Elmar Hess

Rory MacLean meets Elmar Hess

© Elmar Hess
© Elmar Hess
‘Perhaps the idea of departure is a central point to my work,’ said Elmar Hess, the Berlin-based artist and filmmaker. ‘Departure – seen not in a nostalgic manner but rather for its drama, which enables me to shape a story.’

In his work Hess interprets interpersonal conflicts in the context of historical political events, and through the use of installations, films, photography, artefacts and archive material.

His idea of departure is explored most powerfully in his debut film Kriegsjahre (“War Years”), shot in 1996. This surreal work portrays a troubled relationship as a world war. The protagonist’s fantasies slip away from reality as the estranged couple – played by Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler – clash over a kitchen table-cum-battlefield.

‘The end of an encounter may also be perceived as a kind of dictatorial moment,’ suggested Hess.

War Years © Elmar HessHis movie unfolds as a controversial illumination of 20th century German history, breaking political taboos, exposing a tableau of social landscape in a soulless world. In it the feeling of ‘departure’ arises when the ‘opponent’ – represented in the protagonist’s imagination as a naval frigate – is finally sunk, as well as in the loss of the modern artist. In the last scene, Hess drifts forlornly on the water in a small boat, quoting Churchill’s words, spoken in sync, ‘We are sure that in the end everything will be well.’

The idea of departure has its roots in Hess’ childhood. His youth was marked by visits to the English south coast where he developed a passion for transatlantic ships.

‘This was a coincidence at the time,’ he told me, ‘an encounter that began as quickly as it was over, during a Channel crossing to England. From the deck of a Channel ferry I spotted a huge transatlantic liner, en route to America – an anachronism even then in June 1972.’

In the age of mass air travel, the sumptuous journeys of the great passenger liners had become unprofitable.

War Years © Elmar Hess‘The fact that the ship was anachronism was hard for me to comprehend when confronted by its sheer beauty,’ he explained. ‘At the same time the sword of Damocles which hung over passenger liners added drama to the affair. And although the ship soon disappeared from the horizon, its image has remained alive in my thoughts to this day. Ultimately, however, the important thing for me was not the agony that surrounded it. On the contrary, the ship’s exceptionality in a high-speed world became synonymous with endurance and obstinacy for me. Despite all economic forecasts, that liner actually remained in service for several more decades.’

Although it is rare for Hess’ work to focus on such personal experiences, their poignancy is reflected in the visual language of his pieces, which is often metaphorical.

La Mère Perdue © National Archive, WashingtonIn his most recent work, La Mère Perdue, a historical event in which the Mona Lisa plays a central role is also linked with Hess’ maritime theme. The project revisits the painting’s loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1962, and its journey to New York on board the passenger liner “France”.

‘There’s a theory that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici’s mother, painted for him after her early death,’ Hess explained. ‘Very many people admire the portrait of course, but only one person - Ippolito de' Medici - had a personal relationship with the painting.’

La Mère Perdue – which opens in March 2013 at the Saarländische Galerie – Europäisches Kunstforum in Berlin – poses the question to what extent anyone can be objective about moral concepts and cultural meaning.

‘I was especially fond of the ship “France”,’ Hess said about the project. ‘As a child I’d built a series of model ships, and the “France” was my very first one. But from the start, model building was so much more than a hobby. I felt that the “France” in particular let me see and comprehend things in a different light. To me, the unique beauty of the ship was a form of saying no to levelling and platitudes, and an antithesis of the all-too-frequent attempts to keep up with current trends,’ he said. ‘I am not interested in trends.’

La Mère Perdue © Peter KnegoIn four rooms the La Mère Perdue installation will include video projections of the transatlantic journey of da Vinci’s painting, plus archive photographs of it under guard in New York and footage of the “France’s” final voyage to the scrapyard.

In the last room Hess’ first model ship will be protected behind bulletproof glass and guarded by two marines, as the Mona Lisa had been in New York.

‘For me the small model represents also a kind of little personal tragedy which is linked to a historical event,’ Hess told me. ‘On the same October 1974 day that I built it, the original liner was decommissioned - well, just another departure. Perhaps beauty has rarely been profitable,’ said Hess. ‘But for me it gives a moment of pause, a suspension of everyday comings and goings, of closeness and absence.’

Rory MacLean
November 2012
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