Poison in the air: Why German artists should keep their hands off Hitler
is an interesting article by Georg Diez which ran in English last week on cultureblog Sign and Sight
after appearing, the week before, in German newspaper Die Zeit. It basically looks at a trend amongst "bad boy" German artists (and they are all boys) for invoking Hitler.
Painter and performance artist Jonathan Meese (born in Tokyo in 1970, but German) is the main culprit -- his MySpace page
lists his friends as The Residents, Wagner, Pope Pius XII, Eva Braun and Divine, and his performances feature him throwing Hitler salutes and making wanking gestures. He likes to throw Hitler salutes at every opportunity, in fact -- check the Vernissage TV coverage
of his opening at Contemporary Fine Arts in Berlin last October; each time the camera approaches, Meese heils.
The man is clearly an enormous wanker, but that's sort of the point. This is what Claire Bishop, writing in the ArtForum Diary
, calls "Teutonic abjection". Or as Meese himself puts it: "Everything has to come back up again stinking!"
"Images cannot be dispelled," Meese says, talking about Hitler. "If you want to be rid of certain images, you must give them the chance to fight themselves." In a way, this is a sort of culture-troll's take on the wishy-washy humanist sentiment that "we can never forget the holocaust". To put it another way, when the History Channel is allowed to invoke Hitler every two hours, why shouldn't contemporary art too?
Here's Bishop's description of a Meese performance at Tate Modern:
"The artist (made up like a geisha, but sporting his usual uniform of layered Adidas tops) was standing in a vast wrestling ring adorned with skeletons, photographs of himself, bells, plastic mannequins, and random piles of detritus. Massive painted screens flanked the wrestling ring, which stood before a video projection that relayed the live action, intercut with clips of Visconti’s The Damned, Meese in his studio, Noel Coward singing, and dozens of other films. Meese swigged a bottle of whiskey and stumbled around, apparently drunk and jetlagged from a trip to Tokyo. Wearing an impressive variety of headgear—from a safari-style helmet to crusader chainmail—he wailed and crooned a stock of phrases repetitively into the microphone around his neck: “Ree-chard Vag-ner” and “A-dolf Heet-ler” (accompanied by salutes and wanking gestures); “If you want to be huuu-man . . . you must watch 120 Days of Sodom by Pa-so-li-ni . . .” He threw around the furniture and skeletons like a spoiled child and clung to the ropes of the wrestling ring, apparently in psychotic meltdown."
Opinions at Tate Modern, says Bishop, were starkly divided:
"The girl next to me left in tears; my friends bolted to the bar. I stuck it out for an hour, submitting to the hypnotic effect of Meese’s psychotherapeutic self-humiliation and recurring musical loops (ominous chords, Irish jigs, Coward’s campy English ditties) and trying to make sense of the mélange. When the video and sound track stopped, Meese soldiered on unplugged until forcibly removed from atop his bronze cactus sculpture. The event polarized the audience: Some found it fabulously energizing (“London hasn’t seen anything like this before”), but, frankly, they were in the minority; most were bored and insulted (“I feel like I’ve been used like a nappy”)."
Michelle Dovey emailed the Stuckists
: "The Jonathan Meese performance at the Tate Modern on Saturday had members of the audience unbelievably furious. Whilst the performance was rousing, such extreme hostility in the viewers seemed a little implausible at times and the convenient way in which it complemented the artwork leads my friends and I to question its authenticity."
Bishop locates Meese in a transgressive expressionist tradition which explores the repressed, the taboo and the abject, mentioning Hermann Nitsch, Paul McCarthy and Berliner John Bock. But how repressed is this stuff when everyone starts doing it, when certain taboos become tattoos, when everyone has the same one done? Isn't the repressed then, precisely, expressed
As Diez says in Die Zeit, there's a lot of this stuff about just now. There's a fascination with totalitarianism, and a refusal to condemn it reflexively. Some of it is coming from Germany's most interesting cultural figures, people I would consider allies. American composer David Woodard, for instance, approached me earlier this year to incarnate one of four characters (Beethoven, Spengler, Nietzsche and Hitler) in a musical event called 56 Minutes
. The original idea was for these four historical characters to be sucked to climax, live, while they improvised music. In the final performance
, though -- somewhat disappointingly -- all that happened was that the music got performed politely in a gallery. (I'd opted out by this point.) All the abjection stuff was censored, the taboos swept back under the carpet. What remained was music played by men in suits.
One of those men was designer Rafael Horzon, whose design work I've endorsed in ID magazine
. Horzon is fascinated by authoritarian-utopian standardization schemes, from the way months got renamed during the French Revolution to the DIN system of industrial quality measures. He's a friend of Woodard and writer Christian Kracht, also cited in Diez' Zeit article for his book celebrating North Korea -- a book whose launch I attended
and whose purpose (celebrating the hidden beauty of a nation la pensee unique
vilifies reflexively) I can appreciate.
At Horzon's satirical Wissenschaftsakademie Berlin last year you could hear (as well as a lecture by me about Miyazaki's architecture) an address
by David Woodard, Christian Kracht and Christian von Borries on the subject of eugenics in Nueva Germania
, a small town in Paraguay. Here, a century ago, a fanatical band of Wagner-inspired German exiles attempted to purify the teutonic race and found a vegan community. They were defeated eventually by malaria and other tropical diseases. Woodard visited Nueva Germania in 2003 and wrote a beautiful anthem
for the town, as well as prevailing on the authorities (including, apparently, US Vice President Dick Cheney) to twin the town with his Californian hometown of Juniper Hills.
And there we have it, at last, the point of all this provocation. Fascism is not tidily consigned to some kind of sealed time capsule, to the History Channel or to a few "rogue states" in an "axis of evil". Fascism is alive and well. We can measure it in medical procedures. It is necessitating 3000 prosthetic limbs per year
in Iraq. This weekend it had its pacemaker batteries replaced
, last weekend five polpys were removed from its colon
Everyone who reads the newspapers (right-thinking people, that is) knows that these polyps were not cancerous. The same right-thinking people know that when Jonathan Meese throws a Hitler salute he is a bad man, whereas when Bill Viola shows some videos made with Hollywood special effects, and says that he's expressing something about the human condition as it affects all people in all cultures, he is a good one.
I'm not so sure. I don't think Meese is a good artist, but I think that every amoralist is a secret moralist, and for that I'm grateful. I think that fascism is unlikely to be found in the most obvious places -- under a fascist salute, for instance, or a hat marked "Adolf", or a lecture on eugenics. That would be much too easy, too tidy, wouldn't it? If evil were as easily-identifiable as that we'd be living in a world which had reached a sort of moral End of History, in which all was for the best and all dangerous dragons had long ago been slayed.
I suspect a Hitler salute or an Adolf hat is something else -- cultural provocation, a desire for fame, a wish to talk about ethics, a satire on the media's kneejerk reflexes -- and that today's most dangerous fascism is rather to be found in harmless-sounding things: the things we all do, the things we all think, the things we all believe in, the wars and environmental damage we cause as a result of all doing, thinking, feeling, wearing, watching and consuming the same (mostly idiotic and superbland) things. Fascism is hiding between the lines of newspaper articles, built into the way right-thinking people think. In such a situation, to think "wrong" is almost a duty. It doesn't necessarily produce good art, though.