Wild West | exhibition
The exhibition Wild West has been created as a traveling show by artists: Stefka Ammon, Björn Hegardt, Ethan Jackson and Gudrun Rauwolf.
Starting Europa (Berlin: augenblick – raum für Gegenwartskunst, director Sylvia Bonsiepe) the eastcoast, USA (Philadelphia: basekamp, director: Scott Rigby), via Texas (Lubbock: Landmark Arts Gallery, Texas Tech University, director: Joe Arredondo) to New Mexico (Albuquerque, magnifico art space, director: Melody Mock) projections on the “Wild West”, related perceptions, visual traditions and influences on intercultural interactions have been presented and discussed in public panels at all places.
Text for the exhibtion in Philadelphia:
“Within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for the authentic object become critical. As experience is increasingly mediated and abstracted, the lived relation of the body to the phenomenological world is replaced by a nostalgic myth of contact and presence. ‘Authentic’ experience becomes both elusive and allusive as it is placed beyond the horizon of present lived experience, the beyond in which the antique, the pastoral, the exotic, and other fictive domains are articulated.” Susan Stewart, On Longing, 1984
“The Wild West can never be as nice as it is in our minds.”
Near the conclusion of My Winnetou (2003), Stefka Ammon’s video documenting her speculative quest for the fictional Mescalaro Apache created by German novelist Karl May, she describes a projection that she makes upon the landscape. In her voice-over, Ammon explains how she has just bid farewell to Oliver, a contemporary Mescalaro that she has been visiting as part of her search. They have ridden horses, watched the film Geronimo, and discussed her quixotic project in detail. Oliver becomes an unwitting foil to the romantic figure of Winnetou, whom Ammon introduces in a vivid fantasy sequence that opens her video. Oliver is an upstanding family man, respected by his community, but hardly the mythic hero, or “blood brother” Ammon was anticipating. Disillusioned, she decides to leave. As the desert landscape of White Sands, New Mexico rushes by on the screen, Ammon intones: “Today every mountain every hill looks as if an Apache has just ridden along it.”
The capacity of the Southwestern American landscape to generate and absorb such projections is reflected in each of the four bodies of work that comprise this exhibition. Ammon’s vision is transferred directly to the viewer, who, at this point in the story, shares Ammon’s desire to witness the dashing Apache she has traveled so far to see. Placing an image of a galloping Indian on top of every empty hill–exactly the gesture physically enacted by Bjorn Hegardt in another work in the exhibition, Ammon transforms the terrain before her into a mis en scene animated by a script inscribed by her German cultural heritage.
While news of Winnetou and his grip on the German psyche might come as a surprise to most Americans, Ammon’s involuntary daydream is familiar to anyone who visits New Mexico for the first time. Our contemporary romance for the west, while established as a mode of literature in response a moment in American history so fleeting as to be almost nonexistent, was fueled early on by Hollywood and then extended by filmmakers around the world, especially in Italy and southern Spain. It is addressed by this exhibition as a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon manifest most readily by landscape photography and video in which “Cowboys” and “Indians” are depicted in an arid, but ideologically slippery, terrain. Thus the “wild west” persists as a virtual but accessible realm of history and imagination that the four artists in the show challenge, mourn, and celebrate.
Ammon, who has established a body of work around the delusion and exposure of cultural myths, is perhaps the most insistent of the four artists in her belief. (note1) Her video begins with a scene filmed in Germany in which she is shown being carried away by her fantasy. A reenactment of a scene from one of countless Winnetou films (note 2), the anachronism of Ammon’s contemporary European apparel (getting increasingly soaked by the rain) render the footage more disorienting and consequently, more effective. Nothing she could find in New Mexico could equal this cultivated fiction, yet she concludes her video with a promise to return to there once again and continue her quest.
Unlike other, perhaps more generic, mythological landscapes that have been employed by filmmakers (the forests that lend their atmosphere to The Lord of Rings, for example), the majestic scale and the monumental rock formations that define the American Southwest are conspicuously unique and immediately identifiable. Despite the southwest’s singular geology, its more topical, ambient details–the harsh sunlight, robust cacti, and dusty pueblos–can easily be replicated elsewhere, especially with the simple addition of figures on horses costumed as “Cowboys” and “Indians.”
Bjorn Hegardt’s analog photographs are an impressive demonstration of the volatility of these figure/ground relationships, as well as the ease with which viewers can be manipulated by such charged markers in the landscape. With the simple addition of a few props insinuated into the foreground, Hegardt’s Cowboys (2001), for example, destabilizes the entire skyline of Berlin, trumping the city’s landmark television tower in the process. Hegardt’s toys and cacti even seem to co-opt the weather in this cinematic panorama and the narrative resolution promised by “riding off into the sunset.” Photographed against the yellow-orange sky, the confounding scale of their silhouettes resemble cutouts on commercial signage, evoking a view of Las Vegas and the allure of its marketed fantasies.
Hegardt is also represented in this exhibition by a slide carousel projecting photographs of “Marlboro Men” spotted in Berlin. In addition to transcribing the effect performed in his photographs, Hergardt’s transparencies recall the now iconic work of Richard Prince, whose re-croppings of Marlboro ads from the 1980s still register as glamorous manifestations of consumption. Instead of isolating details within the borders of the original photographs, as Prince had done, Hegardt’s pictures give us the entire ad, as well its public context. By demonstrating the aggression of a global campaign that continues to sell cigarettes despite– or due to–the absence of logo or visual trace of product, Hegardt’s treatment of these rugged cowhands abroad may help Americans better understand the toxic impact of its consumer culture worldwide.
The work of Richard Prince and the discourse of degraded “copies without originals” also inform the Panavisions of Ethan Jackson. Digitally fusing details from film stills lifted from westerns shot in Moorish Spain, Jackson creates credible scenes that never existed in the original productions. The surface of these composites are mosaics of diamond-shaped pixels, graphic reminders that whatever historic truth the “wild west” may have once possessed has been obscured by a blanket of simulations. Critical to Jackson’s effort to “peel back some of the layers of a complex cultural product” (note 3) is his use of excerpts from language instruction manuals. These lessons infuse the dramatic scenes depicted with an interface between Arabic and English in which the operations of correct and incorrect grammar become analogous for the mechanics of good and evil. The excerpts also serve to link the images of the Spanish landscape depicted (sites originally inhabited by Arabs during the Middle Ages), to the tension between the United States and Islam. The “war in against terrorism” is recast as a conflict between Texas rangers and Indian warriors. (note 4)
Another kind of struggle, or standoff, rather, between the white man and indigenous tribes becomes the subject of a suite of ten captioned photographs by Gudrun Ruawolf. The battle she documents is a conflict of visual representation staked out not only in the landscape but in time. Her project retraces the steps of an earlier journey made in 1895 by German art historian Aby Warburg to regions inhabited by the Peublo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. Echoing Ammon’s narrated search for Winnetou, Rauwolf’s research evolves from a travelogue sparked by romantic curiosity into a critique. Where Ammon concludes by questioning herself, Rauwolf opts to interrogate her medium. Unable to record the rituals that Warburg captured a century earlier with his camera, she objectively documents the resistance employed by the Hopi to shield themselves from scrutiny. Her photographs of prohibitive signs register as encounters that can proceed nowhere, evidence of a truce that restores to the native population a quotient of control over representations of their own culture.
Independent of the knowledge Warburg’s initial route and the photographs he took, each of Rauwolf’s landscapes conveys a layered sense of history. The grandeur of some of her views, No. 5 in particular, conveys a feeling of timelessness that is countered in other photographs by invasive reminders of the present: the train that stretches from one side to landscape to the other in No. 3 or the trash piling out of the shed in No. 7. Despite this temporal drift, all of Rauwolf’s photographs, as well as those of Ammon, Hegardt, and Jackson, feel framed by an instant locked the mid-19th century, an instant, that is, relatively speaking, remarkably recent. (note 5) It is also a moment of dissolution and remorse. “Everywhere,” writes the photographer, considering the Europeans’ first contact with the American natives, “you realize how the opportunity of a fruitful encounter has been missed.” (note 6)
For all its romance and adventure, the era of the “wild west” is actually an eternity of discovery tempered by loss. The generative desire for something we can never have becomes the real subject of this exhibition. Rauwolf’s caption for her image of a split boulder (No. 2) may have the last word. “…What could a photograph achieve? Sooner or later in the existence of a photograph, this question becomes unavoidable. Not because time has elapsed in the photograph itself. Nothing has changed in all this time. But because time–in some cases more than a century–has passed since the picture was taken. In the photograph itself, nothing has changed in all this time, but outside it a landslide has taken place.” (note 7)
5) Commenting on the movie Geronimo, which Ammnon watches with Oliver and incorporates into her video, Ammon says: “After all, the story I saw in the film yesterday happened only 120 years ago.”
6) Gudrun Rauwolf, statement.
“WINNETOU?” … “OLD SHATTERHAND!”
by Dr. Meredith McClain, Lubbock Texas Tech University, 2004
On guard in the cold darkness a young German soldier musters all the courage he has. Faint sounds of movement grow more distinct as someone inches toward his hiding place. He knows the enemy could have surrounded his group, but he hopes desperately that the approaching human might be one of his own comrades. Taking aim, he hoarsely projects the only word he can think of: “Winnetou?” “Shatterhand!!” comes the whispered answer and two Germans embrace in euphoric relief.
More than 50 years after the end of World War II, most Americans would still have no way to decipher this German identity code which names two of the most beloved literary characters ever created in the German language: Winnetou, the handsome, elegant, wise, young Mescalero-Apache chief and Old Shatterhand, his German blood-brother and brave frontiersman on the American Llano Estacado, creations of the best- selling author in the German language, Karl May (1842-1912 ).
May (pronounced “My”) was born into the abject poverty of a Saxonian weaver’s family and after losing his chance to rise into a teaching position, he used his prison term to research and formulate a pattern of travel fiction writing which, by the 1890s, would translate into the over night popular and financial success later experienced by rock stars. His eighty volumes (translated into more than 26 languages) have sold over 100 million copies, second only to Louis L’Amour with 225 million.
Central to May’s successful style is the setting on the vast, isolated, semi-arid, open and dangerous Comanche plains of the Llano Estacado in North-West Texas and Eastern New Mexico, an area completely opposite to the relatively small area of Germany, which is densely populated, forested, wet, and highly bureaucratized. German “Wanderlust,” the longing for freedom of travel out into nature alone or with a partner, can be satisfied vicariously by May’s extraordinary descriptions of landscapes of the Wild West:
There, where the Southeast edge of New Mexico juts into the region of Texas, lies one of the most dangerous corners of the distant West. It is there that the adjacent territories of the Comanches and Apaches touch, a situation which has as its natural consequence the continuous insecurity of the area…
“The shears”, as the Frontiersman calls this dangerous place, is a very fitting name. The boundary lines are mobile; they open and close like shearing blades, and anyone who comes between them may speak of great luck to escape with his skin in tact. A white man who lets himself be seen there is either extremely brave or very careless; in both cases the “vulture of death” circles endlessly over his head. There, where the Toya river emerges from the Devil’s Mountains and flows into the Rio Pecos, the latter shaped in those days the border between the land of the Comanches and Apaches. Westward the terrain ascends to the Sierra Guadelupe, Sierra Pilaros and Sierra del Diablo, while in the East lie the Staked Plains, the infamous Llano estakado.
People this landscape with the Native American guide and his astute German “brother”, both superior beings who see clearly right from wrong and set out time and again to successfully punish local wrong-doers, add the intimacy of the first-person narrative by the German “Old Shatterhand” (who shatters evil with one fist) and you have gripping narratives, read passionately by generations of German boys (and girls) often under the covers by flashlight.
Following May’s death, the first Cowboy Club was founded 1913 in Munich. By 1990, even very cautious printed estimates of Germans involved in the “Western-Hobby” movement speak of 50,000 men and women affiliated with well over 300 clubs. Members of “Lubbock Town” outside Cologne make yearly pilgrimages to Lubbock, Texas, to the Cowboy Symposium. This year two leaders of the club were officially married during this event and the winner of the group’s country/western music contest was awarded the trip to the Symposium with performance opportunities on the main stages.
A whole other, little-known and fascinating chapter in the German-Wild West scene is the fact that in Communist East Germany only Indian Clubs thrived by cooperating with the government when special Powwows were called to entertain official visitors. The most popular museum in East Germany, visited by virtually all East Bloc visitors, was the American Indian collection housed in a log cabin behind Karl May’s mansion, Villa Shatterhand, outside Dresden.
The greatest boost given the enduring popularity of May’s Westerns was the low-budget German filming of his stories in the 1960’s against spectacular Yugoslavian landscapes.. The American actor, Lex Barker (known in the US as Tarzan) rides as a fabulous Shatterhand next to the Frenchman, Pierre Brice as Winnetou, while fending off local Croatians dressed as Apaches. In the background, the sound track by Martin Botcher catches the mood of vast isolation under the Llano’s big sky.
Winnetou? Shatterhand? What’s the May scene today? Add to the revival of the 60’s movies eleven outdoor summer theaters featuring numerous contenders for the main roles from both East and West Germany, a record breaking new German movie spoof, “The Shoe of Manitou,” the Karl May Society with 2,000 members world-wide, the establishment of a Karl May Archive at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, a TTU exhibit on the Germans of the Llano Estacado traveling now throughout Germany and the opening of the German “Wild West” exhibit at Tech. These are massive rustlings of a German-American movement still unknown to most on this side of the pond, as the Germans call it.
Bibliography of English works on May
1. May, Karl. Winnetou. New York: Continuum, 1998.