Whitney Biennial 2008
Essays by Henriette Huldisch, Shamim M. Momin and Rebecca Solnit
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Yale University Press, 2008
"Lessness: Samuel Beckett in Echo Park, or an Art of Smaller, Slower, and Less"
by Henriette Huldisch
Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The very idea of failure is in many ways antithetical to American culture, with its underlying tenets of Manifest Destiny, westward expansion, and unerring technological and economic progress. Acknowledgment of failure even in the face of its most blatant manifestations is almost taboo, an unmentionable that must be cast in terms of a temporary setback as one soldiers on, "moving forward": it is permissible only insofar as it represents an obstacle to be overcome in a larger narrative of success. Complete failure, on the other hand—abject failure—is "not an option," as the popular quip goes. This is particularly evident in this time of political polarization in the United States, where the acknowledgment of failure is notably absent from public speechmaking. And yet, perhaps in a kind of return of the repressed, the theme haunts much contemporary artwork in both subtle and more overt ways.
Amie Siegel's DDR/DDR (2008) is an experimental documentary that investigates the former East German state. Tracing the historical German fascination with American Indians, she shows how appropriation of the dress and customs of colonized Native American cultures resonated with East Germans living under the totalitarian regime, who adopted them partly as a veiled act of resistance. Post-unification, this role-playing has taken on another significance for many participants who perceive the German Democratic Republic as a country that was robbed of its traditions by a Western power.
The film integrates scenes of the former secret service head's private office, shots of outmoded Stasi surveillance equipment, and glimpses of the ruinous official radio complex in East Berlin—all symbols of a once formidable apparatus of control that ultimately fell like a house of cards. The East's modernist architecture, signifying a utopian, social reformist project whose promise was never fulfilled, is a theme that informs this film as well as Siegel's earlier video installation Death Star (2006), In the latter, which is shown on five flat-screen monitors, long, ominous tracking shots taken in the hallways of five historically fraught German buildings—including Hitler's giant recreational resort for the German people erected by the Baltic Sea—hint at what Siegel calls the "dark side of modernism."1
1. Conversation with the artist, Berlin, June 22, 2007.
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