Text:Heike Catherina Mertens

War and love have gone togeth­er since time immemo­r­i­al. Hele­na – sym­bol of beau­ty and paragon of male desire – was the pri­ma­ry cause for the war of all wars. Love and hate – taught Thomas Aquinas – are two forms of striv­ing and desire. With Cold War, Elmar Hess revis­its this great theme of human­i­ty in 2009 that he first explored in his film Kriegs­jahre (War Years) in 1996.

Cold War is a large-scale instal­la­tion con­sist­ing of eight large-for­mat, reen­act­ed pho­to­graph­ic por­traits of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry per­son­al­i­ties, three pho­to­graph­ic trip­tychs of major his­tor­i­cal events from the Cold War era, a trans­formed media icon, and var­i­ous sculp­tur­al objects. The title ush­ers the view­er through fic­tion­al and his­tor­i­cal imagery, where the polit­i­cal bat­tle is fought in pri­vate and Cold War becomes a syn­onym for the irrec­on­cil­able con­flict between man and woman. Elmar Hess ex-amines ide­olo­gies and prac­tices that not only divide our soci­ety polit­i­cal­ly, but also leave their marks on pri­vate life.

The key work in Cold War appro­pri­ates a pho­to by Peter Leib­ing, an icon­ic image of the Cold War show­ing Con­rad Schu­mann, an East Ger­man bor­der guard, escap­ing to West Berlin by jump­ing over a roll of barbed wire. Hess reen­acts this his­toric event not at the orig­i­nal loca­tion but in a bed­room. The sol­dier, with a sal­ad bowl on his head for pro­tec­tion and armed with a vac­u­um clean­er, is jump­ing in his paja­mas over a bed disheveled from the act of love-mak­ing. He is flee­ing to the ‘West,‘ rep­re­sent­ed by a plas­tic bag fea­tur­ing the image of a pineap­ple, while in the ‘East‘ two half-emp­tied wine glass­es are evi­dence of the abrupt end of togeth­er­ness. The sol­dier, on the run from love, tears the weapon from his shoul­der in midair like in the orig­i­nal image. The woman – the source of the con­flict – remains invis­i­ble.

In Leibing’s image, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er is seen on the left side of the pho­to, pro­vid­ing the view­er a clear view of the his­tor­i­cal event. With a keen sense, Elmar Hess makes use of Cas­par David Friedrich’s motif of the Rück­en­fig­ur (a fig­ure seen from behind), allow­ing it to take up near­ly half of the image in his pho­to­graph. The view­er thus becomes an empa­thet­ic observ­er; the jump over the bed the sub­lime moment. Revealed here, even with­out a female fig­ure in the image, is a major emo­tion­al dra­ma that the man seeks to end with vio­lent deter­mi­na­tion. A return is ruled out! Hess draws atten­tion to the emo­tion­al lev­el of this jump, the con­se­quences of which are incal­cu­la­ble. Just like trav­ellers can­not escape them­selves in for­eign lands, the sol­dier also brings his emo­tion­al bag­gage with him to the West. The social sys­tem and the pri­vate are insep­a­ra­ble; all polit­i­cal actions are under­scored by per­son­al con­vic­tions.

Elmar Hess gets to the bot­tom of this dual­ism in the eight por­trait pho­tographs by slip­ping him­self and the peo­ple around him into the roles of impor­tant Cold War pro­tag­o­nists. Chrono­log­i­cal­ly, the series begins with Lenin, who lat­er influ­enced the ide­o­log­i­cal and polit­i­cal divi­sion of the West into East and West. His like­ness, dupli­cat­ed in thou­sands of mon­u­ments, gave rise to the Cult of Lenin and a polit­i­cal and soci­etal sys­tem. Elmar Hess presents Lenin only super­fi­cial­ly in his often-por­trayed speak­er pose. The ges­tures of pow­er – the raised and clenched fists – he omits. Instead, a woman, her hair tossed over her left shoul­der like a girl, assumes Lenin’s pose and star­ing off into the dis­tance with nar­rowed eyes in a way that con­veys desire more than vision. This gaze, as well as the objects arranged loose­ly around the table such as a cut­ting board, bread, a water glass, and pen­cils, entan­gles the polit­i­cal with the pri­vate. In effect, the female Lenin is only rec­og­niz­able in the dynam­ic, for­ward-fac­ing pos­ture char­ac­ter­is­tic of many pro­pa­gan­dis­tic social­ist mon­u­ments. But the artis­tic strength of this work lies in its ambi­gu­i­ty.

In the instal­la­tion Cold War, Lenin looks toward Mao Tse-tung who, with a bliss­ful smile, seems removed from the real word, demon­strat­ing pow­er in the serene solid­i­ty of his pose. If one con­sid­ers the fact that Mao’s polit­i­cal offen­sive from 1958 to 1962, known as the “Great Leap For­ward,“ set off the largest famine in human his­to­ry, then the bor­der soldier’s leap from 1961 comes across as a cyn­i­cal-satir­i­cal com­men­tary on Mao. Coin­cid­ing with the leaps of Mao and Schu­mann, the Cold War reached its sec­ond crit­i­cal phase in 1962 with the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. Elmar Hess brings togeth­er all the pro­tag­o­nists on set: Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Che Gue­vara. The tem­plate for the ‘Guer­rillero Hero­ico‘ is the famous pho­to­graph by Alber­to Kor­da, whose por­trait of the Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion­ary became the sym­bol of an entire gen­er­a­tion. Hess lib­er­ates Che from all ide­o­log­i­cal attrib­ut­es, pre­sent­ing him as a woman star­ing off into the heav­ens.

Khrushchev is por­trayed in the pose of his mem­o­rable appear­ance at the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly. But a woman’s shoe, instead of his own low shoe, is lying on the table in front of him; cut­ting board and bread knife also sit­u­ate him in a pri­vate con­text. Por­traits of Willy Brandt with the oblig­a­tory cig­a­rette, John F. Kennedy with attrib­ut­es of love (rose and cham­pagne), and Pope John Paul II, whose papal fer­u­la turns out to be the famil­iar vac­u­um clean­er from the leap over the bed, make up the series of images in Pri­vate Politi­cians. Hess imi­tates Cold War icons inscribed in the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry (with Lenin as the begin­ning and Pope John Paul II as view­point of the fall of the Iron Cur­tain) in order to get a view of the pri­vate per­son behind the façade. The artist him­self slips into the role of Win­ston Churchill, who unsuc­cess­ful­ly plead­ed for the dis­so­lu­tion of the East­ern Bloc fol­low­ing Stalin’s death. His habit­u­al ges­ture is the vic­to­ry sign. But in the por­trait, the vic­to­ry sign and the facial expres­sion are not in align­ment. The politician’s expres­sion reflects the fierce deter­mi­na­tion of his char­ac­ter, but not the sure­ty of vic­to­ry for­ev­er under­scored by Churchill’s con­fi­dent smile. This Churchill has an air of res­ig­na­tion about him, and lays bare the inner emo­tions of the artist.

In three trip­tychs, Elmar Hess reen­acts major Cold War themes: the social­ist Broth­er­hood Kiss, which, via the exag­ger­at­ed dis­play of the warm embrace between Che and Khrushchev, is exposed in pub­lic as a hyp­o­crit­i­cal ges­ture; a secret ExComm brief-ing on the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis, which the artist uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly trans­fers to a pri­vate kitchen; and Willy Brandt’s leg­endary gen­u­flec­tion in War­saw, which wrote world his­to­ry as a sym­bol­ic ges­ture of humil­i­ty. Here the leap over the Berlin Wall comes full cir­cle. The pow­er­ful emo­tion­al ten­sion of the pro­tag­o­nists is dis­charged in a spon­ta­neous act. The pri­vate-humane becomes an icon for a polit-ical stance and, vice-ver­sa, an ide­o­log­i­cal stance (Brandt’s pol­i­cy toward the East) leads to a pri­vate ges­ture.

In Cold War, the pho­to­graph­ic works are flanked by numer­ous objects that reveal the inter­re­la­tion­ship between pri­va­cy and ide­ol­o­gy: red lip­stick as mis­sile bases, per­fume sam­ples, and hair clips as the­aters of war, and Havana cig­ars as medi­um-range mis­siles. Pri­vate every­day objects become set­tings for world pol­i­tics. In a hairdry­er, Elmar Hess also finds a humor­ous equiv­a­lent for Sput­nik 1, the sym­bol of Russ­ian space trav­el that set the West on edge. And once again we find our­selves back at female beau­ty that trig­gers wars. With irony and humor, Elmar Hess cre­ates a high­ly com­plex instal­la­tion that sub­tly presents the Cold War both visu­al­ly and nar­ra­tive­ly as a syn­onym for the inabil­i­ty of man and woman to achieve mutu­al under­stand­ing and empa­thy. Unlike Cindy Sher­man, who used staged self-por­traits to ques­tion role mod­els and social stereo­types as ear­ly as the mid-1970s, Elmar Hess takes a look at man’s inner­most traits: his emo­tions. Con­cealed in pub­lic by strong ges­tures and pos­tures, and pro­tect­ed in pri­vate by armor, they are only rarely revealed.

A chap­ter on sen­ti­men­tal tem­per­a­ture would lead us into enter­tain­ing areas of psy­cho­log­i­cal obser­va­tion. In such a chap­ter, aspects of uni­ver­sal his­to­ry would appear which, I believe, have been over­looked by moral­i­ty and art up to now,” writes José Orte­ga y Gas­set in his book On Love. [1] Elmar Hess opens our eyes to world his­to­ry, and with Cold War he has authored a chap­ter on the tem­per­a­ture of sen­ti­ments.


[1] José Orte­ga y Gas­set: On Love: Aspects of a Sin­gle Theme, Merid­i­an, New York 1957, page 17.

Text:Dirck Möllmann

The re-enact­ment has become a wide­spread tech­nique in con­tem­po­rary art, com­pre­hend­ing his­tor­i­cal events, then crit­i­cal­ly reflect­ing on them. In his work Cold War, Elmar Hess applies this tech­nique to the cold war years of the 1950‘s and 60‘s. Hess takes acquain­tances, fit­ted up as his­tor­i­cal per­son­al­i­ties, and pho­tographs them in well known, recog­nis­able pos­es. Win­ston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Che Gue­vara, Mao Tse-tung, Willy Brandt, and oth­er promi­nent par­tic­i­pants of the iron cur­tain pol­i­tics, are por­trayed with iron­ic exag­ger­a­tion, and decep­tive resem­blance. Hess‘ con­cept, then embeds them in the eter­nal dra­ma of the bat­tle of the sex­es, which is depict­ed as a mil­i­tary manoeu­vre: Lip­sticks become rock­ets, pow­der box­es become radar equip­ment, and hair­clips form a fence bar­ri­cade. Time and again, Hess‘ pre­sen­ta­tion is relat­ed to the ‘wild’ years of the taboo break­ing 1960‘s, which are iden­ti­fied as a sex­u­al­ly cod­ed pow­er strug­gle of soci­etal dimen­sions. (…)