The Uncomfortable Space Between Thought and Outcome: Absolving Utopian Images in the Exhibition Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk

This paper was presented at the 2014 Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies in Montreal.

left to right: Étienne-Louis Boullée's Kenotaph for Newton, Albert Speer's Nazi People's Hall, Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (Epcot)

There is a conception of history which out of confidence in the infinity of time discerns only the rhythm of men and epochs which, quickly or slowly, advances on the road of progress… The following consideration leads, against this conception, to a determinate state in which history rests collected into a focal point, as formerly in the utopian images of thinkers. The elements of the end condition are not present as formless tendencies of progress, but instead are embedded in every present as endangered, condemned, and ridiculed creations and ideas. The historical task is to give absolute form in a genuine way to the immanent condition of fulfillment, to make it visible and predominant in the present…

– Walter Benjamin in an address to the Free Student League of Berlin, 1914

After all, individual stories of totality were still in place and even if no single grand idea was feasible, the great intensity—the Hauptstrom, as Beuys called it—the grand idea was still essential to energize society.

– Hans-Joachim Müller, Harald Szeemann, Exhibition-Maker

In 1983, an exhibition happened at Kunsthaus Zürich that might have seemed strangely timed. Presenting a collection of images of “Utopia since the 1800s," and the obsessive, monomaniacal artists who made them, curator Harald Szeemann must have known that such an exhibition would produce a deep ambivalence in its viewers. At the root of that ambivalence was an embarrassment at the naiveté of such idealized worlds—the failure, already visible in the most basic plans, of the utopian visions beyond their own closed systems. Still more seriously, audiences could have been disturbed by associations of the total artwork with the total political artwork—the fascist or totalitarian state. They would have remembered the moment in which fascism turned the impulse to aestheticize life into an imperative to instrumentalize people, and turned the fixedness of geometry into the fixedness of totalitarian law. To that end, Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunswerk can be seen as a painful retrospective of human dreams gone awry.

More importantly, I would argue that the exhibition Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk functioned neither in the nostalgic nor the cynical realm, but rather as a kind of rescue mission. What is clear in all of the exhibition's pieces is a singular intent, a proposal of a “something-else” that is more perfect than the world as it is given. That abstract perfection, whether taken from nature, God, or geometry, failed in its materialization and produced a nightmare when it was taken too seriously and backed by political power. But the exhibition asks us to salvage the creative and idealistic impulse, as inseparable as it might seem from the debris of failure which followed. To stand in this difficult space between perfect thought and imperfect (sometimes disastrous) materialization, requires courage, as Bazon Brock has noted:

The "Father" is the thought - the "Son"- its realization in the conditions of human life, and the "Holy Ghost Creator" their reciprocal relation. Thought and action, intuition and concept, the sign and the signified in relation, as a unity. But the relation would be useless if they were identical - one and the same thing. What they are will appear if we have the courage, as subjects, to bear their non- identity.

For these purposes, then, the failed utopias function something like Walter Benjamin’s dialectical images. Benjamin gives the poignant example of the “ur-image” of an airplane held side by side with a bomber plane, which embodies “the dialectical antithesis of Da Vinci’s utopian anticipation”:

Bomber planes make us remember what Leonardo Da Vinci expected of the flight of man; he was to have raised himself into the air ‘In order to look for snow on the mountain summits, and then return to scatter it over city streets shimmering with the heat of summer.’

The dialectical image holds in our vision both the innocent original impulse as well as “the reasons why technology nonetheless came to terrorize humanity.” This ability to see stereoscopically, where two superimposed images allow us to see into another dimension, is useful in considering the images of this exhibition. Seen this way, the plans and models of the exhibition are only half the story, functioning in a dialogue with 1) their material outcomes (or lack thereof), 2) their totalitarian extremes, and 3) their commercial, postmodern counterparts. To see Da Vinci’s plane in the bomber, and the bomber in Da Vinci’s plane, is perhaps the way we can bear the non-identity between the utopian ideal and its realizations.

A continuity of model and outcome

Many of the artists in Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunswerk embodied, not just in their work but in their very person, a dialectical relationship between an aesthetic ideal and material reality bordering on a total confusion between the two. The exhibition catalogue opens with In Baudelaire’s “Correspondences”, in which nature and artifice are already almost indistinguishable, so that “Nature’s a temple where each living column, / At times, gives forth vague words.” Trees are already parts of buildings, and Nature forms the most perfect Gesamtkunstwerk one could hope for.

One of the figures included in the exhibition, King Ludwig II, provides an apt (if ridiculous) example of someone who confused artistic idealism with real life. An obsessive admirer of Wagner, he insisted on arriving at his castles on a small boat drawn by a clock-work swan, in the fashion of Lohengrin, and had such a “craving for theatrical effect” that while visiting Lucerne,

he could not be content with the view that enraptured Byron, Goethe, Gibbon, Shelley, and hosts of other lovers of nature, but chartered a steamer for himself and engaged shepherds on the mountains to sound their horns, which he fancied lent romance to a scene that needs no setting but its own.

In 1881, after seeing Josef Kainz playing a character named Didier in a private performance, Ludwig II invited the actor to spend time with him at his castle and was disappointed to find “a rather skinny young man” instead of Didier. Sensing this, “[Kainz] put on his stage personality and his best Didier voice. Ludwig was once again enchanted.” In fact, there is a kernel of truth in Mark Twain’s exaggerated and farcical story of Ludwig II—in which Ludwig was so excited by the theatrical lightning and rain sounds in his private opera that he ordered the manager to turn on the water above the stage, deluging the painted set and the actors, who “sang on bravely”:

The King was in seventh heaven; he clapped his hands and cried, ‘Bravo! More thunder! More lightning! Make it rain harder! Let all the pipes loose! More! More! I will hang anyone who dares to put up an umbrella!

Nearly half a century later, in the creation of the Merzbau, Kurt Schwitters would exercise a similar mania in his own apartment, wherein his perception of the world of objects was totally permeated by an aesthetic sensibility. “A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint,” Schwitters said, though the list went on even to include neckties, dentures, and bottled urine. Whereas in King Ludwig’s castles and boats, no surface was immune to ornamentation, for Schwitters, no colored button, tram ticket, or Camembert cheese lid was not liable to be incorporated into one of the Merzbau’s many grottoes.

the Merzbau in Hanover, 1933, destroyed in 1943 by an Allied bombing raid

In the same manner, postman Ferdinand Cheval began his Palais Ideal when on his mail route, he tripped over a rock that was so beautiful that he considered it a divine sign. The rock was already a sculpture: “Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and mason.” John Cage heard music in everyday noise; for Marcel Duchamp, a urinal was already art. All of the artists included in the exhibition had in some way exploded the realm of the aesthetic ideal into the realm of material reality, which at the same time meant cathecting an artistic vision onto everything around them. In the first few pages of the catalogue for Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, we find a passage by Goethe in which “God became Man, in order to raise Man to God.” Indeed, the protracted effort to bring the perfectly “other” world of the aesthetic into the imperfect world of human reality was like an effort to bring God down to Man, so we should not be surprised that Rudolf Steiner called his Goetheanum “a larynx for the Gods.”

the postman Cheval in front of his Palais Ideal; Rudolf Steiner and his model for the Goethaneum, dedicated to Goethe

But perhaps because of the inherent impossibility of each artist’s ideal, the relationship between thought and action was always dynamic and certainly never finished. The famously nocturnal King Ludwig II would spend nights trying to think of improvements to his ornate buildings, and his “appetite for covering the country with palaces” was unending. Schwitters called his Merzbau “unfinished, and on principle,” making holes in the wall when he ran out of room and building onto the balcony, “so that here too ‘Merzing’ could go on." Cheval inscribed his Palais Ideal with the message, “10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of struggle,” but when he finished it he immediately moved to building himself an elaborate tomb. That finished, he built a tomb for his wheelbarrow, attributing to it a poem about the perpetuity of work:

Je sui la fidèle compagne
De travailleur intelligent
Qui chaque jour dans la campagne
Cherchait son petit contingent

Szeemann emphasized this dynamic relationship formally in the exhibition in that the works appear in various stages as drawings, models, reconstructions, and miniaturizations. Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International is a reconstruction (especially for the exhibition) made from a photograph of a model made from a drawing. Peter Bisegger painstakingly reconstructed the Merzbau for the exhibition from only three photographs. And the hanging model of the Colònia Güell is a reconstruction of Gaudí’s model, which itself Gaudí mirrored and photographed in order to produce the actual model for the church.

As represented in the exhibition, the pieces exist somewhere between idea and actualization, putting us in position to see a dialectical image that contains not only the idea and actualization, but their relationship (Brock’s “Holy Ghost creator”). It is with this sort of vision that the writer of Robert Owens’ biography can write:

The New Harmony experiment was characterized by a total lack of a well thought out, consistent program, an inexcusable failure to regulate the quantity and quality of the participants, an absence of wise leadership, and a sheer inability to pay its own way. …. His motives, despite contemporary slander, were of the highest.

Robert Owens' New Harmony

The totalitarian artist

Benjamin’s dialectical image is still more useful when we consider the pieces in dialogue with the violent outcome of what was, after all, the most total art: totalitarianism. In King Ludwig II, who commissioned plays which he insisted be written in rhyming alexandrines, we can already see the fascist in the whimsical:

Immediately after the appearance of His Majesty in the large central box … the overture began or the curtain was raised. This box remained softly lit even during the performance so that the King could study sketches for the sets and costumes and compare them with the way in which they had been carried out on stage. He also consulted the text of the play, for he expected his performers to be word-perfect … only after his departure were the members of the orchestra allowed to leave their places. Until then they had to remain motionless and not look around.

But when Marinetti (the self-identified Fascist of the exhibition) describes his car crash, we see the whimsical in the fascist: “They thought it was dead, my beautiful shark, but a caress from me was enough to revive it; and there it was, alive again, running on its powerful fins!” While King Ludwig was prone to spending nights in his hall of mirrors, raising and lowering all thirty-three chandeliers and coming up with improvements for the building, the sleepless Hitler also spent nights among rows of spotlights in the ministerial gardens, “wax[ing] enthusiastic over fantasy edifices that were never to be built.”

King Ludwig's Hall of Mirrors; Hitler's spotlights

In fact, it is in Hitler that we find the most obvious example of artist as fascist. As Joachim C. Fest has argued, Hitler was not without artistic forerunners:

Both Germans and other Europeans came out with even stronger anathemas against the present, showed an even stronger aestheticizing contempt for reality. The Futurist Filippo Marinetti, for example, proclaimed redemption from “infamous reality,” and in a 1920 manifesto demanded “all power to the artists.” […] What made Hitler the exception once again was his readiness to take his intellectual fictions literally.

The difference was amplified by the amount of power behind him, since “never before National Socialism had comparable financial means and political power been at the service of aesthetic activity.” As Benjamin pointed out clearly enough, fascism necessarily employed a combination of aesthetics and politics. In fact, Fest explains a letter in which Houston Stewart Chamberlain calls Hitler “the opposite of a politician” by pointing out that Hitler “actually had no politics; what he had, rather, was a large, portentous idea of destiny and the world … with manic persistence he made it the goal of his life to attain that ideal.”

Hitler's Eagle's nest, Walden House

The physical manifestation of Hitler’s contemptuous retreat from reality was his “Eagle’s Nest” estate, at an altitude of 6,000 feet, where “in thinner air, against the backdrop of the mountains, he thought over his projects…” But we can see even this retreat dialectically with the exhibition’s more benign retreats: Thoreau’s Walden House, Gabriel d’Annunzio’s Vittoriale Degli Ittaliani (already called a “fascist lunapark” by some), or the closed-off structure of New Harmony. All of these, and in fact most of the pieces in the exhibition, betray the “tendency” described by Hannah Arendt,

to find a substitute for action in the hope that the realm of human affairs may escape the haphazardness and moral irresponsibility inherent in a plurality of agents. Generally speaking, they always amount to seeking shelter from action’s calamities in an activity where one man, isolated from all others, remains master of his doings from beginning to end.

We could say then that what Camembert cheese lids were to Kurt Schwitters, the entire world of people was to Hitler. It’s not surprising that several different visitors to Nazi rallies (in which hordes of people combined to form swastikas and the words “Heil Hitler”) compared the emotional effect to that of ballet. In fact, we can already see the uncomfortable proximity of aestheticized figures to the intrumentalized people in Oskar Schlemmer’s 1921 Triadic Ballet. Wearing elaborate costumes that in effect reduced them to shapes, spheres and spirals, the “[d]ancers were pieces on a metaphysical board without personality or virtuosity.” The movements of the dancers were so mechanical, subordinate to the set and costumes, that the ballet used art students instead of trained dancers. Quoting the modernist theater practitioner Edward Gordon Craig, Schlemmer said that “[t]he actor must go, and in his places comes the inanimate figure—the Übermarionette (“superdoll”).” It is therefore significant that visitors to Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk would have encountered a “figurine” from the ballet—a costume so complete that it appears to stand on its own. This is the aestheticized human, and it is not a hard leap to make between one of Schlemmer’s figurines—with its spherical metal head and industrial contours—and the image of a soldier’s uniform.

The instrumentalization of people as so many elements in an aesthetic scheme carries out what Arendt observed about the retreat from real—that is, political—life: that “[t]he hallmark of all such escapes is the concept of rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to rule and the others forced to obey.” A 1936 fascist Italian poster, where a mass of indistinct heads makes up Mussolini’s body, is a disturbingly apt image of what Arendt traces back to Platonic design: “the division between those who know and do not act and those who act and do not know.” Albert Speer’s model for the Volkshalle is reminiscent of Etienne Louis-Boulleé’s ethereal Cenotaph for Newton, except that it imaginatively includes, through photomontage, a crowd of real people inside. Flat and pattern-like, the anonymous crowd recalls Gerald Raunig’s observation that an “integrative conjunction between masses and art” ultimately “deletes differences, territorializes, segments and striates space, achieving a uniformity of the masses through the means of art.”

Mussolini poster, 1934; Speer's People's Hall (photomontage)

This is the total artwork carried to its violent end. But, as in the dialectical image of the airplane, Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk asks us to see both Walden and the Eagle’s Nest, Schlemmer’s figurine and the soldier’s uniform, and the Volkshalle and the Cenotaph for Newton at the same time, stereoscopically. To admit to seeing the artist in the totalitarian, and vice versa, takes courage. Thomas Mann would have required this sort of courage in order to write his 1939 article, published in Esquire, that featured a photo of Hitler and the shocking title, “That Man is my Brother”:

Must I not, however much it hurts, regard [Hitler] as an artist-phenomenon? Mortifyingly enough, it is all there …. the fundamental arrogance which thinks itself too good for any sensible and honourable activity, on the ground of its vague intuition that it is reserved for something else … A brother—a rather unpleasant, and mortifying brother. He makes me nervous, the relationship is painful to a degree. But I will not disclaim it.

Hitler's drawing for a triumphal arch; model for the arch, 193

Stereoscopically speaking, the relationship between the exhibition's often joyful images – Johannes Itten’s idealized and rainbow-symmetrical Kinderbild, or Philipp Otto Runge's color wheels – and the fascist realization of politics as art is painful indeed. But it also allows us to hold the former in our mind as an innocent impulse, as innocent as DaVinci’s plane, and it is in this dialecticism that the pieces in the exhibition reveal their true value. Defunct (and harmless) as actual models, they are instead records of an impulse, what Benjamin might call an ur-impulse, and Beuys would call the Hauptstrom. In this context, Tatlin’s tower “survives as a monument of the mind: half ruin and half construction site, the receiver and transmitter of confused messages regarding modernity, communism and the utopian dreams of the century gone by.”

Without the model of the unrealized tower, we would be unable to remember what it was reaching for in the first place. It registers for us a “secret” movement in the vertical dimension of a horizontal history, the kind that Benjamin observes: “As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past tries to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history.”

Tatlin's drawing; the model reconstructed for Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk

The emptied Gesamtkunstwerk

As Susan Buck-Morss says of dialectical images in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, “the reader … was to provide the other half of the picture from the fleeting images of his or her lived experience.” Similarly, the viewer of Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk would have encountered these records of the utopian dream in a particular postmodern moment. The other half of the picture they provided might involved the strange afterlives that utopian forms and tropes continued to lead, divested of their associations with the radical or impossible ideal after Utopia came to be understood as “a synonym for Stalinism.”

One strange example of this divestiture is to be found in the American preoccupation with space colonies in the 1970s. With its imperative to design new communities in the uncharted and gravity-less territories of outer space, it seems a likely place to find considerations of radical alternatives. Indeed, the cover of Gerard K. O’Neill’s 1978 book The High Frontier claims, “They’re coming! Space colonies – hope for your future” and invites you to live in “a self-sufficient paradise, a colony hovering between earth and moon.”

The deliberately spectacular illustrations of this genre employ the same fixation on symmetry, distance from Earth, and a sense of the infinite and futuristic that we find in the pieces of Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk. “A workshop orbiting the moon” employs the monumentality and pure shape of Kasimir Malevich’s paintings, and in moon domes that “will be of all sizes and shapes used on earth, and probably a few never tried before” we might see Johannes Itten’s perfect geometrical forms. Entire communities—trees, houses, farms, even “endangered species”—are designed into colossal spheres and cylinders. A blobby figure waving its arms inside a moon-dome in Build Your Own Moon Settlement reminds one of Oskar Schlemmer’s drawings of dancers in a space of curved, obsessive lines.

Build Your Own Moon Settlement, Oskar Schlemmer's Figure in Space

O’Neill speculates that three-dimensional soccer may be possible, as well as personal gliders that “use air currents to sail in three dimensions.” But while the lack of gravity translates into new architectural and recreational possibilities, O’Neill is careful to state that with the space colonies, “we can offer no panaceas. There are no Utopias. Mankind does not change, and retains always the capacity for evil as well as good.” In this admission there is no escape into the perfect world of artifice; in space, man retains all his moral irresponsibility. For contrast, we might look to Ray Bradbury’s imagined “soft fiery globes” whose Martian existence has gradually rendered them body-less and desire-less:

Once we were men, with bodies and legs and arms as yours … We covet no other property; we have no property. We do not steal, nor kill, nor lust, nor hate. We live in happiness.

Instead, The High Frontier projects space worlds and inhabitants firmly grounded in (capitalist) reality: O’Neill predicts that the space “islands” will harvest solar power and sell it back to Earth, and a fictional letter from future space inhabitants reveals that the communities (while somewhat independent) are owned by the Energy Satellites Coropration (ENSAT), which “keeps us on a fairly loose rein as long as productivity and profits remain high.” Here we find no system radically different from our own, at least, not in the way that Fredric Jameson describes as characteristic of the Utopian form, “itself a representational meditation on radical difference, radical otherness, and on the systematic nature of the social totality…” Besides the novelty of “ballet in 1/10th gravity” and papaya gardens that require no pesticides, O’Neill’s “hope for your future” was in fact a technologically advanced future that seemed entirely possible at the time and which would have been continuous with the reader’s present.

"space harvester" from The High Frontier

We find a similar situation in utopian iterations of green design, with its Fourier-like images of self-renewing resources, buildings that run like trees, and a world of infinitely recyclable materials (where shoes beget shoes for eternity). “How can we support and perpetuate the rights of all living things to share in a world of abundance?” ask the writers of Cradle to Cradle, a conventionally recyclable, waterproof book with plastic pages and soy-based ink. “Imagine what a world of prosperity and health in the future will look like, and begin designing for it now.” But the future that the book designs for is also already a capitalist one, where employees in self-sufficient buildings “control the flow of fresh air and the temperature of their personal breathing zones.” The impetus for improving working conditions is that the carrying cost of hiring new employees is much higher than the carrying cost of an average building. In their efficiency, we learn, Ford and Nike exhibit tree-like behavior. As opposed to “Fourier’s utopian plans, in which nature and humanity are in fact allied” and exploitation is unnecessary, in Cradle to Cradle nature is itself already a capitalist.

Grandville, "Human Happiness–food for the asking–in the Fourierist utopia," 1844; a green office building

We now find present-day manifestations of the Gesamtkunstwerk in the most commercial of places: we may see the Cenotaph again in “Spaceship Earth” at EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow); the ghost of Walter Gropius’ “Total Theater” in the IMAX (“The World’s Most Immersive Movie Experience”) and the painted dome of Karl Friedrich Thiele’s stage set for the Magic Flute in the dome-screen of the Omnimax. The curved glass ceiling in King Ludwig’s winter garden (itself reminiscent of the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851) has been repeated in malls, and most recently, in the Fremont Street Experience of Las Vegas:

Jon Jerde was called in to appraise the situation, and decided it would not be enough just to pedestrianise the downtown area, it would have to be turned into an ‘Experience’. To this end, Fremont Street was roofed over, collectivising the individual casinos, and making the street into a virtual interior.

left to right: King Ludwig's Winter Garden, the Crystal Palace, and the Fremont Street Experience

The roof of The Fremont Street Experience is in fact the largest screen on the planet, containing more than 12 million LEDs, which along with sound technology, can produce “an incredible array of eye-popping imagery and heart pounding music.” The ‘Experience’ is indeed a synthesis of the arts, if a nefarious one, since it directly capitalizes on its capacities for a “totally immersive experience”:

...the themes of ‘shows’ can change to suit themes of the moment. Shows currently play on well-worn patriotic themes, with flags and cheerleaders, the Wild West, etc., but with lights capable of rendering any colour and any pattern … the visual opportunities are unlimited. Such changes also serve to increase sales of merchandise sold at the Fremont Street Experience store.

In Germany, the Cocoon Club in Frankfurt consciously draws on the form of the Gesamtkunstwerk, repurposing Wagner’s original idea as a marketable asset:

Just as Richard Wagner breathed life into his hill in Bayreuth in the 19th century, making it a total work of art that integrated music and architecture, the DJ has made the Cocoon Club in Frankfurt am Main a total work of art that fuses techno music, architecture, culinary delights and a chillout mood, creating a sensual experience.

And less than a century after Tatlin proposed the partially rotating Monument to the Third International, developers released plans for rotating commercial towers in Dubai. Containing 80 (separately rotating) floors each of office, hotel and residential space, the top 10 floors will be luxury villas with en-suite parking spaces and private pools. “Getting closer to the future,” says the text at the end of a video showing the morphing towers in all colors of light, set to The Blue Danube. When we superimpose this image on Tatlin’s monument, we are in a position to ask what “futuristic” means in either case. Tatlin’s tower was a spiral because he thought it was “the shape of revolution.” The sense of the impossible that it contained even as a model was a gesture toward the radicality of an ideal; it “seemed to be labouring like an iron Atlas to heft the planet into a communist future.” But it is less clear what “future” means in the case of the Dubai towers, other than advanced engineering—as such, skepticism about their seemingly impossible construction has had more to do with safety concerns. Meanwhile, the rotating motion—no longer a metaphor—has become a novelty for villa owners who can independently control the rotation of their own floors.

photo composite of Tatlin's proposal; rotating Dubai towers

The Hauptstrom in the present

In speaking of dialectical images, Benjamin repeatedly made it clear that the object was not merely a more accurate understanding of history in the empirical sense. Instead he believed that the apprehension of history’s “secret heliotropism” would directly reawaken the revolutionary impulse for us in the present. He describes the two “faces” of the Arcades project:

One, that which goes from the past into the present, and represents the arcades as precursors; and the other, that which goes from the present into the past, in order to let the revolutionary completion of these “precursors” explode in the present, and this direction also understands the sorrowful, fascinated contemplation of the most recent past as its revolutionary explosion.

An understanding of the original impulse in the pieces of Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk, alongside an understanding of what purposes the total artwork eventually came to serve, leads us to see the betrayal of that impulse. Buck-Morss notes that such a conclusion “can transform the rage of a humanity betrayed into energy for political mobilization in order to break free of it.” The rescue of the creative impulse that Szeemann’s exhibition carried out is remarkably similar to Benjamin’s rescue of the original utopian potential that was attached to technology, of which Buck-Morss says that “it is of the utmost political significance that Victor Hugo saw in mass reproduction the historically real, objective form of Christ’s miraculous division of bread to feed the multitudes.”

In a postmodern moment, when we cannot seem to image a Fourier-ist utopia, much less make a drawing of one, and when the utopian impulses of the 20th century appear to have been betrayed by fascism, colonized by capitalism, or cast aside as frivolous, the Hang in Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk takes on a more hopeful meaning. It can be interpreted variously as “addiction,” “penchant,” or even “downward slope,” implying the innateness of this tendency in humans beings. Strange as the artifacts of utopianism seem, there is something familiar in them, even if only from our childhood, and that is the gesture toward and serious consideration of the impossible, the totally other, the unrealizable ideal. This “stream” of energy, which operates like a line parallel to that of empirical history, is productive as long as it retains its position apart from empirical history; Hans-Joachim Müller notes Szeemann’s belief that “one could only learn from the model of art as long as art remained the Other—something that differs from life and transcends life, without being assimilated by life.” Examining Goethe’s formulation from earlier, we should note that “God came down to Man” but that God was not Man.

Toy Train Society, Berlin, 1931

Moreover, this impulse creates forms that are never fixed; Schwitters said of his Ur-Sonate that “every form is the frozen instantaneous picture of a process.” Visitors who returned to his Merzbau never found the same thing they remembered:

‘When I visited him again three years later, I found the column completely changed. To begin with, all the little hollows and bulges that we formerly inhabited were no longer visible. “They’re all deep inside now,” Schwitters explained. They were in fact buried under the columns monstrous new growths: new people, new forms, new colors, and further details.’

The fact that Schwitters never, strictly speaking, finished the Merzbau – the original was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943; his second one, in Norway, burned down in 1951, and he was on his third in England when he died – is as much part of the work as anything else. In contrast, it is telling that Hitler once groaned that politics was merely a “means to an end” and thought that when his grand work was finished, he would retire. That the force behind art should be dynamic and inexhaustible is of utmost importance, and it is here Brock’s idea that “[t]he materialized work … must limit itself to self-disavowal at the risk of becoming a destructive force” is most salient. This self-disavowal is directly related to Gerald Raunig’s descriptions of the “the revolution that never ends” and Hannah Arendt’s emphasis on forgiveness in the world of political action:

Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trusted with so great a power as that to begin something new.

It is what Brock describes as “non-identity”, the space between Man and God in Goethe’s formulation, that safeguards against closure and self-destruction while generating the energy between idea and form. For this reason, the force that Szeemann was interested in was “a force that strains form; one that dynamizes form to a form of action…”

Of course, such dynamizing forces are still at work. The same year that Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk opened in Europe, a man named Tom O. Every, an industrial wrecker in Baraboo, Wisconsin, changed his name and identity to Dr. Evermor and began to build the Forevertron. Made out of forgotten relics of the industrial age, it is a time machine that weighs more than 300 tons and is the world’s largest kinetic sculpture. Dr. Evermor built it completely of his own accord, because, he said:

I was a little bit upset with the world, not so much the economic conditions as the judicial system and things like that, and I wanted to perpetuate myself back into the heavens on this magnetic lightning force field.

In the center of the sculpture is a glass ball inside a copper egg, where one day Dr. Evermor will be sitting and a magnetic lightning bolt will propel him into the future. This future is one that he understands to be as perfect as his lived experience has been imperfect. But since that has not happened yet, Dr. Evermor continues to build, including “carburetors and generators, early x-ray machines and theater speakers, river barges and hamburger signs” but also things like the actual decontamination chamber from the Apollo Space Mission. One can see the traces of Kurt Schwitters not only in the obsessive collecting and repurposing of materials, but also in the way Dr. Evermor answers a reporter’s question about why he continues to build: “Why not?” Besides the Forevertron, Dr. Evermor has surrounded the machine with a 70-member bird band (made out of scrap metal) and moved on to create an entire sculpture park, embodying what Szeemann describes as a “joyfully grasped, albeit pre-Freudian energy unit that doesn’t give a damn whether it is expressed or can be applied in a socially negative, positive, harmful or useful way.”

And just as Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Ideal began when he tripped over a rock that looked like a sculpture, Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron began when, after having been an industrial wrecker for decades, he realized that many of the forms he was melting down were not only beautiful but risked disappearing forever. Existing in junkyards and emptied of their previous meanings, these were relics of what Buck-Morss calls “the original promise of industrialism, now slumbering in the lap of capitalism, to deliver a human society of material abundance.” In the Forevertron, through Dr. Evermor’s obsessive building and ordering, they have been not only salvaged but reinvested with mythological meaning.

We could perhaps take this last image as a model for how to deal with the pieces in Der Hang Zum Gesamtkunstwerk. As “monuments to the mind,” they function as invaluable crystallizations of the Hauptstrom in history, the traces of which are constantly in danger of slipping below the wreckage of the 20th century. They survive in the exhibition in the way that Benjamin says “[r]edemption preserves itself in the small crack in the continuum of catastrophe.” This act of preservation can take on an immensely powerful and political meaning for the present-day viewer, whose acknowledgement of the utopian impulse of the past (however betrayed or disappointed it was) can turn into a realization of the always-immanent, if always impossible, utopian potential of the present.

Jenny Odell

Ferdinand Cheval and the wheelbarrow he used to make the Palais Ideal. The poem translates to:
I am the faithful companion
of the intelligent worker
who each day in the countryside
seeks his small share