Geniale Dilletanten (Brilliant Dilettantes) – Subculture in 1980’s Germany

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Review by John Kerrens

The international exhibition touring here: Brilliant Dilettantes, is a highly informative and entertaining study of a unique period of German subculture in the 1980’s. Geniale Dilletanten, the deliberately misspelled title of a concert held in Berlin’s Tempodrom in 1981, has become symbolic of a brief era of artistic upheaval in Germany.

In the post-war years and particularly from the late 60s on, Germany has made a strong contribution in the fields of music, art, media etc. Highly regarded bands such as Can, Faust, Amon Duul II and Einsturzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings), among others, have been favourites among music fans/hipsters the world over.

The exhibition, held at the RMIT Hall in the City, showcases a number of 1980’s German post-Punk bands, including the above-mentioned Neubauten and its charismatic guitarist/singer Blixa Bargeld. The other artists include Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (Dusseldorf), Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle (Munich) and Ornament und Verbrechen (East Berlin) with three others – Die Todliche (deadly) Doris (West Berlin); Der Plan (Dusseldorf); and Palais Schaumburg (Hamburg).

There is a Melbourne (and St Kilda) connection here with the amount of “cross-pollination” that has occurred between Australia and Germany, musically speaking. This shows up most obviously in the cultural exchange involving Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Blixa Bargeld and others. Anyone who has seen Wim Wenders’s sublime “Wings of Desire” will understand the connection immediately. Curated by Mathilde Wey of the Goethe Institute in Munich, the exhibition is a slice of culture from a unique period in German post-punk innovation and experimentation.

There was also a stronger connection between Brit punks and their German counterparts. While many Brits felt moribund or outright depressed by the Thatcher years, the Germans were contending with the actions of the Baader/Meinhof Red Army Faction (RAF). German punks were probably more aggressively political, many of them claiming enthusiastic support for RAF’s terror activities (though most would have drawn the line at causing serious damage or death, their “support” mainly being a way to annoy the elders). The one thing both German and Brit punks agreed on was their distaste for “hippies”, whom they considered soft and out of touch.

Of the artists presented, the most well-known would have to be Einsturzende Neubauten, with their gaunt, glamorous singer/guitarist Blixa Bargeld. The reference to collapsing new buildings was in part a monstrous swipe at the modern German state, as symbolised by the often inadequate structures of its post-war economic boom and massive urban changes, for example, in Berlin.

Although strongly associated with the punk (or post-punk) movement, Bargeld’s influences were earlier German bands like Can, Faust and Kraftwerk. Unlike many German bands of the time, Bargeld chose to sing in German rather than the traditional English of Rock & Roll; the change in language also causing a consequent change in the musical structures that accompanied the words.

The installation, consisting of sound, film and photographs is a stylish affair, well worth checking out, at the Storey Hall, RMIT, Swanston St. The exhibition will be in place until February 20. Check it out soonest.

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