Tuesday, April 3, 2007

the Dead

Die Toten is the name of a project by the Dusseldorf artist Hans-Peter Feldmann, which is now on display here in Vienna at the Kunsthalle museum. The work consists of ninety reproductions of photographs of the members and victims of several violent political groups founded in the the late nineteen-sixties, particularly the Red Army Fraktion, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang. We took a look at it on Sunday, and it burned a hole in my brain.

Feldmann has been criticized for hanging pictures of the RAF next to those of the people they killed, since this could be seen as setting up an equivalence between criminals and victims. I don't think Die Toten does that, but one real problem with the project is that it's entirely composed of press photographs and clippings. In fact, the RAF attacked the offices of the right wing German publisher Axel Springer because they believed biased and irresponsible mass media was one of the scourges of late capitalism; Feldmann has in effect given the media trolls the last laugh, by reproducing much of their version of the story.

All of the photographs in Die Toten are death scenes, which adds a sensational element to an already sensational, and morbidly fascinating subject. (It's a typical choice for the Kunsthalle as well, which seems to be programmed by a thirty-something adolescent who mistakes shocking pictures for compelling art.) The photograph above is not part of Feldmann's project, but it is a picture of the RAF leaders Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin. They look nice, don't they?

For me, this photograph is more shocking than some of those in the exhibition, because Baader and Ensslin may have been nice, but they also led a group which blew up department stores, robbed banks and killed people.

Feldmann's work is part of a soul searching process in Germany and Austria concerning the RAF, which has been set off by the fact that one of the group's last living members was recently released from prison. But as an American, I've always been haunted by the Red Army Fraction story too. It seems like such a bitter tragedy: an ultimate example of ideological commitment and fatal wrongheadedness.

Since September 11th, one of the delusional aspects of America's war on terror has been our tendency to imagine that our enemies are all Islamic fundamentalists, all Over There somewhere, and all somehow fundamentally different from us. I think the RAF is still so disturbing for this part of Europe (and for me) because it means that terrorism isn't other people. It's us.

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