Alex Wissel’s exhibition ‘Thymostraining’ at Sammlung Philara opens with a bust of the Prussian king Frederick I face up on a low glass platform surrounded by meals made up of German specialities: potato salad, bockwurst and red cabbage, to only name a few. Not exactly known for its haute cuisine, the combination of traditional German dishes and royal effigy in Wissel’s sculpture Kyffhäusertreffen (Kyffhäuser meeting, all works 2019) could easily give off a whiff of infantile mockery – akin to making a dirty joke about a bratwurst – if it weren’t for the nationalistic undertones that come from being named after the annual meetings of Germany’s far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) at the Kyffhäuser monument in the state of Thuringia.
For those, such as myself, not versed in the nuances of German history and politics, the exhibition’s text, co-authored by Wissel and writer Timo Feldhaus, acts as a necessary guide by describing the AfD meetings as ‘a patriotic power and rest centre in which comrades can recharge the batteries with myth among like minded people and then go back into battle freshly fortified.’ What the authors are pointing to here is the myth according to which Frederick I rests under the Kyffhäuser mountains poised to return should Germany ever need him.
More atmospheric than explanatory, the text nevertheless teases out the exhibition’s central thesis, which links the AfD’s interest in identity performance and nation building with the Künstlerfeste (artist festivals) of the late 19th century. Mostly organized by history painters as tableu vivants of important moments in Germany’s military history, these costumed feasts began as a way for artists – newly liberated from the church – to advertise their wares. Seeing them as a gateway to create a new German identity that would unite the country’s 39 disparate kingdoms under one flag, the festivals were quickly co-opted by the Prussian government.
In what Wissel envisages as the first of a series of exhibitions, each taking on one of the four cities (Munich, Düsseldorf, Berlin and Vienna) associated with these festivals, the works in ‘Thymostraining’ focus on national monuments that were mostly planned and built during the Kaiserfeste, a series of festivals that took place in Düsseldorf between 1875 and 1891. Alongside Kyffhäusertreffen, a second sculpture, Die Wacht am Rhein (The Watch on the Rhine), features the bust of Germania from the Niederwalddenkmal, a monument also popular with the AfD. As with many of the works on display the sculpture features an imbedded joke: the plate of French fries that join Germania’s bust most likely refer to the Franco-Prussian war that took place in the period shortly before the monument was built.
This is not to imply that Wissel finds any of this funny, rather humour underlines the insidiousness of the culture war raged by the AfD and their supporters. In the drawing Manuscriptum, for instance, fries slathered with ketchup meet monuments and nostalgic phrases such as German warehouse Manufactum’s slogan ‘They still exist, the good things in life’ (Es gibt sie noch, die guten Dinge). Although it sounds innocent enough, the piece’s title refers to the store’s habit of selling far-right literature (available through their titular publishing house) alongside old timey wooden shaving sets and high-quality cook wear.
To replicate nationalistic tropes, however well intentioned, is to always run the risk of valorising what you’re attempting to disown. But I found nothing ambiguous about Wissel’s stance on his country’s rising fascism. Instead, there’s a delicious element of cruelness to his depiction of the small-mindedness and implicit racism of the AfD’s Volk revolution and its obsession with a rose-tinted past. Nostalgia is key to the German right-wing party, but as the exhibition points out, in a country that has only existed in its current form for a little over 150 years, the question is: nostalgia for what?
Alex Wissel, ‘Thymostraining’ runs at Sammlung Philara, Düsseldorf until 19 January 2020.
Main image: Alex Wissel, Kyffäusertreffen, 2019, mixed media, 44 ×120 × 300 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Ginerva Gambino, Cologne; photograph: Paul Schöpfer