The Cold War Spaces exhibition which was on view from November 2017-March2018 at the Wende Museum of the Cold War explores some of the most significant themes that defined European state socialism after the Second World War. As the first exhibition at the museum’s new location in Culver City’s former National Guard Armory, Cold War Spaces provides us with the opportunity to explore the history through rare personal and daily objects, family photos and videos, and established works such as Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures. Thanks to the large collection of more than 100,000 objects and artworks, one witnesses a multifaceted picture of the Cold War, which can be both personal as collective and political. While the exhibition deals with pivotal moments in the Cold War, it also sheds light onto lesser known aspects.
The exhibition starts with “Border Space,” the works related to the notion of The Wall as the most important symbol of division between the two blocks. In this section, the museum’s Chief Curator, Joes Segal, infuses the artistic receptions of the border places with secret border guard training materials from the iconic Checkpoint Charlie. In one of the photographs, one sees the first East German soldier who jumped the newly made fences to escape to East Berlin only a few days after August 13, 1961, the day that construction on The Wall began. Another photograph shows a more recent image of cheerful people and soldiers celebrating the toppling of The Wall in 1989. Also included in this section are facial recognition materials (charts, diagrams, and handwritten notes) of the border guards, which reveal the tools of control deployed by an oppressive political system. The process of scrutiny was not only for people who wanted to cross the border to go to west, but in the opposite direction as well. According to a former border officer who wants his name to remain unmentioned, “Many Westerners regularly went shopping in East Berlin, or had a sweetheart there. People who overstayed their travel visa for East Berlin faced travel restrictions: they couldn’t cross the border with their own ID any longer. So they used other people’s papers.”
The exhibition’s focus on the lesser known aspects of the Cold War is nowhere more obvious than the section called “Secret Space.” As its title suggests, “Secret Space” is dedicated to the veil of secrecy surrounding many policies by the Eastern Block leaders. In addition to interesting surveillance equipment that belonged to the East Germany Secret Police (Stasi), and contemporary photographs of the remnants of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the most noteworthy work in this section is a painting by Stanislav Molodykh. This painting depicts the misuse of psychiatry as a regular tool in Brezhnev’s time for repressing the intellectuals who were opposed to the state’s policies and ideological beliefs. Molodykh depicts a dark and gloomy mental asylum, with a portrait of Christ on the wall representing the building’s former purpose: a church. Alongside the Christ portrait hang two other portraits: one of Lenin and the other of Brezhnev, symbolizing the efforts of socialist leaders to create something as holy as a religion out of Socialism. It also contains some implications for the not-so-innocent use of mental asylums during Brezhnev’s time (the painting was painted in 1982, the year Brezhnev died). Besides the political signifiers, we are also reminded of labels such as “philosophically intoxicated,” used by dominant political powers to condemn their opponents, as we view several men who don’t appear to be mentally sick in the painting. [There are more than two of them]
Our intrigue continues with “Public Space,” just across the most typical signs of public life in the socialist countries such as political leaders’ busts, commemorating flags, and pictures of official public events. There is a photograph of young East German punks in public transport by the same artist who photographed the state official events. The photos obviously surprise Western visitors, who have mostly experienced life in socialist countries through the lens of Western media and as something ideological and totally different from their own. The punk youth photos in “Public Space” are in significant dialogue with the counterculture photographs on view in “Private Space,” which are focused on the more intimate and psychoanalytic aspects of the subjects. In two photos showing a close-up view of the faces of a man and a woman, one can see obvious counter-cultural traits of the subjects. [Silberblick in the titles refers to the counter-cultural portfolio and the social niches and individual free spaces carved out by unofficial artists in the GDR.]
Although the idea of collectivity is a hallmark of Socialist systems, the exhibition presents pictures not only of this ideal, but also includes more individualistic paintings and photographs to represent those lesser-known non-ideological and humanistic aspects of living behind the Iron Curtain. In “Private Space,” the paintings focus on individuals. Four out of five paintings in this section represent women in a non-political, private sphere. A teenage girl from Uzbekistan, a woman reading a book from the Stalinist era, a young girl in Ukrainian folk dress, and a sad Soviet mother holding the letter announcing her son’s death at the front all hang next to the wall of photos of everyday people from the Soviet Union and East Germany. This shapes a significant contrast to the paintings at the other spaces such as “Work Space” and “Utopian Space,” which have more familiar pictures of collectivity and collaboration.
The success of the exhibition, which has been embraced by thousands of visitors, is based on the curatorial team’s great effort to create a groundbreaking, non-cliched picture of the Cold War that is not biased, nor relies on a limited narrative of history. Deep historical research, curatorial creativity, loans from other institutions, and the museum’s huge collection of artworks and artifacts all led to an exhibition which presents a unique picture of the Cold War.