The Friday night before Halloween, transgressive historian artists Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick held an opening of their eerily uncanny historico-futuristic series of photographs and sculpture installations bearing the name of Eisbergfreistadt at Irvine Contemporary Art Gallery, owned and run by Dr. Martin Irvine, the original founder of Georgetown’s CCT program, as well as the original faculty advisor for gnovis.
Nicholas Kahn was present to give a guided tour of the exhibit at the beginning of the evening, and I had the opportunity to ask him a bunch of questions about the work through the course of the evening.
Eisbergfreistadt the installation both is and is about Eisbergfreistadt “the historical imaginary principality, inspired by an actual incident in 1923 when a mammoth iceberg ran aground in the Baltic port of Lubeck, towering over the town and terrifying the populace. Many decided (not unreasonably) that the iceberg caps were melting and the apocalypse was coming,” as the inscription in the gallery explains.
To give some context, this historical event occurred at the peak of the Weimar era, when Germany (then known as the Weimar Republic) was fraught with economic strife and cultural identity crisis. After losing the First World War, the country experienced incredible inflation: a wheelbarrow full of money was equally useful for (1) purchasing an egg, (2) physically serving as toilet paper, and (3) serving as fuel for the fireplace. Kahn and Selesnick meticulously document all of these uses of money in their exhibit, either printed on the Notgeld (“emergency money,” which was printed in increasingly large denominations to keep up with the inflation) itself, or in photographic and drawn renderings from the time period.
The Weimar era is remembered for legendary debauchery as well as a veritable explosion of creativity in the cultural sphere, fostering expressionism in film and the arts, among other fantastic and aesthetic movements. The mysterious presence of the iceberg in the harbor of Lubeck sparked both apocalyptic anxieties and utopian dreams in the people, and artist Wenzel Hablik, of whom Kahn and Selesnick display a portrait as a part of their exhibit, set about painting the majestic apparition, and narrating its utopian vision. “We like to think of some of these works as replicas of what Wenzel Hablik actually painted when he saw the iceberg,” says Kahn, pointing to the paintings in the exhibit.
“Many Notgeld and inflationary currencies were issued for the Eisbergfreistadt. Manifestos were published, and posters put up declaring the state’s new ideals, citizenship requirements, etc. Products started appearing: butter, lard, chocolate (of surprisingly high quality) etc, all stamped with the Eisbergfreistadt logo. Although the creation of the Eisbergfreistadt is an actual historical incident, it is not clear to what extent it actually existed,” further reads the gallery inscription.
Coincidentally (or not), the apocalyptic fears of the people of Lubeck proved prophetic: It became the first German city to be fire-bombed in World War II; and today, it is in imminent danger of flooding due to global warming.
Kahn makes no bones about the current political implications of their work in terms of commenting on our own historical moment. He sees it as a cautionary statement, though he isn’t particularly hopeful about actually making a difference through their work. Even so, Dr. Irvine’s press release about the exhibit points to the potential of “re-emerging into a world of recognition where change and hope are possible.”
“From our perspective, Weimar Germany certainly seems like a mad dream world to have happened,” says Kahn, “Nonetheless, it is historically real.” He sees a lot of potential confluences between the Weimar era and the historico-mythical event of the Eisbergfreistadt and what’s going on in our country and world right now. “You could say that my/our work is driven by a persistent itch regarding the fact that our leaders never seem to learn from history,” says Kahn. Their work is equally driven by the magical allure and psychic refuge of mythical spaces. This combination of drives in their work parallels the combination of energies at work in Weimar Germany as they portray it: revelers reveling amid the stark reality of a world or era on the edge of collapse.
Through a combination of purchases made on Ebay and items actually bought while traveling in Lubeck, Kahn and Selesnick have a growing collection of Eisbergfreistadt and actual Weimar Republic artifacts, consisting mostly of currency and photographs, which are woven into the exhibit. “We hope to find some perfectly preserved marzipan (a delicacy for which Lubeck is famous) depicting the iceberg on our next trip,” says Kahn. The two artists also fabricate their own relics from what and how they imagine Eisbergfreistadt and the Weimar Republic to have been, to complete their collection. Thus, Kahn and Selesnick build their creative world up around focal points of history and mythology, embellishing and riffing off of them in an obsessive endeavor to hold a mirror to history and nostalgia; to the cross-pollination of history and fiction that is always-already at work.
Upon entering the exhibition space, we are greeted by two vintage mannequins, dressed in outfits made exclusively from Weimar and Eisbergfreistadt (real and fabricated) Notgeld (another handy use for overinflated currency).
In the center of the gallery stands a wheelbarrow full of Notgeld, as well as an open suitcase full of these bills, swirling around and out of it.
Kahn comments on the political uncertainty of Weimar Germany, which the money swirling off into the ether could represent. “How different is this from what’s going on today?” he asks.
As an aside, Kahn also positions this sculpture as a commentary on an art market that is super-inflated: “When I’m making art, there are times when I feel like I might as well be printing money, like Wenzel Hablik.”
On a wall of archival photographs, I pause at the photograph of a young woman in furs waiting at the train station with an air of determination. Plausible destination: Eisbergfreistadt.
The true masterpieces of the exhibit, simularchival panoramic shots of scenes taking place on the mythico-historic iceberg state, show costumed and masked revelers gambling in a stark ice-cave; a reveler en route to a party via kayak, wearing a polar bear suit.
Subsequent scenes reveal men in polar bear suits seeking to rescue those on the iceberg, and one of Wenzel Hablik himself, semiconscious, being pulled out of a snowbank.
Drawing on history and myth, these shots are all staged by Kahn and Selesnick, frequently featuring themselves in costume.
We walk about the gallery, entranced by the captivating panoramas depicting life and death on Eisbergfreistadt. The digitally rendered (consisting of layers upon layers of digital tweaking), vivid panoramic photographs are alive: You feel like you are watching a documentary film unfold before your eyes, but somehow more real, since you find yourself feeling the cold of the iceberg climate as well as the inebriation of the elaborately masked gamblers, persisting in their play.
“These portray a narrative of catastrophe while we’re all busy partying away as the world as we know it is slipping away,” says Kahn, as we sip on wine and walk about the gallery while war and genocide are ravaging other parts of the world, “We all have strange reactions when our doom is so close to us—what else do we do?”
An uncanny sense of familiarity creeps over me, as I pore over the photographs and artifacts in the gallery—did I dream about this? Or did I read about it in a history book? Part of this feeling is due to Kahn & Selesnick’s skilful con-artistry, but it is also to the fact that “true” historical arti/facts are woven into the exhibit, as fundamental points of departure, tying narratives of history and fiction together into a hybrid of fantasy and fact, depending on your subjective definitions of these very wor(l)ds.
What here is real? What is based on reality? Kahn does not offer an easy answer: “What is not real? Is anything ever really real?,” is his cryptic yet sincere reply. This is and is not a game. The feedback loops between the present and history are weblike and dialectical, not easily discerned; just like the interplay of utopic revelry and dystopic apocalypse depicted in the works.
Layers of parallel worlds and spheres and the collapse of linear time are central aspects of Kahn and Selesnick’s works. Play with reality, memory, fantasy and prophesy, come together and crystallize in their mythico-real transgressive historical works. “We’re trying to infect history with what we believe as history,” says Kahn. “Much of what we do is inspired by the writings of Jorge Luis Borges,and his short story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ in particular,” he adds. In this story, Borges describes the mystical and magical overlap of a mythico-historical parallel world with “reality.” A look at Borges’ work and this story in particular sheds important light on Kahn and Selesnick’s complex, dialectical aesthetic, and their persistence in thwarting any discernible sense of reality and history.
The Eisbergfreistadt exhibit ultimately also serves as a political commentary on the necessarily imperfect nature of historiography; a craft that is too often ideologically framed as conveying unadulterated accounts of truth and reality. As Hayden White points out in his works on historiography and narrative form, all historiography is narrated, and universally adheres to narrative conventions. “Narrative is not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events in their aspect as developmental processes but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications,” writes White.2 This, along with Borges’ and Kahn and Selesnick’s performative works of historical fantasy, speaks to the not-so-subltle infection of history with fiction, and vice-versa, that happens everyday and everywhere.
Kahn and Selesnick’s Eisbergfreistadt challenges us to re-evaluate our current moment on many levels, while also momentarily offering a mythico-historic fantasy space to take refuge in. The space of Kahn and Selesnick’s works, particularly in the context of the gallery exhibit, is not too far a cry off from the virtual fantasy space of MMROPGs discussed by Ted Castranova in his recent visit to Georgetown,3 and a critical engagement with the uncanny combination of reality and fantasy can indeed be instructive and cautionary for reality and the present moment as we know it.
1Pictures courtesy of Dr. Martin Irvine and Irvine Contemporary Art Gallery
2White, Hayden V. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987.