Dani Gal in conversation with Hedvig Turai, Budapest
Dani Gal’s film Fields of Neutrality (2019) was presented at the Open Society Archives (OSA), Budapest, after its first showing at the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie as part of the exhibition, Weissenhof City , which was organized for the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. The Budapest screening – organised by Blood Mountain Projects in association with OSA – was followed by a discussion with the author. This interview was conducted on this occasion. Dani Gal is an Israeli artist living in Berlin. From August to October 2019, he was artist-in-residence at Blood Mountain Projects in Vienna. A screening of Gal’s Trilogy works takes place in Vienna on 15 November 2019.
Hedvig Turai (HT): Have you always been interested in film or video making, did you study film?
Dani Gal (DG): I started my studies in an art school in Jaffa, then I moved to the Art Academy in Jerusalem. I focused mostly on conceptual art, and I was also attracted to sculpture making. Sculpture making for me – it should be clear that this is my approach to film-making – has a lot to do with film: connecting different elements, objects, creating unusual connections, putting ideas together. I was always attracted to sculpture, to installation art. I do not consider film-making in terms of the traditional film-making process, like writing a script, and making a film based on that. It does not mean that I do not have scripts, but it is not the starting point. The starting point is generally finding a document, an idea, a photo or an artefact together with another document, and then I start to create a context around them. In many ways, I think this works like sculpture.
After Jerusalem I moved to Frankfurt, to the Stadtschule as an exchange student. I decided to stay. I graduated there, and also took a semester at Cooper Union in New York. This was a time when I did a lot of drawings: drawings that were coming out of sculptural ideas. In New York I started to work in a more documentary way, I lived in Harlem and I made videos about street rappers. This was the moment when I started to use my art to approach people, as a way of communicating with people. At the same time, I began collecting commercially released LPs of political speeches and recorded historical events mostly from radio archives. Eventually this became a collection of 700-plus pieces, and became my next major work, Historical Records (2005-ongoing).
HT: Did you get closer and closer to film?
DG: You can say so, I made more direct documentaries. Around 2010 I started to work with the story of the burial of Adolf Eichmann’s ashes. It is common knowledge in Israel that his ashes were thrown into the Mediterranean. The story of policemen taking his ashes by boat in the middle of the night was something I knew from childhood and haunted me visually. I started to research about it. The event was not documented, it was done in secret. I was a completely inexperienced film-maker, but I realized that this work should be a film. I was planning to work on it and then received an invitation from the Venice Biennale, where it was exhibited (Night and Fog, 2011).
Then came my work on the 1972 Munich Olympics and the terrorist attack there (September is the new Black, 2012). Through 14 films that re-enacted the event, I wanted to follow the genealogy of media representations, which inform our understanding of a unique event from the time it happens up to the now. I saw that there was an element of changing costumes. I worked with a costume designer to create characters of the protagonists, based on the pre-existing media re-enactments. Through the changing of the costumes there was a change of roles. An actor was once the perpetrator, then in the next scene he was the victim and vice versa.
HT: In Night and Fog you also reverse this expression. Now it is the Israeli police to invert meaning in “night and fog”, which was actually the name of Adolf Hitler’s decree in 1941, and later also used as the title of the film by Alain Resnais (1956).
DG: There is a third meaning, which goes back to a German romantic expression: to do something hidden, in the night and fog. I wanted to include all histories of the expression, and take them together. What the Israeli policemen are doing is also in night and fog; literally and metaphorically, it is a clandestine operation.
HT: Your Night and Fog (2011) became the first part of Trilogy. It was shortly followed by As from afar (2013). In this film you are again dealing with something, which is not unknown but neither general knowledge – a kind of “blind spot” as you call it – the friendship of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and the Nazi architect Albert Speer. How did you conduct research for this work?
DG: I read about their friendship first in Tom Segev’s book (2010). I talked to Segev and then I went to the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute – where during my recent residency with Blood Mountain, I was also a research fellow – to study the original letters, and correspondence between the two of them. My film stages a personal meeting between Wiesenthal and Speer in Vienna. Although such a meeting is mentioned in a letter, of course there is no documentation of it. This is the space that interests me most in my work: what happens in the places where we cannot know what happened, we can only assume? The place is not real, but it is neither fiction. It is a place where truth and fantasy, truth and fiction mix. I based the dialogue between Wiesenthal and Speer on the letters with the cooperation of the German writer, Sasha Reh.
HT: Wittgenstein is very much present in the film. How did he come into the picture?
DG: The three parts of the trilogy are connected to Wittgenstein on a philosophical, as well as a meta level. I use a short text from Wittgenstein’s Brown Book (1934-35), which was a set of notes corresponding to his mimeographed and privately circulated lecture notes at the time, and known as the Blue Books. Here, Wittgenstein talks about the difference between the memory of something that we experience, something that someone told us and something that we dreamt of. He ponders this difference and then gives a musical example from Robert Schumann, Wie aus der Ferne (As from afar, 1837). This 18-piece piano score lends the title to my second film. In the Trilogy, the music is played over and over again, each time a bit differently to create different memory meanings. This was interesting for me in terms of historical research, memory and representation.
There is another element that connects Wittgenstein’s thoughts on architecture and language, as the camera continually moves between looking into (i.e. being ‘within’) architecture, to reflecting on it from above. The protagonists are looking over the model and then walking inside the model. At the end of the film they get lost in the Wittgenstein House, which in reality, is the sole architectural location in the film. But that too, ends up as a model on the table of the architect. In his later thoughts, Wittgenstein elaborated on language and said that one can only navigate inside it, like in a labyrinth, but never see it from the outside. I wanted the two characters to navigate this exchange and get lost inside each other’s history.
HT: You keep returning to architecture and architects. The third part of the trilogy, the White City (2018) is also connected to architecture.
DG: White City started from two different components that I bought together. One is that a Zionist, Arthur Ruppin and the German race researcher, Hans F.K. Günther meet in 1933 and talk about eugenics. Ruppin writes one line about it in his diary, Gunther does not mention it. Again, it is a space of imagination based on the research of what could have happened in such a meeting. The other object is a postcard that the Nazis manipulated. Originally printed in 1932, the postcard was an advertisement for the Weissenhof Estate (1927) in Stuttgart – a modernist urban development – which the Nazis photo-montaged (1934) by adding camels and other exotic characters to make it appear as an Arab village under the subtitle, “Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart in 1940”. The irony is that there are photos of Tel Aviv in the 1930s where one can see camels and beduins against a backdrop of modern buildings. These were two exciting stories and I decided to bring them together. I thought of the Weissenhof Estate as a literal and conceptual space. I cinematically re-created the postcard of the Nazis by referring to actual photos of the Nakba: the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 from modern-day Israel.
This is also the meeting point of my latest work, Field of Neutrality (2019). Mies van der Rohe was the masterplanner and one of the key project architects of the Weissenhof Estate. The Stadtgalerie Stuttgart approached me because of White City to develop a new work in commemoration of the Bauhaus centennial.
HT: Mies van der Rohe was the last director of Bauhaus.
DG: In the 1960s, Mies van der Rohe was invited back to Germany – following his exile in America since 1937 – to build the New National Gallery (Neu Nazionalgalerie) in Berlin. The big architect came back. There is an LP record commemorating his visit and his 80th birthday. In one of the interviews, he tells the story of the day when the Bauhaus was closed by the Gestapo. I found it very interesting the way he told it. It was in my mind for years. I read a lot and I connected Mies, the Nazi regime, the end of Bauhaus and put these in an invented talk show. I understood his apolitical character, especially as an artist. There is a German architectural historian, Winfried Nerdinger, who raised the question: Why did so many teachers and students of the Bauhaus end up working for the Nazi regime? He believed it was because artists and architects understood their work as a neutral field of production. Hence the title of the work, “Fields of Neutrality”.
HT: This work was commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus. You are not building a myth; rather, deconstructing one. Mies van der Rohe was a contradictory figure. You set up a fictitious interview around the end of his life, and he is asked about his memories of the Bauhaus: its final days, how he tried to negotiate with the Nazis in order to preserve the school, and how he tried to negotiate with Alfred Rosenberg and the Gestapo.
DG: I was interested in his strictly apolitical position and its meaning in the political turbulence of the inter-war years. I try to ask if it can be an option for an artist or anyone. I tried to understand what was going on in the Bauhaus in these turbulent years, as well as the clash of modernism and fascism.
HT: You frame this interview or talk show in a way that reminds me of a loop: it begins as a continuing program and ends with “we’ll take a short break”. This brings Mies van der Rohe and the issue of being apolitical into a continuing flow: it has a presence. On the other hand, being apolitical is especially loaded because we know where the Nazi regime led. The very sharp and tough interviewer makes Mies van der Rohe recall uncomfortable moments in his life: mainly around the closing of the Bauhaus (1933), his visits to Rosenberg, to the Gestapo, and his connection with the Nazis. How do you actually see Mies van der Rohe? Could you at all use the victim-perpetrator-bystander frame to understand his position?
DG: I do not want to judge him, I leave that to the audience, I tried to understand the psychology of an apolitical person in a polarising era, and of course I had to confront him with a younger, female interviewer who comes from a different generation. I wanted to show the persona of somebody who wanted to stay outside of politics, showing that this position was not really possible. Eventually the Nazis closed the Bauhaus (1933). Mies tried to continue to work with the regime, but it became unattainable: his modernist art and architecture had to be rejected. The politics of the day did not allow any space, any possibility and he realized that it was dangerous times even for him.
HT: The character of Mies states in your work, ”an architect wants to build”. This is a very relevant and current issue today: How to cooperate or not to cooperate with political regimes that you cannot accept. Your work is a staged television interview situated in the late 1960s. It consists of talking heads, and a few photographs, which the camera zooms in to reveal as actual projects of the architect: the Rosa Luxemburg-Karl Liebnicht memorial (1926) – eventually destroyed by the Nazis, the unrealised Reichsbank plans (1933), and the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart (1926) on a reappropriated postcard as the Arab Village. Exactly why did you choose to include these elements?
DG: All of these visual sources are based on historical documents. The creative challenge was: How can I present and integrate these documents into the imaginary context that I created as a 60s-style TV studio and visual language?
HT: As one of your reviewers said, the interview is fictitious but the statements are real. This brings me to the interview itself. It seems that your protagonist is Mies van der Rohe. There is this acknowledged, famous architect, now a frail elder wheelchair-user, but still powerful – I find the cigar smoking a strong signifier of masculinity and power. It is a male artist and a female interviewer. She is tough, very focused, and unforgiving. Here you also reversed traditional gender roles. The woman seems stronger, and she seems to be more political than him. We know it from the beginning of the film from your inscription, that she personifies Grace Wyndham.
DG: Grace Wyndham was the BBC’s first current affairs personality, who made the first political TV show: a powerful woman of the 1950s, in a men’s world. It is clear that she is provocative and accusatory. I watched a lot of BBC shows, Hard Talk, before I made this film, where the questions are always hard and provocative, and really challenge the person.
HT: At the beginning of “Fields of Neutrality”, Mies van der Rohe speaks about the Liebnicht-Luxemburg memorial, which he claims to have designed for aesthetic, not political reasons. Here, he speaks about history almost as a series of accidents. Then at the end of the film, you return to the Luxemburg memorial in a way, that the film and the issue of being apolitical, turns upon itself. When Mies van der Rohe refuses to resign from a position, and says this was the moment he realized that he had to leave Germany, unless he wanted to end up in front of the brick wall where Luxemburg’s life ended. This sounds forgiving. Do you forgive him?
DG: Again, I tried to show the complexity of the situation. He is just a human, not a saint, nor a hero. Unlike the quotation at the beginning of the film: “John Cage said, looking down from the upper stories of a building in Chicago, with a storm breaking over the lake: ‘wasn’t it splendid of Mies to invent lightning?’.” This is almost like comparing Mies to Zeus. I wanted to show him as a human being. This is what we are all like.
HT: Fields of Neutrality raises relevant and current questions all over the world, including Hungary, where the normal operation of Central European University has been made impossible, this is a close analogy. In a broader sense it is a burning question how to be political at all, which goes down to very exact, sometimes existential issues, like: ‘Where to submit funding applications, whom to work with, what kind of commissions to accept, even what venues to visit?’.
DG: I understand that, and first of all, I am very happy to show this work here in Budapest. I understand the situation. I saw the posters about the Muslim migrants, who are allegedly threatening to take over Europe. I came across newspaper articles and inciting footage shown on Israeli TV, credited to the Hungarian government. I was thinking of the situation here, the closing of the Central European University when I was working on Fields of Neutrality, but also the stories of Mies as director of the Bauhaus. They remind me of a case that happened in 2017 at the Art Academy in Jerusalem. A young Palestinian-Israeli student made provocative work and hung it on the university’s walls. Few hours later the police came and arrested her. Similarly, Mies called the police to shut down the communist students with their anti-Nazi activities in the last days of the Bauhaus school.
Dani Gal‘s artistic practice focuses on understanding the production of ideology through the representation of specific historical narratives to question the claims of historical knowledge and to reveal and challenge underlying political preconceptions. Using archival documents towards the creation of cinematic re-enactments; Gal explores the relationship between image, sound and text to illuminate nationalistic interests behind the construction of historical narratives and the process of shaping collective memory.
Dani Gal (born 1975, Jerusalem) lives and works in Berlin. He studied at the Bezalel Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem, the Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste Städelschule in Frankfurt and the Cooper Union in New York. His films and works have been shown at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2018), Documenta 14 (2017), Kunsthalle Wien (2015), Kunsthaus in Zurich (2015), Berlinale Forum Expanded (2014), Jewish Museum in New York (2014), Kunsthalle in St. Gallen Switzerland (2013), New Museum in New York (2012), 54th Venice Biennale (2011), and the Istanbul Biennale (2011).
Blood Mountain Projects is an independent curatorial platform exploring the cultural past present and potential of Central Europe. Founded by Jade Niklai and Tom Sloan in Budapest in 2010 and based in Vienna since 2016, its activities include artists-in-residence, new commissions, exhibitions, education, public events and publications.
Hedvig Turai is Hungarian art historian and writer and currently she is teaching visual culture at the International Business School Budapest. Her specialist areas include contemporary art, the Holocaust in art, memory and gender studies. A former curator at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art, her latest publication is by Thames and Hudson, where she co-edited, Art in Hungary 1959-1980: Doublespeak and Beyond (2018)
Dani Gal’s residency and event program is curated by Jade Niklai, Director of Blood Mountain Projects.
Event partner: Open Society Archives
Residency partner: Vienna Wiesenthal Institute