Cornelia Schleime: »Bis auf weitere gute Zusammenarbeit Nr. 7284/85«
Series of 14 works, 1993, screen-printed photographs, 100 x 70 cm
by Anke Hoffmann
Cornelia Schleime’s work in this exhibition is probably unique in that it has developed from a highly personal experience of being spied on without her consent by a totalitarian, bureaucratic state apparatus. Bis auf weitere gute Zusammenarbeit Nr. 7284/85 (Here’s to further fruitful cooperation No. 7284/85) came about after in the early 1990s the artist was allowed to look at the file kept on her by the GDR’s secret police, and had to contend with the fact that she had been spied on for years in the GDR.
Born in East-Berlin in 1953, Cornelia Schleime studied mask-making/costume design, painting and graphic design in the late 1970s in Dresden. However, shortly afterwards the government imposed an exhibition ban on her work in response to her unwillingness to ‘conform’ and her ongoing activities in ‘illegal’ artist circles. She was subsequently subject to surveillance by agents of the GDR state security service, before being placed under close observation. The artist submitted four applications for an exit permit to the appropriate government offices, before she was finally granted permission to leave in 1984. Cornelia Schleime subsequently moved to West-Berlin. However, the authorities forbade her to take to the West even one piece of the work she had produced to date.
This is the period which spawned the highly-disturbing reports by the secret police agents, signed with code names such as "Martha Heine" or "David Menzer", in which their surveillance of Cornelia Schleime’s private life reached the height of absurdity, reflected in the tortuous argumentation resorted to in the spy reports. The petty bourgeois failure to grasp the way artists understand themselves could hardly be revealed more strikingly than in reports such as this: »The apartment walls are painted with the figures of naked women. The side of the apartment door facing the hallway is covered in messages from her acquaintances scrawled in crayon«. Or: »Her appearance has been brought in line with the apartment’s furnishings, and is likewise 'intended' to look very modern.« One wonders seriously whether such findings can really justify the efforts of such an enormous surveillance apparatus as that wielded by the GDR’s state security service.
The cycle Bis auf weitere gute Zusammenarbeit Nr. 7284/85 consists of reports which are enlarged many times by silk-screening. Schleime has glued the self-orchestrated photos into the reports, where they seem to have become part of the original. The result: 14 Dadaist-like collages comprising selected files and photographs which comment on them. But the photographs do not seek to mimic the aesthetics of a truly investigative photograph, nor do they attempt to conceal the fact that they are artistic productions, indeed, some of them even resemble posed portraits. What the presence of the artist in her »biographical reconstructions« conveys is the intense irony she draws on to overcome the humiliation she experienced: Freezing on the snow-covered roof of a house but appearing content as she sits at the dining table under the light of a standard lamp, she illustrates the allegation of »self-isolation« raised by her neighbors in an East-Berlin house. In a wrecked truck we see the artist mocking flight from the GDR with impudent naivety, i.e. in a manner as senseless as possible. Dressed like a cleaning woman in a typical nylon overall, she raises her glass to a likeness of Honecker which has been reduced to a wall clock. A victory of the ridiculous over the tenacity of the surveillance team employed by the secret police.
Above all, the banality behind the zeal of the state security service’s policing system is graphically illustrated by the allegations the files contain. The artist intensifies this aspect in her work. In her photographs, Cornelia Schleime forges the details of an identity over which she has no control, a »stolen life«, and constructs an absurd reality which never existed in this form. With the ironic exaggeration so typical for her she presents herself in selected roles – from housewife via assembly-line worker, cleaning woman, Rapunzel, teenager, Bohemian, aristocrat through to a diva – and in the process regains the power to define her own life. Arranging as a collage of photos and the agents’ report (which seemingly indicate knowledge of the subject C.S. and her habits) is itself an act of liberation, as it breaks away from the sanctions of a power, which sought to wrest control over her life. The artist works through the painful process of re-writing her own biography by employing unmasking satire, in which she particularly explores the phenomena of narrow-mindedness and provincialism. It was only possible for Cornelia Schleime to embark on such an investigation once the immediate shock at being without home and identity had subsided, when years later she held in her hands the evidence of the surveillance, and time provided her with the necessary distance to confront the regime’s absurdities with humor. This is evident in the text which serves as an introduction to her work, and in which she thanks the numerous assistants employed by the GDR’s Ministry of State Security for their »assistance«.