Thomas Kilpper

Former GDR Ministry for State Security/Neuer Berliner Kunstverein

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and yet the headquarters of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, the former East German secret police better known as the Stasi, remains virtually untransformed. The most significant change has been the removal of millions of files, as investigators try to clarify what is still a very hazy episode in German history. With “State of Control,” Thomas Kilpper has created a labor-intensive intervention in one of the headquarters’ buildings—long abandoned and now up for sale—with an extensive series of linocuts meticulously etched into the original linoleum floor and then utilized to make massive prints exhibited on an upper floor and hung from the building’s facade. Concurrently, an extensive exhibition at Neuer Berliner Kunstverein presented older work as well as video documentation.

If the German term Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “coming to terms with the past,” is more typically utilized in relation to the Holocaust, it is also relevant to discussions about the former German Democratic Republic. At least, this is what Kilpper seems to imply by archiving, etching, and printing ninety images taken from books and print media or downloaded from the Internet, an ensemble engaging with the particular significance of this site while insistently contextualizing it against a broader narrative of both concentrated and diffuse forms of authoritarianism within and outside Germany.

The archive includes photographs of a number of key GDR political figures, such as Erich Honecker, Stasi heads Erich Mielke and Markus Wolf, and Brandt administration infiltrator Günter Guillaume, as well as images that depict or refer to the methods of surveillance and incarceration notoriously implemented to suppress internal dissent. In a lyrical gesture, Kilpper reproduces a still from Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006), featuring the recently deceased actor Ulrich Mühe. His portrayal of a Stasi agent in the film drew from real-life events: The East German actor claimed to have been under surveillance by his second wife. However, the work also devotes significant attention to histories of political resistance, frustrated by state repression both preceding the construction of the wall and then later on the other side of it. Rosa Luxemburg, founder of the Communist Party of Germany, is portrayed along with Waldemar Pabst, the Freikorps captain who ordered her murder, while ample space is also devoted to the Red Army Faction (RAF), whose sense of political urgency derived in part from the specter of fascism that continued to haunt postwar West Germany. As if to drive this last point home, Kilpper includes a series of images of former Nazis who were never prosecuted, some of whom made their way into subsequent political administrations or CIA operations.

One etching that departs from the iconic nature of the others shows a series of views of a mailbox taken by a surveillance camera. We see some very ordinary-looking people quietly inserting letters into the box—and then we observe the epistles being confiscated by a Stasi agent. The work bears witness to the severity of the culture of paranoia instigated by the East German system but also the very banal nature of what was being monitored: historically insignificant, dreary lives, much like the ones eventually imposed upon those West German militants who traded martyrdom for safe refuge in the East.

Michèle Faguet