On May 22nd 2015 a round-table discussion on how artists approach memory and trauma in both Germany and Britain took place in Sheffield. Artist Henry Tietzsch-Tyler joined by scholars Dora Osborne (Edinburgh) and Sarah Pogoda (Sheffield) for the discussion on how the ways commemoration rituals affect our identities. Esra Akkaya introduced the Bellotograph project. This project brings together Sheffield residents to create a living installation of identity and memory.


In collaboration with Bloc Projects

As part of the Festival of Arts and Humanities of the University of Sheffield

Image by Andy Brown, Sheffield.

Searching for Germany in High and Trivial Culture. German and British Approaches to today’s Germany

by Sarah Pogoda[1]


Finding Germany in the British Museum

In 2014 the British Museum showed the exhibition “Germany – Memories of a nation.” Visitors could go and find a collection that features some 200 objects representing 600 years of German history. Since I did not go to London and see the exhibition, I bought the book and I downloaded the podcasts which were produced by the BBC in collaboration with the director of the British Museum and trustee of the exhibition Neil MacGregor. Most reviews I read were very enthusiastic. The following quotation is representative for most:

“The most educational part about the exhibition, and indeed the most enjoyable, is how it kept bringing the visitor back to the notion of what Germany is, and who the Germans are. Whatever the object, and whatever period of history it comes from, the exhibition brilliantly explains how it plays a part in defining Germany, and why it resonates with today’s Germans.”[2]

This is, of course, a legitimate objective for an exhibition on Germany in the UK. Well, I am a today German, and if you are German, let’s test, if the objects resonate.

These are a few objects that were displayed during the exhibition:

      Käthe Kollwitz: “Mother with her dead son” (20th century)

      A Portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach the elderly

      A picture with Hitler in a BAUHAUS chair

      The Buchenwald Gate with the words “Jedem das Seine”

      “Eichen am Meer” by Carl Gustav Carus (19th century)

No matter how the test turns out, one has to admit that Neil MacGregor, a professed Germanophile and soon to be chair of the advisory board of the Berlin Humboldtforum, chose the displayed objects to a british audience mainly. He did not aim for the GErmans but for the British who tend to know only 12 years of German history, “the dark years” between 1933-1945, as he said.[3] From his comments you can tell that the exhibition seeks a narrative that occupies the foreign gaze on Germany. The retrospective (“Memories of nation”) also implies that only those aspects of German history are represented which help to understand today’s Germany. MacGregor explicitly stated: “Germany is a country that we have to understand better.”[4] The exhibition has a clear teaching mission and follows a hegemonic discourse on how and what shaped Germany’s past and present, collecting more or less canonical objects most of them loans from museums across Germany. MacGregor went to search for Germany and he certainly found one.


Searching for Germany with Christoph Schlingensief’s Deutschlandsuche

Already in 1999 Christoph Schlingensief went to search for Germany, too. In his actionist and performance project “Deutschlandsuche” that might be translated either with “Finding Germany” or with “Searching for Germany” Schlingensief and his cast toured around Germany, visiting 10 cities (among which were Stuttgart, Weimar, Hamburg and Kassel) in quest of Germany and its heroes.

Well equipped with a very German Soundtrack, namely Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” that served as a dowsing rod of sorts, Schlingensief discovered an Alberich in a Sparkasse in Regensburg or three Rhinemaidens in Stuttgart. So whereas MacGregor displayed memories of the German nation behind show cases, Schlingensief resuscitated those “lieux de mémoire”[5]. With that the first phase of the actionist project was not about finding representations of today’s Germany but about performing the findings. Intentionally, the documentation of the tour announced that the Wagnerian sound indeed succeeded to lure out the hidden German Heroes.[6] Of course these German heroes were random everyday people who were not even aware of their heroic qualities or them performing in a Schlingensief actionist project.

In the second phase of his project Schlingensief collected 99 objects during his tour. To name just a few:

      a dead mouse

      a tankard

      a used tampon

      the hotel sign “do not disturb”

      a package of reader’s letters from the tour

      a penalty notice Schlingensief received carrying out an unannounced protest against the Austrian right wing populist party FPÖ

      or bunches of cuddly toys

In comparison to the canonical objects of German high culture heritage in the British Museum Schlingensief’s collection of trivial objects tells another narrative. Whereas the British Museum collected 200 authorised objects from Germany’s past – most of them owning what Walter Benjamin called “Aura” –, Schlingensief’s collection appears as if they are randomly picked and lacking any connection to Germany’s past. One can raise the objection that within the performance Deutschlandsuche all these 99 objects are explicitly linked to Germany’s past, Germany’s mythical universe to be precise. The used tampon preserves the rhinemaidens’ menstruation, for instance. Furthermore collecting the objects was accompanied by the ongoing sound of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, forcefully linking the objects with a mythical German past. Therefore I suggest, that Schlingensief’s collection of 99 objects is not less representative of Germany than MacGregor’s one. But to add some more differences, Schlingensief’s objects receive their meaning only within the artistic arrangement, that means they make aware of their artificiality and constructedness, whereas MacGregor’s lack this self reflective dimension. What is striking me most is the fact that Schlingensief’s collection succeeds in presenting an insight into today’s Germany. [7]


Jettisoning Germany – Deutschland versenken

Thanks to an invitation of the MOMA in New York which was about to set up an exhibition on 25 young German artist, among which was Schlingensief, he went on a plane to New York – with him he took not only his cast but also a suitcase with the 99 objects and an urn with the ashes of Germany.

Surrounded, again, by the sound of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” he visited the Statue of Liberty. On the ferry to Liberty Island he conducted the actionist performance “Jettisoning Germany”. He literary jettisoned the baggage of Germany – represented by the 99 objects – of course to the strains of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – into the Hudson River.

This is quite characteristic for Schlingensief’s work in general. He takes metaphors in the literal sense of the word to challenge their meanings which appear as a natural course of action. In this case two sayings come into play: First the idea of “having baggage”, meaning having a past of complicated relationship and second the idea to throw something overboard. Taking the sayings literally and furthermore putting them into action confuses the clear understanding. This mainly affects the actionist performance, less the sayings. As a consequence it is difficult to evaluate and make sense of what “Jettisoning Germany”. It remains ambiguous.  What is it that Schlingensief is throwing overboard here? Is it Germany, as represented in the 99 objects from 10 German cities in the year 1999? Or is it the idea of representing a nation? Or the “baggage” of a German past? And at the same time you can read this act as full of hope. Throwing the suitcase over board, Schlingensief set it free, releasing Germany into the unknown. One can argue that this implies the the hope that it will be found by someone, someone none German, and this someone will have an idea what to do with it or about it. Well, it certainly wasn’t found by Neil MacGregor, he must have received a different message in the bottle.


Turning Germany over – Deutschland übergeben

Arrived at liberty island Schlingensief re-enacts Willy Brandt’s Warsaw Genuflection from 1970 at the monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but this time in front of the statue of liberty.

This time without the Wagnerian Soundtrack, because security guards asked Schlingensief to turn off the music. In a discussion with Alexander Kluge on “Deutschlandsuche” Schlingensief claims that the genuflection was an authentic act, him intending to pay respect to the surface of images which the statue of liberty is representing like nothing else. The statue is the symbol of a global idea of freedom. And it is the global icon of the promises of the capitalist freedom. Strikingly, Schlingensief adds, you find multilingual tablets provided on Liberty Island explaining the symbolic meaning of the statue of liberty.[8]


How does Schlingensief’s genuflection in front of the Statue of Liberty, meant as an act with humility before the surface of images, relate to the project “Deutschlandsuche” as a whole?


Rejecting or Projecting Images?

Being a filmmaker Schlingensief’s art even beyond film might be best characterized as “Arbeit am Bild” (Work on Images). Whereas he gained reputation with “The German Chainsaw Massacre” (1990) or “Terror 2000” (1992), both destructing cheerful images of recent reunified Germany, “Deutschlandsuche” ends with occupying one of the most iconic post war German images: Willy Brandt’s Warsaw genuflection. With the occupation being a reenactment and therefore an acquisition I assume that Schlingensief’s angry war against the superficial images produced by the media and other authorities and which engrave themselves into German people’s memory transformed. On the one hand, this transformation means a toleration of the surface – as Schlingensief symbolically demonstrated with the genuflection that ironically is just part of the surface – and on the other hand the transformation reaches out to produce autonomous images. Those images such as the used tampon might relate to surface but underpins.

In contrast to his earlier films and early theatre productions Schlingensief is not enough with denying hegemonic images but as Deutschlandsuche illustrates he finds a way to challenge the surface and at the same time to relate to the surface producing and projecting one’s own image onto the surface. This method appears to be legitimate since no one, not even the artist is not part of the surface oneself or affected by the surface, to some extend.


Germany’s Surfaces

As mentioned Schlingensief is well known for his “Deutschland-Trilogie” (1989-1992). All three films worked on hegemonic self-images of Germany in the late 80s, finding Germany mostly in delusion, swamp and chain saw massacres. Contrary to this Deutschlandsuche seem to be moderate. But only so far.

At this point I have to add that Schlingensief was dressed like a Hasidic Jew when he went to New York. Moreover, Schlingensief also took position on the sidewalk in front of the Goethe Institute in New York holding a sign that appealed to boycott german goods and proclaiming: “Kauft nicht bei Deutschen!” Admittingly, Schlingensief has always been carefree about using racial stereotypes and political incorrect language, but in regard to what I have said before, we might know see, where it comes from in case of the Deutschlandsuche.




Schlingensief died in 2010. Therefore he was not able to make it to the London exhibition. One wonders, how he would have responded to it. In 1999 he might probably visit the British Museum and carried out a genuflection in front of every single exhibit in humility before its surface. But he still would have been looking for Germany somewhere else but in this exhibition.

[1] This paper is an edited and generously extended version of my talk at the Roundtable “Memory and Commemoration as a Social Sculpture” on May 22nd 2015 at Bloc Projects, Sheffield.

[2]Review – Germany: Memories of a nation, exhibitionlogist, 25.11.2014, URL: https://exhibitionologist.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/review-germany-memories-of-a-nation/ (last updated 15/06/2015)

[3] Neil MacGregor, Journal Interview - Germany Exhibition - A New View of Deutschland?, Deutsche Welle, 19.10.2014. URL: http://www.dw.de/journal-interview-germany-exhibition-a-new-view-of-deutschland/av-18006512(last updated 15/06/2015) 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lieux de mémoire or “Erinnerungsorte” (German) or “memory space” is a concept related to collective memory and was first used by Pierre Nora who defines them as “complex things. At once natural and artificial, simple and ambiguous, concrete and abstract, they are lieux—places, sites, causes—in three senses—material, symbolic and functional”. Nora, Pierre: The realms of memory. Rethinking the French past, New York: Columbia University Press 1997, p 14.

[6] o.A.: Deutschlandsuche '99 / 2. Iinternationaler Kameradschaftsabend, Tourneetheater, http://www.schlingensief.com/projekt.php?id=t031  (last updated 15/06/2015).

[7] Last but not least Schlingensief’s collection is a social sculpture. I use the term in its understanding and usage by Joseph Beuys who is also one of Schlingensief’s main influences. With using a Wagnerian Soundtrack Schlingensief also brings Wagner’s idea of a “Gesamtkunstwerk” to mind on which again  Joseph Beuys based his idea of a social sculpture.

[8] Schlingensief, Christoph: Wer es ernst meint, muss Gas geben. Christoph Schlingensiefs "Werkzeugkasten der Geschichte", News & Stories - Doppelmagazin, Erstausstrahlung: 02.04.2000. URL: http://passagen.univie.ac.at/video/wer-es-ernst-meint-muss-gas-geben-2000 (last updated: 15/06/2015).