German history through the prism of art

The room is turning. In the darkness of the space, the light from a video projection illuminates a circular wall. You have to often look away, finding your foothold as the film pulls you in, combining a tragic past with the present. The scene follows two young men across the mausoleum at the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, built by architect Wiktor Tolkin in 1969. The film is part of —
Tranquil Motions
— an extensive retrospective, of influential 65-year-old German video-artist, Marcel Odenbach’s work that covers three decades of his practice produced by the National Gallery of Modern Art and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan.

Tragic trajectories

Curated by Matthias Mühling for the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (IFA), the Odenbach show is a study connecting the German trauma of Nazi rule with atrocities across the world. The artist explores, “the Rwandan genocide, images of masculinity in Turkey, and the role of women in Venezuela, between the familiar and the foreign, between his own biography and the history of others,” states the curatorial note. His tryst with video began in the 1970s, at a time when the art form didn’t possess the technical prowess of today. Odenbach demonstrates how evolving cinema and television over the years has also transformed his own work.

Known to combine documentaries, picture collages, and his own understanding of history, Odenbach presents a globalised society using various cultures as a backdrop. In the video described above, Odenbach moves between narrow concrete ravines, and the insides of the mausoleum, as if nothing exists outside of this closed space. Titled ‘Turning in Circles (2009),’ the 15-minute video is an ode to the people sacrificed at the Poland concentration camp, while letting the viewer experience his/her place in the work. “Is a memorial allowed to be cosy at all?” questions the young boy in the film, as we’re finally left with the outside of the cold concrete monument. We see it as a giant sacrificial urn, storing the ashes of the one’s who tragically lost their lives.

Multiple memories

In a video titled, ‘Dialogue between East and West,’ Odenbach features himself in conversation with a man named Gabor Body. The black-and-white film made in 1978, alternates between shots of the two men who wish to converse, but produce only bubbles instead. Is this Odenbach’s way to demonstrate ‘lost in translation’? His film,
As if Memories Could Deceive Me
(1986), fills this space in a montage between a dream world and historical imagery. Documentary footage from the Nazi era which depicts Hitler in power, book burnings, and scenes from the Nuremberg trials, are played interspersed between reels of a child playing a piano; soon replaced by Odenbach taking on the role of the pianist. Using a split screen method, the artist formulates conflicting sights and sounds. This makes the viewer aware of how memory exists alone, even if subjected to the realistic picture in front of you.

Most of Odenbach’s films use multiple videos set side-by-side. It creates a panoramic vision of sorts, an open book, with the pages turning themselves. He calls the act of viewing his work to be more physical. “You have to move in the space between the images on both screens. In a way you’re doing your own editing,” he explains. This is apparent in the most important piece of the show, a two-part video installation about the Rwandan genocide titled, ‘In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk (2004/2003). Odenbach narrates the emotional journey of the genocide that took place in 1994, which killed more than 800,000 people in three months.

Impending doom

It took the artist six-seven years to complete the work that he has divided into seven chapters. Having to sift through 25 hours of material, the film was shaped over half a year. Through chapters titled, ‘I can forget the images, but never the smell, and ‘When will God go to sleep again in Rwanda,’ the film follows peaceful landscapes, farmers working in banana plantations, and cows being milked, quickly trailed by dead bodies, and unforgettable montages of children screaming. The music from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and the radio broadcasts that incited the genocide play in the background. In a way the video shows barely any violence and death, and yet, death feels omnipresent.

This was a conscious effort by Odenbach who wanted to be sensitive about depicting something he wasn’t part of. At the same time, he attempts to bring about a personal angle, being a citizen of a country that had its own holocaust. “Even after 25 years, this piece is teaching me how to create a story. It’s most important because I really learnt how to get rid of the material I liked the most,” explains Odenbach.

The show also includes Odenbach’s works on paper. In a massive collage, titled ‘A Day at the Sea (2012),’ viewers are greeted with a sense of calm blue waters. On taking a closer look, the painting moves from being a singular piece, to a mosaic of elements that depict the sea as a symbol of longing as well as a religious metaphor. He uses the same technique in his work, ‘Traumatic Tropics (2004/2012),’ which on a macro level are palm trees, but are actually a composite of photographs relating to the colonial history of Africa, and the history of the American civil rights movement.

Odenbach began creating videos when it wasn’t really considered to art. One can distinguish his work by the amount of time he spends with a singular clip He isn’t worried about letting the scene sit. “How long can you stretch an image?” he asks. The artist acknowledges that he is far more critical today, and takes a lot longer to accept that a work is finally finished. What ties Odenbach’s work together is his shifting narrative, that is guided by haunting background scores, and often lingering in the quiet spaces in between the cinematic thought.

Tranquil Motions
is ongoing at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Fort until November 30.

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