Artwork by Michael Asher

Michael Asher: Subversive Mailings in Cold War’s Eleventh Hour

During the fall of 1989, when I was in the final year of my MFA Art program at CalArts, I was Michael Asher’s TA for Post Studio Art. Each week we met in Michael’s office to discuss all kinds of things, mostly art related. The best part of being his TA was exactly that: the one-on-one conversations with Michael, a most inspired mentor, that could go off in any direction and most often did. In one meeting that fall, we talked about a piece he had just finished in Germany, in which he had documented, photographically, numerous waste disposal trucks suspected of hauling deeply hazardous and toxic materials from West Germany into East Germany, where the dumping of waste was less subject to regulations. Printed on postcard stock, he explained, the color photos were identical to tourist postcards that one would buy as a souvenir and perhaps, mail to a friend far away.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall still divided East Germany from West Germany. It may be hard to imagine today, especially if you were very young—or not even born—in 1989, how divisive and frightening the late Cold War period was in much of Central Europe. In Germany the wall functioned as a physical barrier and a constant concrete signifier of post-World War II politics. So, Michael said, with their humble intention, these postcards, easily and freely sent through the mail from someone in the West to someone in the East, could succeed in revealing what had previously been covert. The postcards would identify vehicles suspected of hazardous waste trafficking and alert East German residents to be on the lookout for these trucks. I recall that Michael grinned a lot as he described this piece, and his glee was infectious.

The following week Michael unexpectedly handed me a small paper envelope. Inside were all eight of the individual postcards that we had discussed at length the week before. All were photographed in color from the same angle; the trucks, presumably fully loaded, were depicted parked on the West side, idle at the border (die Grenze), waiting to cross to the East. The back of each card identified the vehicle manufacturer, the origin of the pickup (if known), the intended destination in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), the contents (vague or generally not provided), the date of the photos (September 15, 1989), and the location of the border crossing, Zollgrenzübergang Schlutup/Lübeck. The postcards contain minimal additional information.

These eight cards, intended to facilitate a specific action on behalf of the sender, revealed the typical Michael Asherian humor and his unique wry wit. By keeping the postcards and not mailing them, I wonder now, did I inadvertently become a collector and possibly subvert the intended political activism? Thankfully, Michael never asked me afterwards what I did with the cards, and later that same year, in November 1989, the wall itself came down, and the world order shifted once again.

By keeping the postcards and not mailing them, I wonder now, did I inadvertently become a collector and possibly subvert the intended political activism?