Stasi Chic Exhibition Unmasks the Art of the East German Spy Disguise

What did East German spies wear to work? Archival photographs uncovered by a Berlin-based artist reveal disguises that included fur hats, upturned collars, and, naturally, sunglasses. The images from the Stasi secret police course on the 'art of disguising' provide a sometimes absurd perspective on what the Cold War era spies considered inconspicuous.

At first glance the photos look staged. They show stocky men stiffly clad in various outfits that include fur hats and thick coats with upturned collars -- and, most importantly, sunglasses. But these photos aren't stage props from a silly low-budget spy film, they are images snapped by members of the feared East German secret state police, or Stasi, for an internal course called the "art of disguising."

Berlin-based artist Simon Menner unearthed the images while sifting through the Stasi archives, which were opened to the public after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was allowed to reproduce the photos and they are now on display in an exhibition entitled: "Pictures from the Secret Stasi Archives."

Morgen Contemporary, the Berlin gallery hosting the exhibition, says in its description of the collection that "many of the snapshots seem absurd and they may even be amusing. And yet we ought not lose sight of the intention that led the Stasi agents to take them."

The portraits reveal what Stasi agents considered to be inconspicuous, and are evidence of the lengths to which the government went to control its citizens, the gallery says.

Other photographs in the exhibition, which runs until Aug. 20, include snapshots of private homes taken by Stasi agents before they conducted secret searches. The Stasi reportedly took those photos to document exactly what a room looked like before they ransacked it. They then could painstakingly put everything back in place, and hide any trace of having been there.

Menner's work has often tackled the subject of surveillance, and he has said he finds the perspective of the "Orwellian Big Brother" fascinating. According to the gallery, Menner considers a visual study of state spycraft a task best left to artists and philosophers, who can highlight "the relevance for contemporary society."

"Images from the Secret Stasi Archives," by Simon Menner, at Morgen Contemporary from June 24 to August 20.

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