'They were promised everything when the wall came down'


The work of a Dublin photographer explores industry and the free market as they affect the people in a region of former East Germany, writes JOHN FLEMING

A photographer sets up a shot. He places his subject and walks away. They look at the camera, a machine, for a matter of minutes: they stare, contemplating the process that brought them there. These video portraits are silent poses for a single shot never taken. They reveal mine workers, students and jobless people from the Lausitz, a region in the former East Germany with Europe’s largest open-cast lignite mine.

Berlin-based Dubliner Mark Curran facilitated these self-portraits in backyards, in factories and against walls. The video projections are key to his Extracts from Eden project at the Moxie Studios on Lad Lane in Dublin. Who are these people and why should we care?

“I spent six years getting to know them and winning their trust,” says Curran, explaining the ethnographic nature of his work. “They were promised everything when the Berlin Wall came down, but all they got was devastation as the mine was taken over by a multinational.”

Through these self-portraits and word pictures, he digs into local and industrial identity. His subject is the evolution of capitalism. “When we think of the east, it’s usually Latvia and Lithuania. Those in the former East Germany were never given a chance. When the money came in, it went farther east – to the accession states. The people of the Lausitz were forced to migrate west for work.”

A strangely moving component features slides of workers’ chairs in a disused textile factory. Curran stitches these inanimate objects into his study. He has moral issues with direct portraiture.

“Who am I to attempt to portray any one of these people?” he asks. “By abandoning them to the camera, I gave them some control.”

The mine looms large in Curran’s mind. As it spread, entire villages were moved. When depleted, the crater will be turned into a lake bigger than Constance. This will take 15 years to fill. And the water may be toxic – useless for leisure, one more utopia poisoned. But this is not failure, he says: it is capitalism’s evolution. He refers to “cycles of destruction” and includes banking collapses.

Does his work not permit nostalgia? He prefers “cultural memory”. Then he reverse-flips into “cultural amnesia”: Germany of the 1990s neglected its eastern half as capital went farther east and left places like the Lausitz high and dry.

“Helmut Kohl arranged for the fall of the wall to be delayed by several weeks to be there. It was all part of a great performance by neoliberal capitalism.”

Lausitz’s boom-to-bust chimes with the Irish experience. Germany exists in bailout imaginations as a Teutonic powerhouse and convenient wallet for feeble EU states. A wounded place such as Lausitz shatters this simple view.

Curran’s work is conceptually demanding; there is a dense social critique of capitalism’s excesses layered with history and theory. But the visual language is simple and almost self-deprecating. Curran’s art is an exploration of industry and the free market as they affect the working lives of human beings.

Extracts from Eden is at Moxie Studios, Lad Lane, Dublin 2. It runs until July 26th within PhotoIreland 2012’s On Migration show; mox.ie

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