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. (...)