‘Love and Ethnology’: A Dangerous Cocktail at HKW

Article by William Kherbek // Nov. 19, 2019

The latest iteration of the exhibition series ‘Love and Ethnology’ at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt is rooted in the intellectual project of the German writer Hubert Fichte, whose series of novels ‘Die Geschichte der Empfindlichkeit’ represents something like a reimagining of Marcel Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time,’ for the post-War German generation. The title of Fichte’s series of novels is sometimes rendered in English as ‘The History of Sensibility,’ sometimes as ‘The History of Sensitivity’ and, perhaps most appealingly, ‘The History of Pettishness.’ Proust’s novel cycle has also undergone variations in its title’s translation. ‘In Search of Lost Time’ became ‘Remembrances of Things Past’ in a later English edition. The various English translations of book titles might seem a roundabout way to begin an art review, but Fichte as a writer and a person always seemed to prefer the roundabout way into things. The changes of meaning entailed by using ‘sensitivity’ instead of ‘sensibility’ or substituting ‘things past’ for ‘lost time’ offer a window into how much can be lost or elided in a translation. A ‘remembrance,’ for example, suggests that a subject may introspect for information; a ‘search’ for lost time suggests not only the need for recourse to more than one’s internal resources, but also that what is searched for may not be found.

The journey is a major subject in ‘Love and Ethnology’ and the journey in question is very much Fichte’s. Seen from the perspective of 2019, the colonial overtones of Fichte’s journeys are easy enough to identify: white man travelling in historically colonised cultures—many of which, at the time, were languishing under the regimes of Western-backed dictatorships—and having a grand old time along the way. The title of a recent article about Fichte in the newspaper Die Welt, ‘Sextourist oder Queer Vordenker’ (Sex-Tourist or Queer Visionary), hints none-too-subtly at the contradictions inscribed in Fichte’s project. The pairing of love and ethnology can be a heady, if dangerous, cocktail and, like any potentially explosive compound, must be handled with caution.

As the exhibition’s introductory text makes clear, Fichte, like his “old friend” Herodotus, wasn’t one for obeying instructions: “The declared aim of Fichte’s material poetics, with its focus on the factual, was to convert the separation of the observer and the observed into a dialectical process of language and sexuality,” the text proclaims. What could possibly go wrong? As one might imagine, the othering hierarchy of “observer and observed” doesn’t bode well for those positioning Fichte as a visionary. There are a number of works in the exhibition that undeniably recapitulate imperialistic cliches, with stentorian American voices intoning over video of Haitian spiritual rituals or the syncretic Black Atlantic religions of Candomblé and Santería. Here, one must pose the question of whether it is a quasi-colonial act in itself to look back at attempts to engage cross-culturally in earlier eras with disdain or horror? Sometimes, certainly. It is difficult to disentangle these dynamics, and the curatorial team of the show are fully aware of the minefield into which they have walked. The introductory text concludes with this gnomic injunction: “Ultimately, in order to employ Fichte as an agent of decolonisation, Fichte himself must also be decolonised.” Well, I’ll go get my Ouija board.

The idea that someone can be ‘decolonised’ strikes me as a bit of a wishful thought. As if the colonial mindset can be driven away if one faithfully recites the rhetoric learned on one’s MA course. The “big lie” behind colonialism was an ideology that suited intellectuals and intellectualism perfectly: a culturally advanced people bestow their gifts on a benighted and grateful population, eradicating superstition and ignorance (just don’t mention the stuff we’ll be stealing as we do it). Intellectuals are the heroes of the story, particularly the ones who can frame the mission of mercy effectively, ensuring that those refined stentorian voices speak loudly enough to drown out the screams. Fichte’s interlocutors on his journey aren’t exactly screaming, but you have to wonder what would happen if they did. The power hierarchy established in the capacity to cross borders more or less easily remains lethal today, and woe to whoever finds themselves on the wrong side of that divide. Decolonisation cannot simply be a practice of intellectuals but, like colonisation, it can’t take place without them. This said, even if the intrepid HKW visitor is somehow able to ‘decolonise’ Fichte—this is presuming that the visitor is sufficiently decolonised to carry out the task—who is the Fichte one meets on the other side of that process? Seen this way, Fichte starts to look as distant a figure as Herodotus. Maybe Fichte can’t be decolonised because he is impossible, as a figure, without colonialism. The reparations Fichte seeks are lost without the violence they address. Colonialism is present even in efforts to eradicate it.

The role of Roger Casement, whose diary appears in the exhibition, thus, is an interesting one to explore in relation to the question of Fichte as de/colonial agent. Casement was a Irishman working as an agent of the British authorities in Congo, who played a key role in exposing Belgian depredations in what is today the territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Casement was a homosexual and apparently had liaisons with men in the countries he worked in. He was later killed by the British government for his role in the Easter Rising of 1916. Where does Casement feature in the colonisation story? Hero? Villain? Useful Idiot? Useless idiot? It depends on whom you ask (and how their words are translated). The curators know Casement is important in relation to Fichte, but how does one convey such ambivalent positions in an exhibition? Well, first you make it a big one, and on that front ‘Love and Ethnology’ doesn’t disappoint.

The ‘Love and Ethnology’ series is now in its second year, travelling from venues in South America and Europe to the HKW. The expansiveness of the exhibition is undeniably impressive: almost overwhelming, particularly given how central text is to many of the works. There is no serious way a visitor can take in the show in a single visit. For myself, three visits of at least 90 minutes each would be required to adequately engage with the range of works on display. The scale of the exhibition is epic, and so are many of the works. Kader Attia’s ‘Reason’s Oxymorons’—a video series of interviews in which psychological practitioners from non-Western traditions approach fundamental concepts from theories like psychoanalysis and psychiatry—could easily occupy a day of viewing in its own right. One is forced into an uncomfortable position with the scale of the exhibition: the plenitude requires a certain selectivity and that makes a programmatic ‘decolonising’ almost impossible. In a sense, one must reproduce Fichte’s methodology in this exhibition dedicated to problematising the colonial aspects of his project. A neat reification, perhaps, but sufficiently overdetermined as to render the gesture all but superfluous.

Despite the nearly impossible task it sets for itself, the exhibition overflows with powerful works, Michelle Mattiuzzi’s challenging yet exuberant film, ‘Whitenography’; the deliquescent and poetic drawings of Christóbal Lehyt, ‘JäckiBarksMau,’ which imagine Fichte’s response to the (Western-backed) Chilean dictatorship; and Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s riveting, desire-drenched film, ‘The Labyrinth,’ foremost among them. As for Fichte himself, his interview with the French novelist Jean Genet can be found among the forest of dangling headphones in the show and it is perhaps the real highlight of the exhibition. It is remarkable for its depth: Fichte and Genet, two queer writers immersed in a discussion wherein their literacy and legibility is commensurate to the subject, allows Fichte’s enthusiasm and curiosity to find its fullest expression. It may not be a decolonised Fichte the viewer (or listener, in this case) finds here, but it is a human Fichte, and that provides a point of contact with a process that requires both a theoretical and a human response.

This article is part of our monthly topic of ‘Decolonialism.’ To read more from this topic, click here.

Exhibition Info

Group Show: ‘Love and Ethnology: The Colonial Dialectic of Sensitivity (after Hubert Fichte)’
Exhibition: Oct. 18, 2019 – Jan. 06, 2020
John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, 10557 Berlin, click here for map

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