Images Without Witnesses
In his sound, film and slide installations, Dani Gal confronts the loose ends of collective trauma
Last year’s London Olympics, with outstanding performances and 38 world records, will go down in sporting history. But for most of us, it will soon be just another faded memory in a long list of Olympic summers. The same cannot be said of the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, which are still remembered for the murder of eleven Israeli hostages by Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group and for a failed rescue attempt by the German authorities. This attack, thanks to heavy real-time media coverage, was the first terrorist operation to become deeply engrained in collective memory while the events themselves were still unfolding. Interest in this tragedy is still so great that on the day after the official opening of the London Olympics, German public-service television broadcast a docu-fiction called Vom Traum zum Terror – München 72 (From Dream to Terror – Munich 72, ).
For his sound, film and slide installations, Jerusalem-born Berlin-based artist Dani Gal takes precisely this kind of historical events as his point of departure, examining their forms of representation within the ‘official’ version of history. His room-filling two-channel film installation Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. (2012) – the centrepiece of his solo show at Galerie Freymond-Guth in Zurich – focuses on the hostages’ ordeal at the Olympic Village. Early in the morning of 5 September 1972, eight members of the terrorist unit stormed the athletes’ quarters, remaining there until the drama ended in a bloody massacre at the nearby Fürstenfeldbruck airport late the same day. These hours in the athletes’ apartment can be described as a black hole in history, as little verified information exists. In spite of this, the hostage crisis has since been the subject of more than 40 films. It thus makes sense to read Gal’s work – whose title already points to the fictionalization of real events – within the context of the discourse on re-enactment. In his video September is the new black (2012) – part of the same body of work as Any resemblance to real persons … – the problematics of re-enactment are highlighted in the way Gal uses the many films – each of them offering an interpretation of truth – as footage, layering them into a single projection that becomes a kaleidoscopic illegible picture. Viewed as a prologue, the work points to a key interest of Gal’s: the interface between the power of images and subjectivity.
The first decade of the 21st century saw a boom in artistic re-enactment, which took the form of several exhibition projects. The genre’s best-known work within the genre is Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave (2001) for which the artist re-staged an episode from the bloody miner’s strike of 1984/5 – a pivotal moment in Margaret Thatcher’s conservative prime ministership – on a grand scale. Unlike Gal, Deller based his work on an event for which considerable amounts of documentary material exist, as well as eyewitness testimony. The events which Gal focuses on are entirely different.
Historical traumas are characterized by their elliptical return and their non-linearity within collective consciousness. In this light, re-enactments can be understood as a strategy of empowerment: setting in motion a process of coming to terms, allowing wounds to heal at last. This was repeatedly named as the intended result of Deller’s monumental project, where many of the 800 participants were the actual miners and police officers involved in the original conflict. By contrast, Gal is interested less in the possibility of catharsis and more in examining the gaps and blind spots in traumatic experience.
In the case of his work on the Munich Olympics, his approach is based on the little-known fact that during the hostage situation, the terrorists swapped clothes with their captives several times to generate confusion. Gal shows the eleven men getting changed in every possible permutation (sportswear into police uniform into civilian clothing, etc). This continual switching of roles with stereotypical costumes was filmed over several hours through one-way mirrors, creating deliberate confusion that can be read as a metaphor for the crisis of representation, as described, for example, by Jean Baudrillard in his essay The Violence of the Image (2003). Or in the Feuerbach quote that introduces Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967): ‘But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence … illusion only is sacred, truth profane.’
Gal’s pieces are often preceded by intensive research using archival material, and they are characterized by an interest in the constructed character of history and its representation in media. Gal often plays with collective and subjective awareness of history and its communication, frequently choosing historical moments linked to the consequences of World War II and the Shoah.
This also applies to Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog, 2011), another film re-enactment that was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2011. The historical focus here is the sentencing to death of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1961 and the order to scatter his remains in the Mediterranean, outside Israel’s territorial waters, as a way of preventing his grave from becoming a place of commemoration. On the night of 31 May 1962, this order was carried out as a secret mission (Nacht und Nebel Operation in German). The title of Gal’s work can also be read as a reference to Alain Resnais’ film of the same name (Nuit et Brouillard, 1955), made ten years after the end of the WWII as one of the first attempts to approach by cinematic means the horrors of the concentration and death camps. The title also alludes to operations carried out under the cover of night by the Nazi state during which individuals suspected of resistance vanished without a trace. Gal’s 20-minute film is based on an interview he conducted with Michael Goldman-Gilad, a Holocaust survivor and policeman who took part in the secret mission to dispose of Eichmann’s ashes. Goldman-Gilad’s memories are heard as a voiceover, contrasted with pointedly ‘cinematic’ (and thus also ‘fictitious’) images. Gal uses a strong infrared filter, for example, to make the images appear almost black and white, with only individual colours emphasized. Or he plays on conventions from classic narrative cinema when he works with prologue and credits sequences at the start of the film. In just a few scenes, the events of the night of 31 May 1962 are recounted: Eichmann’s cremation, the process of waiting, then filling the ashes into a milk churn, sailing out onto the open sea where the ashes are scattered in the presence of a priest and the journey back. Apart from Goldman-Gilad’s voiceover, there is no other spoken text.
For his solo show at Kunst Halle St. Gallen in the autumn of 2013, Gal is currently working on a new film project with the working title Wie aus weiter Ferne (As if from far away, 2013). This work focuses on the relationship between the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal (1908–2005) and Albert Speer (1905–81). After 20 years in prison, Speer, architect-in-chief of the Nazi regime and close friend of Hitler, tried to show remorse for his crimes and clear his name – partly by publishing an apologetic, much-discussed autobiography, and partly by seeking contact with Wiesenthal. After the war, Wiesenthal – a trained architect himself, and a Holocaust survivor – concentrated his activities on tracking down Nazi criminals and bringing them to justice. Only in 2010, in the biography of Wiesenthal by Tom Segev, was the relationship between the two men, their correspondence and their meetings in the 1970s, examined in detail for the first time. Although Gal uses fragments of these sources in his film, he also filters this extraordinary relationship through the lens of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Lecture No. 35’, published in his Brown Book (1934-5), a collection of lectures that contain the first formulation of his ideas on ‘language games’. Wittgenstein was interested in the different use of words characterized by a ‘family resemblance’ – in the lecture in question he uses the examples of ‘a memory image, an image that comes with expectation, and say, an image of a daydream’. These concepts are characteristic of Gal’s oeuvre as a whole. His works exist in a state of suspension, eschewing clear political statements and causing the viewer to reflect on the above-mentioned discourses on the status of the image. Although Gal’s work doesn’t fill the gaps between reality and representation – and how could it? – he does at least, for a moment, gently shed some light on these gaps in history.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 10