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Lutz Wohlrab

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In the GDR, Mail Art was had a special importance. It opened a door to the world and was against state restriction and political pressure.

Mail Art is postal communication through art. It is still very lively and open to everyone. Mail Art emerged in times of the Cold War and was very important to some Eastern Europeans. At least, a large part of our mailings passed the Iron Curtain, which gave us the opportunity to communicate worldwide. For Mail Artists in Eastern Germany to play with Mail Art was a serious thing, because with their provocative political postcards they attacked the regime of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR) that answered with political criminal law. Any “illegal establishing contacts” with the West and any critique of the state could have been seriously punished. The Ministry for State Security (Staatssicherheit, MfS or Stasi) controlled the mail of the whole country. Mail Artists Rainer Luck and Jürgen Gottschalk had been sent to prison for over two years in 1984. Friedrich Winnes nearly had to face the same fate for his subversive Mail Art in 1980.

Around 1971 Robert Rehfeldt (1931 - 1993), the first and most well-known Mail Artist in the GDR, got some addresses from behind the Iron Curtain via Klaus Groh or Polish artists that he had been friends with. He did his first Mail Art project in Warsaw in 1975. From 1976 on, Mail Art was shown even in the GDR, initially illegally in Erfurt, later on legally at the Berlin gallery Arkade in 1978. However, the gallery was then closed in 1980 and its director got fired. More and more independent minds in Eastern Europe participated in international Mail Art projects. This was mainly because the leadership of the socialist countries could be easily provoked with easily done postcard collages and in this subversive manner, a little freedom of opinion could be achieved. Mail Art got its greatest political-aesthetic explosiveness in time of the policy of détente from 1974 to 1989. Especially in East Germany it was highly significant as for many interested in art it was the only window to the world. So mail became the medium for international communication that could be used to overcome not only style, genre, language and culture but also state boundaries. It might today appear as naive to imagine a potential friend behind every address. At that time it was an immensely nice thought that had been suspect to the GDR regime.

The Operational Act “Enemy“

The Staatssicherheit saw the Mail Artist as an “enemy”. And that was the name it gave the operational act against four active Mail Artists from Dresden. What caused the observation was the pacifistic project “International Contact with Mail Art in the Spirit of Peaceful Coexistence”, that Birger Jesch exhibited in January 1981 at the Dresden Weinbergskirche. Together with Jürgen Gottschalk he had been the only GDR artist that dared to participate in the project “Solidarity with Solidarnosc” of gallery owner Jürgen Schweinebraden, who had been expatriated from the GDR in 1980. In the final report of the operational act “Enemy” the Staatssicherheit stated satisfied that Jürgen Gottschalk was called to account by criminal law. He was condemned to two years and two month imprisonment after § 220 (“public vilification”) of GDR criminal code. Furthermore they succeeded in making Mail Artists Martina und Steffen Giersch, Birger Jesch, Jürgen Gottschalk and Joachim Stange “insecure and pushing them back in their activities as far as possible”. In the final report it is also said, that “via a similar approach of the MfS to the contact partners in the GDR the ministry has found out, that, from the viewpoint of operational action, the problem of Mail Art has to be no more main focus and is loosing effectivity. The persons treated by the operational act had to face the fact that Mail Art is no instrument to attack the social circumstances in the GDR in any way.” By that the Stasi was wrong. Right in the years from 1984 on Mail Art turned into a GDR-wide movement with lots of exhibitions and subversive actions especially in co-operation with the churchly peace- and democracy groups. Joachim Stange, for example, called for a project “Never again Dresden and Hiroshima 1945” in 1984 and “Tolerance” in 1986. When he, in 1985, did a postcard in reaction to the scarce news coverage of the summit between US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet secretary general Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneve, saying “In Genf nur Senf” (“Nothing but mustard in Geneve”, using the pun in German) a fine was imposed on him and he had to pay a month‘s salary. Other Mail Artists faced similar punishments.

Strange events at “Location 12”

With extraordinary efforts the SED state tried to avoid the circulation of improper thoughts via mail. The “Section M” of the Staatssicherheit had more than 2.000 employees, only for mail control. Every day about ten percent of all letters were opened, that means about 90.000 items. Each of the 15 mail-administrating centres, one in every district of the GDR, had a secret anteroom of the Stasi (code name “Location 12”), that employees of the postal service had no access to. Here, all cards and letters were checked and noticeable mail was sorted out. There had been lists of senders and receivers that had to be observed. The mail that had been kept, was carried to conspiratory places by Stasi people that disguised themselves as employees of the postal service. From this place the mail was carried in civil cars to the regional ad-ministration office of the MfS and to the “Section M”, that used steam tables to open the letters. All directors of the mail-administrating centres co-operated closely with the Staatssicherheit, some as “officers in special missions”. When a letter could not be opened without damages the Stasi simply kept it. Such mail was than found when one sighted the Stasi-files at the Office of the Federal Commissioner Preserving the Records of the Ministry for State Security of the GDR. To cheat the monitoring state some Mail Artists sent some of their mail as certified mail - with 40 Pfennig pretty cheap at that time. This did not avoid the mail from being “lost”, but the postal service of the GDR paid up to 40 East Mark for lost certified mail. Via an order for investigation the Stasi officers were disposed to admit that there was mail censorship. One day Birger Jesch was told that he could not claim for compensation as his mail was “against the maxims of the socialistic moral because of its outer appearance”. He had changed a postcard from Karl-Marx-Stadt to Karl-May-Stadt, thereby making fun of the ideology of the GDR. In the Karl Marx year of 1983 the publication of the books of Karl May was finally allowed again. Furthermore Jesch was told that his card was “handed to the state institution to be examined”. Here the mean trick of the Stasi mail censorship showed up: The Stasi instructed the directors of the main postal offices to speak out as eye of the law in backdated letters - in fact no noticeable cards and letters were handed out to the Stasi by the postal service because the people of the MfS always saw them first.

The baby, that was not allowed to be “labor activist”

Friedrich Winnes (1949 - 2005) had been “dealt with” by the Stasi since 1977. In his Stasi files an act is documented that nearly lead to his imprisonment. The “Section M” found a letter to the Polish Mail Artist Tomasz Schulz from September 28th, 1980, including two collages. One showing his new born daughter with the medal “labor activist” on her breast. At that time the martial law had not come into effect in the neighboring country Poland and the very fast growing influence of the independent union “Solidarnosc“ made the leadership of the GDR nervous. Sending a picture of the baby with the medal was enough for the Stasi to see “an element of offense according to § 220 StGB as fulfilled”. This paragraph said that spreading “symbols, that can be used to affect state or public law and order, disturb the socialistic co-existence or dis-respect the state and civil order” can be punished with up to three years in prison. From the files one can see that Friedrich Winnes was not arrested only because of the Stasi acting sloppy. Still he was not allowed to enter Poland for three years, but thereof no one has ever told him.

The first Mail Art project I took part was “Relations” by Walter Goes in 1985. I met him at the Max-Uhlig-exhibition, a painter from Dresden I liked at that time, at the Orangerie Putbus and he sent me the invitation. The documentation includes 50 addresses and began to write to everybody on this list, so I became a Mail Artist. One year later I made my first project “Animals as which do you feel yourself and others”. It was a psychological question. In these years I had to interrupt my medical studies for three years for political reasons. I went to Berlin and was in contact with Robert Rehfeldt. In 1986 I was a participant at the “First Decentral worldwide Mail Art Congress” at Robert’s studio and there I met many Mail Artist from the GDR personally.

Dr. Lutz Wohlrab, Mail Artist himself, started the online Mail Artists‘ Index. There you can find biographies of the artists mentioned above and many others. Furthermore he, together with Friedrich Winnes, edited the standard work “Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 - 1990” published by Haude & Spener (Berlin 1994). He works as psychoanalyst in his own doctor‘s practice in 13086 Berlin, Langhansstr. 64 a.

The Mail Artists’ Index can be reached via:

http://www.mailartists.wordpress.com

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In the GDR, Mail Art was had a special importance. It opened a door to the world and was against state restriction and political pressure.

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