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.

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