– Spring 2008

Art In and Out of the Age of Terror

Dieter Roelstraete

Tags: Boris Groys

'I will not accept that there should be first-class and second-class cemeteries. All enmity should cease after death.'

Manfred Rommel, mayor of Stuttgart during the Deutsche Herbst1

Facing terror

If mass-scale terrorism truly is the defining political obsession of our times - whether its perceived danger or urgency is a self-perpetuating illusion or not is a question that must remained unanswered, for now - it is definitely one that contemporary art continually struggles to come to terms with. The spectral, faceless nature of present-day terrorism (that of 9/11, of course, as well as that of senseless sectarian violence in post-Desert Storm Iraq, not to mention that of the state-sponsored military-industrial variety) has proven to be a rather arid source of inspiration for contemporary art. Indeed, when it comes down to dealing with this new brand of terrorism, the first decade of the twentyfirst century has so far produced surprisingly little in the way of convincing artworks; we need only invoke the well-meaning but ultimately lacklustre example of Robert Storr's Arsenale exhibition in the 52nd Venice Biennale to prove our point.

This awkward state of paralysis in the face of terror has not always been the case; indeed, the relationship between art and terrorism has been one of the great troubling romances of twentieth-century culture, and the romantic identification of the artist with its outlaw warrior ('unlawful enemy combatant') has been one of the more controversial hallmarks of avant-garde ideology. It is a long and hallowed tradition that stretches all the way back to Gustave Courbet, a pivotal figure in the Parisian Commune uprising of 1870, and - after having (in part) been materialised in the aesthetic

  1. Quoted in Robert Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2000, p.64. Rommel's quote comes at the end of a thoroughly-researched account of the events that lead up to the so-called German Autumn of 1977, the dramatic high-water mark of Red Army Faction terrorism that is the subject of Gerhard Richter's acclaimed suite of paintings October 18, 1977 (1988), as well as, in a more general sense, of the work by Hans-Peter Feldmann that is discussed in the present essay. As Storr says: 'When it became public that out of respect for the dead prisoners' wishes [those of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, the leaders of the Rote Armee Fraktion who allegedly committed suicide in their cells in Stammheim prison near Stuttgart on 18 October 1977], their families had made arrangements to inter them together in a cemetery on the outskirts of Stuttgart, conservatives seeking to obstruct the plans and have their common grave relocated protested that the site would become a shrine. In one of the few genuinely noble moments of this otherwise dismal saga, the mayor of Stuttgart ruled against the ban' - the poignant irony of course being that the city mayor himself was the son of German Wehrmacht hero Erwin Rommel, who was forced to commit suicide for his involvement in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Rommel's dignified insistence that 'all enmity should cease after death' directly reflects the humbling moralistic tone of Feldmann's Die Toten, in which death is once again hailed as the 'Great Leveller'.

  2. See André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane), Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972, p.124.

  3. Boris Groys, 'The Fate of Art in the Age of Terror', in Maria Hlavajova and Jill Winder (eds.), Concerning War: A Critical Reader, Utrecht and Frankfurt: BAK/Revolver, 2006, p.94.

  4. 'Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition', Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 30 January-30 April 2005.

  5. The book was published by Feldmann Verlag, Düsseldorf in 1998. The acquisition of the entire series by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1995 for an undisclosed sum was a highly public event, met with a great deal of scepticism in Germany, where many observers feared that, once lifted out of their historical context, the works would lose their 'political' meaning - and perhaps this is precisely what Richter, always anxious to protect art from the possibility of ideological abuse, desired. Already here, the contrast with Feldmann's work could not be greater: to this date, Feldmann continues to refuse any invitation to exhibit Die Toten in the US, precisely because an American audience would not be able to fully and properly understand the context which produced the images in this work (as opposed to the work itself) - an American audience lacks the necessary historical experience of left-wing terrorism that is needed for an adequate reading of the work (meaning, in other words, that the artist believes there exists such a thing as 'an adequate reading'). Feldmann also fears that showing Die Toten outside its historical context - Germany, or countries such as France and Italy, which have similar experiences with left-wing radicalism turned terrorism - would make the images more receptive to glamorisation, thereby serving as aesthetic justification for some of the terrorists' crimes. Richter's paintings, by sheer virtue of their immense value, cannot help but contribute to the culture of glamorisation that has surrounded remembrance of the RAF in recent years.

  6. R. Storr (ed.), Gerhard Richter: October 18, 1977, op. cit., p.48. Shortly afterwards, Ohnesorg would also be memorialised by Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell in his work Benno Ohnesorg (1972).

  7. The disparity of the pictures with which Feldmann decided to represent the 'authors' of most of the violence documented in the book is noteworthy and prompts the raising of not just a few eyebrows: Andreas Baader, whom none other than Jean-Paul Sartre famously called 'un con' (both 'idiot' and 'asshole') immediately after emerging from his ill-fated encounter with the former in his Stammheim prison cell, is portrayed lying in a pool of blood; on the next page we see a picture of his associate Gudrun Ensslin, made during much happier and peace-loving times, pushing a pram (possibly containing her son Felix, who would go on to co-curate 'Regarding Terror') during a protest, sometime in the late 1960s, against war toys. Diedrich Diederichsen also points to this 'meaningful interpretative decision' - a central feature, it seems, of the artwork's fundamental moralistic concerns. Diedrich Diederichsen, 'Photography and Remembrance: Feldmann, RAF, Schlick, Kippenberger, etc.', Camera Austria, no.66, 1999, pp.23-25. 8 Ibid., p.22.