Ulrich Wüst's Photographs of Berlin Mitte

By Matthias Flügge

  At the end of the 70's, Ulrich Wüst's photographs turned up in exhibitions and occasionally in publications. It was the beginning of the late era of the GDR, and photography had just begun to emancipate itself from the holds of propangandistic photojournalism and move toward an art form. For a while the cultural climate in the East, as a result of political possibilites, permitted a kind of visual truth with a limited sphere of influence. In any case it seemed that way due to a group of young photographers whose works questioned and examined social norms and assumed certainties. Most of them were dealing with the newly identified image of man lacking ideology, a wide-angle long shot of the rediscovered privacy that they then produced to represent the societal.
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  Ulrich Wüst remained on the outskirts and received attention for his persistent use of a 50 mm objective. For one there were the diary-like, photographic sketches of the young intellectual crowd in Prenzlauer Berg, where a counterculture had begun to articulate itself. And then, more importantly, there were the soberly observed images of urban space, created at the same time as constructed promises of salvation. One rarely saw people in these photographs, tightly composed and with the highest awareness for form. Wüst drew details of the confrontation between old and new - and every image revealed that these confrontations occured at the expense of historical substance. In this way, his photographs differentiated themselves from other similarly angled and composed efforts in their matter-of-fact view of an analyst. After all, Ulrich Wüst had worked as a city planner for years before he devoted himself completely to photography, and for this reason he is as familiar with the symbolic as with the practical meaning of urban situations and their details.
  Ulrich Wüst, 1985

Ulrich Wüst, 1979
  The East German cities carried the scars of war longer than those of West Germany because their strategies of forgetting were different. What they shared, however, was the destructive inclination for the so-called »new«. Ulrich Wüst was among those who also visually defined it within the category of loss. His works attained a political dimension beyond the formal and social criticism of architectonic stupidity. At the same time they systemized a melancholic sense of life. They were observed from a distance, even the farewell had already been said. And yet there was something else that made them important: they were not at the mercy of the contemporary sentimentality which a part of our generation back then had used to warm their inherent opposition to the system.
  Ulrich Wüst, 1996
  In terms of Ulrich Wüst's work, it means that he resisted the metaphors lurking everywhere in order to question the things and details about their real quality in regard to (imagined) life: blocks, empty spaces, perspectives, rows. The entire formal repertoire of creating with images of space led the photographer to develop a calm language in which he communicated the influential conditions of social existence.
  Ulrich Wüst, 1995
  Times of rapid change, one could say today, provoke this message more clearly. However, Ulrich Wüst did not react to the post-wall period with journalistic hurry. To the contrary, he made a new attempt to gain and define distance. His series of images »Splendor of Power«, »Estate« (1992) and »Final Ball« (1992) reconstructed the beginning and end of individual spheres of experience beyond time. Surface, object and artefact were the central themes of this »trilogy«. Architecture as image is, to be exact, their summary.
  Nowhere in the photographs taken after the fall of the Wall does Ulrich Wüst attempt to describe the upheaval metaphysically. Wüst remains on the level of the phenomenon, his is a report on the condition of transitory situations. The city had begun to come to life. Where once the wrong pretentions to eternal ideas sent signals of paralysis, there entered a change in spacial relationships whose effects were impossible to predict. And because Wüst was aware of this, he remained reserved in the face this suject's temptation. In 1992/93 Ulrich Wüst did a photographic essay for Alexander Haeder's book on the architectural history of Prenzlauer Berg in which he visually summarized the experiences and discoveries within this neighborhood.
  Ulrich Wüst, 1990
  The participation in the Bewag art project came at just the right time in Ulrich Wüst's artist biography. He was prepared to undertake the two-year research on the rapid changes in the Berlin inner-city. Now, equipped with the capabilities of precise insight, he could put himself back into the roll of the passer-by. Ways and walks through Berlin's Mitte resulted almost daily in a different image. The camera at eye level and avoiding spectacular locations, Ulrich Wüst took photographs with succinct equanimity of how the »new«, which had now became the »other«, ate its way over, in and through the usual structures. He observed how the city space is changing its character, how the block-like structure of solitary buildings - with the incredibly large inner-city open spaces between them - is transforming itself into a spacial one that requires terms like vastness and confinement to be redefined in an everyday sphere of experience. Gaps and open spaces are disappearing, chances to catch one's breath are being shortened, niches are closing up. The photographer avoids the metaphors here as well, and he avoids lively situations; the process of transformation is apparently happening without human help. The houses, squares and streets seem like scenery. Pictures result that are not only documentary but which also fit into the context of art photography of the last 20 years. Although Ulrich Wüst does not enlarge them to the typical exhibition format and, in the commercial exploitation of single prints, actually regrets the loss of images in a series, he has developed an unmistakable form of expression that frees the individual image from the context of its topographically descriptive function. The passer-by is not a registrar, he does not follow a tourist route. He sees the concrete location as a suiting the image. And all the while he tells stories of the unexpected meeting of historically influenced forms. The skin of architecture carries the scars of its users. Thus the place becomes distinguishable - not by dramatization and personalization. Wüst prefers falling perspectives or the head-on. He expresses the negative spaces formed sculpturally by the buildings' volumes, and one realizes that the assertion of these spaces within the new urban structures will be key. Certainly the »new«, when it is of truly shocking architectural banality - as is often the case in Berlin, will also be uncovered in the obscene transparency of its most basic interests. But the convenient (East) nostalgia of a sentimental anticapitalism is far from the photographer's intentions. More likely he has regained the wonderful coldness of his early works - sublimated them completely into an awareness for form. There is nothing left to operate, only to observe. The gain lies in the idea of an image that uses the outer reality for its own purposes. The material that made up the East was nothing more than that - material. As such, however, it has not been examined sufficiently. The consciousness of form's historicalness turns Wüst's photographs of Berlin's Mitte into a contemporary witness whose single images will endure even when their motifs have long since disappeared - and a new image of the city has arisen which we await with mixed emotions.

(Translation: Rebeccah Blum)
  Ulrich Wüst, 1993

Ulrich Wüst, 1995

Ulrich Wüst, 1995

Ulrich Wüst, 1996
Ulrich Wüst, 1999
The text is an afterword taken from the book Berlin Mitte, Photographs by Ulrich Wüst, with a text by Wolfgang Kil and an afterword by Matthias Flügge, Verlag der Kunst Berlin, Dresden 1998. This book was part of curator Kasper König's international art project for the energy supply company Bewag's new thermal power station building. The two-year photo research undertaken by Ulrich Wüst for his contribution has had some influence on the material of this presentation.
©   Text: Matthias Flügge
Photos: Ulrich Wüst, Website: Pat Binder, Gerhard Haupt

Berlin Mitte. Explorations of an Urban Conversion

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