Strolling to Now: a German City in the Twentieth Century

Richard Dunn

ABSTRACT

The Chemnitz Project – begun in 2000 and realized in exhibitions and books in 2004 and 2005 – is both an attempt to understand the Saxon city of Chemnitz and a reflection on German history in the Twentieth Century. Chemnitz, the ‘Saxony Manchester’, was a world centre for textiles and the manufacture of machinery for the textiles industry in Europe. The beginning point for my project focused on the modernist inventions in industrial and residential architecture produced under the patronage of manufacturers and the products of their enterprise in the textiles industry which are now in the collection of the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz.

 

In reflecting on the objects in the museum and the city itself as social documents, there emerged a compelling link between machine manufacture (the textiles mills), innovation and modernism (evidenced by the industrial, civic and commercial architecture that flourished before 1933) and the textiles produced (as exemplified by turn-of-the-century intricately patterned machine-knitted stockings the designs of which prefigured modernism). Although modernism in architecture is picked up again in the GDR rebuilding, what of the other aspects of cultural complexity under modernism? The answer is not narrative in form, but rather a process of following a broken many-coloured thread through a temporal labyrinth.

 

The installation of the Chemnitz Project made for the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in 2004 combines photographic images of pre-1933 buildings in Chemnitz, those from the 1960’s (and new building fabric after 1989) montaged with close-up images of stockings from the museum collection. The beginning and end periods may be characterized by a kind of civic optimism for which the stockings stand as a cipher. Yet, the cultural and political aspects of the industrial past of the city inform its cultural present.

 

The method of this work was that of the outsider as ‘urban archeologist’ or ‘natural historian’, interpreting the material residue of history in public space in visual rather than textual terms – thus, as Walter Benjamin said “turn(ing) the stocking inside out”. Although not made with this in mind, this project can best be understood, and discussed, as wholly Benjaminian in the context of the Passagen-Werk, reflecting both its critical purpose and complexity and points to ways in which such an approach to the material present and public urban space can inform an understanding of place.


Strolling to Now: a German City in the Twentieth Century

 

Perhaps the best way to approach Benjamin’s writings would be to imitate his willingness to keep the sensibilities open to the sober and profane illuminations that come to people who quietly and attentively walk through the astonishing streets of a foreign city. – Peter Demetz[i]

 

Reading Walter Benjamin’s writing on cities one is struck by the fragmentary profusion of images, recollections, sociological and historical insights brought forth without any great sense of hierarchy. As Peter Demetz observed of Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century, “for all his concern with historical time, the text has a strikingly static quality, which reflects Benjamin’s compulsion to deal with spaces, vistas, buildings, and monuments, rather than with sequences of events.” and that Benjamin reads “things as if they were texts.”[ii] But rather than approaching Benjamin’s writing as part of a discussion about Benjamin and the architecture of modernity, this paper is a story of things and of attentively walking the streets of a foreign city – Chemnitz in Saxony, Germany. My references to things, histories and buildings – and to Benjamin, come about in thinking through a place as a visual artist. So this is not a Benjaminian theoretical paper so much as an account of a Benjaminian action.

 

The Chemnitz Project – begun in 2000 and realized in exhibitions and books in 2004 and 2005 – is both an attempt to understand the Saxon city of Chemnitz and a reflection on German history. Chemnitz, the ‘Saxony Manchester’, was a world centre for textiles and the manufacture of machinery for the textiles industry in Europe in the late 19th century. The beginning point for my project focused on the modernist inventions in industrial and residential architecture produced under the patronage of manufacturers and on the textile products of their enterprises, now in the collection of the city art museum  – Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz.

 

Beginning in 1997 I have repeatedly and extensively explored the city, predominantly by foot. The 800 year old inner city was, at that time, a combination of 1960s and early ‘70s socialist rebuilding and a wasteland between what remained of the medieval Red Tower and the 1912 Town Hall, now the site for a new arcade. The nearby nineteenth century suburb of Kassberg was a grid of dilapidated Jugendstil and Wilhelmine apartments and houses.

 

To contextualise this, here is Wikipedia’s description of Chemnitz[iii]:

Heavy destruction in World War II as well as post-war demolition to erect a truly socialistic city centre left the city with a vast open space around its town hall where once a vibrant city heart had been. Due to the Stalinist planning era of the 1950s there are few tourist sights. After the war, almost all of the old buildings in the city’s core were removed to make space for new, modern buildings. Obviously, these were mostly utilitarian and are not pleasing to the eye. If one is interested in typical socialist building styles, one will find lots of this stuff by wandering around in this town.

(The socialist architecture of this city centre is now protected by the State of Saxony as an historic conservation area).

 

During a residency at the art museum in 2000, I was isolated by the Saxon dialect and a lack of English speakers in the east. I was equally isolated from history by the particular sensitivities of those who lived through the former GDR and even of the ‘front-line’ West Germans; history that was private, history that was obliterated, history that couldn’t be discussed, history that may have been known or unknown, history that must be made anew each day. But these impediments in another sense became assets, as my attention was drawn wholly to things, buildings, places and their fragmented material histories and narratives, beginning with some extraordinary textiles stored in the museum. A project evolved from this focus, in speculative poetic terms, on the relationship between what had been produced in the city and the architectural fabric of the city itself. From this beginning something completely unexpected occurred, quite apart from the two large museum exhibitions and their substantial publications.[iv]

 

In addition to the architecture in the city, the most surprising objects were the thousands of stocking concealed in the art museum’s collection. These things, remarkable in their aesthetic adventurousness and diversity of design, had never been catalogued or shown. Although made between 1890 and 1910 many of them seemed of a later date; predicting later aesthetic approaches apparent in art and architecture, consistent with Benjamin’s perception. There was also a diversity of implied meanings suggested by these simple consumer items. Although their production was only possible with sophisticated nineteenth century industrial processes, some stockings maintained folk and hand-made elements, or depended on cottage industry piece-work.

 

In combination with buildings, for me as an artist and a kind of urban archeologist, these stockings became a particular material residue of Chemnitz’s economic history. When viewed from the perspective of the present, modernism in art, architecture and textiles intersect with economic and political history in Germany. The stockings were, however, even for the museum, curiosities and out of time. As was I, in my turn, a source of curiosity for the GDR-trained textile curator; perhaps the museum not only had an artist-in-residence, but also a stocking fetishist-in-residence?.

 

So, there were, in Chemnitz, two objects of interest: stockings and buildings, or, material things and the fragmented material evidence of the city, vastly different in scale and substance. I presumed these to stand in a relationship: two kinds of fabric, each an example of modernism separated from the present by the hiatus of the thirteen year Nazi-time followed by Soviet occupation and Socialist Unity (SED) rule until 1990 (during which the city was called Karl-Marx-Stadt). In this fragmented context, the collision of these two kinds of objects and their different materials provided a basis from which to reflect on German history in the 20th century.

 

It was clear that the textile industry was a significant source of the city’s wealth evidenced in the quality of its architecture. So to speak of textiles, of fabric, it is possible to speak of things; of materials that are made for our use in everyday life, and of buildings, of architecture, and also of social concepts. Metaphorically, the ‘fabric of society’ suggests a unified idea of society (a collective view) that can be subject to rending through forms of disruption. So there is great complexity in the dynamic and temporal relationship between different values of society: cultural, economic, political, and so on. We could say that a place, to focus on the anthropological rather than the topographical, is the whole fabric, which can further be represented by the structure of weaving the myriad strands of individual histories. History then, is not available from any single position on this fabric but rather from a network of different prospects.

 

This idea of a woven matrix with its convergent zones describes a particular textile type; the plaid or Scottish tartan, with its own fabricated genealogy, where parallel threads form a grid-based pattern that is traditional throughout Africa, the Americas, India and South East Asia. Weaving, as the most basic method of textile making, is also a basic construction principle for three dimension objects from aboriginal fish traps to column and beam construction – the three dimensional matrix of modernist building. Yet metaphorically it is a contemporary concept: the WorldWideWeb, the most ubiquitous form of contemporary interaction, is described by its inventor as “a weaving” – “a place where the whim of a human being and the reasoning of a machine coexist in an ideal, powerful mixture,”[v] An idea that resonates with a kind of architecture – the iron and glass structure of the nineteenth century sky and gas-lit arcades as containers for human desire, now manifested in the electrically lit shopping malls.

 

But the museum’s objects – the stockings – to which my attention was first drawn – were not woven, but knitted, an altogether more complex three-dimensional structure. These could not have been made without the knitting machines invented in Manchester controlled by coding mechanisms: controlling patterns and threads in knitting stretchable materials to the form of female legs. The punched tapes that controlled these small , precise machines were the technological beginning of the computer.

 

How can art explore histories outside historical methodology? In what way outside of the text can the relationship between social questions and modernity be engaged? Is it possible to talk of ‘consequence’ in art, of psychological and philosophical implications of modernity, to utilize for this purpose the intersection between differing ideas or practice?  The material practice of art as a vehicle for speculation on history as a mutable consequence of actions lent itself to the exploration of Chemnitz – a place in flux and with a fractured history. But flux is not limited to place. It is also an interior, psychological process. From reflecting on individual history to questioning the external, historical evidence in a place allows two explorations to become  (to an extent) entwined, woven together. One might say that the method of ‘psychoanalysis’ then is the warp to ‘archeology’s’ weft.

 

In reflecting on the objects in the museum and the city itself as social documents / materials, a link became evident between machine manufacture (the textiles mills), innovation, and modernism (the industrial, civic and commercial architecture that flourished before 1933) and the textiles produced, (the late nineteenth century intricately patterned machine-knitted stockings). Although there was a hiatus in the development of architecture between 1933 and 1960, Modernism’s return under socialism was in the form of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse  – a residue perhaps of his Moscow period from 1928-1936. But what of the other aspects of cultural complexity under modernism? The answer is not narrative in form, but rather a process of following a broken thread through the temporal labyrinth of a city, another form of knitted fabric . The freedom to lose one’s way while strolling through the city is also a way of finding new connections, new threads.

 

The Chemnitz Project was in two senses Benjaminian: In the process by which it was carried out, and in the experience of the installation of the work titled Blickdicht in the museum’s gallery. The method of this artwork was that of an outsider as ‘urban archeologist’ or ‘natural historian’, interpreting the material residue of history in public space in visual rather than textual terms – thus, as Walter Benjamin said “turn(ing) the stocking inside out”. Although not made with this in mind, this project can best be understood, and discussed, as wholly Benjaminian in the context of the Arcades Project, reflecting both its critical purpose and complexity as it points to ways in which such an approach to the material present and public urban space can inform an understanding of place.

 

The installation of the Blickdicht’s photographic montages, some 75 running meters, of interiors and exteriors of buildings designed (for the most part) in the 1920’s and the 1960’s, and new building fabric after 1989, with close-up details of stockings was shown at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz in 2004. The buildings shown were those made between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the nineteen-thirties, (that is, until the Nazification of Germany which ended the city’s successful industrial/textile production and culturally rich history) and those postwar buildings made during socialist and post-reunification reconstruction. In the centre of the gallery were stockings arranged on long, low benches in a loose labyrinth that impeded traffic as if a mini-city environment in the gallery. This installation resonated on a number of fundamental levels: the historical, cultural, aesthetic, economic and, as the renovation of east Germany takes place, the political and social. From inside the labyrinth of low vitrines /tables displaying stockings the viewer was offered the possibility to gather information from the categorized display of real stockings accessed through these narrow passageways and to reference these objects with the photo-montaged image fragments of the same stockings and the city’s buildings on the surrounding walls. What was shown was an unfamiliar view of a familiar place or an unfamiliar place in familiar views thus changing the gaze and appearance of the city of Chemnitz. As in a labyrinth, to find oneself required whim and reason to negotiate the hidden dimensions of social and psychological space.

 

If the cultural aspects of the industrial past of the city informs its cultural present it is apparent at an institutional, municipal level. The effect of this project was, since 2000, when I first made the photographs public, for the city to re-imagine itself as a city of culture with the Kunstsammlungen now extended as a network of four museums.



[i] Peter Demetz, ed., Walter Benjamin: Reflections – Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. 1986 New York: Schocken Books, p.xliii

[ii] Demetz, Walter Benjamin: Reflections – Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, pp.xxxviii-xxxix

[iii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chemnitz

[iv] Ingrid Mössinger and Anne Marie Freybourg, eds, Richard Dunn: Mannig•faltig / Richard Dunn: Mani•fold, Berlin: Jovis Verlag, 2005, and Ingrid Mössinger and Katharina Metz, eds, Blickdicht: Damenstrümpfe in Chemnitz, Installation Richard Dunn, Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz, Leipzig: Edition Leipzig, 2004

[v] Tim Berners-Lee, Mark Fischetti, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor, San Francisco: Harpers, 1999