Interview mit Wiebke Loeper
Anyone planning to talk to Wiebke Loeper about East Germany needs to set some time aside, as her memories are very detailed. “That’s the great thing about interviews”, she says, “you can ramble on and get carried away.” Having published a short version in our print edition, we would like to make the full interview available here. What follows, then, is the whole interview with the photographer and lecturer Wiebke Loeper, who was born in 1972 and who grew up in an experimental building that was special not just by East German standards.
Wiebke, you were born in 1972 in Berlin, Capital of the German Democratic Republic, as it was known in the GDR, while in West Germany it was always called East Berlin. Today you live in Berlin-Mitte. These are the various Berlins that have played a part in your life.
Not to forget West Berlin. I was born in East Berlin, as I would say today, and at the time it was indeed the capital of the German Democratic Republic. Until my 18. birthday, I lived on the 17. floor of a building near Alexanderplatz, looking out over West Berlin and listening to the West German radio broadcaster SFB 2.
The writer Annett Gröschner has written: “Over the years, the East German in me has shrunk.” Would you say the same is true of you?
That’s a great quote, and I totally agree. In fact, it was only after the fall of the Wall that I became an East German, because people suddenly started calling me an Ossi, although it didn’t really fit me, like it didn’t really fit many other people. Which brings us straight to design. When I started school aged six, someone explained to me: If they ask you what shape the clock on television is, tell them it’s square. I had never seen a square clock on television. On our TV at home the clock was round because we watched the West German news. So I only really became an Ossi after the fall of the Wall (I don’t use the German word Wende, meaning “turning point”, since for me it wasn’t a turning point). Over time, the East Berliner in me shrank.
You addressed the “Ossi” label and the GDR as a whole in two works, “Moll 31” and then “Lad”. Before we come to your work, could you talk about the high-rise block where you grew up?
It was an 18-storey block at Mollstrasse 31 with a reinforced-steel frame, while most of the surrounding buildings were concrete slab prefabs. The frame construction offered many options for floorplan design. After his studies, my father began working as an architect and was involved in developing this experiment. The aim was to achieve fully flexible floorplans, with movable walls, which was a theme internationally in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was supposed to take into account the fact that families change, that couples turn into families, and that apartments can adapt to that. The system consisted of lightweight wall sections that slotted in top and bottom. A furniture system was also designed for creating rooms. Originally, the whole block was to be fitted out in this way, but the project was limited to three storeys for economic reasons, from the 16th to the 18th floor.
And you lived in one of these apartments?
My father, who was not in the Party, was allowed to move in because he was supposed to accompany this experiment in a long-term advisory role. The three of us were then given a 48-square-metre apartment, which was amazing, with sliding walls, telephone, hot water, central heating, and a view all the way to the Müggelberge.
From the outset there were problems with structural safety, and in 1989, only 17 years after completion, you had to move out again.
A typical GDR story. The building was meant to be finished for Erich Honecker’s birthday in 1971, as it lay on the official route he took every day from his residence in Wandlitz to his workplace. The civil engineer in charge mentioned that the foundations needed more time to set, but an order came to carry on working. A year later, the building subsided and from then on it stood at an angle. This caused major structural problems, in turn generating funny anecdotes. Rain always leaked into our apartment, so we always had a baking tray in the window. My father built constructions with string so that the water could collect in the middle. This always amused our visitors from the West because it had this typical East German mixture of shortcoming and solution. It didn’t look bad; it was an installation.
In 1989 we had to move out because the house was due for renovation. Two low-rise blocks were built where our playground used to be, and all of the tenants were meant to move in there and move back when the renovation work was done. That never happened because the Wall fell and people suddenly thought it was a valuable piece of real estate, although it actually took another ten years to find out what was valuable and what for. Eventually, work on dismantling the building began. Demolishing it and removing the foundations would have been impossible, because that would have caused all of the surrounding concrete slab buildings to subside. Which is why the site is now occupied by a building of very similar proportions. It’s funny how things follow on from one another: there was this building, essentially a symbol of modern life – the Pablo Neruda Library on the ground floor, a laundry, the espresso bar (with a hidden microphone above every table, as we now know) – and today the site is home to the Mercedes Benz Bank and an Ibis Hotel.
Your personal history with this building gave rise to your work “Moll 31”. How did that come about?
In 1990 I started studying photography. In East Germany, this was only possible at the art academy in Leipzig. There were four places per year, as they would only train as many people as they needed. Because this was 1990, they decided to try an experiment and admit twice as many – eight students, a huge number! They also decided to admit some younger people. Normally candidates were expected to do some vocational training beforehand, learn a trade. I think Grit Schwerdtfeger and I were the first ever to start studying photography at 18.
I was studying under Arno Fischer and he found my subject matter too nice-looking. As the daughter of an architect I was so fixated on forms and he couldn’t get that out of me. So he gave me an underwater camera with a wide-angle lens and I was only allowed to take pictures at night, only with flash, and never looking through the viewfinder. I was shaken to the core because this prevented me from constructing my pictures. But I’m very grateful to him to this day for getting me away from my formal smoothness. It was also the time when the new professors came to the Academy, the whole West German crew, Joachim Brohm, Timm Rautert, Astrid Klein, with what felt like an incredible level of boredom and oversaturation, because they knew everything. For me, twenty years old and very enthusiastic, this was a shock. These people came along saying there were already enough good pictures and there was no need for any more. For me it was an existential experience, and I considered abandoning my studies.
What made you change your mind?
I asked myself: what are the stories only I can tell? It was partly about rehabilitation, about irritation. I wanted the fact that I was born in the East and that you were born in the West to stop being divisive, I wanted it to be interesting instead. It was a matter of us both growing up in the same historical period. Of course people in the East thought about flexible accommodation at the same time as people in the West and in Japan. The question is: what can photography do? It can trigger different experiences. When they see “Moll 31”, some people talk about a loss of place and security, others talk about design, others still about architecture or ways of life. Which is why the destabilisation that took place during my studies was ultimately a highly productive force. My own path in photography begins with “Moll”, because from then on I knew why I took photographs.
Did you go back into the building in 1995 or had you already taken the pictures?
I was very ill and had to stay in bed for three weeks. And I started looking at my father’s slides. He took photographs not only for the family, but also to document his project. These pictures are a bridge in time. Now that you ask, it occurs to me that I had already started taking pictures in the building by that time, in medium-format black-and-white, but it was a total failure. I had this empty dilapidated house and I didn’t manage to create a link back to childhood happiness and this bygone era. I soon realized I had to take his camera, his lenses, return to this building and take his pictures again, without the people of course. Someone I knew got the caretaker to let me in, and then I had one day inside the building.
So you had to abandon much of what you had previously associated with photography. After all, you not only looked through your father’s camera, but you also adopted his viewpoint.
That’s an interesting point. By reshooting his pictures, I abandoned the autonomy of the image. The rigor of the concept was my opportunity. I had decided, for example, not to try to recreate similar lighting moods. I said to myself: OK, this is the corridor, this is what it looks like today. I wanted nothing sentimental, no looking back, not a childhood album. I wanted to counter the stereotypical images of growing up in the GDR.
What is the story behind “Lad”?
“Lad” came out of a similar aggression as “Moll 31”, out of anger about all the ugly things and places I grew up with. And out of my irritation at not being able to show the country I come from. In “Lad”, I addressed a discussion that took place in East Germany about the future of design and architecture. The issues were taken incredibly seriously, and of course there was always an existential dimension. Once it had been decided that something was not the accepted path, then there was no way to continue in that direction. Unlike in the West, where there was a plurality.
For “Lad”, I made a list and worked through it: sports hall, supermarket, Kino International, insulation panels, cupboard. Cupboard played a big role for me. We had these modular furniture systems that separated the rooms, so when we moved out my childhood broke down into piles of panels, there was no chest, no cupboard, no safe space I could take with me.
And which cupboard did you photograph?
The one in the school. And there was the same conflict between recognition and rejection. I thought: So you’re the cupboard from my childhood, lopsided and ugly. That was really not an enjoyable encounter.
For a long time, this was a serious problem for me. Thanks to the ethos of modern-practical-good, all the enthusiasm for plastic and modular system, there were no objects from my childhood that had aged. I saw that as a huge shortcoming. As an architect, my father always asked: why do you cling to objects? That’s a topic we’re still discussing with each other today.
But don’t architects cling to big objects, to their buildings?
No, my father doesn’t connect it to objects. He’s very rigorous in that way. For him, a building is a design from a specific time, reflecting a specific period’s system of thought. And if you have a new system of thought, you can also build new buildings.
To what extent did “Lad” help to solve the problem?
My family comes from the Baltic coast, at least for the last generation, and a “Lad” is a kind of wooden box found in thatched houses there. In an emergency, they could be pulled out quickly. They contained all the documents and the most important household items for a new beginning.
The series of 36 pictures is my “Lad”. It helped me to understand that I actually don’t need more than this box. If I want to explain the topic to someone else, all I have to do is open this box (in that way, it performs a similar function to “Moll 31”). For myself, I don’t really need to open the box at all anymore.
So did your anger subside after “Moll 31” and “Lad”?
Definitely. Hugely. When people ask what it was like growing up in East Germany, then “Moll 31” is still my favourite answer. This book did a great deal of work. It shows the frame of reference. I think it’s a personal work, but not a private one, because it takes a precise look at the frame of reference within which everything took place. For me, that was the end of the story. I did then also document the demolition of the building, because it interested me in sculptural terms, but I never did anything with it because finally it wasn’t all that interesting.
What about today? In the context of your activity as a university professor, 30 years after the fall of the Wall, can you still reliably identify which of your students are from the former East Germany and which are from the former West?
What I still find alarming is that as a professor, when I let people see – and I mean let people see – that I come from the East, then it comes as a surprise and makes interesting things happen. Students whose parents are from the former East become visibly more relaxed, showing themselves differently and addressing different topics, expressing themselves in different ways. And students whose parents are from the former West show a great interest and start to ask entirely different questions.
In spite of this, I notice that in many situations I still deal very consciously with whether or not I show that I’m from the East. Put in negative terms, one could say I hide my origins. But one can also put it in positive terms, that I’m very aware of whether I’m showing it or not.
The public image of East and West is still being busily cemented. The East is usually thought of as right-wing and poor, while the West is always right. Although it has become more nuanced over the past 30 years, this view is still subliminally there in many places. To what extent does that obstruct a normalisation of how we deal with one another?
Among the professors, I don’t think it’s a problem. But what does it tell the younger generation? If I assume that my professor is male, white and from the West, then that says something about who is speaking. It’s not my image of being a professor, but it has something to do with power or with success. I mean, our chancellor is a woman, she comes from the East, these are important signals and they will be talked about and carried into future generations. Of course people in the East don’t only vote for the right wing. Things aren’t black-and-white there either, but I still believe that this narrative of success, of value, of the parents’ biographies plays a major part. Which is why I think it is very important to make sure that people in senior positions come from all kinds of backgrounds. We should pay attention to this across society as a whole.
Is there an awareness of this in your students’ generation? Do they demand that attention be paid to such things, for example?
I’m ambivalent on this. On the one hand, I have the feeling that things are much as they were back then, that similar types recur. There are those who want to change the world, who are incredibly committed, and there are people who baffle me because they know very clearly that they want to earn money. So I would never say: “Students today are like this.” They’re as diverse as we are. But what is different are the demands that exist today, including where standards of living are concerned. Students today have a very high standard of living, but they have to make that happen, they have to work. So they have less time to study. Earning money is great, but at the same time they are giving up something that has to do with freedom, with time to grow, to try things out, to really get deeply involved.
Today, concentrating and making a decision in the face of so much information and complexity is a big challenge. With young people today, I often sense a longing, but also fear: “If I go in deep, if I take the time, then it will cost me something, I’ll have to exclude something else.” On the other hand, the range of choices they have is absolutely great.
So finally you’re an optimist?
I don’t really worry about the young generation. What I am worried about is what will happen over the next decade. What kind of a world will the generation of today’s students end up living in? Which brings us back to the process of cementing you mentioned earlier. 30 years after the fall of the Wall, we must be careful not to cement other things. I find that worrying, across generations.
So is it down to all of us to break open what has been cemented, like you did with “Moll 31” and “Lad”?
If I don’t express certain things then they don’t exist, and if certain books don’t exist then people won’t look at them or read them, and that means abandoning the field to the others. Which is why I find it so important to put it into some kind of statement, whatever form that might take, in order to participate …
… leaving the field to others has never been a good idea, which doesn’t mean that one’s own interpretation is the absolute truth …
… oh no, it’s just important to make one’s voice heard.