FRIEDRICHSHAFEN, Germany — In August, less than a week after white nationalists and neo-nazis gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue dedicated to Robert E. Lee, a group of counter-protesters gathered in Durham to topple another statue of a Confederate soldier. “Charlottesville and racist monuments across the country are the results of centuries of white supremacy,” reportedly said Alissa Ellis, a member of Workers World Party Durham, one of the groups participating in the Charlottesville protests. The threatened and actual destruction and removal of these and other public statues in the US has led to a fierce public debate. At the heart of the matter is whether the glorification of public monuments to the Confederacy falls on the wrong side of history, marginalizing the experiences of minorities and people of color — while on a deeper level exposing the inner tentacles of ethno-nationalist US history, fraught by renewed attention to public monuments and the cults that surround them.
This past August, during the height of protests against Confederate monuments in the US, I found myself in southern Germany, visiting the Zeppelin Museum, located in the industrial city of Friedrichshafen, on the banks of Lake Constance. The museum is primarily dedicated to preserving aviation history, notably the famous flying blimp invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1900; and it is where a recent exhibition, KULT! Legends, stars and images, curated by Ina Neddermeyer, investigates how the Zeppelin legacy can be read through sub-categories of cults that persist today. The exhibition’s view takes in political and religious cults, destructive and iconoclastic cults, racist and polygamist cults, presenting them in the frames of research constructed by contemporary artists including Halil Altindere, Yael Bartana, Candice Breitz, and Jeremy Shaw, among others.
In “Quickeners” (2014) by Jeremy Shaw, altered and transcendental states are explored through footage the artist outsourced from a documentary called “Holy Ghost People” (1967), an ethnography of a Pentecostal Christian community in Virginia on a quest to encounter God through rituals like handling snakes and speaking in tongues. Shaw exposes how sectarian cults use spiritualism and esoteric language to enlist believers. Apart from the cult of ritual, a newly commissioned work by dissident Turkish artist Halil Altindere, titled “Ballerinas and Police” (2017), exposes how cults are often taken up for political ends too. The work features dancers who perform choreographies of crowd control. The ballerinas appear in the uniform of Turkish security forces, underscoring the political causes underlying the emergence of cults. Other works in the exhibition unweave the persistence of cults in popular culture, such as Candice Breitz’s Thriller”(2016), a multi-channel video installation of fans singing Michael Jackson’s iconic song of the same name. While Yael Bartana’s “Zamach” (2011) — part of a trilogy that first appeared in the Polish Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale under the title “… and Europe will be stunned” — brings to light an imagined, multinational community: what Bartana calls the Jewish Renaissance Movement. This project explores the social and political relationships among Jews, Poles and Europeans, complicated by the intermingling of various ethnic, religious, and national identities. The trilogy takes on the myth of political and religious unification in Poland, where foreign citizens now make up only 0.3% of the population — second in the world only to North Korea in terms of concentrated homogeneity. Though made in 2011, the work felt refreshing and relevant where Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS party) parallels the rise of the “alt-right” within the US, often using fascist and racist slogans like “Poland for Poles,” creating a kind of cultic, ethno-nationalist discourse that has become pervasive in mainstream news media.
In a large room towards the back of the exhibition, a vitrine of toys, souvenirs, stamps, and books commemorating the Zeppelin were on display. Dozens of them, some from the 1930s and ’40s, decorated with swastikas, contributed to the Nazi-ification of the Zeppelin legacy. Reflecting on the issue of Confederate statues in the US and their valorization by members of the alt-right, I began to see parallels, or at least points of convergence in terms of how cults can be used for political, ritualistic, and cultural means.
Accordingly, the exhibition provoked the idea that the Third Reich used the Zeppelin to vindicate the spurious idea of a racially pure society, known as völkish in German — bogusly associating the aviation invention with supremacy over the skies, and by extension, racial and ethnic supremacy. At the same time, I saw in the exhibition how newer subcategories of cults remain stubbornly present, exactly one hundred years after von Zeppelin’s death. For those like me who watched with disgust the images coming out of Charlottesville last summer of white men carrying Nazi flags alongside Confederate ones, while chanting slogans like “blood and soil” (an infamous Nazi slogan), it was painfully obvious that there are similarities between the arrival of fascism in Germany in the 1930s, with fascism in America today. The exhibition — which thus became an archeological study of historical and contemporary cults — laid bare the historical antecedents of global fascist and racist policies plainly reemergent.
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