Diedrich Diederichsen

  • The Price of Intimacy

    The German writer and ethnographer Hubert Fichte (1935–1986) refused the constraints of custom and genre: His books combine autobiography, journalism, critique, and poetic avant-gardism with an ethnological practice that rejected the idea that research could be “pure.” Besides focusing on hunger, torture, human rights, and bisexuality, he made travel central to his work, turning his back on post-fascist Germany and increasingly spending time in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean in pursuit of encounters with and the study of non-European cultures. His dream, meanwhile, was of a global gay utopia. The political implications of this combination are complicated; Fichte tried to address them through a third-person alter ego who makes possible both incisive self-critique and reflections on its lack. His work is thus a precursor and an irritant to current debates in postcolonial and queer studies, as well as theories of identity politics and artistic research.Since 2017, Diedrich Diederichsen and curator Anselm Franke (with many partners and collaborators) have been organizing a multiyear project titled “Love and Ethnology,” which involves translations of Fichte’s books as well as exhibitions and events in locations where they are set. So far, the venues include Lisbon; Rio de Janeiro; Salvador de Bahia, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Dakar, Senegal, which will be followed by New York this December and a major exhibition and conference at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt next fall. Diederichsen and Franke seek both to reverse the relationship between Fichte and his subjects across the distances of time and place and to situate his work within the context of post-1968 experimentalism. Here, Diederichsen reflects on the contradictions generated in Fichte’s writing and how they can be made productive today. If the question is, What can we learn from Fichte? the right place to start is with that thorny word we.

    Writing the way you speak

    A kind of diary—ten years after the events

    An interview with myself

    Skillfully spontaneous

    Whatever else, no art


    No psychological coherence

    No equivalents

    —Hubert Fichte, Hotel Garni (1987)

    WE WHO WISHED to prepare the ground for decolonization remained colonial ourselves. This variation on Bertolt Brecht’s famous line “We / Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness / Could not ourselves be gentle” applies to episode after episode in the history of European ethnology—not least among them the experimental and poetic attempts by Hubert


    CONSTRUCTED FROM SCAFFOLDING on the Fried-richsplatz in Kassel, Martha Minujín’s Parthenon of Books, 2017, is unfortunately just more of the usual nonsense displayed at that location at almost every Documenta. The gigantic structure’s columns are wrapped in plastic cladding containing vast quantities of books that are or were forbidden somewhere in the world, many of which are among the staples of German households, including works by Goethe and Brecht, and the diary of Anne Frank. It turns out the last of these was banned not by a rogue state but by some American school districts (on account

  • Kai Althoff

    AN ART MUSEUM is a public place. Yet this status is often challenged by the argument that it excludes vast sections of the public and ultimately serves only a narrow—even elite—audience. In response, museums mobilize an army of educators, organize participatory programming, and deploy endless wall texts in their efforts to engage a wider public, as if didacticism alone could improve class relations. In this contested climate, the measure of an exhibition’s success often becomes, by default, the breadth of its appeal, the sheer number of visitors it can draw to the museum.

    From time to

  • Lynn Hershman Leeson

    I'VE NEVER HAD works of art take so many photographs of me. Soon after entering Lynn Hershman Leeson’s recent show at the ZKM, I was met by Past Tense, 2014, a projection displaying a frantic succession of pictures of animals on the brink of extinction; the image collection was sourced by searching “endangered” on Flickr and was updated on a regular basis throughout the course of the exhibition. But these creatures were not the only things on display. My own picture, apparently taken moments ago by a smartphone on a pedestal as I was peering at the installation, was smuggled in at regular

  • Diedrich Diederichsen

    A decade ago, when Per Leo, a young German novelist, was organizing the books of his deceased grandfather, a former SS official, he made two piles: “cultural heritage” and “barbarism.” Yet Leo eventually found himself forced to create a third pile of texts that he could not definitively put into one or the other category—those by strange (anti-) modernist and anti-Semitic poets or cultural philosophers such as Ludwig Klages. So the research began for Der Wille zum Wesen (The Will to Essence) (Matthes & Seitz), a brilliant history of the ways in which the often lamented increasing anonymity

  • Diedrich Diederichsen

    STRONG ASSERTIONS are the most prominent feature of Thomas Hirschhorn’s art. He always acts with great decisiveness. This raises many questions, some of which—one might hope—could be answered by the publication of his writings. It turns out, however, that he took the same approach to the the texts collected here. Eschewing argument, Hirschhorn aggressively condemns all relativism, claiming that art does not need to be “put in context.” Rationalizations, qualifications, and other civilian affectations are almost entirely absent from these texts. Instead, there are assertions, proclamations,

  • Diedrich Diederichsen


    The author Hans-Christian Dany, known in the German-speaking world for his literature on drugs (especially speed), has published Morgen werde ich Idiot: Kybernetik und Kontrollgesellschaft (I’ll Be an Idiot Tomorrow: Cybernetics and the Society of Control) (Nautilus Flugschrift), a critique of the ideological complex built on the relations between cybernetics and the exploitation of postmaterial labor, in which control is no longer established in relation to fixed parameters within a system, but is developed via the fostering of endless, open self-optimization. I’m

  • Ed Ruscha

    The German word for “letter,” Buchstabe, incorporates the word Buch, “book,” as if to remind us that books are the natural place of residence for letters and signs in general, like an animal’s burrow. Ed Ruscha is an artist who has a unique relationship to letters, both as signs and as inhabitants of books. For the exhibition “Reading Ed Ruscha,” the artist gave a lecture in which he spoke with admiration and melancholy about the bookworm, and noted with sadness its impending extinction with the looming end of the printed book. Ruscha describes the bookworm as an artist—he sees the inhabitation


    IT WAS A BRILLIANTLY SUNNY afternoon as I walked onto the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. In the 1920s, this massive field in the south of the city hosted Germany’s first commercial airport, but it had been used since the eighteenth century as a military parade ground and (now again) for public recreation. The airport closed in 2008, and the space is today a gigantic park. Being there, one feels as if some salt lake or tideland had been transposed to the middle of the city. This sensation is not only due to the scale of the place but because, in contrast to most European parks, there is no landscape

  • “Before the Law”

    WHAT IS THE CONNECTION between Fritz Cremer’s O Deutschland, bleiche Mutter! II (O Germany, Pale Mother! II), 1961, and Paul Chan’s Sade for Sade’s Sake, 2009? The former, one version of which stands at the memorial site of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, is a bronze sculpture of an exhausted woman with downcast eyes, while the latter is a projection more than five hours in duration that shows silhouetted figures engaging in copulation, masturbation, and rape. And is there any link between Giacomo Manzù’s spare figure of Catholic interiority Cardinale in piedi (Standing Cardinal),

  • Diedrich Diederichsen

    OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, it seems an increasing number of shows have given rise to vehement debate. Such debate has often been both informal and productive: Conversational circles that for years enjoyed consensus on the merits of this or that exhibition are now having to reevaluate their views in light of new controversies. The largely tedious legibility of rooms filled with art—tedious because we now read them automatically—has been repeatedly upturned, as is evident not only in a surprising plurality of readings but also in almost physical responses on the part of viewers. And while


    Christoph Schlingensief, who died last August at the age of forty-nine, repeatedly challenged the German-speaking world with his films, plays, operas, TV shows, political projects, and other interventions into public life. His freewheeling energy and readiness to break the rules of both high and low culture were matched by an appetite for politically fraught subjects that made him a frequent subject of controversy. Artforum invited critic Diedrich Diederichsen to reflect on Schlingensief’s oeuvre, in advance of the artist’s retrospective this summer in the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

    FOR THE GENERATION OF GERMANS who came of age after reunification, the circumstances of the time brought about a unique kind of celebrity. Whereas other decades and epochs have had many figureheads, this period was too fractured and too nostalgic to agree on them, both in the arts and in public life in general. Only Christoph Schlingensief could get away with functioning as the unelected representative of his generation: Just like them, he was different. At the same time, he was the sole constant in his extremely diverse practice. So they had to pay attention to everything he did, from TV talk

  • René Pollesch

    AROUND TEN YOUNG GIRLS wearing pink nightgowns and toting crude wooden rifles take the stage. They strike various poses in rapid succession, threatening us, conducting drills, enacting tableaux vivants. Most of the poses are taken directly from the Maoist comic Das Mädchen aus der Volkskommune (The Girl from the People’s Commune), which, in the early 1970s, was popular with European leftists, and which was published in book form, complete with an afterword by Umberto Eco, by a German literary press. The performance of the pink-gowned girls goes on for quite a while and is peppered with political

  • Diedrich Diederichsen

    IN THE BEGINNING, God created heaven and earth. While the vaporetto chuffs and struggles its way through the lagoon, I pull out a copy of the New Yorker and soon find myself considering an excerpt from Robert Crumb’s new work, a comic-book version of the Bible. Here, at least, someone is concerned with the topic of world making. OK then: Eve looks like the woman Robert Crumb is always thinking about. Adam looks like an Argentinean soccer player from the ’70s. God the Father is the usual mixture of Moondog and Walt Whitman. But the creation of heaven and earth is an abstract, though artistic,

  • film December 17, 2008

    Different Drum

    LAST YEAR IN VISUAL ART could have been a good one for Scott Walker. The atmosphere in his songs would, superficially at least, have been appropriate for the various melancholy biennials in New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. The Francesca Woodman installation in the former Jewish girls’ school at the Berlin Biennial might have been inspired by Walker’s music: yawning abysses, multiple light sources, peeling wall paint, and disappearing bodies. Then there were all the debates about “romantic conceptualism,” and the ongoing and seemingly never-ending rediscovery of Yves Klein and Bas Jan Ader, both




    The financial crisis of fall 2008 is one symptom of a transition in the nature and form of global order. The most important question this transition raises is what new possibilities it is opening up; but before asking that, one has to understand also what the transition is closing down. Two of the best books I have read in the past year, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (Verso) and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Picador),




    I turned to Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume I (edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg; Stanford University Press) in connection with my attempts to look differently at what is made of thinking (and writing) in the art of Hanne Darboven, whose work has often been regarded (to my mind erroneously, or mostly erroneously) as an instance of “Conceptual art.” Psyche—which comprises translations of the first sixteen essays from a volume of Jacques Derrida’s writing that originally appeared

  • Scott Walker

    LAST YEAR IN VISUAL ART could have been a good one for Scott Walker. The atmosphere in his songs would, superficially at least, have been appropriate for the various melancholy biennials in New York, Berlin, and elsewhere. The Francesca Woodman installation in the former Jewish girls’ school at the Berlin Biennial might have been inspired by Walker’s music: yawning abysses, multiple light sources, peeling wall paint, and disappearing bodies. Then there were all the debates about “romantic conceptualism,” and the ongoing and seemingly never-ending rediscovery of Yves Klein and Bas Jan Ader, both

  • Formalismus

    A lot of the work in “Formalismus: Moderne Kunst, heute” (Formalism: Modern Art Today) seemed unfinished but in a perfectly justified way. Wade Guyton’s ripped canvases with large rectangular spots look spontaneous but are, in fact, calculated computer prints. Sergej Jensen’s linen-and-cotton works seem unmacho, even shy, abstract, and totally lacking in content, but the shapes have exact points of reference––to German politics, for example. Rather than signal a return to purified ideas of painting and sculpture, the imperfect appearance and precise, self-conscious shabbiness found in many of

  • A Roundtable

    “JEFF KOONS MAKES ME SICK.” The words are Peter Schjeldahl’s, and the occasion was a review in the SoHo weekly 7 Days, back in the ’80s, before Koons was quite the museum-certified star he is today. In the course of the write-up, Schjeldahl would turn his conceit around, explaining how undeniable, unstoppable, finally essential the experience of the artist’s work was for him. What makes Koons’s art simultaneously so toxic and so compelling? And why is it both institutionally embraced and yet seen by many as an art of diminishing returns, a symptom of all that is wrong with culture today? Koons