A talk with Cornelia Schleime

In 2016, the painter Cornelia Schleime received the Hannah Höch Prize from the State of Berlin. Her largest retrospective to date is currently on view at Berlinische Galerie. The exhibition, titled “Ein Wimpernschlag,” presents the life’s work of a German artist who has unflinchingly taken her own path and combined the private and the political.
It’s a cold winter’s day when I meet Cornelia Schleime at the Berlinische Galerie. She walks through the bright rooms with a wool cap on her head and an Arte camera team in tow. Schleime’s largest retrospective to date traces the different phases of a nonconformist for whom life and work are inextricably entwined. At the age of 17 she decided to become an artist – the “only path to self-determination,” as she put it. But it was only after being a hairdresser, studying to be a camouflage and makeup artist, and an intermezzo as a stable girl that she began her art studies in Dresden. She would soon join the subcultural scene, singing in a punk band. After she was banned from exhibiting her work by GDR authorities, Schleime moved to West Berlin in 1984.

Confronted with the excessive visual offer in the West, she began to work with media images. She created fantastic, film-like portraits and scenes that at the same time seem like allegories of Schleime’s inner life. A key work in the show is her 1993 photo series Bis auf weitere gute Zusammenarbeit (Until Further Good Collaboration) which, along with many other works by the artist, are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection. She made the series after viewing her Stasi files. Photos of her early performances, body painting, and Super-8 films from the East German underground from the early 1980s are also on exhibit.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf: When I look at your body performances from the early 1980s, they seem paradoxical. They are incredibly poetic, yet also very hard. I think of the bondage action in which you are tied up like one of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s S&M models. That was before your foray into punk. What was it like for you back then at the art college in Dresden, what interested and inspired you?

Cornelia Schleime: We drew and painted a lot, made many things based on nature. There were no parties, no phones. On weekends, I set my alarm for five p.m., went down to a meadow by the Elbe river with an easel, and painted the sunrise.

How romantic.

On weekends I got on the tram and rode to all of the last stops, to get out of the city, and I always went to cemeteries. Dresden is the city with the most parapsychologists, a city of romantics. I drew the sculptures and plants at the cemeteries. At graveyards, no one chats you up. Plus I had a language barrier and couldn’t talk very much. This is hardly inconceivable today, as is how I lived back then. You have to think of Dresden as an extremely romantic place. I loved Paula Modersohn-Becker. She was a goddess to me.

What did you love about her?

Her self-portraits. I loved the look in the mirror, her honesty, because she had no mannerisms. I went to the Saxon State Library and looked at women’s art, everything art history had to offer. I noticed that whenever women had had existential experiences, like Käthe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker, who always wanted children, this always led to outstanding art. And when the work became too abstract, it beacme lifeless, or too kitschy.

I suppose you listened to a lot of music and read a lot during that time.

I read Sylvia Plath. But the books came from the West. And Unica Zürn, and poems by Else Lasker-Schüler. But above all the poetry of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg. My favorite line still today, which I think I rewrote, is by Peter Orlovsky: “He waved goodbye and lost his arm in the snow.” But Peter Orlovsky’s line was actually: “Waving goodbye I lost my arm in the snow.” He used “I.” I changed it because I’m a bit dyslexic and I can’t remember things well. “He waved goodbye and lost his arm in the snow” almost sounds like a line from a film. It has a different kind of action. And it’s my favorite line. But it also has to do with reality. Back when I was in school, women sat as models and got tired after a while. Their heads hung down. I made etchings in which the heads hung down like that, melancholy works. We exhibited them without approval. The party leaders flipped out, saying: “A socialist woman doesn’t look like that.” And they took them down from the wall. So we noticed increasingly, then and after our studies, which way the wind blew. I was banned from showing my work. Then we started a punk band and immediately we were banned form performing.

That was Zwitschermaschine.

Exactly. What could I do? I was in the GDR. I could paint at home, but I would never be able to exhibit my work. I was interested in Cy Twombly and the early Francis Bacon, where the figures’ mouths are open, they are in a cage. I was interested in the scream, in existential things. I’ve always been interested in the closeness of death, because that is the ultimate, something we can’t get at. I was already interested in that as a child and I see it in the early paintings of Francis Bacon. And I looked at my father’s mouth when he died. He lay there with his mouth open. It was exactly like in Bacon’s early works. The soul had already come out of the mouth, it was already gone. I noticed that we only carry a coat around with us. Our body is only a coat. We can take it off, but the soul is something different. Many stimulate the coat with injections, turn a trench oat into a luxurious coat, and then they all look alike, the women.

Why does that bother you so much?

We’re not interested in uniformity, but in individuality, aren’t we? But many women look like Barbie dolls. They all look the same – that’s crazy. I went to the West, where people can freely live out their individuality, and they all did the same things – as though in a collective frenzy. In the dictatorship we were all supposed to be the same, so we had to assert our individuality. Here, in the free society we live in, we have freedom but everyone does the same things.

Your early series, like the body painting and the 1982 bondage works, look like an outcry.

I continually wanted to find a parable for how I felt and what interested me. And since I wasn’t allowed to exhibit or to sing, I bound myself with ropes naked. I didn’t know Araki yet, and so later I found him all the more exciting. I only saw the footage of my bondage actions again six months ago, via a photographer who recorded the performances.

Your early works recall the 1970s feminist avant-garde, artists like Annegret Soltau and Hannah Wilke, who worked with similar constructions.

Of course I had heard of these artists. But I wasn’t interested in feminism at all. When I went to the West, the feminists thought they had found a comrade-in-arms. But they were wrong. My actions aren’t directed against men. They’re directed against the fact that they stripped me of the freedom to show my art, and so I got naked and tied myself up. I didn’t do it for sexual reasons. I got naked because I was forced to be naked. The GDR took everything I had. I also did those things where I enveloped myself in barbed wire. It was more about vulnerability, about being at someone’s mercy, about Christ with the crown of thorns. I am closer to Arnulf Rainer than to the feminists. He speaks of the negation of all extravagance. Everything that is excessive is negated. He tried to reduce everything and overpainted his works until only a bleating mouth peeped out.

Then you moved from Dresden to East Berlin, to Prenzlauer Berg, where you came into contact with the civil rights movement and Sascha Anderson. You were able to suddenly leave the GDR in 1984, but you had to leave almost all of your artworks behind.

I had to leave the GDR within 24 hours after filing four applications that were not processed. I went to the West with four or five pictures under my arm, a duvet, and my son. After I had found an apartment, the transport of my works was supposed to be organized. In the 24 hours, a girlfriend came and made a list of everything: 95 oil paintings, sculptures, and the photographic documentation of my actions. When she arrived, the apartment had been broken into and there was only garbage lying around. Decades later, the new tenant gave me back some of the black-and-white photographs that are on view here in the exhibition. It seems that the state security broke into the apartment and took everything on the list. I had entrusted Sascha Anderson with the key to my apartment.

Who spied on you as well as all his other friends. From the Stasi records that you were allowed to look at after the fall of the Wall, you created the series “Until Further Good Collaboration, No. 7284/85”.

I was permitted to view the files relatively quickly. I had just gone to the USA on a PS1 scholarship when I heard about the fall of the Wall and heard: “Just imagine, one of our best friends – we don’t know the name yet – was a Stasi agent!” So I returned to Germany. Through the USA I had finally acclimated myself to the West, had finally arrived. It took me a long time, as a woman without work. I had to start from scratch again in the West. So I returned to Germany from America and the East came back into my life. I read all these reports written by the KP, whom I concentrate on in the series.

What does KP mean?

KPs were contact people who had the house books for the apartment buildings. These people also had the second key for each apartment. The Stasi came and said, we need the key to Miss Schleime’s apartment. Or they said to the KP: “Tell us what Miss Schleime’s apartment looked like.” They waited until I was gone, and then they went in. It was harder for me to process this block leader mentality than the spying on our art actions.

So it’s a matter of how and where your personality was judged.

Exactly. There’s a text by Sascha Anderson on one of the works.

Was he a close friend of yours?

Of course. He was like a brother to me, for years on end.

When something like that comes out, it must change your whole life.

The worst thing is that the past is suddenly different from what you remember. You have to reconstruct everything again. Was he already spying on me? Did that already happen at the time? Did he tell them this or that? Or was it someone else? He always said the Stasi was after us, when in reality he was one of them. He even squealed about the performances he was participating in. For me, who had just arrived in the West, had returned from America, this was like a backward journey. It’s like a train that has climbed to the top of a mountain and suddenly the gas doesn’t work any more and it rolls backwards at full speed.

Yet your series doesn’t seem very traumatized, but actually quite rebellious.

And that’s why I say I’m a master at making gold out of shit. I didn’t want to give them the pleasure. I dealt with it creatively. And as soon as I had shot the first photos, it was incredibly fun. I was redeemed. And that’s what art is for. If you don’t experience negative things, why should you paint? To my mind, art means creating a counter-world, against things you don’t like. That is the entire sense and purpose of it. If I didn’t suffer, if I was a happy person who skips through life, I wouldn’t have any themes for my pictures.

You made the series and then distanced yourself from the turn of events.

That sufficed. I was back in the present. I had a future again.

People often say “das ist ein alter Zopf” (literally that is an old braid, meaning that something is old hat) when something is obsolete or finished but they still carry it around with them. And suddenly braids appeared in your photos of performances and in your drawings.

The braid stagings are my form of self-portrait, which I repeat on a regular basis. The last one is from 2015. It began when I read the Stasi files. I also work with transformations and wigs to satirize the texts. There was a text in my Stasi file that read as follows: “Beyond these investigations, the ABV had no other information because Schleime behaved very inconspicuously.” So I thought: I’ll satirize that. I bought a wig, wove hemp into it and lengthened it to four meters or so, attached a pram to the back and found out where Sascha Anderson’s commanding officer’s house was. Then I walked back and forth in front of the house with the baby carriage. A ZDF television team was there. I saw that the curtains moved and he was of course scared stiff.

Not everyone can do what you did and reflect on their history, as you did in “Until Further Good Collaboration.”

That was only the idea. I tend to be playful. I don’t work in a very intellectual way. I don’t form a picture beforehand. I’m not a conceptual artist. I tend to work from gut feeling. 

I find that funny, because it is of course a conceptual work.

It’s my only truly conceptual work… 

…and also one of your most famous.

It creates a great symbiosis between my playful instinct and a conceptual scaffolding. And the best thing was that Deutsche Bank bought this series first, at Art Frankfurt. It was interesting. Artists from the West approached me and asked: “That’s an awesome series, that’s a great idea! Where did you get the texts?” They thought I had borrowed them from somewhere.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Appropriation Art was very big in the West. Many artists appropriated pictures or texts or reproduced situations.

Like Sophie Calle, who hired a shadow so she could make something out of his reports. You can see that we live in two worlds: a virtual one where you are under pressure to always produce new ideas and then implement them artistically; and the world of someone like me, who comes from the sticks and always say: I try to be autobiographical. I can only create from myself.

It’s interesting that in the 1990s you delved into inner experience, the authentic, when the art scene was just distancing itself from that. Many women, for example Cindy Sherman or the Pictures Generation, tried to divorce themselves from the image that women are emotional and sensitive, and in photography and conceptual art created distance to free themselves from this role. You took a different path. You adopted a classic artistic approach, with painting and drawing.

Absolutely. But I should add that it was in the system of the GDR, where we were supposed to paint classically, that I painted these pictures, these pictogram-like works, such as “The East is Gray.” I countered this compulsion and did my performances. When I went to the West later, I suddenly saw works by Rebecca Horn that reminded me of my Super-8 films. I thought: “She also tied herself up. That’s already been done.” So I had to make a break. I wondered why women in the West, apart from wanting to emancipate themselves, are making this performance art, this installation art, these spatial things? Because it is a new art form and they don’t have to bear comparison with male art history. It is a new form. They brought a new form to art history. And I said: “I want to confront this male concept of art. I want to confront this male tradition of painting!”  

So you regard painting as masculine?

Of course I see it as being mainly male. They are my role models. I love Bacon and Balthus, I love Monet, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh

You actually represent a very old-fashioned image of the romantic artist.

Totally. I’m from 1520. That’s just the way it is. I want something that I like. In visual terms, I quickly perceive whether something interests me or not.

Then the art world changed at the end of the 1990s. Figuration made a comeback at the beginning of the 2000s.

Basically with Neo Rauch. Rauch made it socially acceptable again, and then we had a lot of poor versions of Neo Rauch. I couldn’t understand why they all fled to different epochs. What do these times have to do with the artist? The cell phone rings, the laptop is in the studio, and they paint a lonely woman at the seaside. That has nothing to do with their life.

And your cell phone never rings and your laptop is not in your studio and you paint in loneliness.

Yes, because I can bear this solitude. As a pictorial world, the  lonely woman at the sea has more to do with my life than with that of a party hopper. I’m not a lonely woman, but I have a special relationship to Casper David Friedrich. Those are paintings I grew up with, paintings of longing. To me, painting has a lot to do with images of longing.

Cornelia Schleime. Ein Wimpernschlag
Hannah-Höch-Preis 2016
Berlinische Galerie, Berlin