Abandoned Spaces by Bernd Hüppauf

The picture consists of five fields of color in a strictly symmetrical order, foreshortened by perspective. Taken from the front, it shows - the viewer is in no doubt - a room: floor, ceiling, three walls. This image is repeated in the photographic series - always the same combination of flat areas forming an empty space, as in a rule book for the production of the illusory three dimensional space of central perspective. Like the other spaces in the series, these initial spaces are naked. As with an image of a stripped body, everything is mercilessly visible - a complete visibility that irritates the gaze and leaves it suspended between curiosity and repulsion.

Once the viewer has seen these first few formally constructed spaces they act as an optical schema for the following pictures in the photographic series. We don't see animated spaces, but encounter instead spaces on the way to total evacuation and abstraction. Do we see 'space', or do we see space because we know that a photographic reproduction of space looks like this? Even when the spaces contain objects - windows, a lonely cupboard, a door - that distract from the rigorous construction of the images, the same basic structure is found running through the entire series unchanged. Are objects like this enough to make space present?

Lina Kim's photographs promise to show the eye spaces and reject the desire to discover something charming, beautiful or surprising. In opposition to naked bodies, the nakedness of these spaces exhibits nothing and, in consequence of this, the sparse isolated details gain an overproportional sense that allows the reduction to contour and the evacuation of space to appear even more drastic. The eye wants to find something to hold on to and fixes on the uneven surfaces of the walls, on the color and the few remaining objects as features that say something about these spaces. Visually, they are all negatively connoted. In one of the photos a demolished washbasin lays on the ground, in another a lonely radio, in several others, long strands of wallpaper hang from the walls, paint is flaking or garbage lies strewn across the floor. Barren bleakness and a musty cold are felt, while uncanny emptiness and stillness creep out of the photos into the interior of the observer. What is it that captivates the eye in these forlorn photos of negative places? To which points will the eye move and where will it linger longest?

Space is never an object, never a mere surrounding, never an envelope in which we reside, like sardines in a can or like eyeglasses in their case. Nevertheless, spaces do need walls, doors and windows, but are not the same as architectural structures either. They consist of much more. They exist in the mind and become space because, or to the degree that we perceive individual spaces within their built-up surroundings with our eyes, our other senses and with the imagination. Thanks to the strong impression made on our senses and on our preconscious sensibility, these spaces are given a strong sense of presence.

The observer and the space before his eyes cannot be separated nor split into an active subject and a perceived object. There is no space without a gaze, and there is no observer able to direct his eyes at a space, independent of the gaze. An invisible band links the subject to spaces. Looking at images is not a one-way-street that moves from the eye to a passive and static object. “In accord with its essence, the eye cannot take, without, at the same time, giving…” wrote Georg Simmel. This reciprocity also relates to the perception of space.

Stepping into a never-seen space is one of the adventures of everyday life, and sinking the gaze into images of previously unseen spaces strengthens this adventure. Spaces and their images send out signals that awaken memories, attract or repel, affect us as protecting or threatening, and then give these feelings back to the same spaces. “I know that even as I look and even as I see, I am changing what I see."

Spaces, furnished by objects or completely emptied of them are assigned certain values; I experience them as beautiful or ugly, inspiring or oppressive. The relationship with them has features of dreaming, falling in love, or disgust. Spaces can captivate, exert power, or take possession of

The perception of spaces encompasses more than the visual. It is synaesthestic and entangles us in a net of sensual relations. I cannot touch space, but I can touch spaces, and with the help of my hands, my ears and nose take them up into myself. Noise and smell are as important to spatial perception as the visual senses. Even when photographs of spaces restrict perception to the visual, they simultaneously stimulate the other senses as well.

A topographical theory teaches us that relations that develop between us and our spaces remain - ‘hanging in space’ and become features of the space that we encounter in images of spaces. We produce images of spaces that affect us, change our mood, enclose us, set various thoughts and feelings in train or prompt memories. The image of spaces entangles me in a relationship that makes them either an active partner or an opponent. Is this interaction also valid for evacuated or abandoned spaces? How do they affect us? Are they excluded from this interaction? Do they ultimately disappear or sink into forgetfulness?

In a spatially organized life and in spatially structured discourse, can abandoned spaces exist at all? We abandon people, friends, partners, parents, children, and these people feel abandoned. We can also abandon pets, dogs, cats, goats, and we presume, on the basis of various signs they give, that they also feel abandoned. They show they have lost something and that they feel this loss. But spaces? They are constructions made of lifeless stone, concrete, metal, glass. We can be in space or outside it. We can enter into and leave a space. But is something left behind in an abandoned space? Can we expect that there is life in there which is lost when we leave the space, or that it misses us when we give up on it?

Lina Kim has created a photographic series of evacuated spaces - spaces that no longer exist, although we are able to see their walls, floors and ceilings. They are spaces from military complexes of the GDR that now stand empty and that seem to have become empty husks of stone, slowly going to ruin. Nevertheless, these photos deliver the proof that spaces may not only be emptied of people, but may also, in their very being, be steeped in abandonment. They need little more than the gaze of a viewer to come alive, once more, and to show their abandonment. The bond is not broken and the relationship that exists between the viewer and these spaces will remain intact, even in the case of evacuated spaces. In order to speak, such spaces need listeners with open senses. Lina Kim's camera is receptive to this language and her photos are directed at viewers and listeners like these.

We are familiar with individual empty and crumbling buildings and spaces. They are exceptions. The spaces of this photographic series are different in that they show nothing except spaces that are abandoned, still and evacuated. In such concentration and exclusivity, can spaces such as these really be understood with our usual concepts of space?

Evacuating spaces from the objects that exist within them does not cause space to disappear, as one may well think with a classical theory of space. Space as a mere container, in which things are collected that can just as easily be removed without consequences for this space, does not exist. The structural relations between places in space that we comprehend as topography are not lost when it is evacuated. They are not objectless abstractions. Photographs can be taken as a visual demonstration of the permanence of space even in a state of evacuation. The formal rigor of such photography works together with the emptiness of concrete places and creates a transformation, from a notion of reproduction to a topography of relations. The space is not only constituted by visible objects, but by invisible relations, to which the memories that are contained in the space and the imagined objects make a contribution. The “power claims of the imagination” erect spaces where only vague traces can be seen. More diverse things arise when gazing on these spaces than the evacuated spaces show. We not only see a state of emptiness, but develop a feeling for evacuation, a continuous movement that prevents the space from disappearing. We know that something was in these spaces that has disappeared in the meantime, and we sense the traces left behind. We don't perceive the abandonment of these abandoned spaces as a final condition, but more as a call or challenge.

When we think about the spatial structures of the present, we think of conurbations without a center, of concentrations of people, buildings, traffic, production technologies, whose centers are empty and that harbor undirected circulation. The spaces that are shown here, show the opposite. They are paradigmatic of the attempt to declare war on the demands of modernity. They are not empty, but filled with signs of control and an out of date and forced gesture of power.

These photos show spaces as symptomatic sites of failure. The GDR authorities loved no-go zones. They needed fences and walls for demarcation and definition. Their space dropped out of time, but was, until recently, central for the inner machinery of the state. Zones created for barracks used by the NVA (East German Army), the occupying army, the KGB and paramilitary organizations and buildings that served for supplying the many soldiers were strewn out across the GDR. These zones were located in remote out-of-the way places in the country or near small towns, where they were mostly shielded from their surroundings. Such places were founded on a contra-modern principle, on segregation and isolation that stood in a stark opposition to the modern tendency of mobilization, of getting places moving and seeing them disappear into a web of relations. These zones petrified into places detached from movement and relied instead on a regulated dependence on a center of power.

The end of the GDR meant the end of these no-go zones - but not completely. These restricted areas have still not disappeared and continue to form extraterritorial zones. Behind barbed wire the buildings stand empty, the surrounding country is overgrown. Unused ground, resting without a function, fallow. Now no longer guarded, it is not difficult, as I know from personal experience, to gain entry without an official permit. In many places the wire cordons are bent and it is easy to crawl through. From the openings in the fence, beaten paths lead to the empty buildings. A hint of the forbidden makes the journey over the terrain slightly thrilling. But curiosity and the desire to discover are stronger and these drive the intruder from one building to the next. However, the walk through the long corridors and the suite of rooms is disappointing: there is nothing to see other than empty rooms. They are naked and gutted. All the furnishings have been removed, the floor is bare stone, and, in these rooms, nothing of value has been left. But, apart from pure emptiness, there is, indeed, something to see and experience. Firstly, there are traces of violence. Evacuated spaces awaken the memory of a preconscious imprisonment of the ego by space, and our reflex to this is an urge to retaliate. Space becomes an opponent, who demands revenge. The space that once possessed and governed us, now that it is abandoned and defenseless, excites a desire to destroy. Our violence is directed at rooms and, in this specific case, at the rooms of the former GDR barracks.

As soon as these spaces became accessible they were first gutted by those looking for building materials. Door jambs and window frames were broken out, power outlets, light switches and sanitary facilities ripped from the walls. Mountains of such materials rot in spaces between the buildings. The abandoned rooms provoke aggression: vandalism can rage unhindered. What could be broken was broken. Where there were still windows, the glass was smashed in, installations were demolished, the plaster damaged and the walls scrawled all over. Piles of garbage lie in the corners. Then the destructive work of nature could begin: the painted walls start to peel, the plaster crumbles, mold and moss begin to thrive on the floors and walls. The repulsive smell of moist lime and rotting plaster creates an oppressive spatial feeling.

The remains of these abandoned spaces awaken feelings of discomfort in the unwanted visitor. They stimulate the senses, but also awaken a need for distance, since everything is contaminated. Aversion and timidity at touching anything at all, disgust: feelings that work against a sober examination and understanding of these spaces. And, then, sudden memories of almost forgotten images. The contures, surfaces, bare walls and disintegrating pale colors of these rooms awaken feelings of insecurity and oppression that every trip into the GDR released at the border. The emptiness of these rooms is mere appearance. They are prevailed upon by traces of power and domination. Memories of this place, the border security facilities, the Grenzsicherungsanlagen, of many uniforms, the bare concrete areas and the barbed wire, the watchtowers and the knowledge that you were being observed on all sides and could not move without being observed - all of this is still hiding in those rooms. The walls grow eyes and ears. We look at them, but they do not look back, instead they subject the intruder to a controlling gaze and let feelings of suffocating anxiety and vague guilt rise up once again.

These rooms exert an indeterminate attraction on strangers. They are fascinated and cannot look away. This is not the case for the local people from the surrounding areas. They deflect questions, they don’t want to know about these complexes, they declare them meaningless, see the buildings as ready for demolition, or impose a prohibition on seeing with the claim that these places do not really exist. What an astonishing contrast between curiosity and repulsion!

Lina Kim began her project in 2003 spontaneously in Jüterbog and the environs of Castle Wiepersdorf and, in the following years, extended it to the entire territory of the former GDR. She scarcely knew Germany. She had not seen this region before and encountered the buildings, spaces, rooms and no-go zones with a gaze from afar, sharing in the astonishment of the traveling ethnographer who sees a strange settlement for the first time. An outside distance created an inner distance, a gaze engaged in researching local traditions that were long self-evident for the natives. The stranger’s gaze rips things from their context and leads, as Georg Simmel remarked, to an “objectivity,” that can be contrasted with the affect imbued familiarity that locals have for the things that are. This “attitude of objectivity” does not create an uninvolved distance, but arises instead from a relationship in which “the proximate is distant”, and its very “foreignness” makes possible that “the distant is proximate,” so that “indifference and engagement” begin to mix. “Foreignness” is a “quite positive relation,” that from an objective perspective, allows a certain freedom in relation to things.

In this way, an estranged image of individual things emerges that releases them from pseudo-natural relations and allows them to arise anew. What appears as given in these spaces, becomes questionable. This astonishment swings between new insight, and the danger of complete misunderstanding. In this tension between miscomprehension and a deeper vision, Lina Kim’s outsider view gives her photos a particular power and intensity. Their contradictions work together: permanent buildings and disappearance, endurance and decline, protection and endangerment, architecture and nature.

Lina Kim approaches these spaces with an interest in artistic form. Her photos allow no identification with the spaces. What purposes did these spaces originally serve? We don’t know. There are few details for the eye to fix upon, or that provide an explanation. At one time, the shower tubs seem to offer some insight. Do iron bars on a window allow us to make suppositions about the former purpose of a narrow room? The surface quality and color of the walls are among the few indices. In opposition to emptiness and isolation, these details evoke memories; the surfaces invite us to see them in tactile terms. Beyond these details, we see spaces as such, abstract, insofar as material spaces can be abstract. They are anonymous, universal and public - without trace of the private and subjective. A parameter of the society to which they belonged is clear in this regard: the subjective was taboo and the private rejected, always subordinate to the public and political. The tentacles of power of this government, insecure and even somewhat creepy to itself, stretched out into the living spaces on the periphery, to preserve itself against the modern age of declining centers. The security services even cut in on intimate conversations between friends and lovers. Private spaces became places for the humiliation of all those who needed to deviate or had a mind of their own. This attack on the private becomes obvious in light of the iconography of this series of photographs of spaces of nakedness, taken with great formal rigor, whose objectivity knows no discretion, nor the reconciling gaze of complicity. Neither do the photographs take a political nor a moral stance. They do not accuse and do not argue for or against the ideas, militarization and oppression, that these rooms may have served. They show spaces from an emotionless distance, in a process of decay and disappearance, and the dissolution of structures that once corresponded with the order of a whole society.

Is Lina Kim involved in documenting these spaces? Seemingly not, since her formalized iconography is opposed to all realistic understandings. The monotonous series is about the effects of the artificial, a staged reality. To those for whom the artificiality of these, on the surface of it, documentary images has not escaped, the synthetic nature of the images is revealed. They resemble rather the staged spaces of the newer photography of someone like Thomas Demand. What on first view strikes one as an unpretentious realistic reproduction, on further investigation, proves to be a pseudo-realism that raises the question as to how this impression has arisen. The photos are not artlessly unassuming. In contradistinction to appearance, they are not snap shots. They neither reproduce what the eye sees, nor what is recorded on the film during the moment the shutter is open. Rather, they are the result of exact planning and the product of three separate exposures: the different lighting conditions between the interior and exterior spaces making a single exposure unsatisfactory. The images are copied together in the laboratory out of one exposure for the inner space, another for the objects outside, in front of the window, and a third mixed exposure.

The sight of these forlorn spaces is not free of pain. The pictures hurt the viewer, even snubbing him or her. They resist the wish to penetrate the pictures and directly enter into this space. Various photographic techniques contribute to this impression: the frontal view, centered, and without any hint of subjectivity. The camera as an instrument of emotionless reproduction, without idealization, embellishment, mercilessly direct, rejecting the wish for closeness and empathy. Only an experience of estrangement is possible in front of images like these. Militarily protected no-go zones once led to forced exclusion. The abstraction and formalism of these pictures does not repeat this exclusion of the viewer, but rather the effect is the opposite. Their distancing creates the distance of the foreign, about which Simmel spoke. They do not create restricted areas, but open up these zones, by way of the positive relationship with an objective observer, to a critically observing gaze.

Lina Kim’s photos do not show the emptiness of spaces, but make what cannot be seen visible, for the first time: the loss that fills these abandoned spaces and that subjects our gaze to the distraught experience of disappearance. In order to do this, it is necessary to release these spaces from their geographic determination and uniqueness. We have placeless photographs before us. The failure of geographical localization lends them the unspecific quality of that which is not bound to the local. Place names are without meaning, and the regions of the GDR from which the shots stem are interchangeable. We see spaces without knowing anything about the building or the context. Only the views from the windows inform us of the location in relation to the outside. The height above the entrance levels shows that the rooms are not in high rise buildings, nor in an urban environment. It is not just that the names and geographic positions of the restricted areas are of no importance for the pictures, their namelessness is, in fact, their aesthetic precondition. For it is the exclusion of references like this, that allows for their general validity. These photographs play with objectivity and visual indeterminacy to prevent the concrete nature of each individual place reaching the threshold of recognition. The abandoned nature of the spaces penetrates into the interior of the viewer and lets him feel the mourning that abandoned people or discarded animals feel for their loss.

Since Muybridge, Marey and other pioneers of the nineteenth century, many photo series have arisen with the express intention of overcoming what had been perceived as a fundamental failing of photography: its ignorance of time. The pictures in these sequences show the same object in changing positions, simulating movement and, thereby, fetching time back into the image. The frozen moment in each separate photograph is transcended in the series, making temporal progression visible. These earlier photographic series form a link between the momentary shots of standard photography and the moving images of a film. Lina Kim’s series reverses the process. The objects in the pictures change. From photo to photo, we constantly see other spaces, but the moment of reproduction is always identical: the moment of their functional loss. We see the different spaces always in the same timeless condition, and this could just as easily be designated a moment as a duration. Presented in series, these photos are no longer shots of particular moments, but become moments in a space-time too long to be surveyed. Through their assemblage, these photos arrest time in a more radical manner than the momentary shots of standard photography. In each of these photos we see a single moment in time. They represent variations on one historical moment in non-linear time: the time of a static state. The assemblage of these timeless states creates a clear ordering of the spaces and their various features, in which no future is evident. Considered up close, in terms of the temporality of slowly unfolding processes, they act as places of disappearance that aim at total forgetfulness.

If these photos show a self-referential space, then they also reveal that their synchronous repetitions are not exhausted by a meaningless demonstration of the formally identical. Their subtext is power. The series works like a generator for the visual presence of power and domination, in spaces of disappearance. These images produce a context that recalls memories of the military society of the GDR, and with them an association of power and space. We don’t know any pictures of these spaces from the time of their use. Nevertheless, we involuntarily associate them in our imagination with the military system of the GDR. In these quiet rooms, we see the space of brutality: omnipresent uniforms, surveillance, people bullied by those with and without uniforms. The military, the state security and the secret police took care of an uninterrupted presence of domination by way of repression. “There was the direct and open violence of murder, torture, shooting orders, imprisonment and expatriation, and there was also the indirect violence through legal insecurity, reprisals, threats, shaming, through indoctrination and a system of coercion, intimidation and anxiety.”

This violent authoritarian system speaks out of the spaces of photos that refuse to openly show that which they admonish. The power of this state and its institutions and its various organs rested on fear. “Latent fear needs repression, control and rule, or otherwise it would become manifest and result in directly threatening circumstances.” Such fear needs its own spaces. Lina Kim’s photos show them. In the end, the threatening circumstances entered, and removed the means of repression, control and domination. The emptiness of the gutted rooms engenders a sense of this. Nevertheless: repression, control and domination - the absent made visible - still speak from these walls. And yet, this photographic series delivers no illustration of the history of the GDR known from other sources. Rather, it puts the imagination into motion and puts a history before our eyes very different to the one emerging from the archives. It develops a visual history from a single historical moment.

Is it meaningful to search for a political message in these photographs? Lina Kim works with subtle means. She doesn’t try to deploy her camera iconoclastically against ideological images. Her photos do not let us participate in a victory over repression, control and domination.

In the emptiness of the rooms traces of power and domination are retained, simultaneously broken by the evidence of transience. In the quiet and wretchedness of the evacuated spaces a reversal of the power and domination embodied in the military and secret services is hidden in an almost grotesque harmlessness. Not without deep irony, we see how miserable the rooms are, once robbed of the insignia of power. It is as if a General were standing naked before a commission of review.

What does an observer who grew up in the GDR see in opposition to a viewer from the West, a soldier from the NVA (East Germany Army) or a victim of the Stasi terror? The melancholy that an observer from the West feels could be the terror of a former citizen of the GDR, who may fill the emptiness with traumatic memories.

These empty spaces bring the transitory nature of the system of domination into view, but do not rejoice over it either. Evoking memories by viewing these photos leads to inhibition. Insight into the transience of the seemingly stable leaves a trace of melancholy and threatens to paralyze the viewer. In relation to this mood, it is important to keep in mind the subtly political nature of this photographic series and to relate the synchrony of its disappearance to social history: disappearance as an occasion of gratification.

Memory does not necessarily need material places. There are other places that allow the memory of the terror of the GDR to be retained, and the emotionless photographs of Lina Kim are, indeed, one appropriate place that helps us not forget these spaces of violence. They open up spaces like these to a critical gaze and allow the imagination its necessary freedom. At the same time, they deliver a visual analysis that has the advantage of not surrendering the topic to arguments about the “politics of memory” and that keeps it out of public debates on the sovereignty of artistic representation. Further projects of such a kind would be desirable. Greater than the danger of forgetfulness or of making light of these issues is the danger that the public discourse machine associated with memorials will reduce all to disposable small change. These photos do not lead to the risky stagnation of thought about violence that inevitably kicks in as a furor of public work on questions of mastering the past. Rather, these photos want to provoke discussion and oppose the suffocating weight of the public ‘mastering’ machinery. Viewing these photos awakens the hope that with the disappearance of these spaces the bad spirit will also be defeated that makes such sights so suffocating.

Georg Simmel, „Soziologie der Sinne“, in: Georg Simmel. Soziologische Ästhetik, edited by Klaus Lichtblau, Bodenheim 1988, p. 143.

Kaja Silverman, “What is a Camera? Or: History in the Field of Vision”, in: Discourse 15, 3, pp. 2-56, here, p. 54.

August Schmarsow, „Das Wesen der architektonischen Schöpfung“ (1894), in: Raumtheorie, edited by Jörg Dünne and Stefan Günzel, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2006, p. 4670-484.

These places are intensively associated with historical memory. Nevertheless, since the symbolic dimension is missing, they are quite justifiably not taken up in: Etienne François und Hagen Schulze (eds.), Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, 3 vols., Munich 2001.

Georg Simmel, Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Berlin 1968 (originally 1908), Exkurs über den Fremden, pp. 509-512.

The opposite visual strategy is pursued by Hanns Otte, „Vergessene Farben. Hohenlychen/Deutschland“ and Dagmar Leupold, „Gefährliche Liegenschaften. Hohenlychen/Deutschland“, in: Katharina Raabe and Monika Szajderman (eds.), Last and Lost, Frankfurt 2006, pp. 221-239. The photos und texts attempt to fill the evacuated spaces and to awaken them to life through emotional involvement.

Hans-Joachim Maaz, Der Gefühlsstau. Ein Psychogramm der DDR, Berlin 1990, p. 13 und 19f.