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January 15, 2014 5:53 pm
It is all too easy to walk straight past the first of the works in Rolf Sachs’ Typisch deutsch? (Typically German?) exhibition at the Museum fur Angewandte Kunst (MAKK) in Cologne. Adjacent to the entrance are five plastic rubbish bins, the kind routinely used by Germans to sort their refuse. To a British visitor, the number alone is startling – five! – a sharp reminder that we are nowhere near so meticulous as the Germans. However, look more closely and you find that Sachs has labelled each bin with a characteristic he believes his fellow countrymen would be wise to discard: Schadenfreude, Sturheit (obstinacy), Intoleranz (intolerance), Neid (envy) and Spiessigkeit (narrow-mindedness). So begins his discourse on the German identity.
This is a timely exhibition, given our preoccupation with the centenary that is being marked with cultural events throughout Europe. In fact, Sachs has been fermenting the titular question for the past four years, inspired in part by Peter Watson’s encyclopaedic book of 2010, The German Genius , which encouraged both Germans and non-Germans to question how a nation so rich in philosophers, poets, musicians, scientists and leaders of every field came to such grief. As Sachs says: “The reason why I wanted to do this show is I realised how perceptions towards Germany had changed, and through that the self-image of Germans had changed too. In part that is to do with economic might, but it is also to do with the fact that Germany is a nation that has given and created so much on the one hand, and on the other has been so devastating in its recent history.”
Sachs is an oddity in the art world: part conceptual artist and designer; part heavyweight businessman. The son of industrialist Gunter Sachs, he is half-German, half-French, was raised mainly in Switzerland, and now splits his time primarily between London (where he runs his multidisciplinary studio) and Switzerland (where the family office, which he heads, is based). He knows this opens him to criticism of not being “serious” about his art, but after 20 years of creating furniture, lighting, sculpture, installations and set designs for opera and ballet, he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone. “The work must speak for itself. That is the only proper answer.”
In Typisch deutsch? Sachs is attempting to do more than nail typically German characteristics. He wants to explore where they have come from in order to understand what really does make a German. In a sense, this is a journey into his own past. “All of these traits I have tried to express are things that I feel, that I saw when growing up, that I understand. To do a thing like this, you have to have it under your skin. You can’t fake it. I don’t mind if people come with a critical attitude because that is human, but what I most want is for people to recognise its authenticity.”
The closest he comes to any encouragement of nationalistic pride is the towering “Der unendliche Geist” (“The Endless Mind”), a homage to Constantin Brâncuși’s “Endless Column”. Here important works from German literature, philosophy and the natural sciences have been stacked into a pillar of human thinking, then cast in bronze – a reminder of how much has been contributed to the wider world by Germany’s intellectual elite over the centuries.
Not surprisingly for an artist known for his sense of humour, there is fun to be had too. “Pünktlichkeit” (“Punctuality”) is interpreted as a digital clock that shows time flashing past in milliseconds. Looking down on this is a taxidermied cuckoo, a good-natured dig at the kitsch of German cuckoo clocks. “Amtsschimmel” (“Red Tape”) is a collection of old-fashioned stamps, the symbol of bureaucracy, incorporating typically German words and phrases, such as “Kindergarten”, “Heimat” and, ironically, “humorlos” (“humourless”). “Fleiss” (“industriousness”) is a gnome sculpted from coal, a visual play on the bourgeois garden gnome, but also a reminder of the role gnomes play in German cultural history, notably Grimms’ Fairy Tales.
The humblest of materials provide his palette. “Schwermut” (“gloom”) is depicted by layers of delicate felt subjected to the pressure of a solid brass sphere, a reference to the burden of melancholy – a phenomenon prominent in the Sturm und Drang literature of the Enlightenment. In “Reinlichkeit” (“cleanliness”), he has created two “brush paintings”, one of horsehair and one of goat’s hair, that speak not only of the immaculate standards of German housekeeping, but also reference the German virtues of “pure heart” and “mental cleanliness”. At times, his ideas seem too obvious – the padlocked wooden box that contains the key to that very padlock to represent “Vorsicht” (“prudence”), or the walking stick that depicts “Wanderlust” – but while Sachs is a conceptual artist and designer, he has always striven to be an accessible one. His is a gentle touch.
The gallerist Gabrielle Ammann, who has represented Sachs for the past 20 years, believes the desire for tolerance, on the part both of Germans looking out and other nations looking in, is at the heart of Typisch deutsch? “This exhibition says: look properly at other people, discover what they have to give to you, and you may find that even those you were unsure of to begin with have their beautiful side when you get close enough. Rolf’s work often focuses on humour – and humour helps us to be tolerant. On the one level he is looking at the Germans, but on another he is inviting us all to look at our foibles and prejudices.”
Perhaps because he has lived so much of his life outside of Germany, Sachs does seem able to dissect the German character with both respect and affection. Judging by the number of TV crews, journalists and media commentators present at the preview, he has struck a chord with the homegrown audience. However, he hopes the exhibition will eventually travel to other major cities, such as Paris or London, in a bid to stimulate further debate on what it really means to be German today. What the exhibition suggests is that so many of the stereotypical images of Germans – excessive punctuality, precision, bureaucracy, meticulousness, industriousness – are apparently not only true, but go some way to explaining both the light and the dark of its 20th-century history, as well as its rise to being a global superpower today.
One thing is for sure, whether planned to coincide with 2014 or not, Typisch deutsch? is the summation of another German word we all recognise: Zeitgeist.
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