Is it possible to work as a process engineer at Daimler while also being a successful artist? Dagmar Steinbrecher combines two worlds: She has worked at the Mercedes-Benz plant in her home town of Bremen for more than 30 years, and is also an artist who addresses themes such as the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall as well as the division of Germany. In an interview, she explains why she deals with these themes and what she would like to achieve through her exhibitions.
At Daimler you’re known as Dagmar Steinbrecher, but your artist name is Dagmar Calais. What has shaped the two facets of your life?
As Dagmar Steinbrecher, I put my fascination with vehicle construction into practice and pursue my passion for technology and science. As Dagmar Calais, I’m creative and I immerse myself in my art projects. Although these two facets seem completely different, they are closely connected and they influence each other.
For example, when I create huge installations it’s important to plan carefully and work systematically. At Daimler, I’ve learned to work in a structured manner that leads to a goal. So it’s also logical that my work as a process engineer benefits from my creative ideas. In many areas of life and work, it’s an advantage to be able to look at things from a different perspective and to arrive at solutions this way.
In your works you address recent German history. What attracts you to this theme as an artist?
I feel very moved by the destinies of the people who lived behind the Wall and the borders of the former GDR. In my artworks I try to explore a number of questions. What happens when a state places constrictions on several generations of its citizens? And what does that mean for the following generations? What became of families that were separated by the Wall or by a strictly guarded fortification line? What emotions are at play in an individual who puts his or her life on the line in order to cross the inner-German border and begin a new life? And how do people deal with losing their homes and being forced to leave their friends and parts of their family behind?
How do you do the research for your works?
I read documents in archives and do research on site and on the Internet. I often discuss things with my husband, who is an art historian. Or I talk to contemporary witnesses. I’m especially moved by my talks with witnesses to history and by their personal fates.
Can you tell us about an aspect you found especially moving?
Ever since the early 1950s there have been various campaigns to forcibly resettle the residents of areas near the border. In the course of my research on this theme I conducted many talks that left a lasting impression on me. About 12,000 people in all had to leave their homes and construct new lives for themselves under very difficult conditions. I was especially touched by the many people whose attempts to flee to the west failed, or who even lost their lives at the border.
What kinds of thoughts and feelings do you like to inspire in the visitors to your exhibitions?
I’d like to spark people’s curiosity and encourage the visitors to ask their own questions and to develop ideas and emotions, so that the GDR and its consequences remain in their memories. After all, we only learn from the past if we don’t forget it.