The poisonous mushroom and the Weinbergskirche: peace activism using a shooting target? 31. May 2024

At the start of 1980, the Berlin artist Joseph W. Huber received a destructive work of art. The artist Birger Jesch sent him a postcard via the international mail art network that had lately emerged from towns such as Dresden and begun encircling the globe.

The front of the card, on further inspection a paper target for air rifle shooting competitions, is on the theme of nature. At the bottom right, in the space labelled “shooting type”, is the start of a sentence: “nature is”. The card itself brings the ending “poisonous” to mind. The shooting target has been given a black border like a sympathy card. A red “poison” sticker with a skull and crossbones sits squarely in the bullseye. Two old East German postage stamps from the “Poisonous European Mushrooms” series, each showing an inedible Livid Pinkgill, are stuck in the space for the shooter’s name. On the back of the card, a postage stamp invites visitors to the baroque gardens at Großsedlitz in Saxony and a standard postmark advertises Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The postcard also promotes the mail art genre, which used the postal infrastructure and generally rather unusual, very much critical artistic content in an attempt to pervade traditional art institutions and genres – provoking postal censorship by the Stasi; the GDR’s Ministry for State Security.

Mail art emerged in the USA in the 1960s and was exhibited for the first time under that name in Paris in 1971. It consists in handwritten or typewritten correspondence, postcards, small works on paper and documents that artists all over the world post one another. Thanks to the East Berlin artist Robert Rehfeldt, it arrived in East Germany at the start of the 1970s, offering many GDR residents working in the cultural sector a narrow glimpse of a world that otherwise remained closed to them in many ways.1 Joseph W. Huber, Birger Jesch, Robert Rehfeldt and many other mail artists explicitly satirised the postal style in their pieces. They reappropriated the postmarks used to carry out official procedures at the post office and other East German institutions, labouring by hand over stamps – made, for example, from commercially available erasers – featuring designs, addresses and sayings that poked fun at the GDR’s strict art doctrine and bureaucracy.

1 Many East German citizens suffered from the restrictions on their freedom to travel that they later demonstrated against during the Peaceful Revolution of 1989. (See also the 2024 conference Freedom (or lack thereof) to travel. Mobilities of artists during the Cold War, organised by Kerstin Schankweiler, Jule Lagoda and Nora Kaschuba, Technische Universität Dresden and Albertinum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.) In an essay on postal surveillance in the GDR, the Berlin mail artist Lutz Wohlrab cited some lines by the poet Reiner Kunze that were popular among artists of the genre: “Brief du / zweimillimeteröffnung / der tür zur welt du /geöffnete öffnung du / lichtschein, / durchleuchtet, du / bist angekommen” (“Letter, you / two-millimetre crack / door to the world, you / cracked crack, you / glimpse of light, / glimpsed, you / have arrived”) Reiner Kunze, “einundzwanzig variationen über das thema ‚die post‘” (“Twenty-one variations on the theme ‘the mail’”), in: Die wunderbaren Jahre, Frankfurt am Main 1978, p. 123; cited after Lutz Wohlrab, “‚ Bitte sauber öffnen! Danke‘ Mail Art und Postkontrolle in der DDR”, in: Horch und Guck 2/38 [2002], pp. 42–46.) On the topic of mail art as a network, see Kornelia Röder, Topologie und Funktionsweise des Netzwerks der Mail Art: seine spezifische Bedeutung für Osteuropa von 1960 bis 1989, Cologne 2008; cf. Katrin Mrotzek and Kornelia Röder (eds.), Mail Art. Osteuropa im internationalen Netzwerk, exhibition catalogue, Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Schwerin 1996.

Jesch’s postcard to Huber thus had a toxic effect in more ways than one: it was an artistic alternative to the canon established by art historians in the state museums, it was an unconventional message that stood out from other letters and postcards that were posted, and it was an antithesis to the environmental art project Nature is life – Save it!,2, which Jesch responds to here with the contradictory statement that nature means not just life, but sometimes also death.

2 see Sterre Barentsen, Miningscapes and Acid Lakes. An Environmental Art History of the late-GDR Dissertation, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Berlin 2023; see also Petra Lange-Berndt, “Nature is Life – Save It! Kollektivität und Ökologie in der DDR”, in: Kunstforum International 263/Rebellion und Anpassung (2019) pp. 128–135; see Antonia Napp, “Der bedrohte Planet. Umwelt und Zerstörung als Thema”, in: Kornelia Röder (ed.), Außer Kontrolle!: Farbige Grafik & Mail Art in der DDR, exhibition catalogue Staatliches Museum Schwerin, Cologne 2015, pp. 64–72.

Huber began asking his contacts in mail art to send him post on the topic of environmental and nature conservation in 1977. Jesch sent the postcard in response to his request3 and borrowed Huber’s idea: the postcard he sent his colleague was likely accompanied by an invitation to join his own “first Mail-Art Project of Dresden”. The invitation was made from a slip of paper printed using a spirit duplicator, and a blank shooting target that Huber was expected to turn into a work of art and return to Jesch. Providing brief but specific information, Jesch invited artists to take part in his project: they were to work on the target artistically using collage, drawing or printing techniques in a format of up to 21 x 30 cm and return the results to Jesch in Dresden by 14 October 1980.

3 Huber and Jesch largely shared the same views on conservation. In all, five submissions by Jesch appear in the seventeen posters of postcards in the Nature is Life initiative; see Staatliches Museum Schwerin, inv. no. 19795 Gr MA_03, inv. no. 19795 Gr MA_06, inv. no. 19795 Gr MA_07, inv. nos. 19795 Gr MA_11 and 19795 Gr MA_15.

The organisational challenge facing Jesch came from the fact that mail art projects of this type were still relatively uncommon in East Germany. The international mail art community, meanwhile, had already established a modus operandi for such projects. First, postal invitations were sent out to activate the global mail art network on a “no jury, no fee, no return” basis. The hundreds of people who received them were then expected to send postcards or other works on paper to a private address or an exhibition venue where the works received were to be presented. The topic changed with each project while the conditions remained the same. 

The works sent in were not judged (no jury); the artists were not paid or charged money to take part (no fee) and the entries were not sent back to them (no return). Ideally, the participants later all received a copy of the project documentation. Jesch’s invitation was closely in line with these rules and offered a series of solutions anticipating the problems that a project of the kind would face in the GDR. To circumvent the lack of art materials and the risk inherent in an overly clear description of the planned content of his project, Jesch proposed that the work be created on an inexpensive, commercially available piece of sports equipment (the paper shooting target), cut to the size of a postcard, and sent participants his own artistic adaptation of the target rather than describing the expected content in detail.4 To counter the impossibility of exhibiting, documenting and publishing the project without restriction, he planned to turn the best entries into a poster that he would then reproduce and send to everyone who had taken part.

4 The “International Air Rifle Targets”, produced in the Brandenburg town of Neuruppin, were cut to the size of a standard postcard by removing the competition table on the right-hand side. (See Link (22 May 2024))

Before Jesch, only Rehfeldt and Huber had successfully launched their own mail art projects in the GDR, but neither had exhibited them there. Rehfeldt had carried out the project Art in Contact in 1975, exhibited at Teatr Studio in the Warsaw Palace of Culture, then the Contart Mail Box project in 1980, part of the Kraków Print Biennial. Huber launched the previously mentioned Nature is Life – Save it! project in 1977 but did not exhibit it until 1982 in Berlin. As early as 1978, an exhibition organised by Klaus Werner in Berlin’s Galerie Arkade, Postkarten und Künstlerkarten (Picture postcards and fine art postcards), sparked the rise of mail art in the GDR. Jesch was among those who became aware of the genre as a result.5 His accurate conclusion that this was the “first Mail Art Project of Dresden” places him alongside Rehfeldt, Huber and Werner in the annals of exhibition history. Jesch wanted to motivate mail artists to include Dresden in their international network and thus extend this global community of connected arts industry workers. Rehfeldt’s idea was that this community would use their art in a gesture of solidarity to shape society together progressively, through art.6

5 See Birger Jesch, “Mißbrauch sakraler Räume für staatsfeindliche Zwecke”, in: Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 – 1990, Berlin 1994, p. 96.
6 See Robert Rehfeldt, “Ursachen und Wirkung der Kunst in der Kommunikation – die Mitteilung progressiver Ideen per Post”, in: Bickhard Bottinelli (ed.), Die Post als Künstlermedium: mail art + Künstlerstempel, Kassel 1976, pp. 18–21.

Although this understanding of mail art would doubtless have been compatible with the values of socialism, Jesch’s shooting target project soon became a target of Stasi postal censorship. The Stasi saw mail art as a “Western fad in the visual arts” with a “hostile negative attitude” that would “mount veiled attacks on social conditions in the GDR and other Socialist countries” and “openly spread its pacifist sentiments”.7 Jesch’s project and the postcards he sent were thus, as predicted, seen as destructive art, intended to reveal the Socialist dictatorship for what it was and to expose the peace terms dictated by the GDR as a farce. The fact that Jesch received only 50 entries despite extending the deadline and sending more than 300 invitations is thus partly due to the Stasi diligently intercepting the post he sent and received.8

7 Document “Maßnahmen zur Verhinderung pazifistischer Aktivitäten der evangelischen Kirche”, Dresden district Stasi administration, Dept. XX, 1 April 1982; cited in Heidrun Hannusch, “Operativer Vorgang ‘Feind’ – Wie die Staatssicherheit die Dresdner Mail Art Gruppe ‘zersetzte’”, in: Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 – 1990, Berlin 1994, p. 109.
8 See the memo in Jesch’s Stasi file from January 1981, kept at the Staatliches Museum in Schwerin, noting that Jesch had invited people from Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) to take part in a mail art exhibition. This shows that the Stasi had Jesch in their sights, but did not yet seem to be sure what was going on with the mail art projects. The proviso must also be added that in some cases, more than one of the 300 invitations were send to the same recipients, and that some recipients evidently chose not to take part in the project for other reasons. On this subject, and regarding censorship, see for example the relevant correspondence between Jesch and Rehfeldt (Rehfeldt Mail Art Archive, inv. no. 4093 and inv. no. 4534) and between Jesch and Lomholt (Link [22 May 2024]). Jesch also subsequently launched a survey to find out whether the people in his network had taken part in the project, and their reasons for doing so or not. I do not have any further details about the survey findings. ([22.05.2024]).

From a modern perspective, Stasi censorship was an arbitrary process of baffling complexity, as illustrated by one shooting target designed by Huber. The target is one of the entries submitted to the project that could have fallen victim to censorship according to the above criteria. The section of the target in the upper half of the picture is covered by a hand-drawn stop sign with red colouring-in. To the left and right of the bullseye, Huber has written “KRIEGS · KUNST” (see below) and beneath it the comment “welch Wort!” (“what a word”). The space labelled “shooting type” describes the artistic method used here through allegory; an envelope turning into a dove symbolises peaceful correspondence.

As well as being active in mail art, in 1979 Huber also began to publish satirical postcards and posters with combinations of images and text reminiscent of works by another mail artist, the lawyer Klaus Staeck. Huber’s shooting target design draws attention to the arms race then developing between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Very much in the spirit of Jesch’s idea, Huber’s work draws on the aesthetic potential the target had during that Cold War era, when there was a constant threat of war breaking out on their doorstep. For context, in 1978, the GDR added military studies to the school curriculum and was considering compulsory military service for women.9 At the start of 1980, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan constituted another proxy conflict between the Eastern and Western blocs. That same year, the West boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow.

9 See Kornelia Röder and Lutz Wohlrab, “International Contact with Mail Art in the spirit of peaceful coexistence – Das pazifistische Schießscheiben-Projekt von Birger Jesch”, in: Zeitschrift der Geschichtswerkstatt Gerbergasse 18 /104 (2022) p. 23.

It is against that background that Huber takes a clear political position: his stop sign can be understood as a call to end the Cold War, while also conveying his general scepticism about the term “Kriegskunst”. On one hand, this can mean “war art”, i.e. cultural or artistic works (such as this one) that tackle the subject of war or are created during times of war. On the other hand, in military science it can mean “the art of warfare”; the strategic, operational and tactical planning and waging of wars. Huber is criticising the fact that the word attaches aesthetic value to military action; a pacifist attitude that is shared by Jesch and the authors of the other works submitted. From the start, the slogan behind Jesch’s project was “International Contact with Mail Art – in the spirit of peaceful coexistence”.

Although Jesch’s invitation did not explicitly mention pacifism, the works of art he shared were enough to make his negative attitude to “all war, however justified” crystal clear in the eyes of the regime. Censors saw it as an intention “in the name of peace” to “deter the masses from taking part in the revolutionary struggle and cover up the bourgeoisie’s preparations for rapacious wars”.10 This toxic atmosphere between the mail artist and the Stasi is symbolised by the shooting target Jesch made for the Danish artist Niels Lomholt. A sticker in the middle of the bullseye shows an eye warily looking to the left, apparently sensing an invisible danger out of our view.11

10 Dictionary entry on “pacifism” cited after Heidrun Hannusch, “Operativer Vorgang ‘Feind’ – Wie die Staatssicherheit die Dresdner Mail Art Gruppe ‘zersetzte’”, in: Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 – 1990, Berlin 1994, p. 109.
11 Members of the Dresden mail art scene, such as Jürgen Gottschalk, Martina and Steffen Giersch and Joachim Stange, faced especially severe persecution from the Stasi. On this topic, see Jürgen Gottschalk, Druckstellen: die Zerstörung einer Künstler-Biographie durch die Stasi (Vol. 5 of a series of monographs by the Saxon State Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service), Leipzig 2006; see also Heidrun Hannusch, “Operativer Vorgang ‘Feind’ – Wie die Staatssicherheit die Dresdner Mail Art Gruppe ‘zersetzte’”, in: Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 – 1990, Berlin 1994, pp. 109–114; see also Lutz Wohlrab and Birger Jesch, “Feinde gibt es überall...: Stasi und die Mail Art in Dresden”, in: Horch und Guck 2/19 (1996) pp. 58–64.

As this situation meant there was no chance of Jesch presenting his shooting target project at an official GDR art venue, he sought an alternative spot to exhibit the entries. Realising that “the only way to reach the public was under the auspices of the church”12 he contacted Christoph Wonneberger, the pastor of the Protestant Weinbergskirche parish. At the time, Wonneberger, who went on to be one of the most influential protagonists of the Peaceful Revolution, had begun offering his church as a venue for alternative cultural projects. Jesch was surprised by “his liberal self-image” when “talking about the Christian tradition of art being present in churches”.13

12 Birger Jesch, “Mißbrauch sakraler Räume für staatsfeindliche Zwecke”, in: Friedrich Winnes and Lutz Wohlrab (eds.), Mail Art Szene DDR 1975 – 1990, Berlin 1994, p. 96. 13 Ibid.

That was how the first exhibition of the shooting target project opened on 14 February 1981 in Dresden’s Weinbergskirche, also marking the first time a thematically complete mail art project took place in a public exhibition space in the GDR. The postcards that had been received were grouped and displayed in several picture frames – which was to become the standard means of presenting mail art at the time. The documentation poster seen at the right-hand edge of this photograph acted as a wall label. Jesch included a description of the project, an excerpt from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition at Galerie Arkade, four postcards, several excerpts from letters and a list of participants, all attached to a large-scale collage made from newspaper reports about the arms race.

By presenting his pacifist project in the setting of the Protestant church in the GDR, Jesch established what would become a constantly growing connection between the East German mail art scene and the church-supported oppositional environmental and peace movement; a movement that paved the way for and played a role in the Peaceful Revolution and German reunification just a few years later.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank Staatliches Museum Schwerin and the Lomholt Mail Art Archive for their cooperation and for providing the images shown here.

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