Ex-Embassy

Former Australian Embassy to the German Democratic Republic
4 – 31 August 2018

The former Australian embassy in the German Democratic Republic opened under the Whitlam government in 1975 and closed eleven years later in 1986. Diverse narratives converge here in a project that incorporates artworks, texts, a program of events and finally, an effort to resist the full gentrification of the property. Through these means, this abandoned piece of diplomatic infrastructure reveals the battle scars of colonialism, surveillance and gentrification. 

Built in a Brutalist style from a modular plan by the architect Horst Bauer, the former embassy was part of a crop of 140 diplomatic buildings erected in the late sixties to mid-seventies by the GDR. With a red clay tennis court, generous balconies, extensive interior wood paneling and decorative mosaic walls, the distinctive features frame both the way the works are presented and the social dynamics of the exhibition. 

There is a bureaucratic decadence to the architecture, all the more apparent when one hears the gasps of visiting GDR citizens who were denied such luxuries in their own homes. The conference room also lends itself to an appraisal of how diplomacy is conducted. The phrase ‘swamped by’—regularly used by Australian politicians to refer to those who are unwelcomed by the Australian government, and resurrected in the maiden speech of Pauline Hanson, is the starting point for Kamilaroi artist Archie Moore’s Text (2018). Leather-bound Hansard transcripts from parliament line a large conference table and are available for visitors to leaf through. It is unsettling to encounter speeches from multiple generations of politicians manufacturing fears of invasion and engulfment. ‘Swamped by’ appears in relation to ‘foreigners’, ‘Communists’, ‘Asians’ and also ‘the Aboriginal vote’. A single volume containing the 1967 majority vote to count Aboriginal citizens in the census rests on a higher plinth with each side charred by the artist to spell out the words ‘Still Don’t Count’. The work obstinately refuses the notion that democratic rights and privileges have been realised for First Nations people. 

Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll’s Embassy Embassy project (2010 – 2018) gathers archival historical material: photographs, transcripts, recordings and reports about the building, including from the Stasi archive, for material that chronicles the history and internal operations of the former Australian embassy in the GDR. This includes information— such as code names—about informants who regularly visited the embassy. This work is neatly augmented by the essay ‘Australia and the GDR: Elective Affinities’. Here Peter Monteath describes the political and social environment of the embassy, including the story of Fred Rose, an English-born Communist anthropologist and early Indigenous rights activist who also acted as an informant about activities in the embassy to the Stasi. A carousel of surveillance emerges: in Moore’s work we glimpse measures of surveillance by the Australian government and in Carroll’s work we see the surveillance of the Australian government by the GDR. 

Quandamooka artist Megan Cope’s The Blaktism (2014) portrays the artist as the focal point of a ritual where she is officially recognised by the State as an Indigenous Australian. Stemming from the artist’s frustration with the way that identity is conferred or approved by non-Aboriginal forces, the video is a nightmare montage of the kinds of pomposity and frivolity associated with citizenship ceremonies. The essence of the work was made clear by the artist in a forum a few days after the opening. Here Cope described the prevalence in Australia of a mean-spirited and false understanding of Indigenous identification as a means of garnering government privileges. 

A rich red surface of dirt (inevitably recalling the central Australian desert) forms the base of a tennis court in the back garden of the building. The disused court was in this context the site for a performative work by Sumugan Sivanesan, Carl Gerber and Simone van Dijken. The artists’ tennis match at the opening event drew attention to both the superfluous addition of such luxuries in the context of diplomacy and the game itself as a socially hierarchical pastime. 

The operations of borders—with allusions to both German and Australian histories—surfaces in two outdoor works. Archie Moore’s Image (2018) is an external wall plastered with a tromp l’oeil photograph of the gap in the garden’s main hedge, such that the image of the gap—which is usually used to traverse the garden—creates the illusion of access. In this way, Rachel O’Reilly describes how the artist replicates the experience of invisible barriers ‘in a globalized society that assumes ideals of freedom and movement for all, in the midst of actual, deep-seated material and legal inequity’. And in Sonya Schönberger’s Clean Square the artist stages an intervention upon the courtyard’s paving. Working in a tentative approach to the landscape, the artist scrubbed clean a diamond area of paving, with the weeds gifted to people to cultivate elsewhere. 

The building has been in private hands since 2010. In the rapidly growing suburb of Pankow, speculators had hoped to raze the building for an apartment block. The external ceramic screens adorning the windows by the ceramicist Hedwig Bollhagen were ultimately the deciding factor for the heritage status conferred by the local Pankow Council. The site has now attracted the attention of a foundation who are considering acquiring the building for the purposes of future art projects. 

Conceived by artist Sonja Hornung, the exhibition was curated in collaboration with Rachel O’Reilly playing the role of Curatorial Advisor. It is a collaboration that inadvertently demonstrates the curators’ aptitude as diplomats. Mindful that many of the visitors were not familiar with the artists or even the history of Australia, the information desk included transcripts of important contextual essays including Richard Bell’s ‘Bell’s theorem: Aboriginal art: it’s a white thing’ and downloads of research material are also available by request. In a city where gentrification threatens to swallow artistic production and where Aboriginal artists are notably absent from big-ticket exhibitions such as the Berlin Biennale or the recent Hello World: Revising a Collection exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof, the timing of this project—as a way to incite a broader awareness of Australian politics, art and history—could not have been better. 

Archie Moore (Kamilaroi), Text, 2018. Installation (selected Hansard parliamentary records, pyrographed referendum record, table). Courtesy the artist and The Commercial, Sydney. Photograph Joanna Kosowska.

Sumugan Sivanesan (AU/DE), Simone van Dijken (NL), Carl Gerber (DE), Ex-Pat Cash, 2018. Performance, HD Video (20:16). Live recording, sound production Adrián De Alfonso Prieto-Puga. Photograph Joanna Kosowska.

Sonya Schönberger (DE), Clean Square, 2018. Intervention. Photograph Joanna Kosowska.

Archie Moore (Kamilaroi), Image, 2018. Site-specific intervention (wood, digital print, plaster). Courtesy the artist and The Commercial, Sydney. Photograph Joanna Kosowska.

notes: 

Participating artists: Megan Cope (Quandamooka); Archie Moore (Kamilaroi); Sumugan Sivanesan (AU/DE), Simone van Dijken (NL) and Carl Gerber (DE); Sonya Schönberger (DE); and Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll (AU/AT). 

Commissioned texts by: Ben Gook (AU/DE); Sarah Keenan (AU/UK); Peter Monteath (AU); Rachel O’Reilly (AU/DE); and Nathan ‘mudyi’ Sentance (Wiradjuri) & Raelee Lancaster (Wiradjuri). 

Hosted by artist Sonja Hornung (AU/DE) with the curatorial advice of Rachel O’Reilly (AU/DE).