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Making art out of Cold War-era artifacts

A former East German guard house was briefly installed in front of 5900 Wilshire Blvd., next to where portions of the Berlin Wall also stand.
A former East German guard house was briefly installed in front of 5900 Wilshire Blvd., next to where portions of the Berlin Wall also stand.
Christof Zwiener

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When the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, a lot was made of what the unification would bring to East Berlin. But one artist, Christof Zwiener, wondered about what was already there that would no longer have a purpose, like flag posts and party symbols.

Among the everyday objects that he has since turned into art is a former guard house. It has become both a piece of art and an exhibition space. The biggest surprise: its home is in Los Angeles.

The former guard house used to stand in front of the GDR state-controlled news service ADN in East Berlin. Zwiener saved it from the junk yard. 

Since arriving in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, the guard house has been displayed in different installations around the city. Across from LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard, it looked like part of the exhibition of Berlin Wall segments. Next to a busy street in Culver City, some people thought it was a a parking lot checkout kiosk. Zwiener relished in perplexing people.

To go into the cramped guard house is to be transported back to East Germany, especially because of a very distinct smell. The house reeks of stale, cheap soap,  linoleum and burned coal, evoking a deep sense of oppression and bureaucracy.

Zwiener loves visceral encounters with remnants and memories of German history. The guard house was a perfect find for him. Mass-produced in the '70s, the shacks were ever-present in front of public buildings, on main roads and along borders of East Germany. This may be the last undamaged one standing in public space.

Zwiener transformed it into a showroom for several art installations in Berlin. He says: "Instead of a guard in the house. There's art in the house!" 

Why did it come to Los Angeles? Justin Jampol heard about the project. He is founder and director of the Wende Museum, an archive and research institution based in Culver City that focuses on former Eastern bloc countries. Constantly looking for GDR artifacts, the guard house concept — with its themes of media and surveillance — fascinated Jampol immediately.

The historian arranged for the guard house to come to Los Angeles and Zwiener decided to give it to the Wende Museum on permanent loan. The artist says it was an easy decision, especially as nobody in Berlin wanted to save it.  

He is also happy that the guard house will be retiring under palm trees after enduring snow and frost for many years.





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