Iron Curtain Fantasy // Image Bank: Cultural Ecology of the DDR at Canton-sardine

Installation view of Image Bank: Cultural Ecology of the DDR, Canton-sardine.

Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov: Image Bank: Cultural Ecology of the DDR

Canton-Sardine

June 10 through July 31, 2021

By RHYS EDWARDS, August 2021

Originally published on ReIssue: https://reissue.pub/articles/iron-curtain-fantasy-image-bank-cultural-ecology-of-the-ddr-at-canton-sardine. 

Image Bank: Cultural Ecology of the DDR, at the Canton-sardine space, is not a self-contained exhibition. It functions as a satellite of the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery’s Image Bank, a much larger survey of Michael Morris’ and Vincent Trasov’s collaboration throughout the 1970s. The latter, curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen, Maxine Kopsa, and Scott Watson, features ephemera and artwork from across the duo’s creative milieu both locally and internationally. Expansive in scale, featuring loans from multiple institutions along with extensive archival documents and letters, it captures something of the eros and liberty that reigned throughout the era of Image Bank. Though smaller by comparison, Cultural Ecology of the DDR acts as a lens through which the spirit of Image Bank finds its ideological counterpart, rooted firmly in statehood. If Image Bank at the Belkin could be said to reflect an affinity for the free exchange of ideas, Cultural Ecology of the DDR is a dark mirror of that same affinity. Though both exhibitions are united by the presence of Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, famed for their work on Image Bank within the Vancouver art community and for their local cultivation of an international mail art network, their practices in Cultural Ecology is shown to be more peripatetic. Interventions and performances by the two set the framework for what is the focus of the exhibition itself: the collected documents, ephemera, and desiderata of the late German Democratic Republic.

Curated by Lam Wong, the collection consists of toys, storybooks, models, uniforms, stamps, badges, medals and all manner of militaria, along with postcards, newspaper cuttings, quote books, and advertisements. The array of material, juxtaposed with a small selection of artworks by Trasov and Morris themselves, offer up Socialist kitsch in abundance. What is it about this miscellany that is so appealing to artists and bohemians of the West? And, how does it reflect upon Morris and Trasov’s own practices? 

The kitsch of the DDR distinguishes itself from that of its Soviet counterpart in its indebtedness to the design paradigms of Central European modernism. Officially, the East German state disavowed the clinical aesthetic of the prewar era (1), embracing instead its own brand of blithe ornamentation. Although traces of the Bauhaus do remain — curving, thick lines demarcate everything from magazine advertisements to the roof of a doll house — such references are nevertheless eclipsed by the raucous, triumphant strains of polychromatic daschas, over-embellished livery, and cheering peasants on matchbox miniatures. 

There is a case to be made that such reverie is an expression of lack, in a Lacanian sense: in the DDR as in other non-democratic regimes, the carnivalesque Imaginary of abundance represented in state-sponsored cultural production masks the true reality faced by its people. The more impoverished its citizens, the greater the state’s will to promote a non-existent, unattainable abundance. 

Perhaps it is the curiosity of this perversion that appeals to those of us who have not lived within these regimes. Or, to return to the metaphor of the lack, Socialist Realism was interpreted as a strategy for collaboration — exemplified historically in the Image Bank archive, Mail Art and its successors — at the ideological level. What we yearn for is a discourse untrammelled by commercial individualism, the legacies of empire, and the borders of nation-states; the Socialist International offers itself as the metaphor for the desire to speak and be heard within and among a network of comrades.

Vincent Trasov at Image Bank: Cultural Ecology of the DDR, Canton-sardine.

Of course, Mail Art as actually practised by Morris and Trasov was forbidden in the Eastern Bloc, and it is this tension between desire and reality that permeates Cultural Ecology. A visit to the exhibition will be punctuated by the ringing of Morris’ hammer in the 30-minute video piece Wall Pecker (1990), playing on loop from a TV monitor on the floor at the entrance of the exhibition. Morris futilely strikes at the Berlin Wall while the camera captures onlookers passing from the other side through a newly-opened gap. Further into the exhibition, we see a photograph of a monument to Lenin in construction in 1970; we are told in the exhibition text that it was destroyed shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, before his head was subsequently recovered and displayed in an exhibition of former Berlin monuments at the Spandau Citadel Museum in 2015. No less than four sets of nesting dolls are present in the exhibition — two of them featuring Soviet leaders, the other two, homoerotic skinheads (painted by Attila Richard Lukacs). These displays occupy a continuum of construction, unveiling, and destruction — desire eternally incarnated in the state Imaginary before it is torn down once more.

It is all-too-common for artists, curators, and their reviewers to conclude exhibition texts with references to “other ways of being.” Cultural Ecology problematizes this limpid conclusion, insofar as it captures the necessary interconnection between what we desire and what we cannot have. In the dichotomy between Image Bank and Cultural Ecology, we see two of these “ways of being” as distant echoes of each other: the intimacy and at times eroticism of the mailed letter, poem, or image, and the state machinery that permits its globalized reception. Morris and Trasov’s own artworks comprise a relatively small portion of Cultural Ecology; both it and Image Bank are portraits of a broader socio-historical horizon. The presence of the artists dissipates within the accumulation of their ephemera, just as the individual agency of the artists dissolves within the Mail Art networks and state apparatus that so fascinates them. Perhaps this is Mail Art’s legacy as an artform — it is the first and only media that asserts the primacy of the artist within a state that variously censors her while simultaneously championing her aesthetic output. WM 

Notes:

1. Which might otherwise have complemented the instrumentalization of the body politic, as for instance with Suprematism in the early years of Soviet Russia.

Rhys Edwards

Rhys Edwards is an emerging artist, curator, and writer. He lives and works in Vancouver and Surrey, BC, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, Kwantlen, Katzie, and Semiahmoo nations. As an artist, Edwards employs classical and academic methods in the pursuit of anti-representation. Edwards is currently Assistant Curator at Surrey Art Gallery, where he most recently curated the permanent collection exhibition Where We Have Been. His writing has been published in Canadian Art, The Capilano Review, C Magazine, and BC Studies.

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