by Doreen MendeFebruary 11, 2015
“SIGNS FICTION: Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt” and “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America”
How can one detach oneself from the contemporary communicative capitalism that legitimizes the perpetual upgrading of governmental surveillance, as recently exemplified by certain state responses to the shootings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris? A valuable point of entry is the work of artists who lived under extreme conditions of state control, such as those instituted under the one-party socialism of the GDR or the military dictatorship in Brazil during the late Cold War—artists that defied massive national surveillance strategies while risking a systematic exclusion from institutional support. “SIGNS FICTION” and “HOME ARCHIVES,” two exhibitions at Chert, offer a compelling, non-historicizing insight into the capacity of artistic strategies with geo-poetic quality to move below monitoring powers.
Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt (b. 1932) is one of these artists. Living in the Berlin neighborhood of Pankow (formerly of East Berlin) after World War II, Wolf-Rehfeldt made zincographic prints of visual poetry composed of typographic signs. Her “typewritings” from the early 1970s to the 1980s are presented here in a solo exhibition for the first time in decades. Presented in eight sections, with sets of A5 and A6 prints on tables designed specifically to correspond with the graphic layout of a particular work by Wolf-Rehfeldt (Cages on the run, 1980s), the installation displays the original copies of works that the artist sent to hundreds of friends worldwide. Asking Wolf-Rehfeldt about the presence of the Stasi during her active years as a mail artist, she responds with understated humor: “Oh, yes! They were present!”(1) It sounded as if the functionaries forced to read Mail Art were always spectators of her work, integrated into its methods for making them hopefully confused.
Wolf-Rehfeldt’s “lettristic” approach visualizes, for example, in Wucherungen (1970s) the German words “Wucherungen” [proliferation] of the “Gedanke” [thought] around a “Stamm” [trunk] into a typographic image. Punky 2 (1970s) uses the slash to turn the letter M into the shape of a crashed R that resembles a walking head. This personification of a letter carries a futuristic narrative—or a sign of fiction—that the Stasi functionary in the control room at the post office would not be able to understand at all. A set of architectural prints, furthermore, contains the typewriting Untitled (1970s) that transforms the letters a and o plus the full stop into an axonometric drawing that could be read as an image of the Brandenburg Gate, which certainly provides an oblique commentary on the divided city.
Wolf-Rehfeldt’s practice emerges from her philosophical investigations into linguistics combined with her frustration at her position as an Office Manager in East Berlin. With artist Robert Rehfeldt (1931–1993), she lived and worked on Mendelstrasse in Berlin-Pankow. Over decades, their apartment became a refuge and a meeting place for intellectual and political friendships defined by a shared critique of and distance from the rules of socialist realism in the GDR. Rehfeldt was a key figure in the East German Mail Art scene, categorized by authorities as suspect because of its potential to spread “counter-revolutionary cynicism,” as Gerhard Bondzin, president of the Verband Bildender Künstler der DDR [Association of Visual Artists of the GDR] from 1970–74, wrote in an official report of the time.(2) However, Rehfeldt was not a dissident artist but rather challenged the official doctrine of the era with its own means of internationalism. On prints, postcards, and Fluxus-like graphics, he often wrote or stamped declarations such as “Artworker. Actual News,” “Art Time in Europa,” “postes cosmique,” or “Make a Creative World Now” to be sent around the world. The sender’s address often includes “Contart Bureau” on the envelopes, which reads as a self-branding strategy named after the neologism “Contart” from “contact” and “art”—to use the original English, the language spoken by the US, the class enemy of the GDR. In the context of isolated East Berlin under the GDR, all this inevitably declares the absolute dedication to art as a means of imagining a life in a world without walls and borders: a political statement. In other words, for Rehfeldt, the space of art is the only possible place for not getting involved with the ideology of fear of a monitoring power.
Around 1975, Rehfeldt began a long-term exchange with the Brazilian poet-artist Paulo Bruscky (b. 1949), who was also living through politically oppressive times. Bruscky confronted the military dictatorship with a kind of porous conceptualism that found its expression in various forms of poetry realized as process-related postal actions, urban performances, Xerox performances, and x-rays from his skull (he used medical materials, as he had a day job working in health administration), among extensive Mail Art activities. The exhibition “HOME ARCHIVES” presents a selection of works that Rehfeldt and Bruscky sent to each other, and which are now archived in each of the artists’ homes.
Curated by art historian Zanna Gilbert and artist David Horvitz, the exhibition results from Gilbert’s theoretical concerns entangled with Horvitz’s ongoing interest in the artistic present and future of Mail Art and constitutes a profound contribution to contemporary readings of archival bodies of work. The exhibition takes the form of a constellation of three composed tableaux with Bruscky’s works from Rehfeldt’s archive under protective glass, displays highlighting single pieces from Bruscky, and a blue wall with a projection of photographed material of Rehfeldt’s correspondence in Bruscky’s archive juxtaposed with Rehfeldt’s working table. The postal exchange between Rehfeldt and Bruscky allows us to study the geographic capacity of poetry to travel inside politically troubling conditions. Art here defends its distance from governmental powers through a geo-poetical rendition that continuously tests, tricks, and challenges surveillance systems and border control by simple typographic means. In one of Bruscky’s untitled prints from c. 1977, the word “DIS-TÂNCIA” [dis-tance] is divided by placing the first syllable at the left top corner and the second one at the right bottom corner of the same page, leaving a gap in a double sense: to take distance geographically and politically through the means of visual poetry.
After all, if communicative capitalism builds on the fantasies of abundance, participation, and wholeness that combine to depoliticize contemporary communication,(3) then “SIGNS FICTION” and “HOME ARCHIVES” introduce us to creative tactics of geo-poetical rendition, which are not reducible to communication nor subject to the policed transparency of monitoring powers, but instead travel on their own terms—perhaps a model we can learn from.
(1) From a private conversation with the artist, January 10, 2015.
(2) Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975–1990 (Berlin: Haude & Spener, 1994).
(3) Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” Cultural Politics vol. 1, no 1 (2005): 51–74.
- 1View of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, “SIGNS FICTIONS,” Chert, Berlin, 2015. All images courtesy of Chert, Berlin.
- 2View of “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 3View of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, “SIGNS FICTIONS,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 4Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Cages on the run, 1980s. Zincography, 21 x 15 cm.
- 5Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, Growth (diptych), 1970s. Zincography, 21 x 14.5 cm.
- 6View of Ruth Wolf-Rehfeldt, “SIGNS FICTIONS,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 7View of “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 8View of “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 9View of “HOME ARCHIVES: Paulo Bruscky & Robert Rehfeldt’s Mail Art Exchanges from East Berlin to South America,” Chert, Berlin, 2015.
- 10View of Robert Rehfeldt’s working table.