Ghostly Ventriloquists

Online feuds, real lives and artistic licence

I’m tired of contemporary-art-related online feuds. I don’t want to go into details because, as they say, don’t feed the trolls. A Berlin artist friend has similar feelings. We discussed why seemingly intelligent and talented people were getting into these kinds of arguments in the first place. What motivates them? What fuels one person’s attitude of nihilistic irony and another’s holier-than-thou moralism? This is not to say that online disagreements or hashtag campaigning per se are wrong, but rather that they can too easily become hijacked, worn out or undermined. My friend proposed that feelings of impotence in the face of the larger scheme of things, combined with the urge for cultural attention and political importance, find temporary relief in ersatz action against proxy enemies. It’s the Orcs against the Elves – only more toxic and less entertaining.

The discussion continued and I brought up something situated not in art and online but in other disciplines and media – reportage, literature, cinema – testing the possibility of whether these phenomena were somehow connected. Within just a couple of months, there had been a string of cases, widely discussed in the German media, in which prominent men fictionalized real-life narratives for dramatic effect. The first case came to light at the end of 2018: an award-winning journalist for the magazine Der Spiegel, Claas Relotius, had fabricated entire stories – such as his encounters with Syrian orphans in Turkey – and had then embezzled the donations he had solicited for them. The second was that of another Der Spiegel reporter, Takis Würger, who had published a novel titled Stella (2019) after Stella Goldschlag, a Jewish woman who had collaborated with the Gestapo. The problem with Würger’s approach was that he had imposed a kitschy love story onto a monstrous reality: he invented a protagonist, a young man from Switzerland, who visits Berlin in 1942 as a tourist (can you believe it?) and then falls in love with Stella. Of course, it’s a novel, so in principle he can do what he wants. Nevertheless, it smacks of the exploitation of the experiences of the real survivors who had encounters with Goldschlag, some of whom are still alive.

Next was Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose Oscar-nominated film based on the life of Gerhard Richter, Never Look Away (2018), prompted the artist to distance himself from the filmmaker. In a letter quoted in The New Yorker’s recent profile of Von Donnersmarck, Richter declared that the former had ‘managed to abuse and grossly distort my biography’. Indeed, the filmmaker stated in the same article that he had taken the famous painter’s life story and put ‘a spin on it’. The playwright Christoph Hein then wrote in Süddeutsche Zeitung that the director’s breakthrough drama, The Lives of Others (2006), was a fictionalization not, as Von Donnersmarck had claimed, of the East German dissident and songwriter Wolf Biermann’s experiences – something which the piece in The New Yorker reiterated – but of his own. Hein, much like Richter, declared that Von Donnersmarck had misrepresented his life after he had met him for a four-hour interview. According to Hein, the original film credits had included a thank you, which he asked to be removed after he watched a preview. In order to cover up this embarrassing episode, Von Donnersmarck stated that the film was inspired by Biermann, despite the fact that Biermann had been living in West Germany since 1976 – and the film is set in the 1980s.

What to make of all this? I tend to think it’s no coincidence that all of these examples (and I could cite numerous more) involve men in their so-called prime, who feel they can take other people’s life experiences and then mix them up with fiction for melodramatic effect. This, in itself, is certainly not a new phenomenon. These white men, like many generations before them, grew up with a sense of entitlement that allowed them to define what story is to be told and how. They’re like ghostly ventriloquists who pretend to speak in dissenting voices, when the real ones are either silenced or ignored. But what’s new is that, thanks to the internet, they can no longer get away with it as easily as they used to. At the same time, the internet – for better or worse – undermines any reliable sense of reality, which brings me back to the aforementioned online feuds. My friend and I concluded that these are even more ghostly because they are like the silent shadow of a drunken bar brawl. Often, the most aggressive parties involved are (white) men who are gripped with panic because they fear losing their entitlement. And because patriarchy may be coming to an end. Optimistically speaking.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 203 with the headline ‘Ghostly Ventriloquists’

Main Image: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Never Look Away, 2018. Courtesy: © Buena Vista

Jörg Heiser ist geschäftsführender Direktor des Instituts für Kunst im Kontext der Universität der Künste, Berlin.

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019

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