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Warning Shadows; Heimat, History and Memory
Heike Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’.
I think it important at the outset to warn of a somewhat long preamble to the commentary on Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’ photo project. The reason for this is the quite unique circumstances surrounding any work of memory set in a German context. Hence my invocation, above, of Georg Kaiser’s ‘Warning Shadows’ and references to Walter Abish’s ‘How German is It’. Each in their own way shedding some light on this German ‘condition’ that Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’ is, I feel, inescapably enmeshed.
This is a condition in which personal memory, loss and identity coalesce with a nations history which itself is in some ways illusory, slipping in and out, as it does, of the shadows of ‘forgetting’.
Consider … if it is an axiom to state that all art is framed by and announced through its own culture and history i.e. the ‘social’ and the ‘political’, it follows then that artwork emerging from a culture and history of rupture or crisis would have its own particular, specific and problematic veil through which it will be measured, examined and viewed… and… Pierre Nora considers the symbolic transformation of certain rituals, buildings and artefacts into sites of memory ‘where (cultural) memory crystallises and secretes itself’. Places and rituals, flags and banners in Nora’s scheme, assume significance as the ‘memorial heritage’ of a community. We can readily see this in all societies, this reification of the abstract, the nation personified in the flag, the uniform or at the site of battle.
Given the above, what then of German memory and of German history? What of a culture in which certain symbolic rituals and artefacts and buildings only survive externally, in other nations’ fictions, tropes in other peoples’ narratives whilst at the same time all but erased internally, a history excised and a collective memory to be forgotten?
A culture so ruptured, so dislocated from its ‘memorial heritage’ (we should acknowledge at this point that much of the iconography of Nazism drew from older/ wider Germanic culture but became tainted by its usage) has, surely, a huge void at its social, symbolic core?
And rupture is, I feel, a fitting way to describe that shift from the very rich and profound culture of, in no particular order - Goethe, Hauptmann, Wedekind, Pabst, Murnau and so much more- as it was swept away by the noxious aberration of the National Socialist project.
That this period remains potent in its bracketing of any activity involving memory and history in the context of Germany is clear. This is the stuff of Abish’s fiction that he works away at and it is the material of Löwenstein’s study that she wrestles to contain in her personal history project.
In ‘How German Is It’, Walter Abish obliquely dissects this society in which its recent past has been wiped out and replaced with a specious German ness of ‘…gleaming Mercedes, Audis, BMWs, Porsches… and businessmen selling dishwashers to Ethiopia…’
Employing a detached ironic narration, facets of this ‘new Germany’ are considered long enough only to destabilise and make suspect what are otherwise routine activities and motifs under the authors chilled, inventorial gaze. A position not unlike Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’ which employs a sparse verite approach that belies the subject matter.
In Abish’s Germany very little is as it first appears as the polished and ordered veil of the ‘now’ slips and slides as other ‘surfaces’ appear. In the ‘Heimat’ series the pictures operate as visual prompts, akin to clues in an intriguing photo play in which the surface detail is merely a departure point.
This results in a layering of surfaces wherein much is described. For Abish, the detail of building shapes, a predilection for black leather, robust cakes and rich pastries are patiently provided… his fictive ‘Brumholdstein’ is punctured, riven by the past, its own past. In ‘How
German is It’, the concrete of the present is, it seems, always deferred, undermined by the narrators’ droll description or some sudden act of violence emanating from unexpected sources.
The surety of memory, personal and collective, and the spurious comfort of erasure are tested here as Abish conflates Germany’s fictional and real.
‘How German is It’ provides, then, a suitable correlation for Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’ project: a photo study that very much operates in the same ‘surface’ field… a series of ostensibly related scenes who’s apparent randomness is unified by that title – ‘Heimat’.
Announcing the work in this way, Löwenstein’s series of pictures is inevitably bound by and shot through with the reverberations of her homeland together with her parents’ past.
The word ‘heimat’ shares with the word ‘unheimlich’, that geo- specific resonance that denies easy transfer across border or culture. For me it signals a German ness on hold rather than affirmed, chimeric rather than mythic as Germany’s wider, other history/ies continue in the shadows of the overarching WW2 episode. This is the narrative into which all other German activities seem to collapse and which continues to leak out and proliferate through any number of popular, academic and artistic treatments. Hirschbiegel’s ‘Downfall’ and Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Bastards’ being recent examples in film.
Furthermore, ‘hiemat’ now marks the particular historical period shared by both Abish and Löwenstein, one fictional, the other a project of recovery - wherein questions such as ‘how German is it?’ and ‘what is Germany?’ and ‘what is German ness?’ underscore and imbue each work with a sombre cast.
Like Ulrich in Abish’s story, Löwenstein is returning to the ‘homeland’ and brings with her an outsider or alienated perspective to once familiar surroundings. She states that she became aware, whilst editing some shots she took on a visit to her home town suburb of Cologne, that the pictures she had taken represented not so much snapshots from home but “represent some of my own but also universal feelings of alienation/searching for identity that we all experience… particularly in relation to the search for a German identity, which for obvious reasons is full of issues, history, theories and isn't concluded”.
At this point, the artist is faced with a stark choice. Either to ignore the possibilities that such convergence of personal memory and historical narrative afford, fraught with complications as any reclamation of the German ‘story’ clearly is. Or to recognise the parallels and overlaps and place ones work, ones personal enquiry, into that greater ongoing and contested process of history and identity formations.
Löwenstein, then, is operating in a socio/historical double bind… how can a German artist separate out the personal, the familial from that German past? Nostalgia in a German context has an altogether different dimension than elsewhere, pictures of train tracks, as here, evoke altogether more menacing tones.
The ‘Heimat’ series is marked out by location settings, Part 1 Koln 2005, Part 2 Koln 2007, PART 3 Nurnberg 2007 and so on, seven parts in all.
We are presented with images of the domestic, the suburban and (almost) bucolic in a series of photographs remarkable only for their stubborn denial to yield anything more than the surface of what they describe.
These pictures, whilst ostensibly ‘about’ a personal history so avoid the personal (and the political) to such a degree that one can only assume it is a strategy on Löwensteins part. I’m not sure. But little of the personal or political is explicit in this work. Her journey in these pictures is realised in what they allude to but only cumulatively arrive at. Here in these pictures is a heightened, darkened sense of the familiar, her gaze as askance as Abish’s in excavating the layers in search of some resolution, maybe of some healing too.
As the series unfolds there is the slow realisation that the pictures are avoiding that which they purport to reveal. Frame by frame they insist upon, perversely, ‘that which is not there’!
Löwenstein’s pictures of building structures, still lives and newly laid table linen all bear the same atrophied, melancholic cast. In this ‘Heimat’, nature is funereal, buildings abandoned and interiors rendered joyless. Rarely have sunflowers appeared so forlorn.
For Löwenstein, the only position to take is an oblique one, to make pictures in the hope of closing that gap between memory and the present in her project of recovery, of reconciliation with her past… the parallels with her country are exact and problematic.
This accounts for the remarkable absences in Löwenstein’s series. The series of pictures reveal, in the gaps they leave, the past that shall not be spoken of, that past which has been erased and is problematic as the personal and greater social narrative merges.
These pictures are largely people- less. When they do appear they are forlorn figures in an empty market square or anonymous silhouettes negotiating tram lines, as an ancient statue points (I like to imagine) mockingly at the giant ‘i phone’ billboard exhorting us to ‘keep in touch’… The occasional family pictures she includes are equally solemn, non committal moments.
Löwenstein examines more the fabric of place rather than the transience of people. The organisation of space and of buildings, the design detail of railway shelters and brushed steel door furniture are scrutinized, pressed for information, ‘it must be here’, insist these pictures. Of course, some truth is revealed in that which we build, that which we organize and the fabric that speaks of us, of ‘heimat’. Each society is laid bare in what it prioritises and omits in the environment it creates. These pictures present to us, in plain speak, the surface material, almost as if to remove herself from the act of deeper scrutiny.
It is this obtuse probing which sets ‘Heimat’ apart from, lets say, more proselytising photo studies in which the viewer is left with no questions to ask, those images which are closed to interpretation- revealing as they do - too much… too much description, too laden with portent and too heavy on the symbolism. Not so with this allusive, spare study.
Löwenstein’s is a spectral ‘heimat’, the closer one looks the less one sees for sure, the clues are in the abstract as she struggles to give form to memory that is so opaque and possibly too painful to address. Always in these pictures is a sense that her gaze is in part a reluctant one, that just maybe she might prefer to make different pictures yet is impelled to make these.
But if this is a gaze that dare not look too closely, then that melancholy may contain a palliative in ‘the natural’ which features in almost every picture in one form or another, as if a connection to something knowable in a study that seeks answers.
Two images use treetops, occupying the bottom of the frame, as if tentative lifelines, necessary as she looks over and contemplates what is beyond. Another photograph invites us along a muddied rutted path to the entrance of a maze, a drooping barely recognizable German flag peaks out atop the bushes, the wall between the viewer and that flag.
There is one picture that singularly manages to encapsulate Löwenstein’s enterprise here. The photograph is, border to border, a dense layer of foliage thinning from left to right revealing the framework to which it clings. Amidst leaves of decay there are glimmers of colour, indistinct forms and a burst of light… the dying of the light or light anew… a beautiful, haunting photograph that signals within its layers the complexities of the ‘Heimat’ project. This is so of the series as a whole. Work that avoids shouting its message, images that patiently presents us with material in a manner that says that ‘this was there’. Photographs that refuse closure, that remain alive in their ambiguity.
Löwenstein’s ‘Heimat’ represents an intelligent, sensitive attempt to come to terms with a personal history, difficult in itself, whilst working in a context so layered, so complex as to make the study as tortuous as one could imagine. It can be placed in that photo history of work that observes without preaching and demonstrates the cameras continued ability to engage with the least obviously ‘photographic’ of themes. More, these pictures mark out the ways in which our personal history/ies are bound to and emerge from those greater historical narratives and that to think otherwise is a conceit. The personal identity we so prize as unique is exposed as a minor vanity in the exhumation of history.
‘Heimat’ is an admirable, obtuse topography of the past, an appropriate and maybe the only register for an examination of the hypnotic state that is memory.
John Donaldson march 10