On Sascha Pohle’s German Indian
Text by John C. Welchman
The elaborate reenactment of American Indian activities by German amateur enthusiasts is the point of departure for Sascha Pohle’s mixed-media installation German Indian (2005–10). Termed “living history” by some of the Indianistikklub participants—forty thousand members comprising four hundred clubs, according to a 2009 estimate —these events are framed by the dedicated replication of clothing and artifacts, and reenactments of dances, music, and various social customs or rituals. Unlike their counterparts in the United States who may spend months or years preparing large-scale Civil War military reenactments, the German hobbyists focus more on daily activities and appearance than set-piece battles. Yet the commitment to detailed, historically specific reenactments is generally similar, so that some enthusiasts might participate in Union and Confederate battles on one day and a tepee ritual the next. In fact, one of the marks of German Indian hobbyism, especially in the former West Germany, was its historical and ethnographic heterogeneity: at the annual Karl May Festival, for example, one might encounter an unpredictable mélange of ad-hoc spectacles ranging from cowboys and Indians to line dances, Civil War-era military drills, and folksy, period dress-up.
The clubs are informed by the legacy of an often outlandishly primitivist European fascination with the colorful appearance, imputed dignity, and tragic plight of the “Red Indian” that emerged in various forms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The traveling spectacles, rodeos, and vaudeville sideshows of William Cody (aka Buffalo Bill), for instance, first took the Wild West to Europe in 1887—and Germany in 1889—billing it as “The Drama of Civilization.” Celebrated cases such as that of Grey Owl, aka Archibald Stansfeld Belaney, in which Caucasians “went native,” and popular ethnographic exhibitions, which in Germany included Carl Hagenbeck’s Völkerschau, influenced the cultural imagination. But the response to these spectacles coupled with the untrammeled success of pot-boilers by Karl May and others spawned an especially animated reaction in Germany, which, somewhat against the grain of diminishing popular interest elsewhere on the continent, only accelerated after the Second World War. During these years numerous hobbyist clubs were formed in both East Germany (the German Democratic Republic, or GDR) and West Germany, with somewhat differently formatted concentrations around the East German cities of Dresden and Leipzig and, on the western side of the Cold War partition, in the Rhineland and southern Germany.
Predicated on these circumstances, German Indian embraces a wide range of material elements, including redrawings, rephotographs, a reedited 16 mm film, and replicated artifacts based on images and objects made by amateur would-be Indians since the 1890s. Pohle established a relationship with one particular hobbyist aficionado, Gerhard Fischer, developing the redrawings and rephotographs from Fischer’s extensive collection. Posing Fischer as the subject of the video component of the project, the artist gained what he termed a “very intimate insight” into both his pastime activities and everyday life. Struck by the collector’s devotion to and seriousness about his hobby, Pohle also noted the “sometimes child-like associations with Indians” revealed in Fischer’s drawings. The encounter with Fischer’s private museum of replicas and originals introduces the first of the multiple layers of reference woven together in German Indian: its dialogue with collecting and the accumulation of “curiosities.” Fischer’s collection is interesting not only by virtue of the artifacts it contains, but because it straddles—and confuses—the borders between sanctioned collection types. It shares certain conditions with the ethnographic collection, but also contains copies, without attempting to differentiate between “original” and replicated materials; parts have been borrowed for exhibition in museums and galleries, but items have also been displayed in shopping malls. Although emulating a vitrine-bound collection, it is also rented out for commercial TV and film productions as well as worn or wielded at hobbyist events and get-togethers. In this last condition it clearly defies the separation between the scopic regimen of the museum, in which objects are cordoned off and distanced from the viewer, and the tactile mobilization of the ritual object.
The material and conceptual combinations that inform the collection also act as a front for different aspects of Pohle’s work. Presented in a variant of the museum display, the artifacts and images were made over as “ethnographic” in a double sense. Some (notably the redrawings and rephotographs) were themselves replicas of reproductions of “originals”; while others were “originals” but now seconded from their former locations in specific hobbyist collections, having already been taken from or found elsewhere. This conceptual variegation is augmented by the logic of encounter, as many artifacts, especially leather formed (belts, vests, etc.), seem imbued with indiscernible age and putatively hard use, which makes it almost impossible to assign them to a particular decade or era. Other pieces are not exactly pristine or contemporary but have a look that Pohle terms “anemic,” while others still were purchased from on-line auctions or thrift stores. Within these scenes of production and reception the purported security between conditions of auratic particularity and rote utilitarian reproduction are fundamentally disturbed. Historical facts and objects, post-Romantic ethnic identification, German cultural history with its discourses of masculinity and otherness, and various subjective priorities and preferences, including those of the artist, are layered together in a hybrid construct that, while articulated through these particulars, is also founded on an interrogatory relation to them. Rather than engaging in a credible discussion of American Indian culture, it follows that German Indian addresses and questions the nature of the ritual collectivity of the amateur participants. It is directed at the methods, compulsions, and fantasies that operate around the performative resuscitation of the look or appearance of selective historical projections.
If Pohle’s project is grounded in the psychosocial assumptions caught up in the elaborate simulations of the hobbyists, it revectors their activities to draw attention to a wide spectrum of motivations (both explicit and implicit) ranging from détourned narratives of national and personal identity to the indulgence in subjective pleasures and fetishes (leather, feathers, woodsy retreats, etc.). The widest amplitudes here converge on a certain crisis of Germanness itself, which couples with the redemptive possibilities vested in the hobbyist construct of the Indian. Equally fundamental to many groups, particularly in the GDR, was a kind of economic sublimation, as the infiltration into American Indian culture offered to camouflage or compensate for the hard realities of everyday life in the East, including the travails of the Socialist order and low-wage employment. Absence of mobility—social and otherwise—was one of the most lamented deprivations in the GDR; turning native was an effective detour from the confinements of normal space and time. Camouflage in Indian drag was at the same time seen to be inscribed within a sanctioned subtext of resistance—which posed cowboys as villains, even fascists, and Indians as noble victims—to rapacious Western colonialism and the predatory capitalist system. While infiltrated and spied upon throughout their history in the GDR, the hobbyists were thus indulging in both an escape and a form of salvation, the latter achieved in conflicted unison with the ideology of the state.
These correlations were underlined by the downturn in club membership in the former East Germany after 1989 and by something that amounts to a lament for the erstwhile sanction provided by the struggle to survive—which in the new economic and social conditions of unification necessitated other forms of address and preoccupation. Several commentators on the Indianerclub phenomenon offer related arguments, including Yolanda Broyles-González, who invokes the cultural anthropologist Victor Turner to suggest that “the phenomenon of German Indians constitutes a form of symbolic action […] a symbolic response to a situation of social breach and crisis within German society.” Pohle himself frames such questions in terms that foreground the stakes of the perception of “the Self as the Other,” asking how, and with what consequences, “would imaginary unification with an assumed blood brother in the far West [have] been more comfortable because the fantasy has no real consequences?” While for Pohle the work touches on issues of national and cultural identity, the lures of exoticism and “the yearning for and idealization of an archaic, premodern life,” it turns on an interactive chain of schizophrenic splits: the German Heimat and its ruin by postwar guilt, national political division and unification, primitive and civilized (and their mutual dissolve and reversal), the split between work and leisure, and the thresholds between the thirst for the real and the performance of what is knowingly simulated.
Clearly, several motivations inform the establishment, maintenance, and longevity of the Indian clubs, including longstanding contact between Germany and the United States fueled by emigration and trade, the historical polycentrism of German political organization, and diverse forms of personal and collective identification, some regressive or pathological. The historicist ethos of the clubs was part of a complex reverse-xenophobia in which participants identified with a remote but ineffably noble savage. Impersonating this fantasy led to redemption from the specter of their own dark and compromised German indigenousness.
But the chief cultural motivation for the clubs can be found in the powerful sentimentalizing legacy of German dime-novel artisan Karl May, author of the bestselling Winnetou (1893), commemorated in the celebratory Karl May Festspiele and “arguably the key piece in the puzzle of German Indianism.” Featuring theatrical renditions of May’s Wild West adventure stories, the Festspiele was launched in 1952 at the scenic Bad Segeberg in the north of (then West) Germany. May’s own conception of the two main strands of his literary work was couched as a crypto-Jungian mission to engender the spiritual transformation of his readers. In the section of his autobiography titled “My Literary Work,” May notes that his traveler’s tales take the form of a spiritual and psychological journey that begins in the desert—“i.e., in the nothingness, in complete ignorance about everything which concerns the anima, the soul, and the mind”—and move with “the American Indians from the jungle and the prairie up to the Mount Winnetou. On this path the reader shall develop from a low anima-person up to the realization of what it means to be a nobly spirited person. At the same time, he shall experience how the anima transforms […] into a soul and a mind.” Despite, or perhaps because of, his own somewhat “broken life”—as his most noted biographer put it —May’s American Indian heroes were leaders in the cleansing ennoblement of human consciousness that also gave rise to a generalized form of environmentalism. An article marking the centenary of May’s death even suggested—somewhat overzealously—that “one could call […] May the forefather of today’s environmentalist Green Party.”
While doubtless drawing on the quest for reparation led by Winnetou and his brethren, the popular appeal of May’s work was as equally vested in the animated, action-filled plots of his writings as it was in their moral messages. Pohle is therefore interested not only in the abstract values encoded in May’s stories but also in their longevity and generational recasting. May’s projected reconstructions of Indian life—which he never actually witnessed while active as a writer—were accompanied by a myriad of ever-more elaborate reinventions in the more than sixty years of the Festspiele, and fanned out, beyond this, into the hundreds of Indianerclubs and groups. One of many particulars caught in the web woven by May’s legacy was the role of Winnetou the noble Apache (who becomes the blood brother of Old Shatterhand, a German émigré often seen as May’s alter ego), performed by French actor Pierre Brice in the Festspiele in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who had also acted the part in a dozen West German Western movies adapted from novels by May in the 1960s. Shortly after German reunification and Brice’s retirement, Serbian-born Gojko Mitić took over this signature lead role, which he played between 1992 and 2006 (in the 2013 edition taking the role of Apache chief Intshu-tshuna). As Mitić had appeared as numerous American Indian leads in popular Westerns—including Blutsbrüder (Blood Brothers, 1975)—made by DEFA (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft), the state-owned film studio of the GDR, the central figure of the Festspiele offered a direct comparison between East and West German negotiations with their obsession with the native.
Noemi Lopinto, “Der Indianer: Why Do 40,000 Germans Spend Their Weekends Dressed as Native Americans?,” Utne Reader (May–June 2009), http://www.utne.com/Mind-Body/Germans-weekends-Native-Americans-Indian-Culture.aspx#axzz2Zvy543GJ. Membership, however, has been declining in recent years.
See The Collected Works of Grey Owl: Three Complete and Unabridged Canadian Classics (Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2001); and Donald B. Smith, From the Land of Shadows: The Making of Grey Owl (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990).Carl Hagenbeck put on his first Völkerschau “exhibiting” Samen or Lapps as “purely natural people” in 1874. “When this venture became a success, Hagenbeck extended his profitable activities to include North American Indians, Inuit, people from India, and Zulus.” Raymond Corbey, “Ethnographic Showcases, 1870–1930,” Cultural Anthropology 8, no. 3 (August 1993): 345¬¬–52.
Marta Carlson points to the distinctions between the more respectful, “academic,” and reflective activities in the former East Germany and the more aggrandizing and less secure mimicry of many clubs in West Germany. See “Germans Playing Indian,” in Germans and Indians: Fantasies, Encounters, Projections, eds. Colin Gordon Calloway, Gerd Gemünden, and Susanne Zantop (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002), 213–16.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Sascha Pohle are taken from e-mail correspondence with the author, July 14, 2013.
For more on various aspects of this distinction, see John C. Welchman, ed., Sculpture and the Vitrine (London: Ashgate, 2013).
In Pohle’s understanding, the differently styled but equally vivacious Indian impersonations of Brice and Mitić might be fronts for the uncanny coupling of reenactment, or “living history” with its putative opposite, as the native theater they lead is haunted by the specters of vampirism and the undead, and beset by revenants and doppelgangers. Given that they don’t shed enough (fantasy) blood, could it be said that the Indian hobbyists are “vampires who absorb the blood of historical Native Americans”? If the clubbers operate through the production and manipulation of clichés and stereotypes, albeit sometimes “accurately” researched—all the copied clothing and worked-over weapons—what is the status of these objects? Are they just inert replicas; are they lively, “original” copies, or do they stand for something in between? Occasionally the hobbyist response to these conundrums reaches even further into apparent paradox, for some members and groups claim to be more “authentic” than contemporary American Indians who might have fallen out of contact with their own traditions and techniques. Hence the claim from some quarters that they are the keepers of Indian memory, the repositories and guarantors of possibly lost truths. The chain of these constructions is linked together by a kind of negative entropy predicated on the absence of what the art world has termed “site-specificity.” Most hobbyists, especially those from the GDR, never had or took the opportunity to visit the United States and witness the American Indian struggle to preserve and adapt their traditions or the social and economic conditions that often stymied these efforts. In May’s case, the reality check provided by a visit to the United States in 1908 just four years before he died—during which he didn’t get as far as the “Wild West”—made it clear that his imaginative reconstructions matched almost none of the situations on the ground, giving rise to crises of identity and artistic mission.
Pohle points to other aspects and implications of the Indianistikklubs, including the impulsive behavior of many hobbyists, who may act without knowledge, care, or reflection; in this sense, “like children” playing cowboys and Indians. He raises questions about the response to club practices, especially from American Indians themselves. For some, the potential naïveté and misrepresentations of the German mimics are overridden by a seemingly well-intentioned engagement with a culture that has been generally overlooked or ignored. For others, the hobbyists are a rather disturbing apparition whose activities are based on inappropriate cultural theft and take unsanctioned liberties with traditions and practices that have been wantonly annexed, socially dislocated, and self-indulgently reinterpreted. Pohle pays careful attention to arguments informed by American Indian rights and that draw on postcolonial critique, including variants of “the trope of the generous German safekeeper,” but the work is not bounded by these concerns. This is, in part, because German Indian addresses the conditions, circumstances, and locations of the appropriators more than the authenticity or otherwise of the material culture that is adopted and simulated. But Pohle is also more concerned with the indeterminateness and ambivalence of an appropriation based on experience (rather than on images or objects); and therefore works to “give voice,” especially in the encounter with Fischer, as well as “taking stock.”
These issues are embedded most palpably in Pohle’s twenty-five-minute “video portrait” of Fischer, shot in and around his home in Riesa near Dresden, where they are sustained by the hobbyist’s accumulation over more than four decades of a mountain of collectables and other documentary material. Fischer takes his cues from, as well as refuge in, the details derived from his archive, noting with a kind of deadpan relish, for example, that he made his first and most important costume based on “a model from the Yakama” Nation (in present-day Washington State) and that the drums of woodland Indians were fashioned from hollowed-out tree trunks tightened with birch pitch and filled with water. Fueled thus by the ethnographic particulars that anchor hobbyist discourse, Fischer also outlined some of the key moments in the history of his club as well as his own version of a contextual or comparative history of reenactment hobbyism. His local group’s engagement with native culture included the founding in 1973 of the first and most significant of their camps in nearby Ploditz, where they traveled by bus and bicycle bringing their Indian things to live as American Indians for the weekend. Unable to reply on narrative or object-related detail derived from his Indian expertise, Fischer’s take on the various constructs and historical declensions of reenactment groups is far less nuanced. In fact, Fischer can only point to the parallel existence of other groups who base their associations, costuming, and activities on a wide range of legend-imbued historical protagonists—he mentions Vikings, Romans, and Cossacks—each of which is implicitly sustained by its own inalienable logic under the auspices of a kind of a popular, wide-spectrum, freedom-of-choice right to appropriate. Pohle’s analysis points to how specificity evaporates when histories are apprehended comparatively, sounding out in a circumstantial diminuendo that attends Fischer’s item-based constructs of uncoordinated historical detail.
The video is built on the predicate of visual distribution—a founding imperative answering the contention, as Fischer put it, that “the people wanted to see what we had produced over time.” This demonstrative quotient, which obviously attaches to, and is in part derived from, the non-secretive aspects of native rituals themselves, also has a corollary in Western avant-garde performance. The early orientation of Mike Kelley’s performances, for example, was established around a series of exchanges between objects—which he termed “demonstrational sculptures”—writing, and vocalization, first developed in the performance Poetry in Motion at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in 1978. Kelley’s early performative sculptures thus included “demonstrated” objects conceived as instruments to be “played” or activated—whether in the form of drums (Moaning Drum and All Seeing Eye, both 1977), megaphones and their variants (The Base Man, 1979; Perspectaphone, 1977–78), the handmade, cardboard instruments related to Tube Music (1978–79), or in other pieces. Some of the more complex composite assemblages, such as Spirit Collector (1978) and Spirit Voices (1977–1979), which incorporated playback and recording devices (a tape recorder and audio deck, respectively), negotiated a relationship with systems of sound-denominated ritual, belief and transcendence. Others, including Main Prop (Indianana) (1978), a small circular model fort, functioned as props for specific performances—and in this case took on a direct relationship to military campaigns waged against American indigenous peoples.
Kelley’s work offers an important context for German Indian. While both address, albeit occasionally for Kelley, American Indian iconography or the quasi-ritualistic performative activation of specific objects, especially drums and instruments, there is a wider framework that connects Kelley’s interest in amateur authorship to Pohle’s inquiry into hobbyism. This is manifest in several dimensions of German Indian, including the compulsions that attend Fischer’s self-performance in the video, particularly his insistent reliance on naming, identifying, and repurposing the materials he has amassed. In The Poetry of Form: Part of an Ongoing Attempt to Develop an Auteur Theory of Naming (1985/96) Kelley addressed the organizing assumptions that precipitate these concerns, beginning with the act of naming a variety of caves and their formations—an associative nomenclature discovered in books, postcards, and pamphlets he had researched or collected over the years. Invented by an amorphous collectivity of amateur spelunkers, photographers, guides, and publishers, or inherited through folklore, each term reaches for a projective reconstruction of the cave element it “describes” in the form of phrase-based similes. The Poetry of Form reorganizes and redirects this nominative energy in a series of found photographs and captions. In addition to unfolding the linguistic compulsions associated with collecting and assembling, both Kelley and Pohle engage with the reflexive meta-critique of ethnographic or popular representations, so that media apparatuses and their products are incorporated in the material and signifying constitution of the work. In Kelley’s case, sound-recording devices are part of his more complicated demonstrational sculptures, while Pohle layers footage taken over the years by Fischer or his fellow clubbers in his own video.
Against the grain of the dominant language of appropriation in the 1980s, which tended to rely on a negative critique predicated on what I have described as “unitary deconstruction,” both artists develop presentational strategies (Pohle’s video biography, Kelley’s archive of picturesquely named caves, among other examples) that afford the amateur practices they address a space in which their own assumptions and proclivities can unfold. Both engage with a plurality of examples (the totality of Indianerclubs for Pohle, the manifold examples of cave formations for Kelley) with a view to suggesting how the structure of the assumptions and the relatedness of instances in any given example may be referred to a wider frame of reference—though for both artists this does not lead to either the subordination of the individual instance to the logical assumptions of the whole system or to explanatory provisions that seek to contain or allegorize the amateur activities addressed. The first term of Kelley’s title—the “poetry”—and to a lesser degree the descriptive neutrality of Pohle’s, establish interpretational parameters that refuse the stringencies of the critical turn in art practice that emerged in the late 1970s and has arguably been pervasive, though several times recalibrated, until recently. But this is not to suggest that either project—or artist—is unable to stage a critique or to produce ironic or other forms of exterior (or self-) reflection on the materials through which it is constituted. For it is equally the case that these and related projects are suspicious of the incipient hazards of post-appropriation, particularly the a-critical surrender to the oddness or inevitability of the taken material.
Offering a thorough methodological reprise of the languages and assumptions it employs, German Indian is clearly bound up with the histories posited in the deployment and critique of historical reenactments in the art world that arrived with the tactical centrality of postmodern strategies of appropriation in the 1980s. One of the most resourceful and far reaching of the earlier efforts, Warren Neidich’s series “American History Reinvented” (1986–2001), offered numerous conceptual and contextual levels of engagement with key episodes in US history. In the text-image diptychs that made up the third part of the series, for example, everyday life in black communities in the mid-nineteenth-century antebellum South was set alongside Associated Press images of the internment camps set up to hold Japanese Americans during the Second World War. By colliding found images of various activities in the camps and their captions on the right side of the diptychs with invented narratives staged in one of the simulated, pay-as-you-enter “historical” townships on the left, Neidich explicitly sets up a negotiation between the citational image repertoire and the construction of imaginary or interpolated tableaux. Another part of the series, Contra Curtis, directly addressed the “stock” representation of American Indians, while the fifth part, The Aerial Reconnaissance Photographs: The Battle of Chickamauga uses photos taken from a small plane during a modern reenactment of the 1863 American Civil War Battle of Chickamauga, which were then rephotographed by an onsite amateur souvenir photographer as tintypes. The idioms foregrounded here (supposed documentary verisimilitude, willful imaginative projection, and different conditions of material production) are clenched in a perpetual debate about the production of history and the coding of social values that is active both across the sequence of the diptychs and within “American History Reinvented” as a whole; serving, at the same time, as a reservoir of key issues in the artistic approach to reenactment.
Anna Altman notes that “any large gathering not sanctioned by the government was considered suspect by the secret police, and government officials feared that contact between East German Indian hobbyists and Native Americans might lead to plans of escape. So moles were planted among the groups; by the time the Wall fell, the secret police had collected more than eight hundred pages of notes on the activities of Indianistikklubs.” “Socialist Cowboys,” The New Yorker Blog: Culture Desk, April 13, 2012, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/04/socialist-cowboys-gdr.html.
Yolanda Broyles-González, “Cheyennes in the Black Forest: A Social Drama,” in The Americanization of the Global Village: Essays in Comparative Popular Culture, ed. Roger B. Rollin (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1989), 71. See also Victor Witter Turner, Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); and Dagmar Wernitznig, ed., Europe’s Indians, Indians in Europe: European Perceptions and Appropriations of Native American Cultures from Pocahontas to the Present (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007).
Adam Gilders, “Ich bin ein Indianer: Germany’s Obsession with a Past It Never Had,” The Walrus, October 2003, http://walrusmagazine.com/articles/2003.10-feature-German-Native-Americans/1/. May’s most famous novel was first published as the seventh and ninth volumes of his “collected traveler’s tales” in 1893; augmented over the next two and a half decades, the fourth and last volume of Winnetou was included in the thirty-third and final volume of his “traveler’s tales” in 1910. The Karl May Museum was founded in 1928 in May’s hometown, Radebeul, near Dresden.
Karl May, My Life and My Efforts (1910), trans. Gunther Olesch (2001), http://www.karl-may-gesellschaft.de/kmg/sprachen/englisch/primlit/bio/leben/kmlae10h.htm.
Hans Wollschläger, Grundriss eines gebrochenen Lebens (Sketch of a Broken Life) (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2004).
Jan Fleischhauer, “Germany’s Best-Loved Cowboy: The Fantastical World of Cult Novelist Karl May,” Spiegel Online International, March 30, 2102, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/marking-the-100th-anniversary-of-german-cult-author-karl-may-s-death-a-824566.html.
The precedent set by Neidich (and others) has been recast and reassessed in several recent projects, including Pohle’s, that have interacted more explicitly with the languages and assumptions of historical reenactments, some focusing on episodes of military conflict or civil war. In Seeing the Elephant (2002), which derived its title from the suggestive period metaphor used during the American Civil War for a soldier’s first experience in battle, Robert Longo expanded the appropriational paradigm by creating grainy but historically impossible “snapshots” from images of Civil War reenactments. Omer Fast’s two-channel video projection Spielberg’s List (2003) proposes a meta-commentary on the process of reenactment by juxtaposing images of the remains of the set built in Kraków, Poland, for the concentration camp depicted in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List (1993) with shots of the nearby ruins of the real camp. Fast renders equivocal the speaking position of the elderly people who appear on screen, refusing to identify them as actors, extras, or survivors, and thus exposing “the fetishist lure of Spielberg’s images” and the rhetorical pathos of his narrative.
Like German Indian, Yoshua Okón’s Octopus (2011) also engages with indigenous communities locked in conflict with the predatory forces of land-grabbing colonialism—in this case, the forty-year civil war in Guatemala abetted by the United Fruit Company (long dubbed pulpo, or octopus, by locals), which Okón restaged in the parking lot of a Los Angeles Home Depot outlet. Octopus defects from the discourse of critical post-appropriation, allowing us to reframe some of the issues in German Indian. First, unlike the simulated touristic townships visited by Neidich, the actual Civil War reenactments attended by Longo, the German nativist homages that preoccupy Pohle, or the Hollywood rehistoricization observed by Fast, Octopus is not predicated on any explicit or voluntary gesture of reenactment. Its animating force, in other words, depends not on the historical desires and fantasies, and the concomitant techniques and protocols, of a reconstuctivist group, but rather on a Mexican artist’s directorial regimen in the United States. In this sense, Okón can be said to have staged a restaging. Second, his work is not strictly speaking “historical”: the war it purports to recreate was concluded only a decade and half ago, and those who lived through it are still experiencing its ramifications. The relative proximity of the conflict gives rise to a third distinguishing characteristic: Okón’s reenactment is played out by individuals who actually participated in some form in the original events, occasionally serving on both sides at different times. It could even be termed an extension of, or coda to, the conflict it relives. Unlike the other reenactments, in which there is seldom an exact correspondence between the performers and the historical protagonists whom they impersonate—a gap most explicit in the case of Pohle’s German Indians—one axis of Okón’s recasting turns on the identification of the participants with the “positions” that they occupy, as they adjudicate their own places rather than enact someone else’s roles.
Pohle and Okón thus represent the poles of the contemporary art world’s approach to reenactment, the latter based on vicarious cross-identification, the former on projective continuity. German Indian, however, builds some of the distance between these positions into its own setup and logic as well as filtering them through a series of references to other recent work by Pohle. As hinted earlier when I pointed to its vampiric allusions, one calibration of German Indian is founded on the notion of blood exchange caught up in the impossible project of becoming the other. This transubstantiation is coded in the skin, which is subject to a spectrum analysis that culminates in a color graft. Karl May outlined a point of origin for imagining this transfer of attributes. At the end of the Winnetou he offers an almost liturgical description of the “reception” of the émigré German Old Shatterhand “into the Apache tribe” in order to “become a chief” through “the blood bond of brotherhood.”
It shall be as though he were red of skin, and born among us. To accomplish this he must have smoked the calumet with every grown warrior of the Apaches; but this shall not be necessary, for he will drink Winnetou’s blood, and Winnetou will drink his, and then he will be blood of our blood, and flesh of our flesh. Do the Apache braves agree to this?
“How! how! how!” arose, thrice repeated, the unanimous response of all present.
“Then let Winnetou and Old Shatterhand come here to the coffin, and let their blood drop into the water of the bond of brotherhood.”
The notion of a becoming transacted through the exchange of bodily fluids lies at the heart of the discourse of indigenous ethno-politics and its numerous interpretations by legislative and government entities, tribal leaders and American Indian scholars, and as hobbyists and artists. Blood provides “a calculus of common heredity” and its sheer physical presence confers a hegemonic quantum. As David Schneider suggests, “Because blood is a ‘thing’ and because it is subdivided with each reproductive step away from a given ancestor, the precise degree to which two people share a common heredity can be calculated, and ‘distance’ can thus be stated in specific quantitative terms.” May’s blood exchange is thus the most famous and “substantive” of a whole genealogy of attempts to circumvent blood-based biological determinism and replace it by different orders of cultural and symbolic identification, ranging from high-minded “spiritual appropriation” and trial-like immersion to “racial passing” and self-gratifying projective fantasy.
In German Indian and other recent work, Pohle takes on the strategy that lies at the heart of all this: impersonation, or substitution. Acts of taking on another identity, and in the process questioning identity formation itself, produces a risk-laden, differential circuitry that bypasses the quantum flow of blood. Pohle’s practice is built on occasionally subtle, sometimes violent, and often unreflective activations of impersonation as well as its technical and performative operation and unpredictable outcomes, coming momentarily to rest in the liminal space between taking on and taking over. In fact, the relatively recent questioning or re-adjudication by most of the entities with historical stakes in the blood quantum—states, tribes, scientists, ethnographers, activists—has sometimes accompanied the deployment of impersonation. To cite just one pertinent example, Norman K. Denzin’s recent examination of “Indians on display” in the context of global commodification uses dialogue staged between personifications of historical and other protagonists including May, the artist George Catlin, Winnetou, and Old Shatterhand in order to generate a dialectical exchange of opinions and commentary on the multiple conditions attached to the perception and performance associated with American Indians.
Much of Pohle’s work addresses impersonation as a literal or metaphorical skin changing (in emulation or envy) or the use of adopted regalia to “step into” somebody else’s skin, as with his projects on celebrity impersonators that gave rise to the single-channel video If I Were You: Las Vegas, New York, Blackpool (2007–08). In addition to his interest in the loaded symbolism of skin color and its arbitration by questions of race, power, exoticism, and fantasy, Pohle has also considered the skin “as a form of archive, as a repository of time and memory.” In contemporary culture, this temporal stamping of the skin is, of course, subject to seemingly endless and increasingly sophisticated campaigns to roll back time, led by skin-invading cosmetics, accompanied by a refrain of undeliverable promises directed to a perfectly uninflected face—that zone of luminous whiteness in which the skin is rendered as invisible as possible, and finally disavowed. This was one of the subjects of Pohle’s Noire et Blanche (2012), which he overlaid with commentary on the twentieth-century Western diktat of beauty. Restaging (and physically precipitating) Man Ray’s emblematic photograph, which appeared in Vogue in 1926, Pohle catches the racialist implications caught up in the accentuation of white by and points to the beleaguered complementarities of face and mask, African and European, object and being.
While German Indian and The Mad Masters (2007), a video based on a celebrity impersonator and look-alike convention in Las Vegas, worked thorough real event phenomena in which the boundaries between actuality, fiction, and projection were constantly blurred, other pieces by Pohle address how memories contain and are themselves contained, offering at the same time a more explicit take on the nature of artist-driven “association” (“free” or otherwise). In Crippled Symmetry (2013), for example, Pohle redeploys empty black 16 mm film storage boxes found in the attic of the Goethe-Institut in Amsterdam to fashion various floor patterns based on his own memory of ornamental patterns associated with different cultures. The resultant shapes, reprised in overhead photographs presented in a slide projection, are “crippled” because of the subjective scrambling and willful disorder they underwent. By foregrounding the pattern-based artifice of a field of like objects whose former function was to serve as container for a cultural repository—assembled under the auspices of its representational “Germanness”—Pohle illuminates, and allegorizes, the twist of several threads in the discourse of appropriation that are somewhat disguised or deemphasized in German Indian. These include the sheer contingencies of finding (here conforming to that cliché of discovery “in the attic”), the accentuation of found objects as containers of information (literally, in this instance), and the compulsions of personal fantasy and projection that attend the reorganization of what has been uncovered.
Pohle’s more recent work takes off from these premises. He creates images in which facts and fictions seem to have merged at the prompting of fitful memory, but are then imbued again with historical evocation. Packaging and containerization play a leading role here. In his silent film Statues Also Die (2012), for example, empty commodity packages are posed as ethnographic or archaeological artifacts. While for a work in progress, begun in Seoul, South Korea, in 2013, Pohle collected more than two thousand DVD/CD computer drives for use as unitary “bricks” to build mural fragments, with and without patterns, reminiscent of the archaeological artifacts one might encounter in a museum or excavation site. Here, devices for archiving data—already outmoded memory machines—are made over as the units of articulation in a project that addresses the new visibility of historical remainders. Pohle recalls being told that the constellation of drives would “look like a dead body,” sharing a particular tint or hue. These emptied containers, writing devices without a means of operation, address the decay of technology in the context of the modern ruin and the deliquescence of information in the era of hyperbolic speed. Pohle refers to the data drives as “skin without the blood.”
See Friedrich von Borries and Jens-Uwe Fischer, Sozialistische Cowboys: Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2008); Rivka Galchen, “Wild West Germany: Why Do Cowboys and Indians So Captivate the Country?” The New Yorker, April 9, 2012; Altman, “Socialist Cowboys”; and H. Glenn Penny, Kindred by Choice: Germans and American Indians since 1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
Katrin Sieg, “Indian Impersonation as Historical Surrogation,” in Calloway et al., Germans and Indians, 227.
Pohle’s German Indian video can be seen at http://vimeo.com/14453775. The quotations and descriptions that follow are from the English-language subtitles in the video.
See my “Early Performative Sculptures and Objects (1977–79)” and “Early Performances” in Mike Kelley (Amsterdam and Munich: Stedelijk Museum and DelMonico Books/Prestel, 2013), 19, 30–31; and Timothy Martin, “Janitor in a Drum: Excerpts from a Performance History,” in Mike Kelley: Catholic Tastes (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 56–88.
I discuss these issues in “History and Time in the American Vernacular: Mike Kelley’s Work with Photography,” in Imaging History: Photography after the Fact, eds. Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys (Brussels: ASA, 2011), 105–24; and “Documents, Dreams and Fantasies: Passages through the Involuntary from Photography to Sculpture in the Work of Mike Kelley,” in Found Sculpture and Photography from Surrealism to Contemporary Art, eds. Anna Dezeuze and Julia Kelley (New York: Ashgate, 2013), 137–56.
See “Global Nets: Appropriation and Postmodernity,” the introduction to my Art after Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s (London: Routledge, 2001), 1–64.
See my “Turning Japanese (In),” Artforum (April 1989); Warren Neidich, American History Reinvented (New York: Aperture, 1989); and “News from No-Place: Ideological Formations in the Photographic Representation of the Other,” chap. 7 of my Modern Relocated: Towards a Cultural Studies of Visual Modernity (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1995).
The Longo and Fast pieces both featured in the exhibition “Life, Once More,” Witte de With, Rotterdam, part of “Exploding Cinema,” the side program of the 2005 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Sven Lütticken, ed., Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: Witte de With, 2005), 125.
The following details are drawn from my “War and Peace (Volume II),” in Yoshua Okón: Pulpo/Octopus (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2011), 14–35.
Karl May, Winnetou, the Apache Knight, trans. Marion Ames Taggart (Benzinger Brothers, 1898), http://www.karl-may-gesellschaft.de/kmg/sprachen/englisch/primlit/reise/winnetou/knight/ch19.htm.
Circe Sturm, Blood Politics: Race, Culture, and Identity in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 98.
David Schneider, American Kinship: Cultural Account (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 25.
Norman K. Denzin, Indians on Display: Global Commodification of Native America in Performance, Art, and Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2013).