Manfred Pernice

Today when you ride the U5, once East Berlin’s most important subway line, it takes you from the TV-tower-adorned Alexanderplatz by way of Frankfurter Allee and Friedrichsfelde to the northeast limit of the city, at Hellersdorf. This is where Le Corbusier’s “machine for living,” the Unité d’Habitation Typ Berlin, meets the condensed urban fabric of cheap, concrete-slab apartment buildings that made architectural history in the ’60s as a symbol of social progress but in the ’80s became the very image of aesthetic resignation. Societal gaps and cultural imbalances such as those between modernist aspiration and its cut-rate knockoffs are what move Manfred Pernice, whose latest exhibition was titled “U5.”

An aesthetic and ideological showcase of the former East German republic, the venerable subway line was renovated in 2003–2004 to give the station’s socialist face a makeover. Clinker brick was removed, beige-green tile demolished, dingy signage taken out, and the public designs of the workers and farmers’ state were obliterated. With a video camera, Pernice documented the last trip of the U5 through Berlin before the renovation, capturing architectural details, graffiti, bits of GDR design like an Ole Bienkopp tile frieze, and public-service sculptures like the lifesize Playmobil figure “Harry Schotter” (“Schotter” is a play on the German word for gravel) showing commuters the way to buses they would now have to take instead of the subway. Pernice also collected construction debris: some tile wainscoting; a few remnants of a stairway landing. From fragments of the construction site, snapshots, and video footage, Pernice built an installation that in the end said less about the folklore of the German Democratic Republic than about the relationship between sculpture, architecture, and space.

Running through the succession of gallery rooms was a catwalk made of particleboard—a stand-in for the rails. Above it were signs for each of the station stops, from Alexanderplatz to Hönow terminal. Wrecked-looking poster boards hung on the wall showing, for instance, photographic portraits of the stations from a one-hour developer. The color scheme of the gallery walls corresponded to the old stations’ tiles, which Pernice incorporated into one sculpture like relics. In recycling architectural fragments, Pernice condenses the grimy reality of mass transit into forms that quote its structures. Not that the objects make any claim to be functional—everything is ambiguous, open, provisional. Pernice, said to be a notorious skeptic, is always ready to make corrections, and so his rebuilding and unbuilding transformations of the sculptures are part of the system. Perfection is suspect; long live the fragment.

This hapless, fragmentary aspect also informed the installation of the exhibition. The nearly empty entrance room containing a few found objects was followed by one brimming with sculpture, in which an original NO ENTRY sign marked the entrance to the small back room. There Pernice had laid out a suitcase he’d found in the construction rubble, complete with its contents: a bizarre bundle of GDR literature; picture books from the Olympics at Innsbruck, Montreal, and Munich; a notebook with German military songs; novels. All were redolent of cultural codes that have been tossed aside, forsaken no less than the train-station facades. “There has been a devaluing of the contexts where design has existed,” says Pernice. “I revalue these contexts as monuments.”

Brigitte Huck

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.