Red Alert


Left: Peter Weibel and Klaus Biesenbach. Right: A crowd studies the RAF timeline at KW.

“We are here to view an art exhibition. We are here for art, not politics,” Klaus Biesenbach said emphatically during his opening remarks at last Friday's private reception for “Regarding Terror: The RAF Exhibition,” the new show at the Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art (KW). Featuring over fifty artists, “Regarding Terror” bestirs the ghosts of the Red Army Faction, the group of Marxist-Maoist terrorists who hoped to destabilize the West German government and kick off the revolution via a series of targeted arsons, kidnappings, bombings, and shootings that began in 1968 and crescendoed in the '70s. Given that the RAF is as politically loaded a subject as you could think of, and that the debates surrounding the show turn precisely on the difficulties of drawing the line between art and politics, Biesenbach's claim seemed wishful at best—particularly since the next speaker to take the floor was former Interior Minister Gerhart Baum, not exactly a regular on the Berlin openings circuit. Decrying what he sees as the German citizenry’s unwillingness to confront thorny social issues, Baum, at any rate, seemed to have politics very much on his mind.

“Regarding Terror”—organized by former KW director Biesenbach, KW curator Ellen Blumenstein, and Felix Ensslin, a playwright and son of RAF member Gudrun Ensslin—was three years in the making. It was originally slated to open in November 2003 but was delayed when an early exhibition proposal leaked out to the press the previous summer, causing an outcry about “legitimizing” and “aestheticizing” terrorism. RAF victims' families sent an open letter of protest to the government, and wide public support sprang up around the idea that the show should not receive federal funding unless the curators promised to heed the families’ concerns and plan their presentation accordingly. Rather than accept federal support—and the conditions that were sure to come with it—the curators returned almost half of their initial grant and proceeded to fund “Regarding Terror” with private money, most of it raised through an eleventh-hour eBay art auction. This rudimentary outline occludes many of the details of the curators' grueling struggle to ensure that the spotlight focused on the exhibition instead of the minefield of RAF historiography, the politics of show planning, or Ensslin's personal connection to the subject matter. As Ensslin said to me, the curators had to walk a fine line: “We were attacked from the left for being too statist and from the right for glorifying terror.”

On Thursday, Blumenstein and Ensslin toured the show with successive waves of journalists both German and foreign; feuilletons (including a caustic essay in Die Zeit by RAF member Ulrike Meinhof’s daughter Bettina Röhl, who noted that “like the three letters S-E-X. . . R-A-F sells.”) were published in every major media outlet; and all week even taxi drivers offered up opinions on the proceedings: One artist told me that her cabbie, noticing her copy of the exhibition catalog, launched into a rant about how Andreas Baader was a good-for-nothing kid who would not have turned to terrorism if he wasn’t so “bored.”

The exhibition somehow manages to hold its own in the midst of this fray—it comes across as neither explicitly didactic nor too aestheticized. This balance is achieved in part because the works—by a group of artists including Beuys, Kippenberger, Richter, and Polke as well as members of a younger generation like Michaela Miese and Johannes Wohnseifer—focus on media representations of the RAF. Thus the terms of the debate are subtly shifted from the group itself to what a wall text calls its “media echo.” (This will inevitably be used as a criticism; almost without exception, the brownish-yellow of faded newspapers and the black-and-white of news photos predominate.) The RAF was savvy about self-presentation, and it is difficult to overestimate the power of their polarizing presence in the '70s. One visitor at the private view, a music critic pursuing a doctorate on the subject of mourning, said, “For any German between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-nine, the most prominent images from childhood are those of the RAF.” Another recalled seeing “Wanted” posters featuring members of the gang in every post office when he was growing up. The weight of history is palpable in the exhibition, which sprawls through the entire museum and into a nearby church. Several younger artists admitted to being intimidated by the context and unsure as to whether their creations would pass muster as ruminations on a subject that has launched dozens of dissertations and documentaries.

Left: Renata Stih, Sue De Beer, and Felix Ensslin. Right: Katharina Sieverding.

That the opening coincided with the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz only added to the gravity of the proceedings. So many people showed up for the Saturday-night opening that they had to close the doors to the museum for a while and the police arrived to control the crowd. But for the most part the receptions were not boisterous affairs, mostly taking place in an apartment on the museum's premises and attended by a mix of artists, curators, journalists, politicians, and historians. All the members of this diverse crowd seemed eager to espouse their own theories about the RAF, the controversy surrounding the show, and the place of both in the German imagination. One Berlin gallery director summed up a common sentiment, expressing doubt about the quality of art chosen primarily for its subject matter but emphasizing the show's importance and her need to visit multiple times in order to fully absorb it. As Ensslin said one night at dinner, “I don’t know how this show will affect the discourse surrounding the RAF. My only hope is that it does, and that people take into account these artistic positions in the future.” Since the media attention is unlikely to die down soon—the museum is still fielding daily calls from television producers and magazine editors—it is safe to say that his wish will be granted.