Chemnitz's cultural scene is reacting to the media's spotlight on far-right groups with its own set of interventions. One exhibition features Mario Pfeifer's hard-hitting video work about a buried xenophobic attack.
Chemnitz's far-right groups have been dominating headlines ever since the unrest and protests following the stabbing death of a German man suspected to have been committed by immigrants from the Middle East.
Two years ago, violent events that took place in the same eastern German state, Saxony, garnered little to no attention. But they are commemorated through the installation by artist Mario Pfeifer, Again / Noch Einmal, which was an attention-grabbing work produced for the 10th Biennale in Berlin. It is now on show at the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz museum from October 3, 2018 to January 6, 2019.
It's a pseudo-documentary, playing out simultaneously on two screens, chronicling the grim story of a young Iraqi refugee named Shabaz Al-Aziz, who in 2015 came to Germany, unaccompanied, from his native Sulaymaniyah, in Iraq, seeking help he couldn't get for his epilepsy at home.
One day in 2016, he went through a kind of mental breakdown at a grocery store in Arnsdorf. After returning to the store several times in one day, acting agitated, four men dragged him out of the supermarket, and, using cables, tied him to a tree.
The incident, captured on grainy cell phone video, went viral. It is shown in Pfeifer's installation, along with the actors' reenactment.
Many people in the town described the men's actions as "a selfless act of civil courage." Pfeifer's work questions this perspective.
A dismissed court case
The trial of the men charged with beating Al-Aziz and tying him to a tree was abandoned.
The victim was no longer alive to testify — Al-Aziz was found frozen to death in a forest a week before the trial. The four men had no previous criminal records, and the court cited a "lack of interest" on behalf of the public and the media. Supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany party and neo-Nazis hailed the decision.
The case took place not far from Mario Pfeifer's hometown of Dresden. He says it "asks fundamental questions about our current civil society" in Germany. He fears that the dismissed trial amounts to normalizing people taking matters into their own hands under the guise of "civil courage."
"The monopoly of law and justice, the execution of civilian rights is not in the hand of the state anymore, but in the hands of people who claim to reinforce their own idea of justice. I find that unacceptable, and dangerous," he told DW.
In the film, Pfeifer brings together a jury of people to watch the events unfold, and to witness how it's treated in the media and by the town. The jury members, not actors, but real people who've been confronted with their own experiences of racism in Germany, are often brought to tears. The shock, condemnation and horror that did not register at the time of the event in German media and society is unanimous and strong within the group portrayed in the film.
"Would it have happened with a German?" asks one jury member. "I'm not sure," One says she has lost faith in the courts. "I am devastated," says another tearfully.
The case was quickly buried, deemed of "little public interest" — but Pfeifer's installation shows it shouldn't be forgotten
The social role of art
Johannes Odenthal, program director of the Akademie der Künste says works like Pfeifer's play an important social role. "It's a memory work. Art production is very important to rethink history, to give space to other narratives, to work on justice, to be connected to minorities."
"Art can display social tendencies and contradictions, make alternative narratives heard, and facilitate differentiated discussions — by different means than, for example, journalism," points out Gabriele Horn, director of the KW Institute for Contemporary Art.
However, "art should certainly not be misunderstood as a universal remedy whose purpose is to cure current social problems," adds Horn. "This is primarily the task of politics, and art should not have a duty to fix what politics is unable to."
Yet Odenthal says art adds another important value that can be overlooked in the ring of political debate: "I think it's about empathy. Empathy is very fundamental for me as the base of social development. A lot of artists are able to create a kind of mirror, reflecting our relationship to reality."
Chemnitz reacts with cultural interventions
Beyond the well-publicized anti-racism rock concert which drew a crowd of some 65,000 people and the open-air concert featuring Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" Ninth Symphony with its message of peace, the cultural scene in Chemnitz and nearby localities in eastern Germany have been reacting to the xenophobic protests through a series of art interventions.
The sculpture The Wolves Are Back, a series of bronze statues of wolves performing the Hitler salute, was installed on the square with the Karl Marx statue in Chemnitz, where several far-right rallies were held.
The Chemnitz Theater is also planning an opera about the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance movement, protesting against the fact that some far-right protesters wore white roses.
At the upcoming film festival Dok Leipzig (October 29 – November 4), far-right extremism will "definitely be a central issue," organizers say. However, documentary films reacting to the most current events will only come out in the years to come.
An urgent exhibition
While the Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz museum had already planned an exhibition of Mario Pfeifer's video works for 2019, the director of the museum, Frederic Bussman, decided to react to the urgency of the situation by launching the show earlier than scheduled, right on German Unity Day, October 3.
Along with Again / Noch Einmal, the exhibition will show Pfeifer's work Über Angst und Bildung (On Anxiety and Education), a nine-hour video installation in which Pfeifer interviews nine different people from different social backgrounds about the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement.
While the media's spotlight is still on Chemnitz, Pfeifer's piece is a testimony to other racist events that are completely ignored by the public: "We should at least remember the Al-Aziz case," the artist says, "and not look away."