Imagine you’re a (pre-internet) publisher, but your ideas are too heretical or your approach is too independent, so you’re barred access to decent paper, a printing press or even a photocopier. You’re a poet or a musician, but you’re not allowed to perform in public. You’re a painter or a photographer, but to show your work is to invite the wrath of the state.

Fun on the Titanic: Underground Art and the East German State, one of three new exhibits at Yale’s Beinecke library, is a testament to a fascinating tautology: when the creative get stifled, the stifled get creative.

Titanic focuses on a time, the 1980s, and a place, totalitarian East Germany, but, mirroring its subject matter—’zines painstakingly constructed one at a time, in runs of 30 or so, then scattered to the wind; word-of-mouth art exhibitions in hidden back rooms, there and gone; wordplay as warfare, subverting institutional tropes and narratives with subliminal messages and clever dual meanings; poetry readings performed without warning, to evade censorship; guerrilla political confrontations with government, occasionally ending in artist victory; literal confrontations with the Stasi, or secret police—its presentation is exhilaratingly dislocated. Spread among 18 glass cases, nine each on opposite ends of Beinecke’s voluminous mezzanine, you can start anywhere, end anywhere and still grasp what’s going on. This is because cases are arranged topically, not by timeline.

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One case, for example, focuses on those ’zines. Kept behind glass, you can’t flip through them, but various covers still manage to show the enormous aesthetic variety the form could take. Made from loosely bound paper, one features a brush-marked blue abstraction, pen ink bleeding through from the other side. Another is photocopied onto white office paper and set in a laminate binder. (Perhaps its maker was cribbing supplies from a very un-rebellious day job?) A third, with a binding like a non-spiral notebook, sports orange-red paint spelling out its name in an arching script. The last cover is the simplest, and perhaps the most ingenious, with thick smears of black pigment across white space.

Amid its topical organization, Titanic does leave room for some timeline—just enough to provide the necessary context. In the companion booklet, curator Kevin Repp traces East Germany’s art underground of the ’80s—called samizdat—to a pivotal moment in 1976. That year, Wolf Biermann, “a popular folk singer and devoted Communist who dared criticize the East German regime,” was expelled, prompting a “groundswell of protest and campaign of persecutions and repression that followed.” This “convinced many that official culture”—state-sanctioned artistic modes and messages—“had reached a dead end,” and that evolving artistically would require skirting the state altogether.

The price for following that impulse could be high. In the 1980s, Repp says, those believed to be associated with samizdat culture “often faced relentless intimidation, harassment, outright imprisonment and… menacing house calls from the agents of the secret police…” Arousing suspicion of state involvement, one member of the samizdat, radical poet Matthias Baader Holst, was killed by a streetcar “just months after the Wall came down,” Repp notes, despite having a “pathological fear of being run down” in traffic.

Something far prettier than that notion, something which managed to get published through a state-condoned channel despite being thoroughly samizdat, is Unaulutu, which now rests in a case behind Beinecke’s golden central stack. Published in 1985, it’s a spellbinding folio with four covers—“by far one of the most impressive examples of East German printing skill ever produced,” Repp writes. Filled with other large artworks you can’t see, what you can see showcases sophisticated tribal art “inspired by notebooks of a German anthropologist who toured the Amazon basin” prior to WWI.

The piece on the left side of Unaulutu, showing three brightly colored figures mixing and matching parts from different species, is a far cry from the orderly grayscale palette we tend to associate with East Germany—as Repp puts it, the “implacably gray facades,” and the “bleak pervasive cold, devoid of people cars, color and life,” of East Berlin.

Of course, gray’s a fine color; it’s just not much fun if it’s the only one in play.

Fun on the Titanic
at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 9am-7pm, Fri 9am-5pm, Sat 12-5pm
(203) 432-2977…

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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