The Glint of Self-Defeating Prophecies
2021 February - March
Gedelitz, January 2021
I have left Berlin’s central metropolitan area to protect against infection and even more due to its social impact, so that I can sit and wait in the nearby Wendland region. If I should avoid the aerosols of those around me, then I prefer not to do so in close proximity. So, now I sit by the window with a view of arable fields and woodlands, watching the sparrows. Scores of birds flock to the sparse winter vegetable patch where they settle on the ground like a carpet. Suddenly, they start up again, as if by command, bringing to life not the field but a leafless bush. I wish I could detect their common signal for departure.
An idyllic farmhouse in the rural landscape that in the meantime seems to be held together more by its patina than its building substance. Inside, a desk covered with yellowed nautical charts, and my screen on top of it: I open the photos in the email attachment. The images show the simulation of an exhibition in the studio.
– 1 –
A spatial arrangement of forked lightning, things and evidently their visual contexts. Several industrially produced objects of daily use, patinated over time, now and again marked by incisions of a cutting disc. Multiple visual axes and close-ups of things and relations. A title: “The Glint of Self-defeating Prophecies”. The author: Marcel Hiller.
With these documents Marcel Hiller has created an exhibition sarcophagus: the documents show no centre, no room axes and no kind of functional traces. There are no doors, no radiators, no windows and no ceilings, so no lamps either. No podiums, the objects lie on the floor, leaning against or hanging on the walls. The fragmented and partially dissected, patinated objects convey the atmosphere of a ‘day-after’, and contemplating the documents becomes a forensic undertaking.
A gas mask of silicone rubber from the supplies of the former National People’s Army (NVA) is on the wall, and by their size maybe two children’s gas masks on the floor, all without the requisite respiratory filter. The larger gas mask is strapped together from the inside. The gas masks on the floor are pulled out. Two ‘African masks’, like those found in colonial goods stores in past times or in folk museums, reveal multiple cut marks on the front. One of the masks hangs back to front with a label revealing its actual origin: “VEB Betrieb Leichtbau in Bernsdorf, African negro mask single piece, 40 marks”. Two tattered moped helmets, so cut up they can be associated with the head injuries the helmets should protect the wearer from. Two equally long sections of square pipes on the floor also show cut marks. The cuts are very clean and polished. Lying on the floor are the curved section of a rear windscreen, as well as two vertically-stacked, rusty footboards from an IFA W50 truck, built in the GDR between 1965 and 1990. The truck re-appears in bits and as a whole object in the 9-part screen print less skin (sheets 2021), hanging slightly above the floor. They display private- and press photos, construction sketches, book pages and souvenir pictures of people, probably also citizens of the GDR. Three “lightning sculptures” made from welded square pipes stand and lean in the room. One of them, blue lacquered, projects upwards. The structure of its lines resembles the letters W, E and T, while the other two are formed from N, E and W and a collapsed W. Opposite the blue lightning sculpture is another, five-part panel depicting the same thing as a schematic sequence of perspectives of the steel structure, surrounded by images of agrotechnical machines.
– 2 –
Walter Benjamin described the discontinuity of events and their observation, both culminating in “the production of history”, with astrological terminology.(1) The stellar metaphor only gains its ultimate meaning by extension to the constellation, which meets the eye of the spectator on earth – and only on earth. Constellations are not just appearances whose visibility is bound by nightfall. They are primarily a pattern of phenomena that was not given by these same phenomena, but only by the contingent position of their observer. The single stars of a constellation are totally intermittent, and yet they can be observed as a constellation and by noticing their position. According to Benjamin, cognition can only emerge in the figurative sense from these constellations.
“‘I’m an artist’ is much more difficult for me to say than to keep silent about my own actions”, states Marcel Hiller. To call his constellations an ‘exhibition’ is akin to observing the starry sky from an illuminated shopping arcade. It’s not necessarily incorrect, if the onlooker’s standpoint demands this. In the art business this code is a kind of operating licence. Yet, the only real fun of a phenomenology of the constellations is by taking into account the discontinuity of the phenomena. The time context, art, institution, room, author, material, action, arrangement, visitor – all these and more amount to coordinates from where one could plot a short story. And another constellation hides behind every singular coordinate. This is how one ends with an ‘exhibition’, but it might equally be a ‘construction site’ or ‘collection’ – or just a simulation.
– 3 –
During his research scholarship at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, Marcel Hiller founded the artists’ collective Magicgruppe Kulturobjekt, from 2010 to 2012, producing many highly successful international exhibitions. The title of the fluctuating collective also referred to a collaborative work concept, whereby the participants staged material comprising diverse form- and functional associations as a spatial narrative. Conceptually, the process replaced the idea of the “author” with the idea of “decision material”. After the collective projects were finished, Hiller consolidated the work in many installations by examining the artist’s role of producing sense and meaning. In a first solo exhibition in 2012 at the Desaga Galerie, Cologne, alongside welded corners of square pipes, he showcased the forerunners of the lightning sculptures, cut-off pieces of square pipes, broken neon tubes and traces of powder on the walls. There could be no stronger rebuttal of a closed object. At a symposium in 2013, which he organized at the Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen in Innsbruck, he analysed the materiality and “contextual tensions” of a bus station in Westphalia. For him, rooms form an open narrative “that must permanently develop openness, maybe even through different perceptions and the behaviour of others”. Accordingly, in 2014 he dismantled the railings of the central gallery and staircase at the Kunstverein Bremerhaven, adding fragments of other objects to this narrative. As in the days of the Magicgruppe, it became clear that the material status of things no longer coincided with the signifier status, the codes of an artwork.(2) Rather, its status detached itself from it, claiming a life of its own that challenged the viewer. He forced that by letting the material determine the margins for play: he once set out water container jerrycans (junction, DREI gallery, Cologne, 2014); at another time, it was cigarette boxes (WOT NEXT, Schmidt & Handrup Berlin, 2015) as formations around the exhibition space. The water bottles were in a certain sense a zero point of every narration, for there was no longer any difference between the objects. Instead, he posed the question about the significance of the objects in the architecturally, as well as conceptually occupied space.
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Marcel Hiller is interested in things, in their material and how they are used. For him, they are carriers of relations and the potential for change. He also develops the arrangement in the sense of a transition that, based on his activity, persists with the viewer. He thoroughly scrutinizes in his production every personal, self-instituting practice and pushes the objects beyond the limits of their purpose. Production, as well as perception, thus become an open process of coding. This process evolves from three different factors of the object in the arrangement: potentiality, tendentiality and referentiality.(3) Potentiality as an assumption of the immediacy in the object. Tendentiality as its propensity, e.g. the ability for release from an original context and usage. Finally, referentiality as its capacity for an interpretability for the viewer. The meaning comes into play from an emergence when contemplating the constellations of Marcel Hiller. In other words, from the possibility of forming a new coding of the objects in their spatial arrangement, resulting from the interplay of their conditions. Marcel Hiller describes it as follows: “When doing/making, creating art, for me actually it’s about not legitimizing or safeguarding but about finding oneself in a situation that leads beyond the self, yet speaking to him (to me/the “observer”). My interest is in a communicative- or legitimation routine that stays so open that the spatial and visual aspects don’t close off or become encapsulated.”
The material of the square tube is characteristic for Marcel Hiller’s work. Once he welded it to constructions built specifically to a space (gasoline, Van Horbourg/Basel, 2019); another time to autonomous objects working like references for material tensions and for storing possible actions (Kommune Brölio, Schmidt & Handrup, Cologne, 2016). Increasingly, the clean cut evolved into a typical style: a perfectly measured personal expression, hand-inscribing the objects with a certain spontaneity.
Marcel Hiller is a “Wendekind“, child of German unification. In developing his technique an ever stronger desire emerged to counter the formalizing tendencies in his own work. He began to associate the question about the identity of things with a part of his personal identity construction. Since his 2019 solo exhibition Less Skin, curated by Seda Pesen at the Frankfurt Projektraum fffriedrich, objects from the archive collection of the GDR appeared. The unification of the FRG and GDR, which entirely ruptured East German personal histories, produced the discarded resources of a society and its objects. By using these things, Marcel Hiller’s constellations became more narrative-focused. His concern with these containers of meaning is again not with the codification of identity. In fact, he would prefer not to talk at all about the GDR. Instead, by accumulating objects with this identity he is interested in new potential for formal and contextual tensions: “I have become more relaxed towards art and cultural institutions, and I’ve tried to go further and to get interested in the processes, whose institution has accumulated in the presumably futureless figure of our contemporary being. For me they are the spatial and temporal background that influences the way in which something is tensioned in a space. As useful, let’s say, as the rubber lip of a windscreen wiper.”
– 5 –
“The Glint of Self-Defeating Prophecies”. In reaction to the prediction that a ship will capsize tomorrow after setting sail, the captain can ignore the dilemma of capsizing or not, or else choose a third option, namely, to remain in port. The fact that publicized predictions are retroactive to the prophesied system behaviour is often put forward as an argument for describing the predictability of such systems as utterly impossible. “When I was a child, I had the impression that wishes and dreams never happen or come true because, as such, they‘d already been thought of. The event, the impulse or positive impression in fact always emerged as a surprise and unexpectedly,” says Marcel Hiller. So, under no circumstances does the ship stay in port, but searches with lively ambition for a third, non-predictable way and sets sail.
If we guide our thoughts by the constellations, then why not by the forces of gravity, i.e. by the physical forces in the rotation of the stars?(4) Two opposing spiral forces, production and observation, take full effect: the centrifugal (from inside to outside) and the centripetal (from outside to inside). At the start of planning every exhibition, Marcel Hiller is his own personal system that absorbs the institution and its conditions, its centripetal forces, and then himself entering into this as the producer who is subject to the action of the centrifugal forces. The artistic localized work-process leads to an external idea, a centrifugal phenomenon, which is transferred from the producer to the observer as a centripetal phenomenon. This force yields the capacity for a new viewpoint of conditions from differing perspectives and, in turn, to absorb them for one’s own system.
Note on W E T: Not only romanticized nature grows from a droplet, but a complex society of essences or figures that are part of a specific dynamic in the shadow of our existence. Agricultural machines are in the world like tiny sharp nails beneath the souls of our sneakers – crunching. There is something military, aggressive or even laborious or clumsy about the vehicles. They are separate from the accurately set out field, filled with its straight rows of lettuces; they operate like old men or women with oversized hats and a rake clamped into the crease of the elbow. The owners seem not yet to realize their advantage compared to the previous model. The dynamic indicates an eternal present amidst the changing seasons. (Marcel Hiller)
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W E T and N E W and their decay – The transition of modernism to so-called post-modernism, according to Zygmunt Bauman, went hand in hand with a change of the aggregate states – a disappearance of the systems.(5) What was once fixed, was now liquified. If we relate this to the current situation and assume that everything is liquefied, could you then consider the pandemic as a deep-freezing that chills our reality? The second wave in the meantime has increasingly driven apart land and people. The state-imposed restriction of movement has reduced public life to so-called system relevance. However, what may be system and relevant is a matter of opinion that is mandated as compulsory for all by the elected representatives of the people. There is growing opposition towards these decisions and divergent experiences of the realities. Never could I better follow in real time the competing voices for the benefit of a narrative, also in the sense of Benjamin’s constellations underlying his conception of historiography.
Early on in April 2020, as a reaction to the first wave of the pandemic and the mandatory standstill of all exhibition activity, Marcel Hiller and his fellow artist Markus Saile documented an intervention in pictures. They rented a silver van printed with “MILES” and parked it at Cologne’s empty fair grounds. Markus Saile installed a small painting inside and two others on the van’s exterior. Marcel Hiller fixed two gas mask covers from NVA-supplies over the left-hand front wheel casing and over the right-hand front headlight.
Marcel Hiller’s exhibition-sarcophagus, currently showcased here, emerges anew from the vacuum of the pandemic conditions. But there are green shoots of hope. The re-accelerated document of his ongoing self-organization vis-à-vis the art sector becomes an emancipated current witness of his personal self-limitation: timeless, placeless and foregoing public exposure: “My focus is on the ability to avert instituent processes again in a different way, to take my time to practice this aversion.”
At first, I freeze at the sight of the images. Given the current events and in my self-imposed isolation, I associate gas masks with nothing other than the mandatory need for mask wearing in exaggerated form. The small gas masks on the floor appear like invasive, demonic child’s laughter. A little like the horror clown, Stephen King-style. The ‘African masks’ seem to me to refer to appropriation in a colonial gesture of the sort Edward Said writes about in Orientalism.(6) It is the bloody origins of colonialism that are still carried on today in globalization. The helmets act as the metaphors of a vulnerability in believing in their protective function. So much for an allegory of the status quo. However, the forked lightning of sculpturally formed constellations gives structure to this arrangement. They refer to an ambiguity of the arrangement. The current pandemic is active against the backdrop of a seemingly depressive world situation, in which the future for the next generation often seems misaligned as a dystopia. With the help of the past, the confrontation with the cast-off identity of the outdated system of the GDR, Marcel Hiller appeals to nothing less than the possibility of overcoming the present in favour of an uncertain future.
Marcel Hiller has left his own studio with this constellation that, with forays into the past, community-oriented and electrifying, repeatedly expands into the exhibition space. However, previously whenever he assumed that as an artist, because of his autonomy he had been pushed anyway to society’s side-lines and produced from here, working with this constellation was accepting the position of a realist. Realism as a constantly actualized claim in art to self-production and to accept a dynamic relationship to the social forces of one’s time. It is an act of individual and artistic emancipation into reality, from which the potential for changeability arises in reflective contemplation.(7)
Approximately 150 metres away from the farmhouse where I’m sitting, between the towns of Gedelitz and Gorleben, there is the nuclear waste temporary storage site that was actually intended as a permanent storage site. But that’s off the table since last summer’s test results. The Castor containers being stored here are waiting to be removed again, after the widespread and now successful protests of the residents in the rural district. The events of the past 40 years concerning this process have been firmly imprinted on the identity of the Wendland region. The yellow X-symbols of the protest campaign, a readiness for opposition to the shipments of nuclear waste into the Wendland region, remain in the front gardens of the residents as their identity.
Text: Tim Voss
Translation: Suzanne Kirkbright
Tim Voss was a graduate in 2005 of visual communication studies at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. During his studies he was part of the collective exhibition group Hinterconti and involved in setting up the gallery at the university. Since qualifying he has been employed in the art directorship of various institutions: Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof in Hamburg (2006–2009), Kunstraum W139 in Amsterdam (2010–2012), Projektresidenz Künstlerhäuser Worpswede (2013–2017) and Künstlerhaus Wien (2018–2020). Since summer 2020 he works as an independent artist and curator in Berlin.
This exhibition project was supported by the Kunststiftung NRW.
(1) cf. Nicolas Pethes, “Konstellationen - Erinnerung als Kontinuitätsunterbrechung in Walter Benjamins Theorie von Gedächtnis”, Kultur und Geschichte, https://idsl1.phil-fak.uni-koeln.de/
(2) cf. Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen, edition suhrkamp, 2004, p. 29.
(3) Based on Katharina Pistor, Der Code des Kapitals, 2020: “Priorität, Beständigkeit und Konvertabilität/Universalität”.
(4) In dialogue with Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, Curator at MoBY Bat Yam Museum of Art/Israel.
(5) cf. Zygmunt Bauman, Flüchtige Moderne, edition suhrkamp, 2002.
(6) cf. Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978.
(7) cf. Kerstin Stakemeier, Lecture on realism, Künstlerh.user Worpswede, 2013.