Text | Shanzay Subzwari
Photography | Humayun Memon
I walked into the gallery space of the Alliance Francaise de Karachi, greeted by an assortment of creative media that was organised by Goethe Institute Karachi. The large-scale collages and mixed media pieces that adorned the walls soon gave way to a number of identical screens, where videos displayed scenes of different lengths, speeds and hues, flurrying into each other. Nearby, beyond the black veil, stood the largest video installation, waiting to be seen.
The artist, Marcel Odenbach, is primarily known as one of the youngest pioneers of the 1970s’ video art scene in the German-speaking world. ‘Tranquil Motions’, curated by Matthias Muhling, is an IFA travel exhibition that brings together his complex oeuvre with selected works from the past 3 decades, from video tapes to video installations, to works on paper that were displayed in Karachi for the first time at the behest of Goethe Institute Karachi. It included 10 video installations, collages and mixed media 2D works on paper.
At first, I took my time to enjoy Odenbach’s large, luscious collages of varying imagery. An architecture student in Aachen from 1974 until 1979, Odenbach ordered his thoughts with artistic confidence in the form of drawings. Large scale paper works on the walls displayed imagery such as close-ups of football players’ legs mid-play which were painted, overlapped and collaged in various ways, to delicately cut flora and fauna, to ripples of water – all revealing hundreds of smaller images coming together to make these large-scale collages. My favourite, however, was ‘Snow White’, another large-scale collage on paper that displayed heavy laden, luscious apples hanging on boughs amidst full, green leaves. A closer look revealed a myriad of tiny, hidden images from different sources. To Odenbach, this piece represents one particular theme in its myriad forms. Inspired by Snow White and The Seven Dwarves by The Brothers Grimm, the apple, being the fruit that Snow White was enticed to take a bite of by the Evil Queen, is seen as a symbol of seduction. Each individual apple displayed a cluster of images that dealt with a different aspect of seduction, from religion, media, sexuality and fame, to finally, a personal comment by Odenbach of his own family tree where the apple was taken as an emblem of ancestry.
In the late 1970s, Odenbach started using video work, tapes, installations, performances and drawings to probe the cultural identity of his native Germany. Perhaps one of Odenbach’s defining qualities is his ability to draw seemingly unusual parallels in his works. In his videos, the harrowing effects of Nazi rule in Germany have been compared with the Rwandan Genocide, images of masculinity in Turkey offset the role of women in Venezuela, and he has drawn connections between his own biography and the history of others. Odenbach is known to have quoted, “The question of identity, and of German identity in particular, played a role in my thinking as early as the 1970s, also, of course, due to my critical engagement with the past. I personally never really had negative feelings about the role of the exile; it always seemed to me to be rather enriching.”
The first video I saw on one of the identical black monitors with headphones on was ‘Standing Is Not Falling’ (1989). From the point where I began watching, the video of a man getting a haircut was offset by dramatic, disturbing imagery of a man being shot at, continuously, as part of a street execution. All this was contrasted with African chants and people clapping in rhythm. The mundane was paralleled with the disturbing. Black and white selections from television reports and newspaper clippings were combined with individual staged scenes in colour. The piece, true to its title, compared the concepts of standing and falling; being physically fit and politically steadfast versus being on the receiving end of violence. The juxtapositions and overlapping imagery made the piece unsettling, to say the least.
‘As If Memories Could Deceive Me’ (1986), on another black monitor next to it, welcomed the viewer with its drumming sound. Starting with an orchestra rehearsal in colour, the video piece transitioned to a child playing a piano in black and white, with the piano keys seen from the perspective of the player. Superimposed on this imagery were images of German baroque architecture and historic shots of folk dances. Soon, the child playing the piano fell asleep and Odenbach took his place. Briefly, as the keys played, terrifying documentary footage from the Nazi era appeared on the lower half of the screen, showing Hitler’s rise to power, book burnings and Nuremburg Trials. In another shift of imagery, male models, colourful shots of shop windows and men’s clothes dazzled the screen amid catchy beats, which presented German consumer culture of the 80s. The parallels drawn made the video an ‘indissoluble conglomerate of dream worlds and recollections, shaped by historic imagery’ .
Perhaps the highlight of the exhibition was the video piece, titled, ‘In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk’ (2003/2004). The longest piece at 33 minutes, it was displayed by the gallery on a massive wall in an area separated by a black curtain. This piece continuously displayed two screens running parallel to each other, and could be seen by a number of people at the same time. The video was divided into seven chapters; I was able to watch Chapters 3 to 6.
Chapter 3 opens in a big room. We see village life in Africa, which we later realise is Rwanda in particular. Regular village activities such as milking cows, making food, and cleaning take place. The lack of water is emphasised as people sip water from run-down cans. The perspective of the video Is voyeuristic. It’s the view of a person experiencing everything first-hand, but a little too intimately. Soon, the video shifts to blurred imagery of people being hit and killed, a child searching for his family, and screaming, with the screens alternating with imagery.
Then Chapter 4 opens. There are heavy rains, and the viewer gets the sense of moving with the landscape. The close-up scenes of the waves in the sea are superimposed with images of dead bodies, giving the effect of seeing them through a veil or glass. The video is morbid. Scenes of an overcrowded village, men crying, are contrasted on the left with calm imagery, smoke or mist rising slowly. Odenbach provides an interesting contrast; he juxtaposes calm scenes with passionate ones. There are fighters, rebels, poor kids staring at the camera, and in essence, at the viewer of this video piece. The role of the ‘other’ has been reversed; the seen have become the seers, and the seers, the seen.
In Chapter 5, there is harmonious music. The bright green beauty of nature is contrasted with the sparse poverty inside; there are dirty clothes, poor farmers, and what seems like a burial ground on the left screen. The music makes it seem like something tragic has happened. The act of laughing seems out of place. Scenes flow seamlessly into each other. Soon, workers unloading bricks can be seen. It is amusing to see that their uniform is pink shorts.
Chapter 6 reveals to us what the burial ground is; we see inscribed the number of genocide victims buried in the cemetery in April 1994; it is a staggering 11600. Clippings from the 90s of a political party leader are seen addressing the public. He doesn’t seem warm. Then we see a newer clip of kids playing football. It is very green.
I learned later that this video piece chronicles the Rwandan genocide which took place between April and July 1994, with almost all victims being Tutsi; the second largest population division among the three largest groups in Rwanda and Burundi. Drawing on historical documentary material and footage from the United Nations film archives, Odenbach’s video examined the Rwandan genocide’s consequences in a country that must bring the killers to justice, while also building reconciliation between the ethnic groups. While we did not see any explicit images of the crimes themselves, we saw ordinary scenes in idyllic, seemingly calm environments, with the soundtrack often quoting propaganda by the Hutu tribes; the ones whose government carried out the genocide.
As Odenbach worked on this film, perhaps he had felt a strange connection with it, that for him the piece became an encounter with his own history. Growing up in post-war Germany among victims and perpetrators, Odenbach drew parallels to his own childhood in Cologne: the reticence, the closed curtains, and the children unable to shout. The take away from the exhibition were mixed feelings and a heavy heart. It is evident that the works and videos, with their unusual contrasts and heavy material and imagery had moved me; the last video piece in particular.
About the Author:
Shanzay Subzwari is an artist and writer with a BFA from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. She has had solo and group exhibitions in Karachi and Lahore. She has been writing art reviews and articles for various publications and galleries since 2014.