Text:Frank Barth

In the project Free­dom is not for free Hess cre­ates an apoc­a­lyp­tic vision of a love con­flict cloaked as a court­room dra­ma fan­ta­sy. The dis­pute ends in a War Crimes Tri­bunal, where the cov­et­ed woman is con­vict­ed for appar­ent cal­lous­ness: deci­sions of the heart mutate into a crim­i­nal case. Con­trary to bet­ter judge­ment, the case becomes a trou­ba­dour-grotesque tale of atti­tudes and stereo­types.

The work is com­posed of videos, objects and fic­tion­al doc­u­men­tary pho­tos. Behind the indi­vid­ual dra­ma a pic­ture is paint­ed of a soci­ety where the media impedes the ful­fil­ment of human aspi­ra­tions through lob­by­ing and manip­u­la­tion.

Text:Sabine Maria Schmidt

In 2006 with Free­dom is not for free, Elmar Hess has devised a com­pre­hen­sive con­cept for an instal­la­tion that presents film spa­tial­ly or con­verts it into an oper­at­ic for­mat replete with side attrac­tions.

The cen­tral focus of the work is the apoc­a­lyp­tic vision of a lovers con­flict nar­rat­ed with dra­mat­ic, reen­act­ed, and mon­taged images of war and which uses his­tor­i­cal events as screens and pro­jec­tion sur­faces for deal­ing con­cep­tu­al­ly and ana­lyt­i­cal­ly with a pri­vate dra­ma of the soul. The failed rela­tion­ship ends before a war crimes tri­bunal, which con­demns the antag­o­nist for her sup­posed heart­less­ness. Hess employs a strat­e­gy that pen­e­trates sub­jec­tive real­i­ty and per­cep­tion with filmic images, and, in his work, links the topos of a messy divorce with archive footage from the Viet­nam War as well as numer­ous allu­sions to the film clas­sic Apoc­a­lypse Now by Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la.

Orig­i­nal­ly designed for five rooms, Hess con­sol­i­dates the instal­la­tion of videos, objects, and fic­tion­al doc­u­men­tary pho­tographs into a sin­gle-room, mul­ti-part frag­ment con­sist­ing of a video trip­tych, a b/w film, var­i­ous pho­tographs, and a film mono­logue.

In Free­dom is not for free, emo­tion­al­ly con­trast­ing world­views col­lide: the pro­tag­o­nist, melan­cholic, and lat­er war vet­er­an encoun­ters the emo­tion­al insta­bil­i­ty of a woman who seeks her self-esteem pri­mar­i­ly from the con­fir­ma­tion of oth­ers. Mara, the ven­er­at­ed, cov­et­ed and to-be-con­quered, is a singer, mod­el, adver­tis­ing icon, and tele­vi­sion star – some­one who not only embod­ies but lives the image she is. Out­ward­ly, she is an ‘auto­crat­ic regime‘ who copes with a cult of per­son­al­i­ty and mass demon­stra­tions, but in Free­dom is not for free she turns out to be an object of a media cam­paign that cap­i­tal­izes on a lack – gen­er­at­ed by an entire­ly eroti­cized con­sumer indus­try – of inward, inter­per­son­al togeth­er­ness. From the out­set, Hess crit­i­cizes the psy­cho­log­i­cal pat­terns dic­tat­ed by social con­straints and media manip­u­la­tions that trans­form the pri­vate ‘into hell.‘ Thus, the war that rages does not con­test the topoi of the bat­tle between the gen­ders as much as it does the clichéd images that are con­densed out of and linked to it.

In the instal­la­tion, the war of these images begins with the cen­tral trip­tych in which the antag­o­nist, in the mid­dle of a pho­to shoot, pos­es as a las­civ­i­ous vamp in a trans­par­ent-gold­en dress before a glow-ing red back­ground and amidst sway­ing palms. Cam­era flash­es occa­sion­al­ly fire; equal­ly bizarre are the fans float­ing around the room of images, accom­pa­nied acousti­cal­ly by the pen­e­trat­ing sounds of heli­copter rotors. In addi­tion, a looped ver­sion of The End can be heard – the song by the Doors that was used for the begin­ning scene and the end (the killing of Colonel Kurtz played by Mar­lon Bran­do) of Apoc­a­lypse Now. On the left side of the trip­tych, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er moves around with his cam­era lens­es as if ‘heav­i­ly armed‘; in the enact­ment, his equip­ment sug­gests de fac­to anti-air­craft weap-onry. Seen on the right side is a glass shelf with var­i­ous per­fume bot­tles, the antagonist’s arse­nal of weapon­ry. Her per­for­mance is not only fea­tured iron­i­cal­ly in anoth­er part of the instal­la­tion, in the b/w film Fleet sit­u­at­ed oppo­site the video trip­tych, but, in the con­text of the Viet­nam ref­er­ences, al-ludes direct­ly to napalm.

The film Fleet, shot entire­ly in slow-motion, is an abridged, con­tem­po­rary-style, hero­ic Arg­onaut saga in which the pro­tag­o­nist – Hess plays here a young fleet gen­er­al – sets out in the man­ner of Clause­witz, to con­quer by inva­sion. For the most part, Fleet is pre­sent­ed as a fic­tion­al film fea­tur­ing only a few archive scenes. The fas­ci­na­tion with his­tor­i­cal images is also cou­pled with their iron­ic twist when inflat­ed bal­loon hearts are deliv­ered as car­go on the ship, lip­stick mis­siles show up on radar, or sport­ing exer­cis­es are trans­formed into a soldier’s bal­let. Still, the male rit­u­als, cer­e­monies, parades, and vic­to­ry incan­ta­tions belie the impend­ing demise inevitably await­ing the troops. Those who set out to con­quer an unwill­ing heart start
a cam­paign they will nev­er win.

Where­as, in the frag­ment-ver­sion, pho­tographs and mod­els are used to insin­u­ate the bat­tle, the sub­se­quent war tri­bunal, and the invent­ed, night­mar­ish vision of the antagonist’s exe­cu­tion, the installation’s main heft comes from a demor­al­ized protagonist’s war vet­er­an-monolog, seen on a small mon­i­tor to the side of the video pro­jec­tions. Sit­ting in a wheel­chair, the pro­tag­o­nist is watch­ing a TV tal­ent show in which the object of his ado­ra­tion, the per­former of a banal tech­no song, is declared the win­ner before a scream­ing audi­ence. Hess restages Colonel Kurtz’s mono­logue from Apoc­a­lypse Now using the same cam­era work, dra­mat­ic light­ing, ges­ture, man­ner of speak­ing, and direct quotes. Where­as the sup­pos­ed­ly mal­treat­ed fig­ure is under­stood here to be the source of his own con­flict, the woman increas­ing­ly appears as vic­tim and the dis­crep­an­cy between the protagonist’s accu­sa­tions toward the woman and her legal adju­di­ca­tion by a court is bla­tant. In a kind of self-ana­lyt­i­cal delir­i­um, the man’s visions reveal them­selves to be ever-inten­si­fy­ing mis­pro­jec­tions that have com­plete­ly lost their con­nec­tion to real­i­ty. At the same time, the analy­sis con­trast with the equal­ly ludi­crous mad­ness on TV, the abstruse com­men­tary of the tal­ent show mod­er­a­tor, and the pre­sent­ed adver­tis­ing breaks.

In Free­dom is not for free, Elmar Hess osten­si­bly works with dras­tic com­par­isons, exhaust­ed and cloy­ing images that he presents as the result of an over­ar­ch­ing strat­e­gy of manip­u­la­tion of media and eco­nom­ic inter­ests. They are images that reveal them­selves, but which are capa­ble, in their inces­sant rep­e­ti­tion, of inscrib­ing them­selves on the soul and impreg­nat­ing per­son­al encoun­ters. With his jour­ney through time in images, Hess reminds us that the Viet­nam War and sex­u­al lib­er­a­tion simul­ta­ne­ous­ly trans­formed the polit­i­cal and pri­vate struc­tures of West­ern soci­eties. The mot­to “Make Love not War,” which adver­tis­ing quick­ly adopt­ed, long ago led to a ‘shift­ing of the bat­tle zones.‘ Here, Hess ref­er­ences the cre­do of the author Michel Houelle­becq, who stat­ed that roman­tic love cen­tered on the entire­ty of a per­son is no longer pos­si­ble fol­low­ing a pur­pose­less encounter with ‘lib­er­at­ed‘ lifestyles – ones mea­sured accord­ing to attrac­tive­ness and pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess – of a gen­er­a­tion dom­i­nat­ed sole­ly by cap­i­tal­ism. Hence, the pro­tag­o­nists in Free­dom is not for free do not demon­strate any fur­ther indi­vid­ual char­ac­ter devel­op­ment that would allow them to become inde­pen­dent­ly oper­at­ing deci­sion mak­ers. Rather, they are rep­re­sen­ta­tives on a scale of pro­fes­sion­al and pri­vate suc­cess­es and fail­ures, as well as ascribed and inter­nal­ized imag­i­nary worlds and moral ideals.

Total war takes us from mil­i­tary secre­cy (the sec­ond-hand, record­ed truth of the bat­tle­field) to the over-expo­sure of live broad­cast. For with the advent of strate­gic bomb­ing every­thing is now brought home to the cities, and it is no longer just the few but a whole mass of spec­ta­tor-sur­vivors who are the sur­viv­ing spec­ta­tors of combat.”[1] Seem­ing­ly com­pa­ra­ble today is the over­ex­po­sure of role mod­els, eroti­cism, and love rela­tion­ships, which, in their rapid com­mer­cial­iza­tion and as ongo­ing medi­al events, deliv­er frag­men­tary ele­ments that any­one can use to stage his or her own real­i­ty with­out still hav­ing to resort to authen­tic rela­tion­ships.

To shut out all gen­uine feel­ings, to break their resis­tance, to sub­ju­gate their heav­i­est heart, and then to change the rules of the game, the rules of the game of a man whose great­est abil­i­ty is emo­tion­al indif­fer­ence,” is the con­clu­sion of the vet­er­an por­trayed by Hess who also com­ments on the rules of the TV tal­ent show. “The hor­ror and moral ter­ror are your friends,” for­mu­lates Colonel Wal­ter E. Kurtz in ref­er­ence to Joseph Conrad’s nov­el, Heart of Dark­ness, “If they are not, then they are ene­mies to be feared.”


[1] Paul Vir­ilio, War and Cin­e­ma, Ver­so, New York 1989, page 83.