Are They Play Fighting? Gundula Schulze Eldowy and Robert Frank at Akademie der Künste

Robert Frank and Gundula Schulze Eldowy, Leipzig, 1993 © Helfried Strauß (Permission given by Akademie Der Kunst)

 It’s always fascinating when we hear of two great artists coming together. Munch and Strindberg at the grand Cafe in Oslo, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald tearing up Paris together, Cheever and Carver both drinking themselves to oblivion teaching in Idaho. Now, at Berlin’s Akademie Der Kunst, Keep a Stiff Upper Lip! explores Gundula Schulze Eldowy and Robert Frank’s kindred connection through photography.

Walking into the exhibition, I have two thoughts: One that it is either the least or most appropriate exhibition to be viewed on a hangover, an unflinching focus on bodies rendered invisible or abject by society- and two, that it’s clear that in one another, Gundula Schulze Eldowy and Robert Frank found two like-minded souls. Meeting in East Berlin in 1985, they struck up an unlikely friendship which continued for decades, taking Eldowy to the US for a three-year period at the behest of Frank.

To look at them initially- her, a 31-year-old graduate from the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig living in East Germany, and him, a 60-something Swiss-American- would only be to see differences, and yet their artistic sensibilities reflect one another. A sense of urgency, a preoccupation with place, and a gaze that refuses to look away, whether that’s peering behind the mundane horrors of GDR-era Berlin or the smoke and mirrors of the California dream (some of Frank’s work from The Americans is on show here too).

In the foyer of the exhibition, you can sit and watch a video presentation of some of her images (with German narration): unsettling and queasy images of GDR-era Berlin that live at the crux of beauty and morbid curiosity. The grime and rubble of destroyed East Berlin can be seen everywhere, yet Schulze Eldowy’s focus on (controversially) nude portraits offers a humanist side of socialist life not depicted before. Her subjects don’t shy away from the camera: their gaze firmly looks back at you- an amputee victim in hospital, stripped naked on her bed, eyes downcast but still piercing the camera. Images, just like the facade of socialist life given in the media and on the news, are not what they seem. An image, taken from her series of GDR life, Berlin in a Dog’s Night (1977-1989), shows a man, his head up a woman’s shirt, her mouth frozen mid-shriek; they are play-fighting, or maybe it’s an act of violation. But which is it?

As you move through the exhibition, you start to see the effect of Frank, and how they both impacted one another through their correspondence, and later, Schulze Eldowy’s move to the US. It starts to become a game, is it Schulze Eldowy’s photograph, or Frank’s? Both were inspired by (at the introduction of Frank) the poetry of the US subculture- Allen Ginsberg and the beatniks.

Gundula Schulze Eldowy, untitled, New York, 1992
from the series Spinning on my heels
© Gundula Schulze Eldowy (Permission given to use by Akademie Der Kunst)

But it’s Schulze Eldowy’s move to the US that really captures the spirit of her best work. Movement and human behaviour is rendered uncanny in her series of New York street photographs, Spinning on my Heels (1990-1993). Images that compel you to take a double look.

New York is a place of double exposures and mirrored reflections: everyone and everything in the big bad city interacts and infects one another, and no one or nothing is left untouched, like the old woman in a headscarf and a bronze statue that, just like her, is from another century, another time. In other images, deer antlers pierce human heads in motion. A man dances lovingly in the park with a puppet/doll that seems to be his double. Another man’s suited-up self becomes blurred under a footprint. The face of a small child merges with the bustle of the city and its yellow taxicabs. Bank notes seemingly printed on the backs of two yuppies. Like this, her photographs always seem to carry the past with them, always creeping, imposing the baggage and weight of history.

Fleshing out the exhibition are works by Roger Melis and a video piece, The Beast in Me is Germany, by director Helke Misselwitz on Schulze Eldowy’s artist practice, as well as a summary of the correspondence between the two artists- it’s a well-rounded encapsulation of two people who are fascinating enough for an exhibition on their own merits, gifting us with the intimacy of what it means to be creative collaborators amidst times of political turmoil.

Now, more than ever, the exhibition is a sobering reminder not just of the importance of social documentary art but also of how international dialogue between artists can emphasise our shared humanity.

Written by Katie Driscoll

“Halt die Ohren steif! Gundula Schulze Eldowy und Robert Frank” is on display at Akademie der Künste until the 14th of April, 2024.

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