleime; Galerie Michael Schultz, Berlin; Foto: Gabriele Stötzer

Together with Gabriele Stötzer and Cornelia Schleime, the photographer and action artist Heike Stephan collaborated in actions and stagings in the Hüppstedt plein airs in 1982. In her performances such as Niobe am Sipylos (1987) in the Weißer Elefant gallery in Berlin she primarily used silk fabric which, due to its particular materiality, allegorically represents the state of paralysis and suffocation as well as transparency and openness. Harriet Böge was not only the lady who Hans Scheuerecker "used to paint in his actions" (Richard Mansfeld), but rather also contributed her own ideas, multiple talents and intuitive expression. She appropriated these qualities to such an extent that she now works as a director for theatre and media stagings. As a member of the theatre troupe Medeatheater (1985-1990) the film maker Ramona Welsh (previously Köppel-Welsh) appeared in a staging of Hamlet in private homes and contributed to regime-critical interventions in Berlin at Alexanderplatz, at the Umweltbibliothek 7 as well as in the Berliner Dom at the end of the 1980s. Else Gabriel took on a special position in the reception of women artists dedicated to actionist and inter-medial art forms. As a member of the Auto-Perforations-Artisten she attained a degree of fame beyond the Dresden Elbe Valley in very powerful aggressive appearances at the end of the 1980s. The performance group was one of the few East German performative art projects successfully exported to Eastern and Western Europe after 1989. In her radical and ritualized stagings she was the only woman who competed alongside the men Micha Brendel, Rainer Görß and Via Lewandowsky. In the complex structures of verbal, theatrical, musical and body intensive actionism Else Gabriel blew dry dead poultry with a "pronounced morbid female baroque component" (Else Gabriel), stuck her head in a pail with two day old pigs' blood, braided a 15 meter long dough-blood umbilical cord and recited texts about guilt, conscience and forgetting.

Else Gabriel (mit Ulf Wrede),
Else Gabriel (mit Ulf Wrede), "Alias oder die Kunst der Fuge", 1989, Performance, Permanente Kunstkonferenz, Ost-Berlin, 1989. Courtesy Else Gabriel; Foto: Jochen Wermann

Up to their expatriation or up until the end of the GDR's state socialism, women artists never had the opportunity to directly view Western performance art. There were, when at all, only vague ideas about the concept of performance, instead, discussions were almost always about actions8. Gabriele Stötzer wrote with regards to Exterra XX: "As far as I know, we first had a concept of ‘performance' as such for our actions in Erfurt in 1989. Up until then we just did it". 9 It was not without reason that the Dresden group of artists referred to their actions as Auto-Perforations-Artistik. In doing so they generated their own reference system for their actionist self-questioning in order to - in comparison with (Western) performance art - not fall into the need to explain things. Cultural exchanges with "sisters" in the Eastern "brother nations" were also either not sought or not possible. Performances and body actions of female Polish artists such as Natalia LL, Ewa Partum or Zofia Kulik, the Hungarian Orshi Drozdik, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović or from the Croation Sanja Iveković remained for the most part unknown to female East German artists; the few who did know of them had never actually seen or experienced them. When recordings of a performance by Marina Abramović did reach the GDR, they were often in small, poorly reproduced black and white photos. The catalogues imported from the West and kept under lock and key in the "poison cabinet" at the library were not accessible to everyone. Feminist performance, video and concept art, the strategies of artistic subversion of their Eastern and Western colleagues remained extensively abstract to East German protagonists.

Few multi-medial artists like Valie Export or Ulrike Rosenback were found in the GDR who, despite their diversity, resolutely shaped, influenced and further developed performance as an artistic form of expression, over a long period of time. In the GDR, women artists could not and did not want to permanently pursue the practice of performance and body actions. Coming from such different fields of study as stage setting (Karla Woisnitza and Else Gabriel) or painting and graphics (Cornelia Schleime and Christine Schlegel), they changed their art production between the types and combined the various disciplines together. Inevitably they experimented with all of the media and at times unwillingly had to fall back on other cultural fields. Speed, unpredictability and flexibility were necessary prerequisites for being able to produce art under unofficial conditions, which is why artists worked on subversive cultural production in every conceivable sphere. Because she was banned from making exhibitions following the legendary Türenausstellung in the Dresden Leonhardi-Museum in 1979, Cornelia Schleime started the art punk band Zwitschermaschine. It too was quickly banned, whereupon, she dedicated herself to body actions and Super-8 films. After leaving for Berlin (West) she once again took up painting. The urge to move away from "copying" reality led Christine Schlegel to collage, to the movement of objects and figures and to "imagery theatre" which in turn strengthened the expression in her paintings. In her multi-medial performances Christine Schlegel dissolved the traditional relationship between model and painter. Against the backdrop of Schegel's films projected on a wall, Fine Kwiatkowski danced as an androgynous apparition with shaven head and white tricot. In an unmistakable, forceful use of form she transferred the painting and the film of the artist into the room. According to laws of her own, Fine Kwiatkowski transformed her body into moving paintings; her appearances becoming graphic-gestural performances10. And even Else Gabriel, who appeared only as a performer during the 1980s, worked parallel with conceptual photography and texts.

Christine Schlegel, Dokumentation der Performances mit Fine Kwiatkowski, Gruppe Fine und D2H, begonnen 1984 mit der Film-Performance
Christine Schlegel, Dokumentation der Performances mit Fine Kwiatkowski, Gruppe Fine und D2H, begonnen 1984 mit der Film-Performance "Strukturen", ab 1986 "Wandlungen", seit 1990 "Cocartoon". Courtesy Christine Schlegel; Foto:

Especially because there was no official or scholarly language for actions and this process oriented art (which had no preset result) could evolve in all contexts, it seemed an ideal medium for many artists in the totalitarian surveillance state of the GDR. In improvised and spontaneous test arrangements they could appear in different locations such as homes, studios or the few producer galleries and quickly disappear again together with the audience before the verdict of the ban hit their actions. Improvisation was a survival strategy in everyday reality and a predominating practice in art. Thus in 1976, Karla Woisnitza initiated a scenic reading with her colleagues in a restaurant, a face painting and photo action in a studio in 1978, an artistic intervention at an overgrown Jewish cemetery in 1979, and staged her performance of Ilse Aichinger's Spiegelgeschichte in her own home in 1982. Due to the unavoidable exclusion of the public, very few had the privilege of being observers at these fleeting performances. In the absence of video technology many of these actions could not be recorded and countless Land Art actions were never documented. For this among other reasons, at the end of the 1970s women artists, like their male colleagues, began to increasingly use photography as a documentary medium for recording their performances or to translate their body actions into artistic Super-8 films. In addition to her own appearances and numerous photo series, Gabriele Stötzer shot 18 experimental films, which portrayed not only the female, but also the male body in unusually direct ways. In poetic consolidation and suggestive images, her Super-8 film Trisal, which was created in collaboration with Monika Andres and Verena Kyselka in 1986, told of female impartiality and self-determination. With movement, dance and music the shadow and body plays fuse into unprecedented sensual and powerful images in the film.

In particular, actions and medial stagings made it possible to evade the state's ideological appropriation and functionalization of art. The performances of women artists became allegories for the subjective experience of living in a specific body (the female, which protested against the state enforced conformity of the body), at a specific time (greater intellectual and social rigidity) and in a specific place (within the closed system of the GDR). Similar to Cornelia Schleime, Gabriele Stötzer worked with archaic images of wrapping, masking and mummification. Else Gabriel's pig-blood drenched head is both an expression of isolation and disillusion as well as of resistance to the dominating socialist realism concept of art and the refusal of an unambiguous intelligibility of her art. In provocative appearances, Else Gabriel or Ramona Welsh expressed pain and rage at the extensive cuts made by the state into personal and creative freedom. In the spontaneous theatre of Erika Stürmer-Alex or appearances of Exterra XX, masquerades, parodies and carnival like distortions undermined structures of repression. Plots were so individualized and encrypted that sometimes they were no longer decodable for the audience, but especially for the state representatives and the Ministry of State Security: "To appear as a person, as an artist, as an explicit body without medium for being a state sanctioned (artistic) message (or at least a recognizable ‘anti-message') was unheard of, unthinkable, which is why references were sought in the activities, props, costumes and scraps of text which could have set these appearances in a social context. And of course these were there, just not in the expected or sought for form."11

Heike Stephan, "Monelle", 1983, Performance mit nasser Seide (zu Texten von Marcel Schwob aus "Das Buch von Monelle"), Serie von 24 Fotografien, je 40 x 60 cm. Courtesy Heike Stephan; Foto: Heike Stephan; © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn
Heike Stephan, "Monelle", 1983, Performance mit nasser Seide (zu Texten von Marcel Schwob aus "Das Buch von Monelle"), Serie von 24 Fotografien, je 40 x 60 cm. Courtesy Heike Stephan; Foto: Heike Stephan; © VG Bild-Kunst Bonn

In their actions the artists' concern was primarily directed at subjective standards of quality and against art in its function as representations and decorations. Their action art was anti-representation. In doing so the artists directly explored female identity and self-determination, frequently working directly with their own experiences of being a woman and the appropriation of their female body. In the rarest cases such as with Exterra XX or Gabriele Stötzer their action art was directed against the male tradition of production and seeing and against the state as a manifestation of the political power of men. The question of art was primarily existentially based for women artists. They worked with the greatest possible authenticity in order to "stay tuned to it" and to genuinely express their experience of reality. Whereas, many women artists followed their intuition in these actions, the fewest pursued an artistic questioning of sexual differences and gender identity. In almost all cases they disapproved of the West's feminist discourse, occasionally up until today. Their life experiences and art practice was perceived as differing too much from their colleagues in the West, and the role of feminism too hegemonic and incorporative. If a woman artist from the GDR was endued with the label "feminist", she was quickly excluded and the consequences could be damaging for her career both within the official and unofficial art production12.

For the artists of the Erfurt based Exterra XX organizing themselves into a women's group primarily meant coping with their reality and "surviving intellectually" (Gabriele Stötzer). They made their lives the subject of their art, particularly because the women wanted to counter the regimentation and oppression in their day to day lives. All of these artists never perceived themselves as character in their actions and physical transformations, but rather always as themselves. Their own bodies were their preferred medium over which they had control. In doing so they developed to some degree a very personal and individual language. Their performances and actions were a protest against political and aesthetical patronage by the state and were a place of greater authenticity. Central to their work was how they were active between the art genres, extending artistic methods that opposed a rigid categorization: with Erika Stürmer-Alex it was the vivification of sculptural ideas, with Christine Schlegel it was the continuation of painting with other mediums, with Karla Woisnitza and Exterra XX it was the unfolding of artistic subjectivity in the collective art practice or with Cornelia Schleime it was in the subversion of caricaturization and intensification.

With their performative and actionistic practice, women artists in the GDR entered into an unknown experimental territory, which when compared internationally seemed to be unconventional and self-referential. Nonetheless, it also demonstrated numerous parallels to the experimental and transgressive forms of expression in the East and West. They spurred on the opening of the GDR's art system and made their own art which drew its strength from its uniqueness, but primarily from the direct subjectivity of the artists, their physical presence and corporeality. Their art was a suspension of artistic conventions, social codes and traditionally codified female identity.


* This and all other quotations contained within this paper have been translated from German by the translator.

  1. 1.  

    One of the known examples is the exhibition project Tangente 1 - Malerei, Tanz, Film, Musik which was initiated by artists from Leipzig and had to be aborted in 1977 because the initiators had gone the legal application way and were subject to ever changing conditions. The Land Art concept Metamorphosen eines Baumes, submitted by Eberhard Göschel and Peter Herrmann for the VIIIth Art Exhibition in 1977, was also refused.

  2. 2. Permanente Kunstkonferenz an event organized by Eugen Blume and Christoph Tannert on behalf of the VBK as an accompaniement to the Berlin regional art exhibition was a three-day performance festival held in the Galerie Weißer Elefant and in Erhard Monden's studio at Sredzkistraße 64 in Berlin. Already in 1985 Intermedia I, organized by Christoph Tannert and Michael Kapinos, took place at Clubhaus Coswig near Dresden. After Jazz in (1983, Clubhaus Coswig) the second action art festival of the GDR ended with the dismissal of the club house leader, Wolfgang Zimmermann.
  3. 3. "Everywhere, where artists came together (....) the current of emotion swelled, and the transitional processes from the antiquated presentation to a mutual celebration were to some extent exuberantly celebrated. Rock music always played a role, there were always poets and actors, films were shown, frequently objects were built in the open air." Tannert, Christoph: "Leben ist außer den staatlichen Sprachen. Produzenten- und Selbsthilfegalerien", in: Gillen, Eckhart / Haarmann, Rainer
    (Eds.): Kunst in der DDR. Köln 1990, p. 102.
  4. 4. Valuable contributions to this were made in particular by Klaus Werner with his texts on the group of artists Clara Mosch and their plein airs, Eugen Blume with his publications on the influence of Joseph Beuys' on action art in the GDR, and Erhard Monden's with his work on "extended concepts of art". Due to an article by Klaus Werner "action art" was first openly discusses in 1982 in the GDR's Association of Visual Artists journal Bildende Kunst. In 1989, Christoph Tannert and Eugen Blume published the first Dokumentation zur Aktionskunst in Berlin / DDR. Christoph Tannert dedicated numerous action art texts in the GDR to among others the Auto-Perforations-Artisten or Tohm di Roes. Extensive texts can be found in: Kaiser, Paul / Petzold, Claudia (Eds.): Boheme und Diktatur in der DDR. Gruppen. Konflikte. Quartiere 1970-1989. Exhibition Catalogue, Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin. Berlin 1997; Fritzsche, Karin / Löser, Claus (Eds.): Gegenbilder. Filmische Subversion in der DDR 1976-1989. Berlin 1996.
  5. 5. The exhibition Body and the East. From the 1960s to the Present curated by Zdenka Badovinac in 1998 at the Moderna galerija Ljubljana provided detailed insight into Eastern European performance and action art. As a representative for action art in the GDR, the Auto-Perforations-Artisten were invited. In the exhibition re.act.feminism. performancekunst der 1960er und 70er jahre heute, curated by Bettina Knaup and Beatrice E. Stammer in 2008 / 09 at the Berlin Art Academy, the performances of Else Gabriel, Verena Kyselka, Christine Schlegel, Cornelia Schleime and Gabriele Stötzer were introduced within the international performance context. Also the exhibition Gender Check. Rollenbilder in der Kunst Osteuropas, curated by Bojana Pejić at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna, took up performative and body oriented work by women artists in the GDR. In the first comprehensive historical exhibition on art and feminism, the 2007 exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution organized at the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Los Angeles with over 120 participating artists, only a few artists from Eastern Europe were represented and none from East Germany.
  6. 6. Exterra XX was founded in 1984 and existed as a group up until the start of the 1990s. In 1992 at the Kunsthaus Erfurt, Verena Kyselka and Gabriele Stötzer intiated an international performance week that was accompanied by a Manifest on Multi-Medial Performance. The inner circle of the Erfurt based group of women artists Exterra XX consisted of Monika Andres, Tely Büchner, Elke Carl, Monique Förster, Gabriele Göbel, Ina Heyner, Verena Kyselka, Bettina Neumann, Ingrid Plöttner, Gabriele Stötzer, and Harriet Wollert.
  7. 7. In the Umweltbibliothek at the Berliner Zionskirche - in which banned writings on the environment, women rights and human rights were made accessible - numerous events took place.
  8. 8. "Long live action! This concept absorbs everything - from slapstick to the on-site banquet up to the private art show. ‘Mosch' belongs just like the group ‘Lücke frequentor' formed around Penck, Opitz and their friends the ‘Herbstsalon' in Leipzig, the fetes antiréglementaires in parishes and mills in the Saxon Elbe region, the plein airs of Galerie Arkade and many other belong to this type of ‘loosening' which brought the concept of the artistic out of the merely decorative, humiliated it and preposterously restored it." Werner, Klaus: "Fünftracht unterm Weiberrock. Die Galerie Clara Mosch", in: Gillen, Eckhart / Haarmann, Rainer (Eds.): Kunst in der DDR. Cologne 1990, p. 346.
  9. 9. Stötzer, Gabriele: "Frauen auf dem Weg zur Veränderung. Die Erfurter Künstlerinnengruppe Exterra XX", in: Horch und Guck, Volume 65, Issue No. 2 (Berlin 2009), pp. 28-31.
  10. 10. Regarding the roll, aesthetics and impact of Fine Kwiatkowski see Lubich, Barbara: "FINE. Gruppe und Kunstfigur", in: Eckhardt, Frank / Kaiser, Paul (Eds.): Ohne uns! Kunst und alternative Kultur in Dresden vor und nach '89. Exhibtion Catalogue, Prager Spitze / Motorenhalle / Gedenkstätte Bautzener Straße / Rathaus, Dresden. Dresden 2009.
  11. 11. Gabriel, Else: "FLU - (Virus und Werk) Über Performance, Publikum, Peinlichkeit, Konserven und ein Mittel gegen alles in der eigenen Arbeit", in: Meyer, Petra Maria (Ed.): Performance im medialen Wandel. Paderborn 2006.
  12. 12. Angela Hampel in a discussion with the author, 2009.