“Darkness is important,” says theatre designer Kai Fischer as he clicks through a series of images on his laptop for Entartet, his performed installation which arrives at Edinburgh's off-piste Old Ambulance Depot art-space this week. Entartet is the German word for degenerate, and Fischer's stand-alone visual and audio work draws its inspiration from Nazi Germany's notorious Degenerate Art Exhibition that took place in Munich from July to November 1937.
Arising from Adolf Hitler's furious stance against what he perceived to be the threat of abstract and modernist art, Die Ausstellung Entartete Kunst was the brain-child of Hitler's right-hand man Joseph Goebbels and favourite painter Adolf Ziegler. The pair confiscated some 650 artworks from German museums for an event designed to run parallel with what was considered to be the far purer Great German Art Exhibition. The Degenerate Art Exhibition featured works by Chagall, Kandinsky and Klee, as well as pieces by Mondrian, Picasso and a host of others whose work didn't fit in with a vulgarian ideology of control.
Rather than attempt a blow by blow re-enactment of all this, Fischer, in collaboration with sound designer Matt Padden, has gone for a more impressionistic approach, involving recordings of the catalogue texts alongside an actress giving a speech again drawn from already existing material. Crucially, no paintings are hung, leaving the viewer to imagine what is being described for themselves. Given Fischer's long-standing involvement with Vanishing Point, director Matthew Lenton's Glasgow-based theatre company noted in shows such as Interiors and Saturday Night for a visually elliptical aesthetic, this is no surprise.
“It's about populism and intolerance,” Fischer says of Entartet. “These artworks are being described as dangerous, derogatory or primitive, but of course they are also describing people, and describing them very harshly, and attacking them. What makes the text interesting for me is the range it covers. It starts off like something you could read on a blog or a tabloid today, about craftsmanship and so on. Then it takes it to extremes with really horrific personal attacks. For me, the important thing is how it vilifies outsiders, and picks on a group because it doesn't understand them.”
The roots of Entartet date from Fischer stumbling on the Degenerate Art Exhibition's original catalogue, containing texts ridiculing the works on show, in a second-hand bookshop. Fischer originally developed what became Entartet for a proposed event at Tate Britain to accompany Polish artist Miroslaw Balka's black box based How It Is installation in 2009. As it turned out, Entartet premiered at the CCA in Glasgow earlier this year, at a time when Fischer was preparing
While the idea may be complex, Entartet is, by Fischer's own admission, “ the smallest thing I've ever done.”
This is something of an understatement. As a designer and artistic associate with Vanishing Point company since 1999, Fischer has been responsible for the huge sets that have graced the company's large-scale shows, including Interiors, Saturday Night and Vanishing Point's recent contribution to Edinburgh International Festival, Wonderland. Fischer also designed Vanishing Point's version of The Beggar's Opera in collaboration with the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, where he recently worked on Lenton's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This week, Fischer's work can be seen in Aberdeen in Graham McLaren's touring production of Jo Clifford's version of Great Expectations.
While Entartet comes at the end of a busy year for Fischer, having just installed Interiors for a Moscow run following A Midsummer night's Dream and Wonderland, Entartet's free to enter Edinburgh dates aren't the end of the project. Entartet is already programmed to appear in Aberdeen and Shetland in 2013, with hopefully more to follow. It is also the sort of project which can develop as it goes.
“For me it's not really that much about art,” Fischer says. “It's more about the intolerance of people, whether they're artists or not, and how they will use something to fit in with their own political ideology, whatever damage that might cause.”
Entartet, The Old Ambulance Depot, Brunswick Street, Edinburgh, November 7th-8th, installation 11am-4.30pm/installation and performance 5.30pm-8.30pm; November 9th-10th, installation 11am-2pm/installation and performance 3pm- 6.30pm. Tickets are free, but should be booked in advance through the Traverse Theatre box office, Edinburgh.
The Herald, November 6th 2012