Who still has souvenirs of Autumn 1989 stored away in the cupboard? To mark the tenth year of post-communism, curator Bernd Roder of the Prenzlauer Berg Museum in Berlin recently put out such a call for donations. His planned exhibition, The Time Is High, sets out to punctuate the timeline of recent German history with the memories of those who lived and worked in the local community at the time when ‘real existing socialism’ was pronounced dead and the five states of the German Democratic Republic (gdr) were swiftly annexed by the larger German federation. In the first decade of post-communism, German museum directors have entered a race to curate the wreckage of socialism as if there were no tomorrow, organizing some two dozen exhibitions of ephemera and objects manufactured by the now defunct factories of the People’s Own Industries, or Volks Eigene Betriebe. Roder specifies the sort of objects he requires to document the process of unification—a factory logbook which suddenly breaks off, or perhaps a withdrawal slip someone might have saved from the last day that banks recognized the Eastern mark. Artists, too, have taken up the shards of communism and incorporated them into their works as ‘found objects’. While some critics dismiss this focus on the vanishing material culture of the gdr as overly sentimental, attributing it to a dysfunctional vanguard which has languished in its leftist delusion far beyond the point of decency, others seek to rescue from opprobrium the right to wax nostalgic, arguing for the importance of cultural memory at this time of transition.

Why such a fixation on the past?footnote1 In ‘The New Opacity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies’, Jürgen Habermas characterizes European cultures on both sides of the Iron Curtain as befuddled and historically unmoored. Already, in the late 1980s, the disorienting decline of social solidarity induced a kind of museum fever, one which still rages across Europe.footnote2 Germany’s mnemonic temperature spiked in 1992 with the opening of Documenta IX, the international exhibition of contemporary art held in Kassel. Foregrounding communism’s collapse, curator Jan Hoet organized Documenta IX around the theme of ‘Collective Memory’ and commissioned catalogue essays on the crisis in Europe from political philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis and playwright Heiner Müller. In his own essay, Hoet acknowledged the burgeoning consensus that the European utopian imagination has oriented itself towards the past: ‘the past has become the vanishing point in the perspective of the future’.footnote3 But, whereas some would look to this shift with great expectations, Hoet confesses his sense of disorientation, doubting his own knowledge of ‘what art is’, or whether he has anything to say ‘about political or social realities’.footnote4 In this transitional moment, Hoet suggests, the imperative to secure new temporal anchors is more urgent than ever.

Hoet’s exhibition was the first Documenta to be planned after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Present in the myriad elements of the exhibition—the artworks, catalogues, documentary films, and reviews—is an alertness to this moment of capital importance. Hoet ran Documenta IX as a kind of conceptual lost-and-found department for the remnants of state socialism. Although the catalogue essays express what seems to be relief that the many injustices committed under the gdr régime might finally be redressed, they nevertheless reveal a certain melancholic disappointment with the outcome of the Wende, or post-communist turn. Hoet seems fixated by the notion that something was lost in the transition from a continent divided between the market and the plan to the hegemonic Europe of late capitalism. What was the ‘Other Europe?’, and why might some Westerners have grown dependent on the notion that there existed some elsewhere beyond liberal democracy? You never know what you have until you lose it, Hoet implies.

In his memoir On the Way to Documenta IX, Hoet discloses a kind of nostalgia for history, suggesting that all the losses suffered at the close of the century were inflected and perhaps even amplified by the collapse of communism. The ostensible resolution of ideological conflict in Europe appears to be compounded together with the accelerating surge of cybertechnologies; this threatens to obviate the need for human memory and reduce our temporal experience to one of a perpetual present. Such impoverishment of history has brought the avant-garde to its endpoint: current cultural production amounts to nothing more than ‘mere quotations quoting an arsenal from a known grammar.’footnote5 To counteract this loss, Hoet organized a micro-exhibition of eight works, titled ‘Collective Memory’, to be included in the Documenta IX events. Hoet brought together works by Jacques-Louis David, Paul Gaugin, Alberto Giacometti, James Ensor, Barnett Newman, Joseph Beuys, René Daniels, and James Lee Byars, all of which he considered to have informed the conception, theorization, and production of the larger exhibition. He hoped that the series would provide a means by which the viewer could ‘filter and build retrospective associations’ amongst the many Documenta elements she would encounter. The focal point of ‘Collective Memory’ was Joseph Beuys’s Wirtschaftswerte (1980) (Economic Values), an assemblage combining a collection of household objects and ephemera predominantly of East European manufacture with a small sculpture made earlier by Beuys himself.

We see that the dissolution of state socialism has blurred and displaced conventional perspectives. While an artist can incorporate a relic of the gdr into an artwork, elevating it from the everyday to the sublime, a cultural historian can display the same object as a document of another life-world. Attempts to come to terms with the socialist past range from sober, historical description to melancholic attachment, from the brutal erasure to the painful work of mourning, and from arrogant dismissal to nostalgic fascination. If, as for Walter Benjamin, real historical memory sustains the emancipatory potentials which were once crushed, when does authentic attachment to the past slip into false nostalgic longing? And how to distinguish the legitimate endeavour to imagine an alternative to late capitalism from the imperialism of the imagination?