Marcel Odenbach: Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing).

In Featured Events / March 25, 2017

Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing) is the title of a poem by Ingeborg Bachmann, which addresses the ongoing victim-persecutor structure 
in post-war society. Bertolt Brecht underscored his own view on the topic by slightly paraphrasing not only this, but also other poems by Ingeborg Bachman, whom he greatly admired. His intervention is less subtle than it may appear. In Bachmann’s version, the last line reads: “Wein! Aber winke uns nicht (Cry! But do not wave to us.)”. Brecht changed it as follows: “Weine, nur winke uns nicht (Cry, just do not wave to us)”.

In 1952, Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Cremer won the competition 
to design a memorial for the
 former concentration camp at Buchenwald. The Nationale Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Buchenwald (National Buchenwald Memorial)
 was inaugurated in September
 1958. The lengthy debate over an appropriate design for both the site and the memorial was not so much historically or aesthetically driven, 
but rather politically motivated: the aim was to show how a better, more socialist Germany had arisen from conflict and sacrificial death. Cremer’s design shows the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. Inspired by Auguste Rodin’s group of figures The Burghers of Calais, a group of men portrayed as equals fight an invisible enemy. In his film about this memorial, Marcel Odenbach approaches not only the visualisation, but also to the reinterpretation and ideologization of remembrance and history. In this context, Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem represents “corrections”, which might seem insignificant but ultimately lead to a change of perspective.

An earlier film by Odenbach,
 Im Kreise drehen/Turning in Circles, is also dedicated to a memorial
 site, the former concentration 
camp Majdanek in the Polish city of Lublin. Here too the focus is on the materialisation of collective memory and the commemoration of victims across generations. These are some of the central motifs in the oeuvre of one of Germany’s most celebrated video artists. Odenbach’s works
are profound explorations of the dilemma of dealing with the past. They not only reflect the lasting effects of National Socialism, but approach the issue from a universal perspective. Likewise, the artist examines the apparent “otherness” of foreign cultures, the legacy
 of colonialism, and political and economic systems of representation. Reflections on the familiar and the foreign, his own biography and
 its place in historical contexts are further important motifs in his work, which is defined by both an aesthetic and political approach.

Installation view: Marcel Odenbach,
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach, "Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing)," Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff. "Durchblicke," 2007; "Jeder Schuss ein Treffer," 2009/2010 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017, Cologne. Courtesy Gisela Capitain, Cologne & Anton Kern Gallery, New York.
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach,
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach, "Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing)," Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff. "Durchblicke," 2007; "Die gute Stube," 2011 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017, Cologne. Courtesy the artist, Gisela Capitain, Cologne & Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

In stillen Teichen lauern Krokodile/ In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk,
 a video installation about the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994, incorporates historical documentary material and excerpts from the UNO’s film archive, but no imagery of the massacre itself. In an attempt to understand this country, faced not only with the task of convicting murderers but also reconciling its people, Odenbach presents everyday scenes that reflect Rwanda’s beauty: farmers in banana fields, cows grazing on green pastures, rain falling on idyllic countryside. The hate propaganda urging the Hutu to murder the Tutsi can only be heard on the soundtrack coming from the radio. The video installation refrains from passing judgement or offering an explanation. Instead the highly evocative images compel viewers to form their own opinions.

Clippings from newspapers and magazines are glued together, repeatedly photocopied, and coloured until they merge in a big picture, like pieces of a puzzle. While the surface presents a clearly discernible motif, the detailed view shows countless images that make up the whole. At first, the evocative overall impression becomes apparent. On closer inspection, it breaks up into successive fragments that seem to be subordinate to the big picture. These elements are also deeply saturated with pictorial and textual information. In their fragmentary structure, Odenbach’s collages resemble reversible figures which only show one aspect while concealing others. Instead of representing things as they are, they display reality in overlapping layers and reveal the historical dimension of the present at close range.

At first sight, the almost 15-metre collage Durchblicke (Clear Views), one of Odenbach’s largest paper works, shows a dense tropical jungle. Seen up close, this panorama is composed of numerous photographs which reflect Africa’s colonial history. As it eludes immediate perception, this level requires close, intensive scrutiny, and thus a systematic examination of the sphere between the directly visible and the still effective, but often suppressed shadows of the past underneath the surface. The second level, which sits at one remove from our immediate perception, demands that we look at it intensely from up close, where it is open to complex reference structures. In this sense, Odenbach’s entire œuvre calls out to address a viewer who is free from preconceptions and able to take on the present in its entanglement with the past.

Installation view: Marcel Odenbach,
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach, "Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing)," Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff. "Beweis zu nichts," 2016 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

Video Works

Proceeding from Im Kreise drehen/ Turning in Circles, a video work Odenbach dedicated to the Majdanek memorial, Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing) [1] focuses on the Buchenwald memorial. How did the former GDR, as a declared antifascist Germany, deal with the legacy of the Holocaust? In 1951, the sculptor Fritz Cremer and Bertolt Brecht won a competition. Their design was completed in 1958. The bronze sculpture represents a group of male figures inspired
 by Auguste Rodin’s Burghers of
 Calais (1884–1886), which reflects
 the ideology of this former state.
The memorial itself is embedded in a site which almost seamlessly connects with the architectural language and symbolism of the Third Reich.

Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing) approaches the group of sculptures in circular movements; the film resembles an endless tracking shot, without beginning or end. During 
its initial description of the material, the camera explores the figures
 and specifies each detail with archaeological precision. As it moves on to unearth the deeper levels, the tracking shot becomes a journey through time. Layers of documents are exposed which cover the group of figures like a coat of paint while infusing it with meaning at the same time. The circling camera bores deeper and deeper into the memorial, thus exposing its interior. Finally,
 the circle reaches completion: 
the site has been filled with meaning and the architecture has become part the landscape.

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Deutschstunde" (Video Still), 2006 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

In Deutschstunde (German Lesson) [2] schoolchildren read out sentences from autobiographies about Jewish life during the time of National Socialism. These scenes are interspersed with shots of a spinning top on a table. Not only the readers’ varied intonation, but also the gravity with which they carry out their assignment show that the younger generation is also committed to remembering and is very much aware of the importance of this task.

Im Kreise drehen/Turning in Circles [3] is a filmic exploration of the mausoleum in the Polish concentration camp Majdanek near Lublin and its function for collective memory. At the beginning, we see two young men in white shirts rolling in the grass. This scene is followed by a slow and gradual examination of
 the monumental memorial designed by Wiktor Tołkin in 1969. Inspired by Socialist and Futurist design, it holds the ashes of murdered people like a giant offering bowl. The camera stays close to the concrete surface as it surveys the structural and material composition of the mausoleum. A sequence of texts provides the viewers with information on what
 they are seeing. Subsequently, the images of the mausoleum’s walls become superimposed with historical photographs of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. As the camera probes its way from the exterior into the interior, the edifice’s dimensions gradually become apparent. At the end of the film, the two young men visit the mausoleum as tourists and try to prevail against the cold atmosphere of the concrete. The structure in its entirety is only shown during the closing credits.

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "In stillen Teichen lauern Krokodile" (Video Still), 2002/2004 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

In stillen Teichen lauern Krokodile/
In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk [4] deals with the Rwandan genocide, which occurred between April and June 1994 and produced almost only 
Tutsi victims. In this half-hour video projection in two parts, Odenbach uses documentary material and films from the UNO’s archive to fathom the effects of this genocide in a country which, years after the crime, is still faced with the task of convicting the murderers while conciliating its people at the same time. Refraining from showing the atrocities, the seven chapters instead present seemingly everyday scenes defined by eminent quiet and languidness: farmers in the banana fields, prisoners in a brickyard, cows, or rain falling on an idyllic landscape 
of rolling hills. Only the soundtrack repeats the rousing propaganda 
from the radio which incited the Hutu to lynch their former neighbours.
 The video installation itself neither passes judgement, nor does it offer 
a historical explanation. The strongly evocative images encourage viewers to act as observers who are called upon to form their own opinions.

In Im Schiffbruch nicht schwimmen können (Foundering, and You Can‘t Swim)  [5] Three men of different ages from Sub-Saharan Africa, immigrants living in France, are looking at a painting in the Louvre: The Raft
 of Medusa painted by Théodore Géricault in 1819. As one of the best-known history paintings, this monumental work represents a piece of French colonial history and its failure. In 1816, the Medusa was dispatched to take over the Senegal colony from the British as it had been adjudged to France. The frigate’s shipwreck transformed the crew sailing under the banner of equality, liberty, and fraternity into cannibals fighting for their survival. For his video work, Odenbach conducted long interviews with the three Africans about their fight, their motivation, and their lives. They talked about homesickness, their fears, and feeling foreign in their own country. Odenbach used only 
a few passages from these long conversations, solely in the shape 
of written statements. The men sit in front of the picture in silence. Sitting at the coast, one dreams of faraway places. But what happens when these dreams from afar come home? The sea seems endless and peaceful, but also full of perils. “Hope and home – for me as a German this also always means salvation and fight.” (Odenbach)

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Im Schiffbruch nicht schwimmen können" (Video Still), 2011 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach,
Installation view: Marcel Odenbach, "Beweis zu nichts (Proof of Nothing)," Kunsthalle Wien 2017. Photo: Stephan Wyckoff. "Im Schiffbruch nicht schwimmen können," 2011 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Collages

Die gute Stube (The Parlour) [6] shows the interior of the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s residence on 
the Obersalzberg. Although 
the room is designed to provide
 a panoramic view of the mountains, the drawn curtains on the left
 direct the viewers’ attention to 
the interior and its furnishings. 
In combination with the partly visible window on the right, this leads to an overlapping of outside and inside. While our eyes rest on the curtains obscuring the vista,
 we are also deprived of the view of the Obersalzberg due to the angle chosen by the artist. This partially blocked vision is like a metaphor
 for the dictator’s perception, whose presence is palpable despite his absence. The bourgeois sitting room, which seems completely at odds with the horrors of the Nazi era, enhances the menacing atmosphere in this picture.

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Die gute Stube," 2011 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Photo: Vesko Gösel, Cologne. Courtesy the artist and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

At first sight, the almost
 15-metre long panoramic collage Durchblicke (Clear Views) [7] shows an impenetrable jungle landscape made up of proliferous vegetation. To “see through” this thicket, as the title suggests, is simply impossible. Inspected at close range, however, the metaphorical meaning of the title becomes apparent in the shape of unexpected insights 
into Africa’s complex colonial history. The story of exploitation and suppression, which are only gradually being processed and recognised as an equal part of European history, is presented in numerous photographs. From a distance, we see a deserted, exotic landscape. Only once we approach it, the picture reveals the other side, where the fascination of the exotic gives way to colonial crimes.

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Durchblicke" (Detail), 2007 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Photo: David Ertl, Cologne. Courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York.

The collage Meldung (Notification) [8] was inspired by a file note on
 Polish workers who were forced
 to work in Wolfen, and apparently failed to wear the badge that identified them as Polish forced labourers. The company in question was the Agfa Filmfabrik Wolfen (Agfa Film Factory Wolfen). Since the early 20th century, Agfa had been the leading producer of photochemical products. During 
the Nazi era, the enterprise acquired a predominant position in the Third Reich and supplied the needs of the military, state and NS party organisations at the outbreak
 of the war. A growing number of forced labourers, many of them from Poland, were put to work in the Wolfen Film Factory.

Heimat 3 (AdVB) (Home 3 AdVB) [9] shows the furnishings of the German chancellor’s bedroom in the former government bunker to the south
 of Bonn, the erstwhile German 
capital. Amidst great secrecy, the bunker was constructed inside the tunnel of a never completed railway line between 1960 and 1972. It was supposed to serve the German Federal Government as a shelter and as underground headquarters in case of war. During the final phase of the Second World War, various arms manufacturers moved into the tunnel. On the outside, they had established 
a satellite camp to accommodate forced labourers working at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. The train tunnels themselves were mainly used to build ground equipment and vehicles for V-2 rockets. Designed during the Cold War era, the government bunker encompassed 897 offices, 936 bedrooms, and 
other facilities. A supply of drinking water, a power generator, an air filter, provisions, and an expansive infrastructure were supposed to enable a thirty-day stay without contact to the outside world, so that the Federal Republic of Germany could continue to be governed, even in case of an escalating nuclear war. The bunker was first used during a NATO command post exercise in 1966. It was last used in March 1989, also for an exercise. In 1997, the Federal Government decided to give up the government bunker as they could not find a civilian use for the facility. As a symbol of the Cold War, the surviving part of the bunker of just under 200 metres was extended and turned into a museum, the Dokumentationsstätte Regierungsbunker (Government Bunker Documentary Centre).

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Heimat 3 (AdVB)," 2016 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Photo: Simon Vogel, Cologne. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.
Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Im Kreise drehen" (Video Still), 2009 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Bertolt Brecht greatly admired the poems by Ingeborg Bachmann. Yet – or perhaps: because of this – he has remarked on a few, in order to make them even clearer in his sense. In his copy of the volume Die gestundete Zeit (Time Deferred) from 1953, nine
 of the 24 poems have handwritten comments: some lines are underlined in red, numbers in the margins suggest the switching of lines, and in one case, a line was added. Even if the changes are subtle, the tiny shifts say a lot about the difference between these two poets: Bachmann’s poetry with its antithetical evolvement and frequently coded metaphors for personal and human fate is juxtaposed with Brecht’s poetry with its decidedly causative approach and intentionally reduced possibility of interpretation for the sake of a more unambiguous message. One of the “revised” poems forms the starting point of the kurz und bündig (short and precise) [10] collage.

Over the last two decades, Africa has become a central topic in Odenbach’s work. Jeder Schuss ein Treffer (Every Shot a Hit) [11], a collage in two parts, features a zebra that was obviously killed during a safari. The other panel shows the inside of a canoe with a fishing rod and plastic bags from a duty-free shop. Africa’s reputed exoticism is reflected in game-hunting expeditions undertaken by Europeans who enjoy shooting impalas, zebras, 
or gnus. The word safari derives from the Swahili language and refers to any kind of journey. Once the word found its way into the former colonial masters’ languages, its meaning changed to journeying with the intention of killing.

Marcel Odenbach,
Marcel Odenbach, "Jeder Schuss ein Treffer," 2009/2010 © Marcel Odenbach & BILDRECHT GmbH, 2017. Photo: Vesko Gösel, Cologne. Courtesy Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

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