THE WORLD IS ROUND BUT PEOPLE MEET IN THE CORNERS
On how the conference and exhibition The Whole Life: Archives & Reality at HKW provided a contradictory experience.
History is an object of constant rewriting. We know that archives translate historical realities into contemporary narratives polarizing and questioning the present. But what happens if the present itself is suddenly contracted by a disastrous war challenging our abilities to (re)think our past and to imagine a future? Media theorist Elena Vogman and curator and writer Joshua Simon discuss the encounter at the long-anticipated conference The Whole Life: Archives and Reality, accompanied by the horrors of war. This contradiction involved questions on permanent revaluation of historical events and art objects, on institutional power and the importance of case study. It painted the event that took place in Berlin’s Cold War cultural shrine, the HKW, and entangled the scholars’ discussions on the archives and imaginaries of the avant-garde and revolution. This modest conversation offers itself as a constellation of observations, and is based on Vogman’s and Simon’s contributions to Stolen Gems Found Identities: A Cumulative Colloquium, which also involved presentations by Mieke Bal, Heide Rezepa-Zabel and Post Brothers, following Assaf Gruber’s film Transient Witness (2021).
Joshua: We find ourselves assessing history through our own archives - our personal and social histories. During the conference, I had the feeling that the seventy years of the USSR’s existence are equivalent to that of the Hasmonean Kingdom (140BC-63BC), and how the two thousand years following its demise has resulted with people roaming around the world, referring back to that place and time as Jews. The same is happening now. We are in the very early decades of a condition which derives from some seventy years of the Soviet condition. The post-Soviet reality could also take two millennia to unfold.
Elena: The relationship that the avant-garde artists established with both history and its heritage is complex. This relationship has often been interpreted as a denial, a negation. Take for instance the famous text “On the Museum” by Kazimir Malevich. In it, he proposes to cremate the canonical Western artworks and exhibit their ashes in glass containers. He even believed that spectators contemplating the ashes of Rubens’ paintings would develop more vivid ideas than they would have before his original works in a museum. In 1922, the Ukrainian futurist poet Mychail Semenko even proposed to ban the notion of poetry. Instead he envisioned poetic work as collective linguistic ‘experiences without fulfillment.’ But once we look closer, these gestures of denial made by the avant-garde artists actually address the institutional power of such canonical art, rather than its formal expression. This process is quite revealing. Once we face the complex revaluation of historical art by the avant-garde, their legacy is in the act of political representation.
Joshua: Extraction, more than grazing or trade, proves itself to be the underlying logic of our socioeconomic and political reality. The HKW exhibition The Potosí Principle (2011), which was curated by Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer, and Andreas Siekmann, unfolded the extensive logic of the colonial silver mines to which we are subjected to this day. The extraction by debt bondage inflicted on laborers on the one hand, and the extraction by debt in the form of credit card bills, student loans, mortgages, and the likes that are amassed for financial speculation on the other, compliment each other as two negations that drive the current economic logic and support its persistence, as no overarching solidarity seems to be possible within it.
Elena: The Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein made October, a film which commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. In it, he uses Auguste Rodin’s Eternal Springtime, a sculpture that shows two lovers kissing, for an utterly propagandistic purpose. It is inspired by Rodin’s own affair with the young artist Camille Claudel. Eisenstein first introduces the sculpture didactically, with a caption. Then, a female soldier from Kerensky’s protection army, the so-called Battalion of Death, dreamily contemplates the sculpture. As a result of this daydreaming, she and her colleagues drop their arms. Rodin’s artwork inspires the women to abandon the side of the provisional government and eventually become revolutionaries.
Joshua: When El Lissitzky, who studied with artist Alexandra Ekster in Kyiv, made his 1919 Bolshevik lithograph Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (Клином красным бей белых!, Klinom krasnym bey belykh!), he portrayed an attempt to break the Russian Empire and defeat the Tsarist Whites for a republic of Soviets. This Union of Soviet Socialist Republics actually had no territory, and ‘USSR’ does not have the word Russia in it. As much as this might be unpopular in the West German setting we were speaking in, Lenin’s conception of the Soviet was also an idea of decolonizing the Russian Empire. This is an imaginary we can derive from the Soviet archive. The Whites of today that are trying to restore a Russian Empire are also fighting against the Soviet Union.
Elena: The avant-garde revealed and suspended the representational model, but it has not abolished gestures. Just one year before his death in 1947, Eisenstein was invited to give a tour through the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which hosted an exhibition of the Dresden Art Collection. It was the first cultural exchange of its sort after the end of the Second World War. The tour took place before the official opening of the exhibition, while it was still in the installation process and included a number of intellectuals and artists who were invited. Eisenstein gives a precise account of this experience in his diary. He found himself bored and disappointed by discovering the originals of Raffael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian. These paintings appeared to him as poorer than their reproductions in art books. However, he then discovered a number of other paintings which were not yet installed, standing beside the gallery walls upside down. Eisenstein was fascinated by the reversed The Deliverance of Arsinoe (1556), which was painted by Tintoretto. But what made the greatest impact on him was Honoré Daumier’s painting Uprising (1848), which he also saw standing upside down. Uprising shows a figure in white whose body spans the surface of the painting diagonally. It is a simple gesture that suddenly overturns the figure’s submission. It’s almost as if by uprising, the burden weighing down on the shoulders of the figure is thrown off. This gesture breaks a certain present in the picture pointing to the events to come. The figure raises its arms towards the future that is opening up and traverses the painting crossways. The fact that the painting is turned upside down does not minimize its impact, on the contrary: it proves the “general circular stability” that was claimed by Eisenstein. Liberated from the logic of representation, the painting is a compositional block of sensation, of the autonomous energy of the uprising.
Joshua: In Volume III of Das Kapital, Karl Marx writes of the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country”. Marx refers here to human economic activity causing an encroachment on natural metabolic patterns, and the intervention in them through capitalist industrialization. With the transition from value to price, from labor to debt, from revolution to speculation, and from avant-garde to disruption, the digital has evolved as the material of capital, and the totality of the social is replaced by the tidal liquidity of finance. Maybe a way to bring all these references back to our moment would be to quote the essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties” that was written by Bertolt Brecht from his Danish exile in 1935: “It takes courage to admit that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak.”
* The title is taken from Assaf Gruber’s film "Transient Witness (2021)."