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At the End of Subculture:
An Excursion into the Eighties

A decade is being rediscovered: The 1980s are not only topical again in advertising and music. In art, too, the heroes of the eighties are celebrating new triumphs, while a young generation is adopting the styles and strategies of that decade. But what exactly makes this period so interesting? Achim Drucks and Oliver Koerner von Gustorf present artists and works from the Deutsche Bank Collection and take a journey into the past.

Blixa Bargeld during a concert of Einstürzende Neubauten,
documenta 7, 1982
Photo Achim Drucks

Sometime between the late seventies and the early eighties, an uprising emerged in the western metropolises that had been anticipated by punk. It wasn't really a political movement, but rather something that had the impact of the '68 revolts, yet rebelled against the older leftists that had become bourgeois: against the hippies, against the promise of collective happiness, ideological dogma. During the era of Thatcher, Reagan, and Kohl, an entire generation freed itself from a belief in a secure future, and quite simply began doing what it had always wanted to do. In Berlin and New York, young people started using brown wrapping paper, wall paint, and Super-8 film; they got their hands on instruments or built them themselves, sewed canvas and plastic together, and became—temporarily or long-term—"filmmakers," "musicians," "fashion designers," "designers," and "artists."

Nan Goldin, April in the window, N.Y.C., 1983
Deutsche Bank Collection

Claudia Skoda, fashion show Trommelfeuer, 1986

This do-it-yourself approach was not limited to individual creativity, but became closely tied to the appropriation of urban space. The eighties began as a squatters' era, with demands for free space for alternative living. "There's a war raging in the cities, and that's a good thing," said Blixa Bargeld, front man of the band Einstürzende Neubauten, in 1981, alluding to the street riots between squatters and police that reached civil war proportions in the front city of Berlin: "There's not much time before the collapse comes […] For me, it's the time of downfall, the ultimate end. This will go on for another three or four years, and then it will all be over. There's no more for me. Downfall is downfall."

FM Einheit (Mufti)
during a concert of Einstürzende Neubauten, documenta 7, 1982
Photo Achim Drucks

Today, Bargeld's uncompromising vision sounds more like a romantic message from a distant universe. The invasion of Afghanistan, the first Gulf War, the anti-nuke movement: in the early eighties, the sense of an approaching apocalypse due to the arms race or a reactor meltdown led to a tempestuous life feeling characterized by acceleration, intensity, and ironic ambivalence. "Think today, over tomorrow" was one of the programmatic titles of a painting by Martin Kippenberger.

Walter Dahn, Alptraum, 1984
Deutsche Bank Collection

And the art of the time was fast too, as was the music people listened to: "Everything was fast, very fast," remarked the Cologne-based artist Walter Dahn in 1994 in a conversation with Richard Prince. "I remember that I made twenty paintings in one night with Georg (Dokoupil), and that was it. We had an extreme sense of time, rhythm, speed. We weren't punk painters, but the music was playing all the time, and it stimulated us and made us faster."

Helmut Middendorf, Umarmung der Nacht, 1983,
Deutsche Bank Collection

The idea that everything is possible—but it has to be now—arose in the alternative clubs, record stores, galleries, rehearsal rooms, and studios that sprouted up in Kreuzberg, Brixton, and the Lower East Side at the speed of light and then moved or closed down again. Under the pressure of disintegrating social systems and neo-conservative governments, however, it wasn't only subcultures and alternative ideas that blossomed, but also a hedonist, excessive lifestyle that eventually took over mass culture.

Grace Jones celebrates her birthday party at the the New York club Le Farfalle.
Left front: the underground icon Divine
Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage, © Getty Images

The notion of "sustainability" was as yet completely unknown. The "last days of disco" commenced; a new species, the yuppie, was born on Wall Street; and people partied, earned and wasted money, and basically celebrated themselves. But the big bang never arrived. The following decades led to a sobering and even frighteningly banal realization: that one can grow accustomed to the idea of the apocalypse, and that demise had become a part of everyday life.

The band Mona Mur, Berlin, early 1980s
Photo © Eva Maria Ocherbauer

Fear of terrorist attacks, the wars in the Middle East, environmental catastrophe, Avian Flu, dirty bombs, and AIDS: in a globalized world that has become both incalculable and unpredictable, future perspectives and scenarios for the world's demise have multiplied alike. A quarter of a century down the road, one longs to return to a time when the danger was real but seemed easier to comprehend, when the power blocs in the East and West, separated by the Berlin Wall, still comprised clearly delineated fronts. The arrival of the new millennium brought a rediscovery of the eighties in pop culture—as "eye candy," aesthetic toys with retro flair usually about as radical as David Beckham's Mohawk.

The band Sprung aus den Wolken
in front of the Berlin Wall, early 1980s
Photo © Eva Maria Ocherbauer

Whether you stroll down the streets of Brooklyn's trendy neighborhood Williamsburg, London's East End, or Berlin Mitte—there is a common tendency towards fluorescent colors, asymmetrical haircuts, leggings, and thin ties. Glossy magazines appropriate the raw style of copied fanzines; bands like Franz Ferdinand and Zoot Woman have long since taken over the charts with their edgy post-punk sound and electro-pop reminiscences, followed by groups that sound like the Gang of Four or the Talking Heads. At the same time, Terry Richardson's campaigns for Tom Ford invoke the high times of Halston, the excesses of the late Studio 54, and early Wave aesthetics. American Apparel resurrects roller girls and aerobic fashion.

Peter Bömmels, untitiled, 1983,
Deutsche Bank Collection

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