Pop music and politics often make for strange bedfellows. When Donald Trump played Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A on his campaign trail, he mistakenly believed the song about a troubled Vietnam veteran was a right-wing battle cry. Misconstruing the irony of its anthemic chorus for an easy, patriotic high-five.
This kind of awkward pop music appropriation has been going on for decades, reaching an improbable early climax with Louis Armstrong’s 17-date tour of East Germany in 1965, now the focus of the exhibition ‘I’ve Seen the Wall’ at Das Minsk in Potsdam.
The Vietnam War was still in its early stages when Armstrong and his All Stars touched down at Schönefeld Airport. At that time, he was one of the biggest acts in the world, making this a major publicity coup for the DDR as they looked to counter the negative publicity from building the Berlin Wall just four years earlier. For East Germans, forbidden from engaging with the culture of the West, where even listening to jazz could get you punished, his arrival was an astonishing occurrence.
The exhibition kicks off in markedly unjazzy fashion with a series of black and white archival photographs of Armstrong and his perma-grin at the airport and peeping through the curtains at Friedrichstadt-Palast. Around them hang his rough collage designs for tape box covers, in one his discombobulated face is splayed out to each of its four corners. Was Armstrong a tool of propaganda? A civil rights pioneer? Or just a musician?
In a video work by Jason Moran, the exhibition’s co-curator, the press conference for his tour is shown alongside footage from one of the concerts. In the overlap of screens and audio clips, the duality of Armstrong’s position is laid bare: “I have seen the Wall, and I’m not worried,” he tells a West German journalist. “Forget about all that other bullshit.” In refusing to condemn the Wall, Armstrong avoids offending his DDR hosts, acknowledging, too, their paradoxical support for the civil rights movement in America.
During the tour, Armstrong performed the civil rights song, Black and Blue, containing the haunting lyrics “My only sin is in my skin”; black musicians in America may have been revered on stage but still faced appalling discrimination after the curtain fell.
Upstairs at Das Minsk, the curators have placed room-sized neons by Glenn Ligon, blinking silently in time to a musical refrain about the 1964 Harlem Riots, beside an official DDR painting of the African-American civil rights activist Angela Davis. This hideous symphony of music, brutality and ideology recreated here speaks of the hypocrisy of superpowers. How regimes restrict the freedoms of their own citizens while championing the oppressed of their ideological enemies.
The curators have used the space well, not jamming too much artwork into the former restaurant. If there are some bum notes, it’s to do with the slickness of the whole set-up. After a while the plush sofas and overly assertive security guards begin to jar.
The private museum was established to explore art from the former DDR, displaying works from the collection of SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner. Despite worthy intentions, its elevated, perfectly renovated interiors have a clinical edge that can feel a bit removed. Its existence, however, is an intriguing reflection on Germany’s recent history; a small, unexpected part of it is resonating so tremendously in this current show that links global voices within a multilayered musical framework around freedom and oppression.