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.