empathy

Looking Back Into Nazi Territory

Entering Andreas Mühe’s new exhibition at Carlier | Gebauer is something of a shock. Here, in the middle of the capital city of a country that assiduously avoids crude references to its Nazi past, is an exhibit dedicated to depicting the National Socialist party. On one wall hang a series of pictures of Mühe’s friends in iconic Nazi uniforms. On another, an array of photographs of men in a monumental Bavarian landscape. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the men are dressed in S.S. uniform and pissing off the edge of mountains. Marking their territory.

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Mühe was born in 1979 into a theater family in the former East Germany (his father, Ulrich Mühe, was a well-known actor, in The Lives of Others among many other films). He worked as a photography assistant and technician as a student, and slowly built a career on portraits of prominent political figures, before gaining success with his work in galleries.

Of Piss & Glory

The pieces in this exhibition have been in development since 2010. The six-photo Obersalzberg series, which features the peeing members of the S.S., takes its name from the region where Hitler had his well-known retreat – an area where, somewhat perversely, tourists still flock to collect detritus and mementos from the era.

Installation view of Mühe's exhibition at Carlier | Gebauer. Photo: Chris Phillips

The series has been shown in Los Angeles, Rostock, Basel and, in a smaller exhibition in 2012, at Dittrich & Schlechtriem in Berlin. At Carlier | Gebauer, the images receive a new exhibition that places them in the larger context of Mühe’s work. Mühe’s focal point in the exhibition, which occupies three large rooms of the gallery, is the Nazi era. He explore it in photographs, including the pissing mountain scenes, paired images of an S.S. member in his uniform and then undressed, and images of the traditional braids worn by Nazi women.

But his work extends beyond the Nazi period. One room of the show is dedicated to a series of small pictures of homes seen from far away, through trees. Only when you read the accompanying materials do you realize that the homes belonged to the most powerful men in the German Democratic Republic, and that Mühe’s subject here is East Germany’s culture of relentless observation into its citizens’ private lives.

Artwork from the exhibition. Photo: C. Phillips

Dark themes about the country's history permeate even work that doesn't focus explicitly on the country's past. A portrait he created of Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, upends the standard head-on political headshot. It depicts her in a large wood, dwarfed by the trees around her. Merkel seems tiny amidst the monumental landscape, which is so rich in color that it looks almost painted. She has her face entirely turned away from the camera. A review in the German newspaper Die Welt, began with a summary of the mood of Mühe’s work: “Whether Angela Merkel or Obersalzberg, Andreas Mühe’s photographs deal in power, politics, and the relationship Germans have to their myths.”

A Closer Look At The Topic

Meeting at the Gallery, Carlier | Gebauer’s artist liaison Barbara Jenner describes the response to Mühe’s current exhibition. “A lot of people thought it was really brave,” says Jenner, who has worked closely with the artist before, including the arranging of this exhibition. “For a German, it’s not easy to speak about this time, and for sure it’s not easy to make art about this time.”

When asked why most Germans avoid the subject, Jenner is a bit more elliptical. Asked if they’re afraid that in depicting the Nazis for fear of looking sympathetic or nostalgic, she responds in almost shock. I suggest that this is probably the most reasonable fear one could have. She just repeats that this isn’t quite the problem. Emphasizing the gravity of Mühe's style and subject matter, Jenner maintains that response to the exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have commented on its bravery, and expressed interest in Mühe’s maturity. Some couples, though, have walked in and walked out, saying that “Andreas is a great photographer, but they just don’t want to look closer at this topic.”

Photos from the exhibition. Photo: C. Phillips

One or two passersby stopped into the gallery while I was there to speak with Jenner. One was Kerstin Vogel, a young German journalist who lives in Berlin. When asked about her response to the work, she explained the strange resonance the Nazi times have in this country, something she hadn’t fully appreciated until she lived abroad in England: “It’s still this thing that you have to be careful if you are German. People are waiting to say something wrong.” Asked what drew her to the exhibition, Vogel focused on aesthetic concerns, “I thought, that sounds really interesting. I mean, it’s fantastic scenery.” And indeed it is: one fantastic, politically charged, eerie nature walk. 

Article by Christopher Shea