Mengele’s Skull at Portikus Frankfurt

by Stefanie Hessler

 

The exhibition “Mengele’s Skull” attracted my attention not only because of its particular title, but also due to the people behind it: Hito Steyerl, Thomas Keenan, Eyal Weizman, Paulo Tavares and Anselm Franke, who curated the show. The exhibition is on view at Portikus, one of Frankfurt’s most interesting art spaces, dedicated to positions by young international artists and linked to the Städelschule.

 

Portikus Frankfurt

Portikus Frankfurt

 

Portikus Frankfurt

Portikus Frankfurt

 

The show is divided into two sections on separate storeys: the expansive installation “The Kiss” by Hito Steyerl on the ground floor, and a combination of artworks, documentary film and book presentation on the second level. Entering the first section, I find myself in a completely darkened room. Three projections on screens, a sculpture and a monitor are the only sources of light. All objects deal with an event in 1993 in the Bosnian War, during which 20 passengers were abducted from a train by a paramilitary unit. 19 of the victims’ names are known, but the identity of the 20th passenger who disappeared from the train could not be traced. Eye-witnesses reported that it was a black man whom the leader of the paramilitary unit kissed while hauling him off. The model is a visualisation of the spatial positions of people involved in the event. By illustrating the constellations of known facts, researchers try to find clues that have been overlooked in previous investigations. On the monitor mounted on a wall behind the “documentary sculpture”, a video in YouTube-clip aesthetics reports on the exhumation of war victims. And lastly, the three projections in the centre of the space show the possible course of the event through computer animations. Hito Steyerl created the 3-D images applying forensic technology used by scientists in crime investigations. Whereas the documentary character of the show becomes clear, uncertainty and a sense of impossibility to retrace the events of the multi-layered story prevail. There is strangeness in not knowing how much of the presented is true and which elements of the incidence are fictional. The narrative is as impossible to verify as to be certain of what happened to the 20th person from the train.

 

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

 

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

 

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

Hito Steyerl - The Kiss

 

The exhibition introduces forensics as new dimension in the search for truth. Derived from Latin forēnsis, “of or before the forum”, forensic science is an interdisciplinary range of methods to research and answer questions in relation to law and the legal system. There are a number of subdivisions, such as computational forensics, forensic anthropology, pathology and linguistics, just to name a few. Forensics is thus the attempt to reveal the truth in civil actions or crime. As with all science, the construction of knowledge occurs in discussion with a forum, consisting of fellow researchers, peers and the public. Evidence is derived from the analysis of physical objects in a process of interpretation and persuasion.

 

Upstairs in the so-called “resource room” of the exhibition, a connection to another historic event is made: the exhumation of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s grave in 1985. The exhibition claims this event and the forensic process of identity verification that followed as the first of its kind, marking the “era of forensics” in human rights discourse. In the book “Mengele’s Skull – the Advent of A Forensic Aesthetics”, whose pages are spread on a long pedestal in the space, Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan describe the era before forensics as dominated by trauma and confusion, marked by memory rather than scientific investigation. Earlier, the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 was regarded as the beginning of the “era of the witness”. Other than Mengele, who had escaped to Argentina in 1949 and was never caught, Eichmann was captured and put on public trial. As argued by Hannah Arendt in her controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Report on the Banality of Evil”, the function of the trial was not only a legal process, but also a moral consolidation. What Weizman and Keenan call the “era of the witness”, has been similarly pointed out by Susan Sontag: “The truth is that the Eichmann trial did not, and could not have conformed to legal standards only. [...] The function of the trial was rather that of the tragic drama: above and beyond judgment and punishment, catharsis.” (Susan Sontag, “Reflections on The Deputy“, in: Against Interpretation and other Essays, New York, 1967, p. 126).

 

Research Room - installation view

Research Room - installation view

 

Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan, "Mengele's Skull - the Advent of A Forensic Aesthetics”, 2012. Co-published by Sternberg Press & Portikus

Eyal & Keenan "Mengele's Skull - the Advent of A Forensic Aesthetics”, Sternberg Press

 

It was Mengele the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was most after. However, they could not say for sure where he was hiding. Not wanting to risk the capture of Eichmann, they caught him while Mengele had time to escape. His bones were found in a grave in Sao Paulo carrying the name of Wolfgang Gerhard, under whose fake identity he had been hiding. What happened after the exhumation can be described as a “trial of the bones“, and the moment in which forensics entered into the discourse of human rights. The introduction of bones and objects as main focus of investigation in the legal process has altered both methodology of war-crimes inquiries and discussions of truth construction.

 

In addition to said book, a two-channel video by Hito Steyerl, a video work by Paulo Tavares and Eyal Weizman, a documentary film lecture, and further model sculptures are on display on the second floor.

 

Hito Steyerl’s work “Leibniz Skull” deals with yet another mortal remain, or rather a plaster cast of the skull of mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In an amusing and ironic way, the work focuses on a dispute over the authenticity of the cast, led by a pastor and an anatomist.

 

Hito Steyerl - Leibniz Skull

Hito Steyerl - Leibniz Skull

 

The film by Paulo Tavares und Eyal Weizman is an account of a genocidal campaign against communism in Guatemala backed by the US between 1982-84, during which more than 100.000 Mayans died and 400 indigenous communities were destroyed. Following the investigators, the relation between forensic science and politics becomes evident.

 

Lastly, the movie “Mengele’s Skull” is a film lecture by Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan about the work of forensic anthropologists Richard Helmer and Clyde Snow, who were engaged in the identification of Mengele’s remains. In the large back-screen projection, Snow explains how he uncovers what he calls someone’s “osteo-biography”. Bones give account of a person’s lifestyle, nutrition, habits and health. Interestingly enough, while usually employed to identify the cause of death of a person, in the case of Mengele this was of secondary importance. Rather, the aim was to uncover the identity of the person, and more than that, to convince the public that the result was true. The importance of visuals and aesthetics in this context is quite intriguing. Once the team of researchers was certain that it was Mengele’s body they found in the grave, they decided they needed an image. The scientific “facts” were not enough, but a powerful picture that people could relate to and through which information could become personified and tangible was needed. By superimposing photographs, Helmer thus reconstructed the face and visual layer of the skin on the human skull. More than the beginning of a forensic era, I would argue that this detail demonstrates how our reality is widely built up of images. Only what can be communicated through visually strong material reaches the media, the masses and enters into the common conscious as fact and truth. Interestingly enough, forensics is a “forum” in which truth is negotiated. It is impossible to be certain and truth can only ever be a position on a spectrum of probability. More often than not do we forget that images can be manipulated or are interpreted biased, and therefore also require a forum in which they can be discussed.

 

Spread from the book "Mengele's Skull - the Advent of A Forensic Aesthetics” by Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan

Spread from the book "Mengele's Skull - the Advent of A Forensic Aesthetics” by Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan

 

Research Room - installation view

Research Room - installation view

 

A complex exhibition, the presentation curated by Anselm Franke appears as proof that scientific truth can only ever be verified by means of plausibility and needs to be negotiated. The combination of artworks, documentary material and its interpretation produces an exciting haziness of the authenticity of facts. Moving upstairs from the dramatically staged first part of the installation, the “resource room” does feel more like an archive than exhibition space. The floor consists of plywood panels, lighting is at an unfocused intermediate level and the insinuatingly different sized monitors turn the space into a functional archive situation rather than intended for an aesthetic experience. In an impressive conglomerate of facts, assumptions and fiction, the methodology of forensics and changes its advent in the human rights generated became evident. There are several moments that hit the mark and are very enjoyable. Hito Steyerl’s works are my favourite parts of the show, and the publication is definitely worth reading.

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