The Glass Curtain: Bridges from Ethnography to Art

Katharina Eisch-Angus


I start with first impressions of the Czech-German border in 1999, ten years after its re-opening. Here, in the Bavarian Forest village of Bayerisch Eisenstein the Iron Curtain had obviously and visibly cut through the main street, the fields and forests, and right through the historical Bavarian-Bohemian train station, closing this village from its Bohemian neighbours for over forty years. With a complex barrage system of barriers, observation and control points and restriction signs this border had marked the cold war; signifying an epochal break in European history as well as a deep separation line through collective memories, identities, relationships and every day practices.

The famous Eisenstein train station, opened in 1877, had been designed to spread over the border with two large wings representing the Bavarian side, and Bohemian side. In 1918 the newly founded State of Czechoslovakia and the Weimar Republic superseded the old border authorities, yet the lively rail border crossing point continued as a zone for the exchange of goods and people, of cultural and economical osmosis: In it’s balance of reaching out to the others whilst defining one’s own otherness this border held a fluid and productive dialectic of opening and closing.

This balance started to tip in the 1930ies, when nationalistic and national socialist borderlines gained dominance in collective ideologies and reached out to the State border. The border became a zone of infringement and violence – until the Eisenstein checkpoints got over rolled in 1938 by Wehrmacht troops marching into the German speaking border areas following the Munich treaty and, in 1939, further on towards Prague, invading the country with death and terror: After the war, due to the German border violation, the Czechs were drawn to marking an irreconcilable separation through the expulsion of their ethnic German population, re-erecting the border behind them as an eternal iron wall between Czechs and Germans and thus welding the break of a fruitful, seven hundred year long co-existence into the landscape, together with an amalgam of pain, blame and guilt.


The next epoch-making border crossing, linked to a re-ordering of the world, happened in 1990, when a gigantic march of 70,000 people across the border at Eisenstein put the Velvet Revolution slogan “Back to Europe” into practice. Then, in 1991, the border train station was re-opened for rail traffic to Pilsen and Prague, and Bayerisch Eisenstein moved from the end of the world back to Europe’s middle. However, the border area has since then remained an ambiguous zone of transition, where both the insecurities and the fascinations of change and encounter have re-created a new polarity of openness and closure.

In 1999, five years before the Czech Republic joined the European Community and eight years before the Schengen relaxation of the border checkpoints, this could be clearly observed around the Eisenstein train station. Our project group – comprising two Germans, an Austrian, two English, two Czech and two Japanese – were strolling from one crossing point to the other, wondering about the familiar and the foreign touching in a paradox of closeness and indistinctiveness. In front of the train station, between border signs, densely printed information boards, border posts, flags and flag-coloured poles and signs and a close-meshed fence, a pedestrians’ way opened over the border. Here in pre-war times locals would commute with their daily business as well as with occasional smuggled goods. Today, this might similarly apply – anyway, we observed small groups wandering to Železná Ruda for a cheap meal or cigarette purchase. The group decided to try their own step over the border.

Suddenly I was called into a vivid discussion with two German border policemen, for translation in the midst of it all are the Japanese women. “No”, we insisted “they don’t need a visa.”. But this was not the point, we learned, not for this small crossing point restricted to European citizens. Of course Japanese were free over the international rail and road crossings. “We wouldn’t make such a fuss, but, you know, the Czech colleagues…” Between embarrassment and amusement the State guards showed the two Japanese their crossing way: Right through the train station, along the platform over the border, then back through the building to join the group on the other side!

This arbitrariness of the border to state differences between “our” border and the capricious border of “the others” became an irritating leitmotif of our project. We learnt how a border marks, classifies and snubs anonymously and incomprehensibly, how it allows passage whilst asserting a power of veto that can meet anybody at any time.

So, what was this project about? The workshop was organised in August 1999 in the framework of the international summer art academy Bild-Werk Frauenau, an open summer school centred around visual arts, and especially glass art, located in the traditional glass producing area of the Bavarian Forest region in Eastern Bavaria 1. In co-operation with myself and the British glass artist Mark Angus, we offered a 2 ½ week workshop: “Making the Iron Curtain transparent – in Glass”. Our plan was to trace the Czech-German border area, its land and village sites, its hidden signs and memories, and signifiers from past and present, employing ethnographic means as well as an imaginative, artistic eye. The results would be individual art works in glass and other materials, and a small group exhibition. Ethnography as our starting point should also be able to lend itself to informing and structuring the artistic perception and the development of art objects and projects – given the affinity that open, multi-perspective research processes bear towards artistic activity.

What are these assumptions based on? I take it that culture can never be understood in terms of fixed entities. Culture and identity come about through movement and change, as ethno-psychoanalyst Mario Erdheim puts it: “Culture is what comes about in the active experience of the foreign; it is the product of the changing of our ‘Own’ by the inclusion of the foreign ‘Other’” (Erdheim 1993, 168) 2. In semiotic terms, this is also expressed in Jurij M. Lotman’s concept of the semiosphere, as the creation of new meaning in the ‘border zones’ of culture, where sign and language systems meet and penetrate into each other’s spheres (Lotman 1990 a; see also Lotman 1990 b: 131-150).

No matter if we investigate the past or the present, ethnographic research has to follow and reflect the cultural dynamics of its field within the spatial and time frames set by the proceedings of the researcher. Ethnographic findings must be referred back to the many-voiced contexts that open up through the research process, and be tested against their objective embodiment in the field. All of this makes good science, as George Marcus has been telling us for over two decades (see Marcus 1992, 1995). It also encourages us into trusting open processes without pre-decided outcomes, it challenges us with the tangible and visible, poly-semantic realities of life, driven by the excitement of crossing borders to the unknown and foreign: In this respects the ethnographic process shares the sources of artistic creativity, but also it’s risks of personal involvement and of failure.

The Zürich ethno-psychoanalyst group following Paul Parin, Maya Nadig and others has shown to what extend our subjective involvement does not only bias our results, but can also push forward a process of understanding of the foreign other through the dynamics of projection and counter-projection in research relationships 3. The unconscious, as it shapes the emotional and symbolic manifestations of culture, shows an evocative presence in ethnographic just as in artistic processes and work results.

In their shared artistic-ethnographic undertaking our multi-national group could, firstly, bring up questions of perception and interpretation – exploring an emotive landscape, where meanings, memories, narratives are evoked by ambiguous signs and inscriptions of past life and destruction, and of present change. Secondly, whilst researching borders the dynamics of borders and difference started to reflect into the group due to our different cultural responses and to the historical experiences of our own cultures. Thus, the project became an experiment of experiencing borders on three levels: in the concrete, historical border landscape, within our group and between two disciplines, and it grew into a shared effort of crossing borders through a process of research, discussion and creation.

Accordingly, besides discussing our individual backgrounds the course started artistically, with exercises in glass and drawing, and ethnographically with two day-long border excursions. From Bayerisch Eisenstein we crossed over to the Czech neighbouring town of Železná Ruda and further on into the overgrown, melancholic Bohemian forest landscape, the former military no-go area of the iron curtain. In our second outing we walked up to a deserted border village site high up in the mountains. In true ethnographic manner I encouraged the participants to write a field diary with observations, impressions, talks and questions of the day, however insignificant, irritating or unresolved they might seem.


The artists followed my suggestions their own way, by integrating the diary into their sketchbooks in combination with photographs and with found objects from nature or from piles of rubble which had once been houses. In following days I provided documents from my own border research, like maps, photographs, archive materials, which the participants could use both for their contents and for their visual, auratic qualities.

Observing, drawing and writing the group started to create their own border images, experiencing the border zone as absurd, arbitrary and ambiguous. They noted the complications of border crossings, as, for example, experienced by the two Japanese; in the legal grey areas, which had emerged from the rapid collision of the systems, as well as from the lopsided economic cross-border relations they wondered about the garish bustle of gambling halls, prostitution and the Vietnamese traders with their stalls full with over dimensional garden gnomes, cheap cigarettes, alcohol and fake branded jeans. Walking over tangled meadows we found the remains of barbed wire and traces of border posts, a paved helicopter landing pad in the wilderness, all telling about cold war. A wooden bridge over a small border stream far off in the forest was surrounded with all types of border signs and symbols, which would strike us as both over-coded with meaning and yet strangely void of any sense. The English artists started by drawing and conceptualising the border through its border signs, or the symbolical symmetry of the old train station – where, for example, a locked door right in the centre could be deciphered as the paradox of borders to indicate transition and togetherness by closure and blockage. This paradox is generally contained in the concept of a border – be it a territorial borderline or any division in the realm of culture: Through their assertion of separation and exclusion borders inevitable also suggest the possibility (or impossibility) of transition; or, vice versa: crossing a border will always refer the crossers back to the universal order that a borderline stands for, and make it clear that this crossover was no more than an exception.


Most impressive for the group were the old cemeteries of previously German inhabited villages along the Czech side. In the small village of Prášilý, formerly Stubenbach, the cemetery had been bulldozed, after having suffered shooting and demolition by soldiers stationed here in the Iron curtain death zone. After 1989 present and previous villagers rebuilt the cemetery walls, re-erected grave stones and collected broken name boards, sculptures and cast iron parts. As a “lieu de memoire” it was one of Pierre Nora’s evocative “hybrid places, densely spun from life and death, time and eternity – in a spiral of the collective and the individual, the secular and the sacred…” (Nora 1990: 27). Through drawing, writing and photographing, puzzling together shards of village life and villagers’ biographies, of violence and reconciliation the group recorded feelings of grief and incomprehension which were then, paradoxically, overlaid by a strong sense of peace. The cemetery pointed us to death as the last, ultimate border and influenced our art projects: For example, in the next day’s group talk the Austrian student, Edith, would introduce her project using the long, wavelike grass that covered the cemetery as well as the highland meadows around. In combination with handwritten archive materials she interpreted the grass as illegible writing, telling about the biographies of people who formerly lived there.

Along the cemetery walls Yasuko, a sixty year old Japanese woman, admired the giant maple trees. Spanning the times, she understood the trees as silent witnesses of past village peoples’ lives, as well as of all the violence that happened in the twentieth and the preceding centuries. Then, on the next day, Yasuko started to recall in poor English the ash shadows of the people burned in the fire blast of Hiroshima – the haunting images of her youth. Without having had much chance to follow my historical information throughout the trip she was able to associate the old trees and the village and cemetery atmosphere with Japanese collective memory. Based purely on intuition she could bridge from the Stubenbach cemetery to Hiroshima via the world-spanning border experience of 1945.

However, Dáša, a young Czech art student, seemed to draw a different boundary within the group by rejecting all Czech-German border issues as purely my interest as an anthropologist and as a German, – her interest was working in glass, she insisted. On the border trip she followed my explanations with a closed-up face, holding herself to Mark as the Englishman and the artist. One should not talk about all of that any more, the history of her grand parents, she wouldn’t want to hear it. However, in Stubenbach also for her this border seemed to open up. Amazed at the poetic ambience, she expressed her astonishment to find herself in a German cemetery in the Czech Republic, with a group communicating in English. For Dáša addressing the Czech-German break line and her ambivalence about it became the first step to bridging it. Only two days later on our mountain walk we sat down next to that small border bridge for a story telling break, and Dáša, spreading her arms wide, surprised the group with a charming story of a tree that couldn’t decide which way to go with the wind. Back in the workshop, she started, with Mark’s help, to conceptualise this idea. “Bridge”, she wrote in Czech, German and English on her first sketch, and after two more days she joyfully presented a surprise: For their exhibition the group had been given a spacious old barn, in which an ascending ramp lead up to a second floor level. High up over this ramp Dáša had spun sparkling nylon threads between the roof timber construction and interwoven them with five matt-white glass strips. This fragile, floating bridge expressed perfectly the precarious uncertainty of a border situation – and bridged it at the same time. Now Dáša could approach me as well as the border theme with engaged project work.

At the same time also the other group participants started to translate their field findings into paintings and installations. More bridges arose in the barn, filigree window installations between inside and outside, or symbolic pathways from dark into colourful light, which the two Japanese lined with subtle drawings of trees, keys or faces, mostly referring to the theme of peace.

However, a few days before the exhibition opening in the old barn the tension of crossing and closing, dialogue and delimitation, of mixing and of securing identity escalated right within the group. All students had defined their individual exhibition spaces, working setting up their installations. Also Mark had set up a row of heavy wooden border poles with cast glass tops, creating a perspective rising up along the ramp and crossing through and under Dáša’s shiny bridge. However, Dáša, unexpectedly, reacted shocked, aggressively, which prompted Mark to take his installation down. This now created a deadlock: Both felt their work destroyed by the intervention of the other. Where the Czech student sensed an intrusion into her space, a border violation, the English teacher talked about artistic dialogue and a logical extension of her theme.

In the subsequent group discussion a fundamental border conflict arose, between us project leaders, lecturing on creative border spheres of dialogue, change and transition, and most group members who insisted on fearful marking off of territories. Nobody wanted to argue the conflict out, we found ourselves stuck in different teaching traditions and cultural understandings of group hierarchies or group co-operation. Nobody responded to Mark’s appeal to find a home for him as a “displaced person”.

Only right at the end could the group turn the corner when the group members started to express their individual perceptions of the controversial installations. Now it became obvious how the bridge and the border poles belonged together in their polarity of heaviness and lightness, and, at the same time, how right Dáša’s feelings about the nature of this border and its history were. Mark’s forceful demarcation line manifested a reality of friction and violence that Dáša had not wanted to look at, and which the group thought to have overcome in creative lightness. Even worse: For Dáša the Czech-German wound had been re-opened – by the teacher whom she had trusted as an impartial confidant. We slowly realized that stepping over border-lines does not take the border away. In the end, Mark could – especially to Dáša’s relief – resolve our conflict by tracing his dividing border poles as chalk marks back on the floor.


Overall, the exhibition was a startling success: Despite all careful segregation, our individual art works seemed to enter into dialogues with each other, as well as with the space around. Installations of border crossings, bridges, nests, harmonising circular shapes or a sparkling forest edge from turning glass leaves were linked by chalk marks, inscriptions and sign posts. Whilst many viewers felt the depressive heaviness of the theme, which was also illustrated by maps and photographs of our field trips, the exhibition still emanated lightness. Many findings and products from the field, like photographs, newspaper cuttings, drawings and rubbings, life stories etc., were collaged into the art installations and worked to address also the interdisciplinary approach of the project. Lastly, a poster with key words from our field experiences in four languages, and a group installation expressing the absurdity of borders referred the visitors back to our reflexive, intercultural group process, our joint border walk.

But what can we conclude from it all? Of course, we learnt about our historical heritage as European and world citizens of the 20th Century, and, to speak with Freud, about our “Gefühlserbschaften”, the “emotional inheritances” of biographical breaks and border experiences, which are unconsciously passed on through the generations as they remain inscribed in landscapes and cultural sites 4.

We learnt about borders and difference and the effects of their ambivalent and contradictory ways between opening and closing. Addressing a closed border brings, paradoxically, the other side in view and can be experienced as an act of crossing: This means, in phenomenological terms, that every border, as “difference”, is a pure abstract form, only defining other entities – but turns into a spatial and corporal zone by being named and transcended. This mechanism structures all cultural spaces and is the motor of movement and change – be it in language, perception or mental mapping. It also allows for border processes to be translated from the territorial space into the sphere of social interaction, stories or art works. Borders are “faits social total”, total cultural facts.
This, of course, helped our students to understand the historical reality of the Bavarian-Bohemian border area from their individual cultural standing points. But, looking at the methodological results of our project, this process of understanding would have been impossible without inviting individual subjectivities, and, moreover, artistic imagination into this exploration. However limited the workshop might have been in artistic and especially in scientific terms, it could shed some light onto the mutual potentials of combining artistic and ethnographic approaches. Ethnography, before all other sciences, can structure, inform and inspire artistic perception and motif finding. It introduces reflexivity and links both the theme and the creator of art objects back to their cultural context. On the other hand, we can learn from artists: about the relevance and the epistemic value of subjectivity and imagination and also, for example, about the possibilities of recognition beyond language. Twenty years after the “writing culture” and the “multi-sited ethnography” debates, can we really allow ourselves these potentials and freedoms, aren’t we still shy and inexperienced in approaching culture from its visual and sensual sides, in addressing its interactive, subjective and unconscious aspects?


Eisch, Katharina, Grenze. Eine Ethnographie des bayerisch-böhmischen Grenzraums (Border: an ethnography of the Bavarian-Bohemian border sphere), (Munich: Kommission für Bayerische Landesgeschichte bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften), 1996

Der gläserne Vorhang. Ein Grenzprojekt zwischen Ethnographie und Kunst (The glass curtain: a border project between ethnography and art) , Kuckuck. Notizen zu Alltagskultur und Volkskunde 15: 4-10. 2000

‘”Glass workers would never put up with no borders!” Ethnographic considerations on border crossing experiences and mentalities along the Czech-German borderline’, in: Reginald Byron and Ullrich Kockel (eds.) , Negotiating Culture. Moving, Mixing and Memory in Contemporary Europe (Münster, Hamburg, Berlin, Wien, London: LIT Verlag) 76-86. 2006

Erdheim, Mario, ’Das Eigene und das Fremde. Über ethnische Identität’ (Ours and Theirs. About ethnic identity), in: Mechthild Jansen and Ulrike Prokop (eds.), Fremdenangst und Fremdenfeindlichkeit (Frankfurt a.M.: Stroemfeld Verlag) 163-182. 1993

Lotmann, Jurij M., ‘Über die Semiosphäre’, Zeitschrift für Semiotik 12, no. 4: 287-305. 1990 (a)

Lotmann, Jurij M., Universe of the mind: a semiotic theory of culture (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.) 1990 (b)

Marcus, George, ‘Past, Present and emergent Identities: Requirements for Ethnographies of late twentieth-century modernity worldwide’, in: Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman (eds.), Modernity and Identity (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers) 309-330. 1992

‘Ethnography in/of the World System: the emergence of Multi-sited Ethnography’. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95-117. 1995

Moré, Angela, ‘Gefühlserbschaften und “kulturelles Gedächtnis’ (Emotional heritages and „cultural memory), in: Elisabeth Timm and Elisabeth Katschnig-Fasch (eds.), Kulturanalyse – Psychoanalyse. Positionen, Verbindungen und Perspektiven (Vienna: Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde) 209-220, 2007

Nora, Pierre, ‘Zwischen Geschichte und Gedächtnis’ (Les lieux de mémoire), (Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach). 1990


  1. In a cross-border exchange of ideas, technology and makers between the old Czech heartland of glass making and the neighbouring German regions glass has for Centuries worked as a strong human intermediary and a prolific cultural and art medium (see Eisch 2006).
  2. All translations of quotations by K. Eisch-Angus.
  3. Mario Erdheim and Maya Nadig are present exponents of the Zürich school of ethno-psychoanalysis. From the 1960’s psychoanalysts Fritz Morgenthaler, Paul Parin and Goldy Parin-Matthèy were the first to systematically apply psychoanalytic method in anthropological research, in order to understand unconscious cultural formations through individual field encounters. They conducted field research in Europe, Africa and New Guinea based on Freud’s procedural and dialogic method of creating understanding through the development of transference and countertransference within the psychoanalytic patient-analyst-relationship. Morgenthaler, Parin and Parin-Metthèy followed especially Georges Devereux’ scientific observations of the distortion of field results through ignoring the emotional, aggressive or libidinous involvement of both the researcher and the researched.
  4. Although Freud mentioned this expression only once in his 1913 publication ‘Totem und Tabu’ Angela Moré interprets it as a central Freudian concept linking culture, memory and psyche (Moré 2007).

Katharina Eisch-Angus
August 2008