“LAßT EUCH NICHT BRDigen,” a piece of graffiti says in one of the pictures in Andreas Trogisch‘s Vineta 1985/1990. In another: “Wir sind ein blödes Volk.” “Don’t let them bury you,” with the initials of what was then West Germany, officially Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany) or BRD (which in German you’d pronounce “Be Er De”), serving as the beginning of “beerdigen,” “to bury.” And: “We are a dumb people,” the “dumb” adjective added to what had been the rallying cry of East German’s peaceful revolution, “Wir sind das Volk” — “We are the people,” claiming the kind of power expressed in the United States’ Constitution’s Preamble (“We the people…”).
There had been ideas and ideals, there had been revolutionary pathos, and much of all of that got discarded, as inevitably it would in any revolution, once East Germany formally joined West Germany, adopting the former rival’s system whole sale. Well, they kept the cute little figures in pedestrian traffic lights in Berlin. Everything else appears to have gone, even though when they had elections a little while ago, you could still see different mind sets in what used to be West and East Berlin. West Berliners more or less voted along what used to be West German lines, while East Berliners used theirs.
When you’re a foreigner and you go to Berlin, it’s not that straightforward to tell any longer whether you’re in what used to be West or East Berlin, unless you know. Berlin’s core has been gentrified heavily, transforming vast parts of the city into the kind of shopping centers that we now associate with modern cities. Prenzlauer Berg, a section of formerly East Berlin, has become completely insufferable, overrun as it is with yuppies who each year appear to have discovered some new lifestyle fad. For example two years ago, or maybe three, it was fashionable to get lattes only with “lactose free milk” — as if the whole latte cult wasn’t annoying enough already (as someone who actually is lactose intolerant this particular fad really irritated me even more than any of the other ones).
This is not to say that what has been replaced was so great, quite on the contrary. Prenzlauer Berg used to look like it was straight out of a Tartovsky film, a zone of disregard and disrepair. But then maybe one type of disregard (for things) has now been replaced with another one (for people — however different the context might be, this brings to mind a few lines from A Tribe Called Red‘s ALie Nation: “Nothing is related / All the things of the earth and in the sky have energy to be exploited / Even themselves, mining their spirits into souls, sold”). And now, larger parts of especially the Eastern German population are voting for either the successor party of the Communists or for the ultra-right wing AfD, with the mainstream collectively wringing their hands: how is this possible? Of course, it’s a development you see everywhere now.
Vineta 1985/1990 contains photographs taken at times that bookended the moment when change became possible. The two years are represented with two different types of pictures. The portraits in the book date from 1985. The cityscapes were taken in 1990. The portraits, in other words, were taken during one of the final years of the East German dictatorship, when things had congealed into a rotten stasis. The country effectively wasn’t functioning any longer, barely propelling itself forward as the days dragged on and on and on.
Then, the wall came down, and it all fell apart. Or rather, there wasn’t even much that could fall apart, because physically and mentally, things had already fallen apart. It really wasn’t too hard for the West to scoop things up and to start patching things over. The cityscapes show that “right after” moment, where the first patches started to appear. In these pictures, people are absent, which only heightens the power of the photographs taken five year before.
There were a multitude of possibilities for what these young people and old, mostly derelict places could have become, and there is how things turned out — so far. Maybe it’s really still too early to come to any form of judgment about all of this. Maybe more time has to go by. Unless we get a chance to speak to them, we have no way of knowing what became of those portrayed in the book. We can attempt to revisit the locations and see how they were transformed.
But we also might want to realize that in 1985, it didn’t look or feel much like a point in time where a momentous change was just around the corner in Germany. We just have no real way of knowing what might be. What we might know, though, is what we aspire to, what we dream of, what we think could be. Maybe our current state of affairs is so sad and disheartening to so many people not because of the way money has invaded each and every aspect of our lives. Maybe it’s because if we look at Garry Winogrand’s words of our “cheap and petty” “aspirations and successes,” things haven’t really changed that much.
There was that moment in time when a part of the world was given the chance not to go down that route. Vineta 1985/1990 shows us this moment. When we look around us, we can see the results of that moment, after an opportunity was squandered. Maybe we’ll do better next time.
Vineta 1985/1990; photographs by Andreas Trogisch; essay by Anja Maiaer; Peperoni Books; 2016
Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.0
Ratings explained here.