in Frieze | 01 JAN 02
Featured in
Issue 64

Child of the revoluion

Silke Schatz

in Frieze | 01 JAN 02

Autobiography and social reform programmes are inextricably intertwined in the work of Silke Schatz.

This conjunction of personal experience and social history is clear in two of her central preoccupations: her memories of the experimental comprehensive school in Hanover that she attended in her youth and of a squat in Braunschweig that she lived in while studying at art college. Schatz has re-created both environments by making large-scale architectural drawings from memory. Erinnerung, IGS Roderbruch Hannover Großraum 1973 (Remembrance, IGS Roderbruch Greater Hanover 1973, 1998), for example, is an elevation of the central wing of the school building, showing spacious rooms distributed symmetrically either side of an open hallway. The drawing is an intricate mesh of grey and coloured pencil lines that outline the basic utilities, as well as the positions of windows and doors. Although this mesh is so faint as to be barely visible, it has a vibrant presence. The vanishing lines draw you into a crystalline matrix of virtual space. The drawing thus blends the matter-of-factness of a construction plan with the hallucinatory levitation of an after-image.

The school's history offers a microcosm of post-1968 social reform in Germany. IGS (Integrated School) was founded in the early 1970s as part of a plan to end the system of streaming students into different types of school according to their perceived levels of ability, a system that was seen as reinforcing class division. The 'integrated' approach was intended to help erode class boundaries, a Modernist ambition reflected in the school's architecture. The futuristic building resembles a bright yellow spaceship parked amid the high-rise buildings of the suburb of Roderbruch. Instead of being divided into distinct classrooms, the interior was designed as an open multi-functional space which could be divided up with flexible walls. Unfortunately, this experiment was eventually deemed impractical, and after a few years solid partition walls were introduced.

It is tempting to view this architectural fiasco as symbolic of the failure of the larger ambitions of social integration. However, the idea of 'failed utopias' has become a commonplace of a historicism that seeks to deny any alternative to the 'realistic' approach offered by capitalism. It is precisely this denial of the historic importance of, and ongoing need for, such 'utopian' schemes that Schatz aims to refute by resurrecting the social idealism of the IGS model. Her drawings revive the underlying idea of an open and transparent school space but are ambiguous as to whether the architectural plans are to be seen as a document of a lost past or drafts for a future project.

Konzerthaus Erdgeschoß, Kneipe Staircase Imaginary Gallery Toiletten Café Konzertsaal (Concert Hall Ground Floor, Pub Staircase Imaginary Gallery Toilets Café Concert Hall, 1999) is a large plan of the Konzerthaus in Braunschweig, a 19th-century concert hall that was squatted during the late 1980s. The drawing is produced from memory and rendered in the same filigree aesthetic as the IGS elevations. Among the sharp, angled pencil lines the curved outlines of a bar and a stage can be made out, reminding us that these areas were once used by the squatters for gatherings, discussions and concerts. The communal aspect of life in a squat is further emphasized in the installation Raft (1999). On a low platform made from old pallets, five chairs are placed around the top of a table tennis table, which is balanced on the legs of a sawhorse. A spherical paper lampshade suspended overhead completes the reconstruction of a makeshift kitchen. Photographs, posters and newspaper cuttings documenting life in the squat are stuck on a noticeboard. It is as if Schatz were setting the stage for renewed discussion of a counter-cultural utopia centred on the removal of conventional distinctions between public and private - the ideal of life in a free community as an alternative to the privacy of the nuclear family - and on the belief that an individual's choice of lifestyle could have political consequences, involving the public reclamation of unoccupied property to meet social housing needs.

More recently, Schatz has attempted to transcend personal memory and reach out to a history that is not part of her own experience. Instead, she has been probing the markedly ahistorical aspect of those German cities which were rebuilt with faceless functionalist architecture after the devastation of World War II. It is on these blank urban surfaces that she tries to map the traces of history. Luftschutz sichert Dein Leben (Relief von circa 1935, Köln, Wevelinghovener Strasse 3) (Civil Air Defence Can Save Your Life, Relief c. 1935, Cologne, Wevelinghovener Strasse 3, 2001), for instance, takes as its central theme a relief from around 1935 which Schatz came across by chance in the entrance of a house near her flat in Cologne. The head-high relief was initially designed to point the way to an air-raid shelter in the basement of the building, but for some reason - unlike all other visible signs of the Nazi era - it was not removed after the war.

Schatz has produced a rubbing of the relief, which shows a bomb falling onto houses, while a man in military uniform puts his arm around a woman and child. The accompanying text reads: 'Civil air defence can save your life.' The rubbing is attached to a wooden board, which in turn leans against a kitchen table with standard 1950s design, entitled reinen Tisch machen (Wipe the Slate Clean, 2001). The tabletop is covered with colour copies of passport-sized photos. Framed by snapshots of present-day Cologne, the history of the city is recorded through film stills taken from documentary footage of Nazi rallies, the bombing of the city, the arrival of the Allied forces and then reconstruction during the 1950s. In contrast to the widely held view that 1945 marks a radical break with the past (alluded to in the title, reinen Tisch machen), Schatz points out the continuity of German history as inscribed into the architecture of the city.

A decade after reunification, and with Berlin having replaced Bonn as the nation's capital, the historicization of the past 50 years of the Federal Republic, the so-called Bonner Republik, is in full swing. What is at stake in this public debate is the consolidation of national identity in favour of a 'normalized' self-understanding of the new Berliner Republik. But this desire to produce a homogeneous account of the republic and its history is an attempt to deny both the importance of the alternative utopian schemes that have challenged these values, and the physical evidence of the ravages of the past. It is this normalized version of history that Schatz' work sets out to oppose: she presents the ongoing task of history as being to expose precisely those moments in the past which do not sit neatly in such a reassuring image.