I was invited to participate in an artist residence in the town of Schwedt, in the old Democratic Republic of Germany, just a few miles away from the Polish border.
The residence was organised and funded by the Galerie am Kietz in conjunction with PCK, the enormous Oil Refinery that was built near the town in the late 50s and to this day continues to exert a profound influence on the town and people of Schwedt.
The PCK owns a huge collection of artwork. It was a usual practice during communist times for big companies to recruit artists, who would produce work to improve the working environment, promote the company and, in many cases, to provide imagery in compliance with the ideals of communism. Our task was to provide our responses to that collection.
Detail of a Mosaic in the PCK Canteen
I cannot begin to describe how deeply moving, intense, emotional, every minute of this experience has been for me.
I landed in Germany – for the first time ever in my life- as the last match of the World Cup Final was taking place: Germany Vs Argentina The Germans had previously defeated the Cup hosts, Brazil, at a shocking 7-0 score. At Schonefeld Airport, the information screens showed the football, not the departures.
at schonefeld airport
Down in Mitte, all the bars had screens showing the match…. I sat at a pizza place with a Fritz Kola, and watched the Germans win the Cup in the last 10 minutes. I felt that I had landed in The Country of Winners, an intense sensation considering Germany lost two world wars, and had a wall dividing its capital for almost 30 years.
Arrival in Schwedt
The first thing that struck me upon arrival in Schwedt was how scarily clean and tidy everything is. I hadn’t seen so much pavement without a scrap of rubbish ever in my life.
Midday in Schwedt
and how deserted the streets were… When I asked about this, this lady told me: “Germans go to work, or go to the shops, or go home, or take care of their gardens. They don’t hang around”
Midday in Schwedt town centre
Coming from Spain and London, this was enough to shock me.
The next thing I noticed is how much elderly people live in Schwedt…. you see them everywhere, walking around in motorised walking aids, wheelchairs, rollators… often with painfully bent backs intheir old age.
The absence of children around is eerie. I was told that there are kids around, but in July, most of them are away on holiday. Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Schwedt was for me one of superficial perfection, and a lot of unknown gurgling underneath…. At night, I felt more reluctant to walk alone than I would in the middle of London…
Schwedt by night. You can see the outline of the Catholic church at the back
But the nights were warm and mysterious, and very hard to resist…. This is how I came across this old lady who came out every night at 11 pm to walk her dog, accompanied by a carer and her rollator walking aid, immaculately dressed in white ironed trousers, and a freshly pressed shirt. How beautiful to see her take care of her appearance despite the lonely streets, the late hours…the invisibility.
On my first day in the Gallery, I was offered this amazing studio space:
My studio in Schwedt
I set up my studio on the second floor of the Galerie am Kietz, a building originally used to dry tobacco grown in Germany(!). There were many of these buildings around, but they got demolished as tobacco production faded. This one survived, and I was told that, back in the 90s, some members of the artist community in Schwedt squatted it. Eventually it became established as the community Arts centre in town.
wiew from the studio window
As soon as I settled, I felt compelled to draw clean, orderly, straight lines… I started with the Catholic Church in Schwedt, as it presides its town centre. Later I found out there is also an Evangelical Church, with a Christ inside that is suspended in the air without a cross…. a true vision of freedom? Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to visit it. Two weeks is very little time, I found out!
All of us
most of us
Here we all are, on the first day, (from top left to bottom right)
Janet Grau, (green top) An American performance and community artist who moved to Germany for love, with whom I shared studio space and some delicious conversation. Her work for the residence brought young people from Schwedt to work in the studio on a regular basis, and that was a great opportunity for all of us. Her sensitivity, professionality, commitment and self-discipline are admirable.
Jan Brokof (with cap) and Alex Höfs-Schulz (behind Jan)
Both Jan and Alex were born, like me, in 1977. I was born in Barcelona two years after the death of Franco. They were born in Communist Schwedt and lived the fall of the wall, with all its consequences. They took me around Schwedt, showed me places that no official tour could ever show. They told me about what it was like to be a young teenager in this strange town (not easy), and allowed me to see a bit of the world through their eyes…. At night, when Beer O’clock time found us still in the studio, we laughed and talked till late, and their company was the most wonderful present I got from Germany.
Alex works with printing and paper cuts, and his work has a profound spiritual quality… his room in the final exhibition felt like swimming in a pristine lake, cleansing the mind and feeding the soul. He belongs to a tradition of Artists that filled the town of Schwedt with little sculpted corners of hope when times were dark and difficult.
Jan is an explosion of enthusiasm and his zest for life is impossible to resist. His curiosity takes him to all sorts of places, from the most elaborate woodcuts, to filming antheaps devouring a city made of fruit. During the symposium he came up with an idea to open an Art Gallery in Schwedt that would home the PCK and Schwedt town collection of artworks, and make it available to all. I have no doubt he will make it happen.
He took me on the bike around the buildings of his childhood, his school and his first plattenbau home (both demolished), and opened his home (and his mum’s!) to me. His daughter Amanda is just as viby as him, wonderful and free.
Waldemar Wojciechowski and Danuta Wojciechowska (just below him, holding a flower) are both Artists and university teachers in Szczecin, in Poland. They were warm and friendly, and had participated in the Schwedt artist residence in previous occasions. They are skilled, intelligent artists, and I particularly enjoyed Danuta’s darkly atmospheric work in the final exhibition.
Ènrico Drømmefanger is a young Schwedt artist. He was super curious and interested in all of us, and collaborated with Ernesto Leal and Janet Grau in both their projects. I had a short conversation with him about life in Schwedt for young people. He got goosebumps telling me about how much he cared about his mates and the life Schwedt offers him, and told me the young are around and very much active and creative in this town, if not visible at first sight. His company, and that of his mates Miri and Angie, was a breath of fresh air and a vision of hope for the future.
Günter Neubauer von Knobelsdorff, is a veteran who produced work for the collection of PCK back in the 60s. He was friendly, kind and willing to speak of the old DDR times, which brought much enquiry from all of us. I felt for him as we bombarded him with all sorts of questions. He painted a large amount of watercolours, faded ‘Earth from the Sky’ maps of the local area that for me felt like a distant dream of the past, one that that I wished to wake up from but was inevitably lured back into by its softness.
Cora Vries (black top), A Dutch artist with whom I had some fascinating and fun conversations. I was touched by her relaxed manner, sweetness and honesty. Her studio became a forest of canvas and white banners, and straight black lines and stitches.
Kate Kotcheff is a producer, photographer and film maker coming from London. She is a seasoned professional with an acute eye and inexhaustible curiosity. I was lucky to spend time in her company, learn from her, and enjoy together a considerable amount of bisongrass vodkas! Alex took us to see the old Schwedt prison at her request, and it was one of the most intense moments of the entire residence. The photographs she took during the residency are absolutely stunning. She also dug out from the archives and exhibited a selection of fascinating images of Schwedt at the height of the population boom.
Christian Uhlig (with cap) and Susanne Hoppe (who is not in the picture), work for the Galerie am Kietz, and are both artists. They dealt with our requests on a day to day basis, and took good care of us.
The man in the suit is the Mayor of Schwedt, Bürgermeister Jürgen Polzehl
Below Kate it’s me, and Ernesto Leal, who put my name forward for this residence, and without whom I wouldn’t be there. He is one of the managers at Red Gallery London, where I work, and his personality is simply too big to describe in just a few sentences here.
He curated an exhibition in London featuring the Artworks in the PCK collection back in 2011, called The Big Society.
And finally Roswitha Flöter, head of PR at PCK. This confident lady works and thrives in the full-on male environment of the Oil Refinery. I particularly enjoyed our last night together, when she was off duty and her naughtyness showed up after a few of those bisongrass vodkas…
Finally I would like to thank Alicja and Viola, PCK staff, who did a superb job of translating and interpreting, and made themselves super available to us during our stay. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, ladies!
Visit to the PCK Oil Refinery
The sheer hugeness of this place blew me away…. it goes on and on for miles, a town of pipes and chimneys almost as big as Schwedt itself. The oil is mined in Western Siberia, and it travels for 3 weeks until it reaches the plant…. It was eerily impressive to see an oil refinery so clean. Not many funny smells (from the bus that showed us around) gardeners cutting grass, workers with pristine overalls….
The food in the canteen was excellent…
But it is still an oil refinery…
More towers and pipes
Back in the 60s, thousands of young people moved to Schwedt to build the refinery, work in it and in the more than 70 companies feeding of or supplying PCK with goods. People were also needed to build housing and schools for the increasing population. But gradually, PCK has required less and less staff, and permanent contracts have been hard to come by for young people. Hence the migration of young people to Berlin and other cities, and the strange sense of disconnection between the young and the old I perceived so intensely during my stay. In three years’ time, a considerable amount of skilled workers will reach retirement age…. who is going to replace them? At the time of the fall of Communism in 1989, Schwedt had 55 082 inhabitants. by 2012, 31 042, more than 1/3 gone, and counting.
The people that came and built prefabricated blocks of houses, and lived in them, were also told to tear them down…. People’s homes, people’s special places, built to be torn down… Are people expendable too?
It is very strange for someone like me, who has never lived in a place with decreasing population, to see nature allowed to reposess the spaces that once were built up.
In contrast with all of this, Schwedt is surrounded by an enormous Nature Park, a river and a huge network of man made canals and landscaped fields and hills. truly beautiful.
One of the main successes of this residence is that we made it possible for Artwork from the PCK collection to be exhibited alongside our own creations. At first we asked PCK to take some of these paintings to the studio for inspiration and reference, which they agreed to, and the natural progression for most of us is to have these pictures seen by the people with whom they are so deeply connected. This opened up dialogue between the PCK, the artists and the people, and many fascinating stories surfaced, especially during the vernissage. In the video links at the end of this blog, you can see a man who recognised himself in a picture. Others knew the artists or the models in person and shared their stories with us.
It also fascinating to observe how some of the imagery typical of communist idealism pictures is still very much in use nowadays…
the image on the left is taken out from the PCK website, the one on the right was painted in 1952 by Walter Götze, an oil painting of a PCK welder
I was privileged to enjoy the company of these three fascinating paintings for the two weeks. They are so loaded with history, and they permeated the air of my studio with their presence. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between The Welder, a picture of health and vigour (although he looks a bit tired to me), and the Chemistry Lab worker, who looks like she’s made of radioactive raw flesh, a very critical perspective on communist idealism.
PCK artworks in my studio
Walter Götze, Schweißer (welder), 1952 Oil 92 x 71 cm
Claus Hänsel. Chemiearbeiterin im PCK (PCK chemist) 1976, Oil, 89 x 109 cm
Heinz Weber, PCK bei Nacht, oil painting, 1975, 69x100cm
The PCK by night is a beautifully executed painting. The atmosphere exhuding from it was especially delicious at sunset, when the whole town of Schwedt went even more quiet and one could almost hear the rumbling of the refinery in the distance.
Work in Progress
Drawing the elderly lady
work in progress
Detail from top
work in progress
Top Section of Zwei Woche in Schwedt (Two weeks in Schwedt)
Amanda, detail of Zwei Woche in Schwedt
Zwei Woche in Schwedt
Marta Rocamora in front of her drawing/collage piece.
A link to all media coverage of the symposium, including a 7 minute video summarising the event.