He is convinced that some things that happened to him while he was still a child, happened for a reason: so that he devotes himself to art. That was a decision Via Lewandowsky took earlier than most people and which he has never doubted. For one thing, he didn’t feel anything else was interesting. And then, for a teenager growing up in East Germany, art was a way to deal with frustration and sadness.
How old were you when you realized that you only wanted to become an artist?
That happened pretty early actually, when I was 14, 15 years old.
In what way was this realization expressed?
At the time I wasn’t really interested in anything, with the exception of drawing and painting. I was very enthusiastic and totally devoted to it. Despite being a really bad painter, really bad. You know how you hand some children pencils and paper and they start drawing and it all looks instantly right? That was not the case with me. It was like a had a disability in this respect. And yet, I persisted and took it very seriously. Actually with 15 I started going to night classes at the Art Academy so as to become a better painter.
Where did you draw the confidence to continue your artistic pursuits even though you were conscious of this “disability”?
I fiercely wanted it. Drawing felt like escaping to my own world. In fact I was in a way constructing my own private world, creating images and objects that were allowing me to keep myself at a distance from my pathetic physical surroundings.
Why do you say that?
Because I grew up in the East, in Dresden. The city been destroyed in a fire storm by allied bomber squadrons in February 1945. While I was a child I didn’t realize how sad everything around me was, but as I was growing older it eventually became clear to me in what in what a fucking tragic environment I was living in. A Communist dictatorship, a police state, an economically blooded out country, worse then any European country today.
Was that sad everyday reality a fact people openly discussed?
Some people realized, even at a very young age, that the situation in the GDR was actually fucked up. And they were also very much aware of the cynicism and the absurdity of that reality. The East was full of absurdities anyway. Of course this was an aspect one could in a way learn to laugh at, especially when the double meaning of everything was apparent. But still, one longed for a different reality.
A different reality as opposed to what kind of a reality? How did you imagine a normal reality?
Normal? How would one know what a normal reality is? We were familiar with only one reality. Let me give you an example of what was “normal”. It’s such a stereotypical picture though…
It’s OK, give me the stereotypical picture.
When my grandmother was travelling to the West, it was an incredible moment. We brought her to the train station and everybody was crying. She was going to visit relatives. People older than 65 were allowed to travel to the West for this reason. So she was going away for a couple of weeks, that was all. And this was only 500 – 600 km away. But in terms of our reactions you’d think we were bidding farewell someone embarking on a transatlantic adventure, going after a new life in America. Can you imagine how fragile the social construction was, that something so minor was experienced as something huge and very emotional? And later, when we picked her up, everybody was crying again. Out of joy this time. This was a loaded trip, it felt like crossing universes. It was dangerous, no one knew if she was coming back.
Why was it considered dangerous? Were people afraid of the West?
Everything felt dangerous in the East. You never knew what was going to happen next.
You said earlier that there was a strong element of absurdity and everything had double meanings. So there was also material for satire?
Sure but this you would realize much later, it comes with maturity. At 15 one is not conscious of it. At that age I had the strongest desire to leave. Sure, it was partly due to the typical adolescent frustration, this pessimism that one suffers at that stage in life. But on top of that, mine was indeed a very pessimistic situation. What I was looking at every day was sad. Dresden was destroyed.
At that age, were you aware of the extent of the destruction? I mean, did you know what it was you had missed?
Oh, yes. And I was really in love with the image of the pre-war city. Because I was big admirer of a historian, Fritz Löffler, who had published a wonderful book, “Das Alte Dresden”, that was like a bible to me. I was always studying the photographs, the town plans, the buildings’ plans, the street images. I was amazed. Sometimes you would be standing in front of a fence, and there was a pile of garbage and you would realize that this where the Orangerie had once stood. Or you would walk by ruins, past walls standing there. You’d see the ruins of the Taschenbergpalais, or some other ruins that had once been a castle.
How was the neighbourhood that you grew up in?
We were living in the Nürnbergerstrasse, on the so-called Nürnberger Ei. And once, by chance, I found old pictures of this neighbourhood. It had been built near the end of the 19th century and was an amazingly beautiful Art Nouveau style neighbourhood. Most of the houses had been completely destroyed, but we had luck: We were living in one of the few old apartment buildings that were still standing; three metres high ceilings, stucco, double doors between the rooms, very bourgeois. When my father painted the ceiling with those horrible East German paints, sometimes a pattern would show through it, frangments from the old ceiling painting would emerge. He was really pissed. But I would stare at them in admiration, telling him “oh, look how beautiful this Art Nouveau painting is….” I loved it.
Let’s go back to the night classes you started taking at 15, in order to become a better painter. How did you manage to enroll if you were so bad?
I was not merely bad, I was a desperate painter…But I had help from my good neighbours, a couple of artists who put in a good word for me and convinced the people at the Academy to give me a chance. These neighbours, Erna Lincke and Hans Christoph, were very well known artists, who did not belong to the official art scene. They had embraced contemporary art before 1945 and had fallen out of favour because they were not producing socialist realist stuff. They were doing their own thing, picking up where they had left off before the war, still doing work that once had been avant-garde. By the way, this is interesting – that was also the case for one of my professors, Günter Hornig, at the Academy, who had been active as an artist in the 1960s. He had been working in the same style long after the Wall was erected. He had become like some biotope…You know, when a population moves to a far away village in Brazil, cut off from the rest of the world, and then 100 years later their descendants still speak the same dialect? This kind of thing was happening: Some artists were conserving the concepts of the art of the 1960s, they were still practicing it.
What was life in the GDR like for artists who were not turning out official State art?
Let’s take the example of my neighbours, who happened to have also been politically active against the nazi regime. And still they did not enjoy any support at all, professionally. But they had their network of friends who supported them. Art in the GDR was, as everything, a double reality. You had official art and all those people who were producing propaganda pieces, slogans etc and then you had another group of artists who were left in peace as long they kept to themselves. These would naturally get no support or recognition, they somehow had to survive on their own. And you would never see their art in any public exhibitions. But I saw some of it early on, thanks to these neighbours whose beautiful apartment was decorated with all their work. Later I had the opportunity to look extensively at art that was being created outside the GDR, thanks to books and art catalogues which were available at the Academy’s library.
How had they found their way to the library? Did students have free access to them?
Libraries would get these books officially from the West, because the West was interested in sending them over. However they would end up in the so called Giftschrank: The poisonous bookshelf. In order to have access to it, one had to have a special permission from a professor, but that was no problem. You could always find ways to have access to the Giftschrank books. In any case, our library was sort of “oppositionist”, people there prefered these books to all the socialist realism bullshit, and were thus interested in granting us access to them. The funny thing is that very few students reciprocated by asking to read these books. Isn’t that fascinating…But anyway, I did read them even though I wasn’t able to understand what I was looking at.
In what sense?
There was no context in my own world. I suppose I was a little like a Chinese artists who’s looking at western art and then does his own thing. Do you have any idea how many Richter or Gursky imitations you have in China? But the artists who imitate them, do it in their own way, there is something slightly different.
While still a student, in your twenties, you were a member of the avant-garde performance group Autoperforationsartisten. What was the concept of those performances? Can you help me imagine them?
We were a group of three students, who were brought together by our dislike of what we were being taught at the Academy. We wanted to study, but we wanted to use our time there to study our own things. We did not wish to follow the rules. And our performances, right from the very start, were an invitation to a new way of looking at art. The reason we were doing performance, was that it made it possible not to be defined by one specific media. And we were also free. Because our pieces were not static. In a way we were posing with the body, using ourselves as the media. Like an actor, or a ballet dancer would do. The difference in our case was that we were creating an art piece that was transforming itself simultaneously into photography, into a sound piece and into text; we were all very much interested in literature. So this strategy of creating works of art by the means of performance, meant that we were extremely flexible, making it almost impossible for the authorities to apply censorship to our work.
So you created an island of freedom for yourselves? How exactly did you manage to bypass censorship?
Let me give you an example: There was a big event coming up and we were going to take part in it, so the Stasi would come and ask to see our performance beforehand. “Sure, we will show you our performance.” But we played out a “naked” rehearsal. We included no sound, no costumes, none of the very important media that would be present in the actual performance and provide it with context. So the Stasi men were looking at something they didn’t get and would say “OK, go on”. Then, at the night of the performance we had sound, clothes, and a whole series of materials which were brought in just for the occasion – we were creating things. And all of a sudden what one watched made sense. Just this once. So there were no opportunities to censor it anymore. But even if they saw it, I doubt they would get it. We had actually learnt a lot from the theatre which -along with literature- was the most progressive cultural institution in the East.
For example Heiner Müller– he was doing classical plays but reworking and staging them in a very suggestive way. It was all very subtle, there was simply no way to censor it. Unless, of course, by cancelling the production altogether. Then in the 1980s the cultural scene became more liberal. After the story with Wolf Biermann, -where they stripped him of his citizenship and thus set him free- they didn’t want to risk such a fiasco again. Because you should know that after the Biermann story, the opposition became much stronger. It got more attention, even from people who had not been involved in any kind of oppositional actions, but suddenly thought it was a good way to get out the country! “OK, you can kick me out. Wonderful.”
Did you also want to get out?
Did you try to?
Well, I went to Bulgaria, I went to Romania…but soon realized that without good connections, it was extremely difficult to make it. So I decided to stay put and use my time “inside” to finish my study.
Did you ever have trouble with the Stasi?
Of course, my Stasi file is about 3,000 pages thick, this much I know. But I never applied to look into it. There were about ten people who were informing on me and I can more or less imagine who they were. I don’t care to know any more about the whole thing.
You finally left in the summer of 1989. How was that possible?
I was given a passport in order to take part in a group show that was going to take place in different cities in West Germany. When I received this passport, it was like a dream. The whole story of how I received it, I could write a book on.
When you were handed the passport, did you think that OK, this is it, I am leaving for good.
It was a little more complicated, because I had family and a kid, so after that first show in the West I came back to the GDR.
Would you describe how that first travel unfolded?
When I went through those concrete walls it felt like Christmas. For 26 years nothing was moving or happening and then all of a sudden I had this small piece of paper and was going through the fucking checkpoint on Friedrichstrasse. Friedrichstrasse was a labyrinth; It was a divided train station and a checkpoint, so it was a very multifunctional, neuralgic point in the city. To try to reconstruct that in 3D today would be extremely interesting. When you go through that train station today, you cannot begin to imagine what it was like. So, anyway, I went through all the corridors, walked past heavily armed officers, and my Christmas present was that piece of paper; they looked at me and I could…go. I don’t how know many chemicals started to flow in my body, but I will never forget this. Being on drugs is nothing compared to the feeling I had at that moment. And then I was sitting in the train, still on GDR territory with armed men on every platform. But as we were leaving the station, metre by metre, the landscape changed and we were looking at the border – a vast no man’s land. I was staring at that desert and it dawned on me that I was in the West, finally.
What were your very first impressions of the West?
Everything was different: there was more green, there were more colours, cars, even the air smelled differrent. And then I reached Bahnhof Zoo, which was the central station in West Berlin, and got out and found myself in a proper city, a busy western european city. It was a bit of a cultural shock.
But you still returned to the GDR.
Yes, I went back to Leipzig where I was living with my family. But I felt completely paralysed, it was like I was still dreaming. I remember sitting in the kitchen for hours on end, doing nothing, just watching the blue summer sky and the red roofs. It was like a “post-visit trauma”. On the other hand, I knew that once you got a passport and came back, it was fairly easy to get a passport again. There was another exhibition in the West coming up, this time in West Berlin, and with the excuse that I should prepare things for performances, I got a visa allowing me multiple entrance. I started travelling back and forth, until I decided that I should simply stop returning to the East at night. And I began preparing my stay in the West: closing my studio and giving up the apartment in East Berlin, as well as the apartment in Leipzig. I wanted to escape with my family, so I sent my wife and daughter to Hungary.
What was the escape plan?
I knew an Austrian artist who had a daughter that looked like my daughter, so he would use her passport to come from Salzburg where he lived, to Hungary, to pick my daughter up. At the same time my sister-in-law, who had escaped to the West earlier, would give her passport to my wife so that she would move out of Hungary. But then the revolution in Hungary escalated and I lost track of my family. My wife and my daughter never showed up at the Hungarian family I knew from a student college. And one day, as I was watching the news at Durs Grünbein’s place, there was a report on a refugee camp near the Lake Balaton in Hungary. This report on the West German TV was showing pictures of the camp. And I saw this little girl with a blue dinausaur sitting on a bench…I knew this dinosaur. And the young woman next to her was hiding her face behind a newspaper. Because she knew she shouldn’t be filmed. And then Durs turns to me and says “Have you seen this?” Yes. “You know what this means”. Yes. My family was on the news. If the Stasi realized that they had escaped, they would imprison me. Those refugee camps were full of Stasi, too. So the next day I packed my things and left. I had to leave, it was not safe anymore. My family had to stay in the camp another ten days. And then they were among the first to get on the buses from Hungary to West Germany.
And then a few months later the Wall was coming down. How did it feel?
I hated it. I was in West Berlin, I had finished my time in the East, I was not expecting to return so soon. I didn’t want to touch this anymore. I was thinking that maybe in five years, maybe in ten years, if the authorities would give me a visa I might travel back. But the wall came down and suddenly all these people I had just run away from were coming after me. This was not a good thing.
Because I knew what it meant. It was like opening a box with a really foul smell. There were like 16 – 17 million people and most of them had been brainwashed by 40 years of dictatorship. Their mentality was completely poisoned by that fucking ideology. And most of them were freaks. What was worse, though, was that the West was full of freaks, too. This I had not known.
And you then left for the US for some time and travelled for a while?
Not right away. In the first couple of years, I was paraded around like an attraction. Do you know how people from Africa were brought over to Europe in the 19th century and were being shown around in zoos, as exhibits?
You are saying that you were being exoticized and offered up as a sort of an attraction for the Westerners?
I was always the good example of “the brave East German artist who has not been influenced by the socialist realist aesthetics in the East, he has been doing his own things, moving in a different direction, not following any of the ideological bullshit, he is this brave guy that did not abide to the official concept etc etc etc” Because until then the West was only aware of the official concept.
Did that annoy you?
Of course it did. I hated it. I didn’t want to be a quota artist. I didn’t want to be reduced into representing some imagined minority. But I felt that it was in this vein that I was getting invited in a lot of shows. I had the feeling that they were not interested in my art as such, but in what they believed I stood for. At the same time I had to live with the criticism too. Because of course in West Berlin people were annoyed that out of the blue there comes this young 26-year-old Easterner and takes part in all those important shows. And if you look at the lists of artists taking part in these shows: Rebecca Horn, Jannis Kounellis, Ilya Kabakov...the most famous names and then…Via Lewandowsky! It was very funny… Of course, looking back one would say I had to deal with an amazing shitstorm, I was feeling a bit intimidated. And I tried to resist it by holding back and turning very quiet. The beginning of the 1990s was a difficult time in the sense that I got a lot of recognition, not solely on the basis of my work, but because I came from the East and I was working differently than most of the rest of the Eastern German artists.
Judging by your work, you have had a consistent interest in memorials.
It all started actually with my first really important entry into the western art scene at the exhibition “Die Endlichkeit der Freiheit”, which was curated by Wulf Herzogenrath, Joachim Sartorius and Christoph Tannert. I was asked to do a piece connecting the East and the West. For this project I worked with two very important historical sites: one was the Column of Victory in West Berlin and the other one was the former nazi Ministry of Aviation, which nowadays houses the Finance Ministry, located near Potsdamer Platz in East Berlin. It was built by the nazis and amongst the decoration there was a relief that depicts marching soldiers. During the GDR years it had been reworked -with the use of Meissner Porzellan tiles, into a typical socialist realist image of workers and scientists all marching happily together towards the future. So I took a frottage of the glass tiles’ image -that was by Anton von Werner– from the base of the Column of Victory – this depicted the Germans’ victory over the French in the 19th century. After I had taken the frottage on a huge canvas I covered the glass tile image with a white material and lit it up. It now looked like a shiny, paper white plane, an unwritten panel of history. I then took this sort of replica of that relief -the frottage- this dirty wreck of the German history and placed it in front of the socialist realist relief of the workers, so as to add a third layer over the communist image that had covered the nazi image. The concept was that the West could start anew, but the East should finally deal with its past and confront all that had never been confronted.
Your memorial, in 2009, for the Leipzig Monday Demostrations of 1989, was a confetti bombing made by business cards bearing the code names and professions of ex Stasi informers.
That was a performance, it was different. It was a one-off piece.
It sounds like you were making fun of the situation, setting up a small explosion of dark humour, with the past falling down on people’s heads.
These monuments will always be funny. My ideas regarding this chapter of history will always, inevitably, be cynical and funny. Because I was part of it, so I can make fun of it.
Were you being cynical in 2005, with your piece Socialism Wins?
Well didn’t socialism win? Look at NSA. This had always been the dream of all communists: to have total control of everything. The NSA is so close to the communists’ dream…
I have actually been wondering how somebody who has lived in the GDR may feel listening to the NSA story.
It’s a bitter feeling. Although it is a different sort of espionage. A beautiful image about the difference between Stasi espionage and NSA espionage involves hay: The Stasi was always looking for the needle in the hay. “Hey you, there is a needle there, we will check everything and come up with it.” The NSA says “we go through every one of these mountains of hay in order to make sure we don’t miss any needles.” So if you are included in the NSA archives it doesn’t mean that you are guilty; you’re part of a huge control system. Being included in the Stasi archives, meant that you are considered guilty in the first place, even before being checked up on.
You actually think socialism won?
Well, when you have been fighting someone for a very long time, to what extent do you end up looking like the enemy? Fighting the socialist East for so many years, has transformed the West into something that resembles it. I think we are now experiencing an easternization of the West.
In what way?
In a lot of ways that have to do with culture, for one. In the past the West had to convincingly support quality, had to be different, had to be better. The West does not need to show it has the moral privilege anymore, that it is better than anyone, so the bar has been lowered. The US has become in certain ways what would have been a dream of the communists.
Why is it important for you to engage sound in your work?
I come from a city going back to the era of Baroque. But most importantly, I am a believer in the complexity of all senses. And I am also a big fan of Joseph Beuys’ Gesamtkunstwerk. I am convinced you never can exclude anything. Just yesterday, a student was telling me that he hates sound and doesn’t want it in his piece. And I said to him “Listen, it’s already there. Even silence is sound. Either you deal with it or you ignore it. Hating it won’t make it disappear. It is already present.”
In what way has teaching enriched or affected you?
I love it. Teaching forces you to reflect on things without even realizing it. You start digging into youself and your past and come up with all sorts of things you thought you had forgotten. In a way it feels a little like a battle – shaking up myself, having things getting mixed up all over again, becoming aware of things that have always been there.
Some artists do not care about the interpretation of artworks. They believe that art doesn’t need any words, that it doesn’t have to be explained. What do you think?
I think the explanation is part of a piece of art. In some cases, a piece cannot exist without it, in the sense that it poses a need for hints. The interpretation might also become part of the piece, even without the artist intending this to happen, or even with the artist resisting it. There are examples where the interpretation became part of the discussion surrounding an artwork, and ten years later ended up been considered an integral part of the piece.