Two Works on Namibian History
The exhibition ‘Unrecounted: Historical Amnesia in Germany and Namibia’ at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello suggests the future can only be really thought through the past, providing a foil to this year’s Venice Biennale theme, All the World’s Futures. Sharing the space are works by two German-heritage artists who have engaged the legacy of colonialism in Namibia. There is a glaring silence about the massacres of the Herero and Nama populations by German settlers in 1904-08, though its status as a genocide continues to be contested. This silence might be said to be the exhibition’s center of gravity, around which the two works inevitably orbit, though in seemingly opposite directions. This allows the two works to share the space with a charged ambivalence.
In Indifference (2014) Nicola Brandt allows two different voice-overs (a sixty-year-old Herero-Namibian and a ninety-year-old German-Namibian) to cathect to frames quite intentionally cleared of people. Spread across three channels, the installation circles around a basic void, investing everyday objects—a bookshelf, a playground, a silk dress—with a narrative duty that the speakers seem unable to take on before the camera. The methodical edit nonetheless develops a certain animism, most present when the three channels fall into the sync, rendering the desert landscape whole. These moments of visual unity are all the more striking and dissonant for the fact that the voice-overs are oblivious to them, continuing to circle around the impossibility of figuration. The effect is akin the house lights coming on after a concert: for a moment the image refuses to reconcile itself with the ringing in one’sears.
In The African Twin Towers (2005-2009) Christoph Schlingensief seems to locate the antidote for colonial history in excess and inversion. The Namibian stage seems bound to buckle under the bloat of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which Schlingensief attempted to realize there. As such, we are treated to an emptying of a different sort. A traveling troupe of actors engage each other in post-dramatic pantomimes under the blank stares of the locals. The work seems to enact a catharsis that seems dislocated from it environment. This is the tension of the piece: the seeming insensitivity to context is on another level performative of the legacy of colonialism. The breakdown of the production tacitly resolves the ethical problem raised by exporting Wagner to Namibia, and a more humble project emerges. Schlingensief sets up a rotating stage in the former colonial town of Lüderitz, a kind of frame in which locals and actors alike might imagine new narratives.
The wooden stage seems echoed by the reprised carousel in Brandt’s work. Schlingensief’s rotating stage needs people to animate it. By inversion, Brandt’s merry-go-round has no one sitting on it. Both works seem to channel an inertia latent in the system that would otherwise be left unspoken. At the core of both films is a cycle that they refuse to name that nonetheless keeps them in motion.
*** Exhibition information
Unrecounted: Historical Amnesia in Germany and Namibia
Dates showing: 4-9 May 2015
Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello – Palazzo Pisani, Sestiere di San Marco, 2810, Venezia
Opening times: 10-18h
Artist and curator talk: Friday, 8 May at 11 AM
 A. Dirk Moses (2008) Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation and Subaltern Resistance in World History, Berghahn Books, NY