Myths of the Near Future, Karen Russo’s current exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, shares Norman Mailer’s view of Nazism as depraved poetry. Speaking of his ongoing fascination with the Third Reich, Mailer remarked that unlike other tyrants, Hitler killed “according to metaphor.” Nazism did not operate according to a logic of political ruthlessness or even a Nietzschean will-to-power. Jews, as well as Poles, Romani, and others, were “viruses” whose existence put civilization in jeopardy. This assault against the real, in Mailer’s and now Russo’s reading, is what positions Nazism in the realm of poetics rather than merely ideology. But where Mailer concluded that Hitler and Nazism were “a reigning mystery” that violated all explanations of human nature, Russo attempts her own poetic chartering of German nationalism.
The three short films that comprise the show — Junkerhaus (2019), TET-Stadt (2016), and Haus Atlantis (2016) — seem at first to promise a loose, bleary portrait of Nazism. But Russo makes leaps to associate Third Reich ideology with not only art and mythology (known fundamentals of Nazism), but also the potential to lose oneself in fascination and obsession. Myths of the Near Future surpasses its own modest claim — “to explore the affinities between irrationality and nationalism” — and suggests that a marginal, isolated voice, an eccentric architect named Karl Junker, may have something in common with an oppressive ideology. The free-associative quality of the filmmaking draws connections that, though fuzzy, work wondrously on an intuitive level, producing a mythopoeic genealogy of German fascism with stimulating gaps in logic. When the smoldering streets of Germany appear in Russo’s films, these narrative lacunae fill with the depravity of the poetic imagination.
Artist and architect Karl Junker (1850-1912) is the subject of Junkerhaus, but he is the specter of all three works since his immovable commitment to a personal vision — what makes him so worthy a subject — is for Russo nationalism’s nativity. Junker became consumed with completing his house in Lemgo, Germany, and then disappeared from public life. Sculpted wood dominates his fantastical private residence, from the windowpanes to the canopy bed-frame. The tumorous design metastasizes throughout the house, an effect the camera’s claustrophobic framing enhances.
Items clutter the kitchen counter, as if the inhabitant fled in the middle of the night. Bottles and decanters are still on the kitchen shelf alongside a lumpy, amorphous carved sculpture. In a nod to the Gothic, Junker carved grotesque faces on the walls and other surfaces, while wall frescoes that would not look out of place in Pompeii’s Villa of Mysteries depart bizarrely from the rest of the house. Perhaps most eerily, Junker equipped the house for a family he didn’t have: chairs around the table, furnished bedrooms, even a baby crib. The film’s eerie, clanging soundtrack seems to announce the first signs of disease in an isolated individual. Flashes to public buildings — a church and, judging by the images of Hippocrates and Galen on the entablature, a medical arts complex — are a jarring contrast to Junker’s Gothic doll house, yet also intimate a bond between his ideas and the German landscape. The juxtaposition of public structures and Junker’s home invite contemplation of what could happen if a mind like Junker’s turned toward society rather than merely the self.
The next film, TET-Stadt, like Junkerhaus, concerns an architectural wonder: a city both sleekly futuristic and a pastiche of Ancient Egypt. Pyramidal structures and pharaonic idols decorate the landscape. But, far from archaeological, its artifice is conspicuous. This is Russo’s recreation of a 1917 urban project, TET-Stadt, designed by German Expressionist artist Bernhard Hoetger (1874-1949). The intent was to spiritualize everyday life; the project was conceived by biscuit manufacturer Hermann Bahlsen as a work and housing complex. When Hoetger designed it, German fascists had not yet coopted Egyptian history and art. But by the time the Nazi propaganda film Germanen gegen Pharaonen (Germans vs Pharaohs, 1939) appeared, Nazism had for several years in its etiology of German identity been appropriating Ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion and history. Russo has so seamlessly interwoven footage from the 1939 film with that of the 1917 architectural model that it is difficult to differentiate between the TET-Stadt reconstruction and the postlapsarian propaganda.
The third film, Haus Atlantis, freely fuses fiction and nonfiction, presenting a science fiction tale in the style of a documentary. The Deep Sea Age has ended, leaving the ruins of a subaquatic research center exposed to the elements. Researchers frequent the town to study the aquatic artifacts and the skeletons of submariners. Meanwhile, a macabre mental illness begins to affect the townspeople, a progressive withdrawal from social interaction and, in its more advanced stages, an inability to go to work or even leave the house. Finally, at the disease’s climax, each patient independently recalls having lived in Atlantis, swimming with Noah and Neptune.
Accompanying the sci-fi narration is a recurring image of the actual Haus Atlantis, designed by Hoetger and commissioned by businessman Ludwig Roselius. Built in 1931, its combination of Expressionist, Art Deco, and futuristic motifs is as eccentric as Junker’s home. Its intellectual inspiration was the work of Herman Wirth, a Nazi-sympathizing academic whose “research” established a link between the German race and the lost culture of Atlantis. This is another work by Hoetger, and by now he has the fascist virus. Appropriately, the Haus Atlantis served as a kind of temple to German racial superiority and pseudo-historiography, housing a collection of prehistoric artifacts often with fabricated connections to Norse mythology. This, combined with the various achievements of design — an enormous hall and spiral staircase, a blue mosaic barrel-vault glass ceiling — served to “restore the self-esteem of the German people.”
A contemporary, fluorescent-lit setting, resembling a cross between an espresso chain and a business convention center, also plays a role in Haus Atlantis. This banal corporate interior, with its bourgeois clientele, is the Haus Atlantis today, now a Radisson hotel. People once frequented the establishment to conceive of themselves and their nation, however erroneously, with symbolically rich strains of world history and religion. Conversely, the business casual-garbed patrons look as if they speak to one another only in terms of current events and politics. Like the townspeople in the ficto-documentary, they inhabit an obsolete research center with ties to Atlantis. The film’s dystopian vision is that they too will awake from the stupor of global commerce and “remember” their Atlantis ancestors — not unlike the imaginary family of Karl Junker.
The exhibition’s subject is the hidden roads linking Junker’s home and the wreckage of Europe in the wake of World War II, fictional narratives and delusional relationships with the past. The absence of political clichés is one of the unexpected pleasures of the exhibition. German nationalism is not privileged over other subjects connected to the irrational, and that is the crux of Russo’s project: not the irrationality of fascism but rather the fascism of irrationality. Context provided by curator Raz Samira and assistant curator Tal Broitman enhances the viewing, but they wisely refrain from attempting to tie everything back to a rigid ideological interpretation of Nazism. Though the mysterious connections and juxtapositions are convincing, shots of nature and wildlife provide a satisfying feeling of disinterested observation, contributing to the sense that it need not all add up too neatly. As Gaston Bachelard has observed, what passes as science is often just refined daydreaming.
Karen Russo: Myths of the Near Future continues at Tel Aviv Museum of Art (Golda Meir Cultural and Art Center, Sderot Sha’ul HaMelech 27, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel) through December 12 .
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