The idea that human violence will one day disappear is one of the greatest promises of modern times – and a recurrent theme in art. Has this hope turned out to be an illusion in light of the war and turmoil all over the world today?
An exhibit at the Berlin KW Institute for Contemporary Art called “Fire and Forget. On Violence” appears to maintain just that. It is senseless to hope for an end to violence or to want to conquer it with force. Violence is not an entity that one can simply do away with, it is always among us, hidden but omnipresent. Instead of fighting it, we have to avoid it or contain it.
In order to be able to contain violence, we first need to be aware of it. One example is the inherent violence of a very normal country border. On the one hand, walls and fences offer people security, but on the other they create sides and demarcate friends and enemies. Borders create division and exclusion — namely violence.
In Berlin, visitors to the exhibit are supposed to feel this first-hand. Before they enter the space they must wedge through the black turnstiles titled “Tourniquet,” created by the Ukrainian artist Daniil Galkin. Javier Téllez wants to show how arbitrarily borders are drawn and filmed a protest rally on the Mexico-U.S. border in which a man lets himself be shot out of a cannon over the fence on the border, landing softly in a net – the fence looks somewhat ludicrous under his elegantly flying body.
Video: Javier Telles’ cannon act.
In contrast, there is the nightmarish installation by the artists Roy Brand, Ori Scialom and Keren Yeala Golan. They built an apparatus in which a machine-driven needle scratches the Israeli boundary lines in the sand. With war, the occupied territories and illegal settlements the borders grow, and suddenly the metal slide is pulled back and all traces disappear. Nothing remains of the nation other than the desert. Then the fine needle begins its work again with cold precision.
The idea that the enemy is just dangerous biomass that must be destroyed is not entirely new: U.S pilots dropped napalm bombs on villages from a great height in the Vietnam War.
Walls, demarcations, obstacles or the battle for raw materials may explain many wars, but what they do not explain is the lust for violence, the libidinous moment of the act of killing. The artist group Neozoon shows men and women on the hunt. Possessed of a hunting fever, they pose laughing over their kill, as if the death of an animal increases the enjoyment of life.
One specialty of advanced civilization is automated and anonymous killing that effectively crushes human empathy. James Bridle expressed this with the menacing silhouette of a combat drone on the asphalt.
The idea that the enemy is just dangerous biomass that must be destroyed is not entirely new: U.S pilots dropped napalm bombs on villages from a great height in the Vietnam War. The exhibition shows Harun Farocki’s film “Inextinguishable Fire” from 1969. At two thousand degrees celsius, napalm incinerates the skin into a jelly-like mass, and victims must watch themselves die. It was the use of napalm that resulted in a hatred of Christian America where none existed before.
Naturally, it would be too cheap to make the excuse of evil being timeless. Joachim Koester, in his piece “The Place of Dead Roads,” shows the power of cultural codes in a captivating video that puts violence center stage. Women play Wild West heroines, ritualizing violence without firing a shot.
The curators Ellen Blumenstein and Daniel Tyradellis may have envisioned such sublimation with their plan. They do not want to transform swords into plowshares, they want to “play” with violence and to take the dark attractiveness from the killing machines.
But this disarming only works in art, in the sphere of aesthetic impotence. Like Chinese artist He Xiangyu’s giant tank sewn together out of fragrant leather bags. Or in the video of the Palestinian artist Sharif Waked, where we think we see a Hamas attacker, but it turns out just to be someone reading “holy warriors” from “The Thousand and One Nights.”
This article first appeared in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org