The instal­lation Elizabeth consists of a number of themat­i­cally inter­con­nected rooms. These provide the work a chapter-based structure similar to the dramatur­gical sequence of a film. The individual rooms are an inter­action of moving images, cinematic sequences, photographs, and artefacts.

In the first room of the instal­lation, the history of a legendary ship—the “Queen Elizabeth 2” (QE2)—is presented and serves as the starting point of the exhibition. Chris­tened in 1967 by the Queen of England, and at one time a celebrated prestige object of the Cunard Line operating on the transat­lantic route, the ship accomo­dated the political and cultural celebrities of an epoch, from the Beatles, Salvador Dali, Henry Kissinger, Roman Polanski, Diana Spencer to the band The Cure, or Marilyn Manson. After thirty-nine years of service, the ship was sold to the United Arab Emirates and has remained idle ever since, rotting at an orphaned pier in Dubai.

The instal­lation juxta­poses the dazzling history of QE2 and its dismal end with a personal history, a biography that is, in a peculiar way, existen­tially tied to the ship’s chrono­logical trajectory. A formative experience, an encounter with the ship shortly after it was commis­sioned, provides the beginning:

It was a coinci­dence, a chance meeting during a canal crossing to England in June 1972: from the deck of a ferry boat a child watched the enormous transat­lantic vessel set sail for America—at that time already an anachronism since the era of passenger liners on the North Atlantic had been over for some time. Famous ships had given way to the mass-produced plane, luxurient journeys became unprof­itable, and the “Queen Elizabeth 2” was the only remaining passenger liner operating on the tradi­tional route.

Soon the ship disap­peared on the horizon, but its image remained anchored in the mind of the child, and before long in the mind of the youth and ultimately of the adult, becoming for him a synonym for perma­nence and individ­u­ality given the steamer’s anguished, excep­tional status in the midst of widespread fast-paced advance­ments and a leveling of differ­ences. The passionate enthu­siast collected every photo­graph of the ship, every newspaper report, memora­bilia and books; with every­thing he finds on the steamer, he is involved in every facet and detail of the ship’s history—from the day of the encounter to the present. Over the years, the ship thus becomes for him an object of yearning and identi­fi­cation, and, against the backdrop of an ever-changing world of global networking, a shift to the virtual, and an omnipresent “be flexible, current, every­where, and inter­na­tional,” a spiritual anchor point and emotional home. But he avoids an actual encounter with the real ship again.

It is only with the birth of his young daughter that things change: it is her curiosity, her childish wanting-to-know-about-everything-and-everyone—including the ship, whose anguish subsumes her father—that finally motivates him to travel to Dubai to see the ship. He takes his child with him…

 

Starting from the history described, the instal­lation Elizabeth thema­tizes the contem­porary loss of belong­ingness and sense of home. Referring to Richard Sennet’s thesis of the “flexible man” and the shifting under­standing of home in a globalized society, the instal­lation presents the personal narrative as sympto­matic of a more funda­mental phenomenon, which is also vividly reflected not least in the episodes from the QE2’s history:

When the ship departed England for the last time shortly before being decom­mis­sioned in November 2008, nearly one million people lined the banks with their national flags in hand. The midnight scene with the ship immersed in flood­light resembled a ritual­istic event from long-past epochs, a dance around the golden calf, behind which the real—and ultimately profane—significance of the ship disap­peared. A scene compa­rable to the mass crowds of papal visits, excessive partic­i­pation in football matches, or the storming of Apple stores by hysterical i‑Phone disciples—a world seeking to evade the loss of a sense of belonging and community and a lack of stability and security.

Virtual networks also contribute to the inten­si­fi­cation of the symptoms: in contrast to the protagonist’s formative real-world experience from his childhood, the seemingly unlimited arbitrariness of digital mass media makes individual experience and the inter­nal­izing of an impression hardly possible any more. Moreover, in the search for engagement and immediacy, the concrete points of connection and closeness promised by social media turn out to be an empty conso­lation: Facebook does not replace lived friend­ships, sensa­tions cannot be digitized, and one’s origins and home are not global. In the project Elisabeth, the highly developed technology behind this is protrayed as an economic and diver­sionary factor, a technology whose function is to compensate for a closeness rarely experi­enced in reality, to unlearn how to truly live, and to forge a connection to the real environment.

 

The last room of the instal­lation depicts the location where the QE2 remains today as a melting pot of these devel­op­ments: Dubai. Arriving there with his young daughter, the present-day metropolis built from scratch out of stylized satellite buildings and monumental, inter­na­tion­alist archi­tecture appears to the protag­onist like a pulsating hot spot of anonymity and dereliction—a symbol of an uprooted society. Before the high-end facades of Dubai shimmering in the desert light, behind which all individual feelings of home appear lost, the once tradition-oriented inn of a ship that sailed the North Atlantic, the QE2, resembles a lost paradise. Moored at an orphaned pier in a shipyard harbour in front of the cityscape of Dubai, the emotional home the protag­onist connected with personally seems to have devolved into a nostalgic moment, into a disposable product in an ever-changing world, thus repre­senting, so to speak, an image of the general paradigm shift: the sense of home has nothing more to do with the actual place of one’s origins; home only exists in oneself.

But on the pier before the colossal anchored ship, it is ultimately the open-minded and joyful quality of his daughter’s playing that makes the protag­onist realize the flawed nature of his projection. The ship—at one time manufac­tured as an object for parading and estab­lishing identity, and to the protag­onist always nothing more than a compen­sation for emotionally-devoid devotion—becomes a reflection of a life he himself has not lived. His decades-long persis­tence in object-obsession has prevented him from seeing his own points of connection and the sense of belong­ingness he yearns for:

As the protag­onist watches his carefree daughter, a portion of the ship’s moniker in immense steel-blue letters comes into view behind him: “Elizabeth”—the name of his daughter.

© 2021 Elmar Hess | Imprint & Privacy Policy