Text:Heike Catherina Mertens

In his work Einen Frieden später, which extends over sev­er­al rooms, Elmar Hess inter­weaves a very per­son­al life sto­ry with world his­to­ry – the pri­vate becomes polit­i­cal, the polit­i­cal pri­vate.

In 1966 sea­man Har­ald Thomas from Ros­tock weighs anchor in Ham­burg with the GDR car­go ship “Frieden“ and meets Han­nah Ewers, an employ­ee of the Port Author­i­ty. A for­bid­den love sto­ry begins, because as a cit­i­zen of the GDR Har­ald is not allowed to talk with the young woman from the West. For years, the two meet dur­ing his stays in Ham­burg, write let­ters in the months in between. A thought­less state­ment by Har­ald that he would final­ly stay in Ham­burg from the next shore leave brings him the indict­ment of the attempt­ed escape from the Repub­lic. When Har­ald refus­es to com­ply with the request of the state secu­ri­ty to use his girl­friend in Ham­burg as an infor­mant, he is sen­tenced to prison. Only years after the fall of the Wall, the two see each oth­er again.

Par­al­lel to this micro­cosm of a love sto­ry that unfolds from one stay of the ship “Frieden“ to the next in the Port of Ham­burg, Ger­man-Ger­man his­to­ry with its rival net­work of rela­tion­ships to world pol­i­tics takes place on the macro lev­el. From hun­dreds of news­reel film clips, Elmar Hess com­bines a panop­ti­con of wars and the ensu­ing peace efforts of the 20th and ear­ly 21st cen­tu­ry. In close suc­ces­sion, the artist shows pic­tures of his­tor­i­cal abysses from 1933 to the present day: The hor­ror of World War II is fol­lowed by the War­saw Pact in the East and by join­ing the

NATO in the West and, asso­ci­at­ed with this, the arms race and the cor­re­spond­ing pro­pa­gan­da, which quick­ly los­es sight of the peo­ple and their desire for peace. It is always only ›one peace lat­er‹ and not peace itself. Thus, with atten­tive con­sid­er­a­tion, we repeat­ed­ly see in the films polit­i­cal calls such as ’Fight for peace’, as if peace can be achieved by force of arms.

The films go along with icons of ter­ror and hor­ror: the burn­ing World Trade Cen­ter on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, the abduct­ed pris­on­er of Abu Ghraib, and the pho­to of the dead Syr­i­an boy Aylan Kur­di on the beach of Bodrum, which became a medi­al sym­bol for the human­i­tar­i­an tragedy of today‘s refugee cri­sis.

The artist con­trasts pri­vate images with these pic­to­r­i­al icons. The life and love sto­ry of Har­ald and Han­nah is told from child­hood to old age on the basis of pho­tos and objects, staged in the tra­di­tion of the Musée Sen­ti­men­tal. By link­ing the per­son­al his­to­ry of the two lovers with polit­i­cal his­to­ry, Elmar Hess not only per­mits to expe­ri­ence the con­se­quences of polit­i­cal deci­sions emo­tion­al­ly, vir­tu­al­ly first-hand, but more impor­tant­ly, he shows that his­to­ry is not a com­plet­ed process. His­to­ry can­not be checked off in sci­en­tif­ic trea­tis­es and text­books. His­to­ry is not lin­ear but proces­su­al and sub­ject to a con­stant rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of those who address them­selves to it. Just as every per­son­al expe­ri­ence inscribes itself into our mem­o­ry and into our­bod­ies, the expe­ri­ences of war and destruc­tion, of loss and death, are trans­mit­ted from one gen­er­a­tion to the next and deter­mine our actions and deci­sions in the here and now. The proces­su­al char­ac­ter of his­to­ry and its inter­pre­ta­tion finds ist equiv­a­lent in the assem­blage tech­nique of Elmar Hess. The artist reassem­bles his­tor­i­cal filmic evi­dence and thus opens our eyes to the coher­ences and rela­tion­ships between the his­tor­i­cal events. Polit­i­cal­ly as well as pri­vate­ly, every­thing is just mutu­al­ly depen­dent, noth­ing is iso­lat­ed. This espe­cial­ly applies to today’s glob­al­ized world.

The most essen­tial point in the work Einen Frieden später, how­ev­er, is the image itself, which Elmar Hess ques­tions in a mul­ti­fac­eted man­ner. Noth­ing in this work is authen­tic and yet every­thing you see is more real­is­tic than real­i­ty itself. Unlike in a Musée Sen­ti­men­tal, the pho­tographs, let­ters and doc­u­ments that appear in the exhi­bi­tion are not col­lect­ed and found objects but works cre­at­ed by the artist’s hand. Even the birth cer­tifi­cates were cre­at­ed in the stu­dio. And yet they could be authen­tic and every­thing could have hap­pened exact­ly as Elmar Hess tells us; even more, the sto­ry of Har­ald and Han­nah has hap­pened a hun­dred times – in this way or anoth­er.

With Einen Frieden später Elmar Hess cre­ates a les­son of self-see­ing and crit­i­cal per­cep­tion. Artists are spe­cial­ists in terms of visu­al per­cep­tion. They open up our eyes and teach us to see the essence behind the sur­face. Once again, Elmar Hess points out that we need to ques­tion the cred­i­bil­i­ty of our media society’s images; that we need to pay spe­cial atten­tion to the words and music that lie above these images and to check their valid­i­ty.

And of course – that, too, is a con­sis­ten­cy in the work of Elmar Hess – it’s about love. It is love that awak­ens our long­ing for free­dom and that con­stant­ly nour­ish­es our hope for peace. A pos­i­tive mes­sage at a time when more peo­ple are flee­ing war and per­se­cu­tion than ever before in the his­to­ry of mankind.