Raffael Rheinsberg

A few months ago, when Raffael Rheinsberg flew a German flag at half mast in the Swedish city of Visby, German tourists saw their carefree vacation moods and their feelings of national pride being compromised. With the intervention of the German consul, Rheinsberg’s social sculpture had to be moved to a less visible location. In the meantime a Swedish collector placed this Fahne für Deutschland (Flag for Germany, 1993) in his front garden.

The small retrospective of seven of Rheinsberg’s works dealt with the disappearance and negation of the values of the former German Democratic Republic. Since the fall of the Berlin wall, this subject has occupied Rheinsberg almost exclusively; he has followed the traces of a deteriorating society, and exhibited objects that document what he has found. Orient und Okzident (East and West, 1993) was one of the most impressive works here: 28 massive copper kettles, used for the production of chocolate, were juxtaposed with 28 covers from air-raid sirens. Each kettle was unique, of a particular color, distinct in size and form from the others, and if one touched them even gently, they produced a deep and powerful sound. On the edges of the kettles there were layers of chocolate that gave off a strong smell. The siren covers, on the other hand, appeared to be machine-produced; in contrast to the kettles, they were uniform, undelineated, and seemed to function almost as a platoon of soldiers. This contrast marked the contradictions and oppositions that Rheinsberg discovered in the former GDR.

Rheinsberg depicts the reality of production and life through the use of everyday objects. The ordered series of 45 red hydrant covers from East Berlin was handmade by factory workers and firemen. But each individual object was distinct from the others as if to document workers’ reality in the GDR—their poverty, but also their creativity and imagination. In H1-H45 the artist shifted his view to the reality of production, commenting on the current relationship between East and West. These works shed light on the center of the German situation and the lack of understanding between the two former German states. Wherever, out of necessity, something meaningful developed in the East, like the hydrant covers, their complete removal and negation became equivalent to a devaluation of identity and achievement.

In his newer works, Rheinsberg has created concrete representations of living conditions in the former GDR. They promote a debate about everyday life in East and West Germany—a debate that has not yet occurred. Rheinsberg’s is an art of documentation and communication; in its essence it is political, but it draws its force not from any sociopolitical claims, but, rather, from its esthetic formulation. It enables us to see comparatively, to recognize meaning and context both in a historical sense and in terms of our daily experiences.

Peter Funken

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.