Murmurs from the Wall: Steffi Klenz’s He Only Feels the Black and White of It

In Brexit Britain everyone cites Shakespeare. In times of national crisis we’ve always turned to the Bard to provide us with our script, and so it is again now. Politicians, journalists, nightclub hostesses, sandwich delivery boys: they’re all at it. ‘Et tu, Brute?’ ‘Who shall inherit the hollow crown?’ ‘That Cassius (Michael Gove) over there has a lean and hungry look. Give me jolly fat men (Boris Johnson) instead.’ ‘Oh I’m sorry, I’ve run out of tuna mayo. Take a cheese instead?’

Perhaps we should be citing Andrew Marvell. Poet-politician Marvell witnessed the last time irate Britons staged a major constitutional coup – the beheading of Charles I in 1649 – without first reflecting on what should happen next. (What did happen next was eleven years’ uncertainty before the ousted Stuarts were returned to power in 1660. The political world was turned violently upside down and then, eventually, after a good deal of huffing and puffing, restored to its initial orientation again.) On that occasion Marvell penned a wonderfully ambivalent portrait of the regicide-in-chief in his ‘Horatian Ode’. He characterized Oliver Cromwell as the man who

Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time,
And cast the kingdom old
Into another mould. 

Among the new ruiners of the ‘great work of time’ (the EU, né EEC, is 59 years old – and so is actually a good deal younger than my mum – whereas the English monarchy in 1649 was closer to 800 – even older than my mum), Gove hardly merits the mental effort required for Marvell’s measured equivocations, and as a subject BoJo is more fitting for a rumbustious neo-Georgian satire – an update of Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad perhaps. ‘Fools rush into my head, and so I write,’ Pope declared, ending his mock-epic with a scene of apocalypse that might call to mind the current goings-on in Westminster:

Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And universal Darkness buries All.

Let’s hope they manage to keep the lights on.

Perhaps we should think about political rifts elsewhere. By happy coincidence Mörel Books has just published He Only Feels the Black and White of It by Steffi Klenz, a handsome meditation on political separation which takes as its principal subject a hole in the Berlin Wall and the efforts made to repair it by border guards on 14 July 1973. Klenz was born in East Germany a few years after the incident, and her early life was severely constrained by the Wall’s presence, just as her subsequent career has been shaped significantly by its final destruction in 1989. (She now works in London.) The book consists of a single news image, purchased from the Associated Press, reproduced in around 100 black-and-white screenprinted variant states, and accompanied by fragments of text. ‘The wall flashes in the here. It echoes in the now. It created my past,’ it begins. ‘That past became me. I have always been that.’

Why did you choose that particular picture?

Steff Klenz: I was selected as one of 23 photographic artists to participate in the book publication Rights of Passage for the 2015 Venice Biennale. The overarching themes were territory and boundaries and how those have changed significantly over the course of human history. I felt compelled to make work about the one border that had shaped my own family and myself the most – the Berlin Wall. I found a 1973 Associated Press photograph that presents a section of the Berlin Wall as damaged. West German civilians had attacked the Wall after hearing guns being fired at fleeing East Germans. The archive image pictures East German military guards and border policemen repairing the Wall. When I encountered the image, I was amazed by how loaded that opening in the wall was and I started to refer to it as a ‘murmur’. The more time I spent with the archive image, the more I came to realize that it defined me more than I had anticipated.

What did you do to it to produce the variant states shown in the book?

Over the last few years I have been very interested in exploring themes of repetition in relation to the photographic notion of seriality. For the book, I used the 1973 archive photograph to make multiple screenprinted images. I am particularly interested to explore the moment when a photographic image fails to communicate as an index so I produced screenprints that effectively are not complete. Each print is different from the next and the reader can see the ‘complete’ image only in its fragmented parts.

The book plays with modes of the fragmented image, questioning whether the photographic image can or possibly ever could articulate what it once represented.

The presentation encourages an almost novel-like reading of the text. 

The press photograph was the trigger for a series of textual reflections on my own family history around the question of individual identity and freedom mainly through the figure of my father. The text highlights the constraints, pain and loss of identity that my father experienced as a young man living in the dictatorial state of East Germany.

The text pieces in the book are very dense. They refer to my grandmother and mother but also other political or historical events that took place on that date: 14 July 1973. My work has a strong relationship with Virginia Woolf’s. Woolf’s plots unfold through shifting perspectives of each character’s stream of consciousness and these shifts can occur even mid-sentence. In a way, the book, like Woolf’s writings, is not so much interested in communicating a coherent message or in commanding a unified response. I am more interested to ‘move’ language into a kind of abstraction by repeating (mainly) my father’s story through multiple events and the retelling of pain and sorrow until it is effaced by its own proliferation, just like the accompanied screenprinted images.

Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell? 

I was ten years of age and I remember that in the weeks that followed my school was practically empty of children. Most families had gone west in hope of better jobs, better living conditions, a better life. I remained in my hometown until I left Germany altogether at the age of eighteen.

The Cold War being over means that I have been able to undertake my own personal journey abroad in a country of my choice. I have been able to grow in unexpected ways and be part of the cultural and artistic environment in London and the UK, which I now call my home. In our current political situation this seems to be under threat again and makes the book more poignant. Boundaries and their rights of passage have yet again become part of my world.

Copies can be purchased from morelbooks.com

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