Until the late 1980s, the Minsk restaurant was one of the best addresses in Potsdam. The menu had Belarusian accents. The building, a flat box with glass walls against a green hill in the center of the city, was a pinnacle of GDR architecture, designed in the 1970s by Karl-Heinz Birkholz. Jubilees were celebrated and Jugendweihenthe secular rite of passage for adolescents in East Germany.

After 1990, Café Minsk slowly but surely turned into a ruin. Baroque churches and palaces were diligently renovated in the old Prussian garrison town, but many GDR buildings were demolished, and Minsk, the “Sanssouci of the communists,” was neglected.

Software billionaire Hasso Plattner, co-founder of the enterprise software firm SAP, previously funded the rebuilding of the Barberini Palace in Potsdam (a baroque palace built in the eighteenth century modeled on a palace of the same name in Rome), where he has lived since 2017 exhibits his own art collection with no less than 38 Monets. Plattner also donated 20 million euros to Potsdam to rebuild the rococo city palace that had been demolished in 1959 under the GDR government. The Brandenburg state government is now back in the palace. Now Plattner also bought old Minsk, and lives up to his name that he ‘owns half of Potsdam’. A museum for GDR art was created in Das Minsk under the leadership of Plattner’s daughter.

GDR favorites such as potato salad with a herring and calter Hund – Arret cake. The chocolate is better than the one behind the Iron Curtain, the caterer recently assured the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Allotments

The top floor of the museum is dedicated to work by the Canadian video artist Stan Douglas (Vancouver, 1960). In 1994 Douglas came to Berlin on a scholarship. He photographed typical and stereotypical East German scenes: more and less dilapidated allotment gardens in autumn, a section of the Berlin Wall with a compost heap in front, a Trabant. He also shot a short film, Der Sandmann, loosely based on the ETA Hoffmann story of the same name. To this end, Douglas built a backdrop of allotment gardens in Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam, the oldest film studio in the world and the center of the German film industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

Douglas’ photographs are the showcase of the new museum Das Minsk. There is something shabby about opening a museum with the rare aim of showing art from the GDR with a view of the GDR from the 1990s – even if the curator calls it a ‘dialogue’ between East and West in the catalogue.

In addition, work by the painter Wolfgang Mattheuer (1927) can be seen on the first floor under the title Der Nachbar der will fly (‘The neighbor who wants to fly’), also from the collection of Hasso Plattner. Mattheuer made the approximately thirty works in Potsdam between 1958 and 2000, and his garden in different seasons is the main constant in the colorful collection of motifs and styles.

Wolfgang Mattheuer, View of the garden, 1960.
Photo Hasso Plattner Collection © VG Bild-Kunst
In the museum café of ‘Das Minsk’ you can still get GDR favorites, such as potato salad.
Photo Ladislav Zajac
Stan Douglas, from the Potsdamer Schrebergärten series, 1994/1995.
Photo Hasso Plattner Collection © VG Bild-Kunst
Photos Hasso Plattner Collection © VG Bild-Kunst / Ladislav Zajac

Lignite

In the region in the East German state of Saxony where Mattheuer lived and worked, lignite was widely mined. In addition to pristine nature, Mattheuer paints various dystopian industrialized landscapes. In Freundlicher Besuch im Braunkohlenrevier (‘Friendly visit in the lignite area’) coal miners walk towards three figures who have a box with a recorded smile on their head. Optimism is mandatory, the figures seem to say. In Oh Caspar David a minuscule human figure disappears against a dark horizon of an excavated lignite mine, which at first glance appears to be a brown wavy ocean. The figure swings like a drowning man.

Mattheuer’s various Icarus figures also do not feel comfortable in their surroundings. In Der Nachbar der will fly a man with graceful wings rises between flowering allotments. The neighbors around it seem to be shouting ah and oh – but the neighbor has only risen half a meter above the garden gate. In other works the future of the neighbor seems sealed: in Seltsamer Zwischenfall (‘Strange Incident’) a tour bus drives past a still smoldering human with broken wings next to him. In Sturz des Ikarus II (“Fall of Icarus II”) makes a one-man rocket with feather wings, the astronaut’s face protruding from the cabin, a nosedive towards Earth.

Mattheuer’s ‘cosmonaut’, as astronauts were called in the GDR, seems to sum up Mattheuer’s systemic critique well: every form of individuality is punished, but the haughty exploitation of nature in socialism and the unbridled belief in technology are just as much a harbinger of the fall.

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