Hans-Peter Feldmann, Die Toten (The Dead), 1998, 90 photocopies on paper, each 15 3/4 x 11 13/16".

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Die Toten (The Dead), 1998, 90 photocopies on paper, each 15 3/4 x 11 13/16".

“Regarding Terror”

The history of the Red Army Faction may seem on first glance a closed book, not least because this terrorist organization announced its dissolution in 1998. But the process of legend-making continues unabated, and the RAF’s founding members—Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Ulrike Meinhof, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Holger Meins—have become saints, martyrs, or demons (depending on your viewpoint), mythical statuses produced by the German media no less than by the outlaws themselves. The extent to which the history of the RAF stretches into the present is shown by numerous recent books and films, Gerd Koenen’s excellent study Vesper, Ensslin, Baader (Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2003) and Chistopher Roth’s controversial 2002 film Baader prominent among them. While Koenen explores the links connecting the early RAF to right-wing politics and anti-semitism, Roth focuses on the group’s lifestyle, arguing that its members first chose to pursue a Bonnie-and-Clyde existence, but that the exaggerated reactions of state authorities ultimately pushed them underground and, almost accidentally, into acts of “terror.” It is thus certainly possible to gain a new perspective on the RAF.

This is precisely where “Regarding Terror” failed. Not only didn’t it offer any new perspectives on the history of Baader-Meinhof, but the artworks collected at KW—damned to serve as illustrations of the issues at hand—were almost entirely predictable. The spectrum extended from preparatory studies for Gerhard Richter’s Atlas Tafel 470, 1989, and Thomas Ruff’s newspaper photographs (Zeitungsfotos 151–158, 1991), which exhibit an apparent anxiety of influence, up to Johannes Kahr’s almost oedipally fixated 2001 portrait of Ulrike Meinhof. In any event, at the moment there seems no way past the RAF complex, a kind of magic wand one wave of which can make a German contemporary artist deserving of serious attention.

But the problem with the exhibition (organized by Klaus Biesenbach, Ellen Blumenstein, and Felix Ensslin) was more fundamental: It both overestimated and underestimated the power of art. On the one hand, it demanded that the artworks “translate” in an artistic way what seemed to be an imposed issue, in so doing functionalizing the works. As a result, even the most complex and entertaining among them, like Sigmar Polke’s Untitled (Dr. Bonn), 1978, were inadmissibly oversimplified, in this case presented as little more than a comment on criminal profiling. On the other hand, the curators didn’t seem to trust the art with the issue it was assigned to address, for each work was accompanied by a reductive explanation in the catalogue, ensuring that the artworks never strayed off topic.

On top of this, the artistic component of the exhibition was flanked by a documentary one, a kind of time line that reproduced mass-media perspectives on the RAF in the form of sloppily copied front pages of various German newspapers and magazines. As illustrative as it may well be to study ephemera from the eventful days of the so-called German Autumn (which began on September 5, 1977, with the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, and ended with the collective prison suicides—RAF sympathizers would say “murders”—of Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe forty-three days later), one is left with the feeling that this material, although placed on the wall in a lo-fi imitation of Hanne Darboven, hadn’t been analyzed. In his astonishing foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Biesenbach even claims this obvious limitation as a strength, assuring the exhibition visitor that all of the historical materials on display have already been published before. But it is precisely this redundancy that was the problem! The refusal to engage in more far-reaching analysis, however, may have been understandably defensive, given the scandal surrounding the exhibition. Initiated by the tabloid Bild, the brouhaha evolved into a full-fledged smear campaign against the show, focusing on the funding of the exhibition by the Social Democratic–Green coalition government, which was then accused of wasting public monies for a project that not only glorified terrorists but excluded their victims. KW returned the money and financed the exhibition itself, with the help of an eBay auction of donated artworks.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s Die Toten (The Dead), 1998, was, perhaps in response to the media frenzy, given a central place in the exhibition—indeed it was presented like a sacred relic in its own white shrine at the start of the show—and unavoidably transformed into a monument of reconciliation. We find in it photographs of everyone who died between 1967 and 1993, both RAF members and victims, standardized with white matting, name, and date of death; the perspective taken is not always that of the state. This work, usually presented in a laconic fashion, was nearly suffocated by the sacralizing white cube. On the other floors, one sadly realized that most of the works were either themselves one-dimensional or diminished by their installation. For examples of one-dimensionality look no further than Johannes Wohnseifer’s wardrobe (spindy, 1995), which replicated the exact dimensions of the armoire in which Schleyer was held by the RAF until his death on October 18, 1977, or Thomas Schütte’s Ferienhaus für Terroristen (Vacation House for Terrorists), 2002, which despairingly takes its cue from Martin Kippenberger’s abysmal architectures. As for the exhibition design, the video installations of Dara Birnbaum and Klaus vom Bruch, for example, tripped over each other, and Yvonne Rainer’s 1979 film Journeys from Berlin 1971 was shown as if it were an inconsequential video-beam installation.

On a more positive note, many of the artworks on display claimed to be political on their own terms (as desperate and futile as this may be), beyond functionalization and instrumentalization, as we were reminded by Joseph Beuys’s classic Dürer, ich führe persönlich Baader + Meinhof durch die Dokumenta V (Dürer, I’m Personally Leading Baader and Meinhof on a Tour Through Documenta 5), 1972. Two signs inscribed with these words are fastened to posts stuck in two gray felt slippers, which in turn are filled with thorny rose stems and fat. The name Dürer, along with the slippers, alludes to a bourgeois notion of art, but the mention of Baader and Meinhof immediately undercuts it, since art is not autonomous but inextricably intertwined with sociopolitical events. Here the most prominent German terrorists are now “personally led” by the artist through—what else?—the central event of the Western art world, Documenta. The artist presumes to show the terrorists the way, making a claim to leadership, and suggests that his name, signed at the end of the second placard, is just as significant as theirs. Ultimately, however, this pretense of sociopolitical relevance collapsed under the precarious materiality and vain appearance of the work. The two posts leaned against a wall, the slippers didn’t lead anywhere, and the work arrived in the museum as a fetish and as pure exchange value. Like the other art in KW, it seemed merely to illustrate the issue at hand.

Isabelle Graw is a Berlin-based critic.

Translated from German by Brian Currid.