Schüler in Elxleben
In Elxleben Regular School, numerous artistic works by students adorn the walls throughout the building. It’s easy to walk past the ceramic mosaic by Gottfried Schüler in the old staircase without noticing. The artwork by Schüler is not only surrounded by works from the school’s art classes, but right next to the mosaic is also the school’s emergency plan. No wonder the majority of the 8th-grade students hadn’t consciously noticed the mosaic before the project days. Also, that the mosaic is from the GDR was new to most of them. The approximately 2×3 meters colorful mosaic is a comparatively small work by Gottfried Schüler. In his other construction-related works, he tended to think big, according to Christoph Schüler, the artist’s son. Christoph Schüler now takes care of his father’s legacy and recalls Schüler’s works in Jena-Lobeda, Nordhausen, and Arnstadt.
On the first day of the three-day project, the students visited the memorial site to learn about the former detention center Andreasstraße and delved deeper into the topics of art and work in the GDR. Armed with knowledge about the GDR’s work routine, characterized by both scarcity and creativity, the youth interpreted the mosaic at their school the next day.
That the motif depicts ‘working people’ was immediately obvious to the students. Also, that the motif is a classic example from the repertoire of GDR visual art, the students recognized. In the previous lecture, they had already dealt with the symbolism in artworks from the GDR. However, questions about which professions are precisely depicted in the mosaic, what emotions the figures feel during their work, and their ages were answered differently by the students in their interpretation of the work. An indication of the age of the depicted figures could be the year the mosaic was created. The former director of the then POS Otto Grotewohl remembered that the artwork was installed in 1959 by Professor Gottfried Schüler. It is the year when Polytechnic education was officially introduced. Polytechnic education covered both the artisanal and the scientific-chemical areas, both of which are found in Schüler’s mosaic. Comparing the scenes depicted in the mosaic with historical photographs of Polytechnic education in the GDR provided another clue for interpreting the image. The figures in the picture are probably also students in Polytechnic education. What Polytechnic education entailed and what significance it had in the Workers’ and Peasants’ State fascinated some youths in their subsequent workshop.
The students had the opportunity to creatively engage with the mosaic in two workshops. In a workshop with the Erfurt artist Felix Schwager, they created their own mural that spatially and formally dialogues with the GDR mosaic. The new mural is on the same floor as Schüler’s mosaic but in the new building. The old and the new murals are directly connected by a corridor. Although the outline of the new mural makes it clear what the starting point for the image in the new staircase was, the content of the youth’s mural takes its own path. Instead of (mandatory) work, the picture in consciously chosen rich and vibrant colors depicts the hobbies and interests of the youth.
The group collectively decided on the motifs for their mural. The new mural gradually enriched itself with the themes that occupy the youth in their free time. Very popular and at the forefront: the spark plug as a symbol for the Simson. But also reading, boxing, playing football, horseback riding, handicrafts, and tractor driving found their place in the mural as hobbies of the Elxleben youth. A major challenge in implementation was enlarging the sketch to A4 size using a projector and bringing it to the wall in a scale-appropriate manner.
In the podcast workshop, the youth delved deeper into history. They were interested in life in the GDR and expanded their focus from the title of the podcast episode ‘Schüler in Elxleben’ to the individual experiences that people themselves had in the GDR. They also wondered what image young people today have of the GDR. For this, they interviewed both teachers and students. Later, they also wanted to know how their interviewees feel about Gottfried Schüler’s ceramic mosaic in Elxleben and whether they know the time period of the artwork. The verdict was mixed, as is often the case with construction-related art: Almost everyone had seen the mosaic before, some had been walking past it for years, but what exactly it represents, when it came to the school, and who made it in the first place was unknown to most. Here, the students were able to inform their teachers with their knowledge, who knew the mosaic from GDR times. As always, aesthetic judgment can be debated: ‘Do you like the picture at all?’ and ‘How do you feel about it hanging at our school?’ are questions the youth ask in the podcast, and the listeners can respond. The questions are not only interesting for the people in Elxleben. Because the question of how we deal with the still abundant construction-related art from the GDR is being asked again today. The Public Relations team within the project group finally created posters to promote their episode ‘Schüler in Elxleben’ both in their school and at the Andreasstraße Memorial, increasing the reach of their topical questions.