Best art never tries to mystify anything.
On 24th of March, “Detour and Distance”—an exhibition of German artist Burkhard von Harder, curated by Danqing Xue, guided the audience to a superb spiritual realm, as a gentle summer breeze. Burkhard’s photography had impressed the visitors and struck a responsive chord in the hearts of them. What has been conveyed from the artist’s work is never flowering and quite profound.
This exhibition is narrated in a manner of the artist’s autobiography. As the curtain of his life rises, the story flows along the waves of his lifetime, pushing his interpretation of life, emotion, history and the destiny of human beings to a brand new height. The exhibition starts with the “Goddess of Hinduism—Kali”, the metaphor of unknown destiny of all human beings. Kali is the conqueror of time, the creator and destroyer, and the mother of birth and death, giving the beginning and terminating, praising and sympathizing to all life forms. Burkhard is from a highborn family, and his father is a tough entrepreneur but remotely isolated from his only son. Young Burkhard was lonely, so he turned his attention to cameras, and had taken on photographing as his lifelong career. For Burkhard, art is his talent and destiny—a weapon that helps him resist all darkness.
Burkhard was like a sleepwalker when he was young, traveling throughout the world with his camera. He was obsessed with Eastern Spiritualism and Mysterianism, not only to escape from his family’s constrains, but also to find a way out through introspection. His journey started at the Ganges River in India, where he shot a picture of cremation and the morning showering that was happening side by side. Having seen the world and the meaning of life, he put himself in front of his camera by using “actors & wax statues” to recover past scenes. This enabled him to open his heart to face everything in life, and to travel back to the “home of art”.
“I have returned, I have crossed the hallway and look around. It is my father’s old estate…Who will receive me? Who is waiting behind the kitchen door?”— Burkhard referred Franz Kafka’s voice, with a long shadow behind him. He stepped once again into the miserable memory of his childhood. The rarely-known life scenes, filled with furious confliction, are finally exposed in front of him. In this way, Burkhard finally demounted the heavy burden that his consanguineous family had left on him, and was able to observe this fragile child with sympathy.
The scenes presented in the “Signature/Father” Series are such a kind of phantom that never fade out even when the artist has grown up. Young Burkhard was in his father’s study, signing a completely unfamiliar, will-like contract under the supervision of a group of gentlemen. Burkhard’s statement combines his memory and unspeakable emotions. This way of creation seems to be derived from an insistent resistance, fighting against the past time and history, as well as the invincible destiny.
In his childhood, Burkhard had to be obedient to his father, and observed this ruthless father with curiosity. This kind of kowtowing to his father’s authority is reflected not only on their parent-child relationship, but also on the family’s attitude against Nazi’s war crime. Burkhard’s uncle had served the German military during World War II, and therefore received severe punishment when the war ended. This has then become an injury that never to be touched in the Harder family. The installation of film-deconstruction in the Church Space contains all these secrets. Frames of family life are flashing by, one after another, with Nazi’s symbol appearing randomly— shocking the viewers. A great number of German families had to face this kind of post-war dilemma—the nervousness under introspection versus the severe pain after the damage on domestic affection.
This kind of complicity is intensively demonstrated in the “shocked shower”. German citizens had to receive anti-war and anti-fascist education after World War II, including the youth who had not involved in that war. Facing this piece of cruel memory, some of these young German lost themselves—they were furious at being offended and pillaged, but were indeed shocked by Germany’s war crime. Burkhard’s voice must have also been involved in those shocking screams.
This conflicting fear has eventually pushed Burkhard to dive into the deep sea of humanity. The new generation in Germany, standing at a higher “diving board”, tries to rethink about their heavy history, but is falling into a deeper abyss of humanity. “Why the one I loved was so indifferent？Why my father’s generation was so ruthless？” The fate of Germany is pathetic, because almost nobody, neither men nor women, can escape from the damage of this war. A woman may have been the bride who lost her lover, and a man might have been cannon fodder at wartime and neurotics under the pressure of life. This is probably the reason that Burkhard travelled to India. He had seen through the darkness around humanity, and then decided to approach the Mysticism.
Having understand the final destiny of life, Burkhard managed to escape from the dilemma of his own fate, and went back “home” in the ways of art. He is now able to carefully observe life, history and misery from a high-level perspective. In 2003, using the “actors & wax statues” method, Burkhard recovered the scene of a Dutch migration, and named it as “1941 Germanic Trek”. Unlike those horrifying historical photos, this journey seemed to be filled with beauty and romance—the wagons carrying delicate furniture and treasures were traveling towards a new world. For Burkhard, the Germanic trek started with the imagination of purifying the land of Aryan. As Thomas Mann said, “Germany, in full blush, staggered at the height of its outrageous triumphs, was about to take over the world by a contract it had set out to fulfill.” This is a story about the ecstasy of establishing a new world ending up with horrific disorders of humanity.
However, introspection is not as easy as it seems. People remained silent in the 1950s and 1960s, hesitated to take action in the next twenty decades, and finally had tried to further investigate since 1990s. As a “post-war” youth in Germany as well as artist who keeps exploring throughout his life, Burkhard has experienced all the processes of painful disruption. Most Germans uses their background of the special national socialist period as an excuse, and try to ignore part of their identity as selective amnesia, so that they can avoid those cruel facts in a foolish and depressing way. For Burkhard, however, this is a way he has to walk through by heart, because the fairness in his childhood and the coming back in his youth are actually his maturing process from his fear for his father to the courage to face that history.
This is far from enough, his talent and destiny have pushed Burkhard into a wider ocean—he has created a unique way of creation, the “destruction of films”. Whatever the story is, it has been turned into fragments, slow movements, and losing original meanings. Countless frames are surrounding us, as daily routines that are realistic, unnoticeable, slowly changing, and unoriented. His “destruction of films” is not just reducing the film to 24 frames per second, but destructing acknowledged intrinsic value or greatness based on complete nothingness and meaningless depression. This seems to be a boring and hopeless direction, which is along the Schopenhauer’s pessimism, but it is more reliable than the construction of optimism, as it is a way of fragments and freedom, the only way that can resist human’s inherent and stubborn “original sin”.
Detour may lead to nature, while distance can bring reflection. In 2015, Burkhard hired three German trucks to transport around 500 pieces of his work to Hamburg, from Sylt Island, Dusseldorf and Berlin respectively, and then shipped them to China. When these artworks arrived at Tianjin, they were carried to Beijing by two Chinese trucks. Burkhard has given three Go-Pro cameras to each truck, both in Germany and China, to record their journey. This is to demonstrate the real “detour” journey of these works of art.
Based on the same destiny of human beings, Burkhard wants to present the Germans’ post-war conflicting pain and spirits, to Chinese viewers, so as to create a way of self-exploration and sin-and-punishment. In fact, “Detour and Distance” only presents less than thirty pieces of work, which is not sufficient to describe Burkhard’s whole career life, but they are the key nodes in Burkhard’s discovery that human beings should This exhibition, which is straightforward, down-to-earth and profound, has to be handled by the new generation and the future, because the hesitation and affectation of his father’s generation have been witnessed by the whole world.
As for Burkhard, an artist defined by his talent and destiny, his potential can only be tapped one step at a time, like the process of mining.
By Jialin Wen
Translation Yutian Yang