When the citizens see ghosts
When the citizens see ghosts
The Uninvited by Judith Hopf
Strange things happen to a young German couple out and about in Berlin. Chairs spontaneously begin to move, a corpse’s eyes spring open. Judith Hopf uses the language of the horror genre in her documentary The Uninvited, to mock contemporary society’s obsession with safety.With her exhibition at Casco, Judith Hopf (Karlsruhe, 1969) begins on a new series for which, even for her, the outcome is still unknown. At Casco in Utrecht, Kunst-Werke in Berlin, the Secession in Vienna and Portikus in Frankfurt, the Berlin-based artist plans to show a series of performances over the course of 2006, works she sometimes refers to as ‘museum theatre’. As the year begins, the theme is established, the research is done, but there are no sketches, scripts or set plans.What may appear as a lack of a concept is actually part of the concept itself. Judith Hopf has a site-specific approach, often works with a team, and has a tendency to make key decisions at short notice. Her hosts must be prepared for surprises, especially since Hopf does not limit herself to performance. Besides sculpture, Judith Hopf writes and makes films and drawings, and on various occasions she has also organized film evenings and salons with musicians, artists and fashion designers. Within this formal diversity, one theme returns again and again: the conditions under which Hopf produces art and culture. In spite of this, her works cannot be categorized as self-reflexive ‘artworld art’ or institutional critique, even when the artworld is the subject, as in the film The Elevator Curator (made in 2005 with the director Deborah Schamoni), about a curator at a turning point in her life. Instead, Hopf uses art as a metaphor for the entire world –similar, perhaps, to the way Baroque theatre considered the stage as a metaphor for the greater whole. And what interests her most about this world are the social categories of power, money and gender.One of her most recent works, the film The Uninvited – A Documentary, shot in 2005 together with the artist Katrin Pesch, is about current debates on these categories. It shows a young couple with a child in the pleasantest of Ikea interiors, which Hopf and Pesch contrast with the façade of the Beisheim Center on Potsdamer Platz, the café at Kunst-Werke, also in Berlin, and the restaurant at an Ikea store. These settings symbolize trends in German society that could be classified, roughly speaking, under the term ‘neo-conservatism’: renewed ideological focus on the family unit, historicism in post-reunification architecture, the ideological detachment of cultural figures, and the globalised store as the meeting place for the milieus of a fragmented society, as a substitute for public space. The film’s essentially harmless images evoke a threatening atmosphere through the use of stylistic elements from the ghost film genre: figures appear out of nowhere, pieces of furniture begin dancing as if moved by an invisible hand, and a dead woman in a television clip about drug victims suddenly opens her eyes. Of course, scenes like this are not seriously meant to stir up a fear of ghosts: they quote a fear of the collapse of an ordered bourgeois world that is evoked in conventional ghost films.
The Uninvited is an expression of discontent with social and economic developments and non-acceptance of the discourses on income, status and general disposition that are heralding the return of a class society in united Germany. As early as 1960, Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition that work has been overemphasized since the dawn of modernity to the detriment of political freedom of action. And this is all the more true of German society, which long defined itself in terms of prosperity and commerce, and which since 1990 can no longer be sure of this identity on account of its dwindling economic power and its five million unemployed. ‘What we face,’ wrote Ahrendt, ‘is the prospect of a society based on labour that has run out of work, the only activity it truly understands. What could be more disastrous?’Maybe, one might reply, a refusal to continue discussing alternative social models. After the demise of East Germany, the renewed failure of a ‘third way’ and the arrival of the 1968 generation in government, socialist models do not appear to be open for discussion. At present, there prevails a readiness to accept economic pressure as a private problem and to surrender to the fight for a share of the pie, as Hopf has observed among students at Weissensee Art College in Berlin, where she teaches sculpture and video art. There is, then, no spectre haunting Europe, as Marx and Engels wrote, but bourgeois society is seeing ghosts: there is a permanent and omnipresent sense of threat that feeds on the fear of status loss, just as it feeds on the fear of terrorism or bird flu. This fear leads not to analysis and action, but to a desire to remain within the ‘centre’ of society, a desire for consensus at almost any price.The Uninvited was Hopf’s ironic take on the popular ghost film genre and on this tendency to see ghosts. Admittedly, her films are never straightforward: the plots are jumpy, the breaks long, the conversations involved, the images and sounds sparse, the actors amateurish. The films that Hopf makes with friends and colleagues and in which she also acts, come across as bizarre, funny and unfinished. Hey Produktion (2001), for example, a study of collective action, culminates in an absurd ballet on the lawn. Bartleby (1998), on the other hand, revolves in disjointed interviews around the work-shy clerk in Herman Melville’s short story, with his catchphrase ‘I would prefer not to…’, a figure from the 19th century who seems to embody the exact opposite of today’s flexible, ever-ready workforce. Form and content belong here together: the comedy and the breaks are intended to create distance and with it space for free association, objections and protest – what is missing, one might say, from debate within German society.While Hopf’s films advocate teamwork, her sculptures focus on space as the place where coexistence is negotiated. These works could almost be referred to as interventions, with their incidental references to local peculiarities and their simple, effective use of everyday materials. At Barbara Gross Gallery in Munich, for example, an open window and a fan were enough to turn a few lengths of curtain material into a poetic wind installation. Three years later, Hopf varnished delicate branches from a Sumac tree that stood outside the artist-run WBD gallery in Berlin and positioned them in the exhibition space to look as if they had grown through the wall into the gallery. Precisely because these interventions are so minimal, they sharpen our eye to the relationship between the body and its surroundings, between inside and outside.The human body and its surroundings are now to be the theme of the performance series that begins, as mentioned above, in Utrecht. Hopf wants to reflect on the pressure exerted on body and soul by a society devoted to competition and uniformity: illnesses and handicaps are forbidden, so to speak, as they would only jeopardize the permanent readiness for action. In this piece for Casco, Hopf will focus explicitly on her own body for the first time – she is not very tall. So far, she has left questions of form open: whether to choose language or gesture as her form of expression, whether she should perform on a stage or on video, and how many actors to use. One thing is certain, as Judith Hopf says: ‘It will be a Baroque tragedy.’ And that means that her new role play will also be about social conduct.Judith HopfCasco Projects, Utrecht8 April-6 May