Daniel & Geo Fuchs, From the series STASI - Secret Rooms.

Viewing Banality, inside the Stasi's Secret Rooms of Recent History

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Untersuchungs-Haftanstalt Hohen-schönhausen, erste Anhörung, Detail, 2004.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Untersuchungs-Gefängnis Potsdam, Fotostuhl, 2004.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Zelle 1, Potsdam, 2004.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Monitorraum, Hohenschönhausen, 2004, C-Print / Plexiglass / Dibond, 160x125cm, 170x135cm, Ed. of 4.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Treppenaufgang, Gefängnis Bautzen, 2004, C-Print / Plexiglass / Dibond, 160x125cm, 170x135cm, Ed. of 4.

 

Foam_Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
Keizersgracht 609
+ 31 (0)20 5516500
Amsterdam
Daniel & Geo Fuchs:
STASI – Secret Rooms

March 14-June 4, 2008

STASI – Secret Rooms by German artist duo Daniel & Geo Fuchs opens up the hidden rooms once used by the STASI, the infamous East German secret service, in a series of monumental photos.

While much of the former DDR infrastructure has been destroyed, or given an entirely new function, the clandestine spaces that Daniel and Geo Fuchs photographed are still in their original condition. Offices, cell complexes, bunkers, living quarters and interrogation rooms: everything is exactly the way it was before 'Die Wende'.

The typical East European interiors, with functional furniture and sober colours seem stylised in retrospect. Yet above all, what this large, intriguing project shows is the symbiosis of architecture, power and impotence.

The photo-projects of the husband-and-wife artist duo Daniel & Geo Fuchs operate in a zone where seeing becomes examining. Their long-prepared visual scenarios tackle a wide range of thought-provoking subjects, which can address the animal kingdom, suggestions of human beings or places, and topics on the fringe of society.

At the same time, the two artists do more than simply create visual imagery. In the greatest sense, their work revolves around “collecting” visual imagery – like in their latest photo-project, STASI – Secret Rooms.

In an earlier work, Conserving they embarked on a visual research trip through a murky world of bottled subjects: fish, animals, and human bodies behind glass, specimens sometimes left in conserving fluid for as long as a century.

Like with Goethe’s and Warhol’s impulse to “build up archives of things” (the former natural history specimens, the latter artifacts of Pop culture), fabricating archives and the love of collecting also have a place in the work done by Daniel & Geo Fuchs. Apart from their camera, their impulse to find, examine and arrange things is possibly their most important tool.

For the project STASI — Secret Rooms they spent two years travelling East Germany, compiling images of what had been the interrogation rooms, prisons, and other spaces of the German Democratic Republic’s State Security Service, once known as the “Stasi”.

They photographed in a German Democratic Republic (GDR) that no longer existed. Fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they were tracking down the “visual remains” of the Stasi’s physical structure, its domestic and foreign espionage apparatus, and its intimidating practices: the integral parts of a bygone system devoted to the so-called good of the GDR’s national security. But these too, no longer existed — or not quite.

Dictatorially conceived in Germany’s Soviet Sector by the German Communist Party, the Stasi existed from around 1950 to 1989, during which time it spread its feelers on a daily basis and literally terrorised GDR citizens. The Stasi stood for innumerable “official” spaces, for fifteen or more East-German prisons, for over 90,000 official employees and paid undercover agents, for people who gathered detailed information on the lives and activities of other people while arranging their abductions and arrests, and for surveillance systems used at heavily-guarded border crossings into regions outside of the GDR’s confines.

It served to undermine any attempts made on the part of citizens to flee the country or to discredit the state’s principles and politics. Equally obsessed with propaganda and control, no facet of everyday life in Communist East Germany escaped the Stasi’s gaze — or better, the gaze of its circa 174,000 informers, often the friends and family members of those taken into custody.

In countless files, so much information was accumulated on so-called perpetrators and everyday citizens that, even today, a staff of over 2,500 employees has to manage it. (People spied on in the past can now receive their files, and entire libraries of files still exist.) But espionage was not enough for the Stasi. At its facilities, in exchange for not being “officially” tortured, perpetrators kept in custody for either days or years at a time were psychologically intimidated before being released.

Without revealing a single human being, STASI – Secret Rooms captures this East-German megasystem of the past as though it were a familiar form with an almost new surface. Curiously enough, no other East-German or West-German photographers have ever attempted so thorough a visual documenting of the Stasi’s machinery. Now we have the photographs by Daniel & Geo Fuchs, which constitute a double viewing of the subject matter. Their images read as a reminder of a past evil on the one hand, and as a timeless love of archival practices on the other.

The circa 20 oversized photographs (images approximately four-by-six feet) offer more than simply a postglimpse into a system as ruthless as it was mundane. Their details reveal stories within a story – from stray books leafed through by prisoners and staff and left behind as though time came to a halt while they were being read, lonely reproductions of politicians tacked to walls, and political paraphernalia from a bygone era to yellowed newspapers from the year 1989, the year of “collective” thinking, which standardised the famous German question, “Where were you when the Wall fell?” Naturally, other easy to decipher details surface here as well. Nowadays we have less trouble deciphering the suggestions of war politics, surveillance gadgetry, and barriers intended to divide one people from another. Yet these photographs to be shown in May 2006 at the Villa Stuck Museum in Munich, and published in a volume courtesy of Booth Clibborn Editions in London, go further than the easily decipherable.

In STASI – Secret Rooms we also see what passes for research done directly on research. Initially the images appear tourist-like, and we register how the photographed spaces serve as memorial sites now. But just as often the photographs direct at the Stasi’s remains what the Stasi directed at the GDR’s 16 million inhabitants for nearly 40 years: a bloodless and scientific gaze which sands away personality and creates in our minds “an endless file” on something factual and capable of being catalogued. Like with any well-built archive or collection, these “visual remains” demand and give us a knowledge of its subject. And the more the viewer knows, the more exciting the images become. Or is it the “less” the viewer knows? In any case, without showing us their protagonists – the people once the Stasi’s jailers and prisoners – the images perform a “frozen” acrobatic trick: detail-ridden photographs balance themselves on their own secrets like well-behaved nightmares. But we, the viewers, know better than to be impressed.

These images are not what they appear to be: depictions of mundane office settings, homely rooms painted in pastel colours, harmless iron staircases lit from above, any unending row of shelving units in a windowless space, or the kind of modest interiors found anywhere in East Germany, whether in the depths of Potsdam or Bautzen. In reality these are the recurring bad dreams of a national lunacy of the past: prison hallways, bunkers, and interrogation rooms kept secret in their time; rooms where the Stasi drew up files on people as though studying biological specimens; corridor-like rooms actually indoor outhouses; or a room like the one in which Stasi officials photographed suspects and offenders, where left and right (like mechanical Sci-fi eyes) spotlights bolted to the wall stare down at a simple wooden chair set before a drab curtain at the back of a narrow space. Many of these rooms seem as sinister now as they probably did in the past.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs held to a specific, "perspectival" concept while making STASI – Secret Rooms. The viewer’s gaze conforms to a framing tactic. In each image, similar amounts of ceiling and floor appear at the top and bottom of the picture frame. The same applies to the amount of visual information on the frame’s left and right sides. This “cinematically” directs our attention to an imaginary centre and draws us into each photograph as though on a guided tour through a well-kept downfall; it creates the “castle effect” (meaning Franz Kafka’s novel, The Castle) in which grasping the space and what it contains mysteriously overwhelms the viewer. This effect surfaces behind the viewer’s back, since the visual message received through so much accumulated data is an “accumulative” one. It occurs slowly, over the course of time, triggered by various locations, dated 1950s furniture, and each room’s abandoned atmosphere. Our eyes have to “collect” this message.

Originally, Daniel & Geo Fuchs planned to include photographs of Stasi informers’ apartments, together with surveillance devices, the signs of the Stasi’s clumsy or official inventiveness, such as cameras camouflaged as birdhouses. But these are missing. Or maybe not? Either way, the word “missing” might also be the photo-project’s subtitle. In a sense, everything seems missing in STASI – Secret Rooms. People. Drama. At first glance, injustice. These photographs are, after all, carefully constructed “architectural portraits of secrets”. While viewing them, however, we intuit the secrets in these rooms, which leads us to a Kafkaesque dead end: secretsare invisible — even photographed secrets.

Daniel & Geo Fuchs, Flur, Mielke Etage, Detail, 2004, C-Print / Plexiglass / Dibond, 160 x 125cm, framed 170 x 135cm, Ed. of 4.