Landscape and Homeland. Beate Gütschow
Over the course of the Kunstverein in Hamburg’s 200-year history, the theme of ‘landscape and homeland’ [‘Landschaft und Heimat’] has repeatedly gained a contemporary relevance; various artistic interpretations have thereby shown that this subject often has social and political connotations. Beate Gütschow’s photographic series Schuldige Landschaft, which is being exhibited at the Kunstverein as part of The History Show, explores these interrelated aspects. The work’s title – which translates as ‘guilty landscape’ – is borrowed from the Dutch painter Armando, who participated in the group show Landschaftsbilder at the Kunstverein in spring 1989. He used the term ‘guilty landscape’ to describe “a landscape that witnessed events, because the most gruesome acts are often committed in landscape settings, in magnificent natural surroundings. Bloody battles. Treacherous murders. Hand-to-hand combat. The construction and maintenance of camps. Barracks. Places where defenceless creatures are tortured. The aforementioned landscape never took any notice of what was going on; it even had the audacity to simply keep on growing. It is a disgrace. I will never be able to stop talking about it.” (Armando)
Armando transforms landscapes into abstract drawings and non-representational paintings, a practice he regards as a political statement in reference to the artistic avant-gardes in the early 20th century who were condemned as ‘degenerate’. Gütschow, for her part, employs the landscape as it appears in front of her camera lens: each of the eight photographs in her series shows a tree. Painterly abstraction and photographic documentation initially seem to be mutually exclusive, but in Schuldige Landschaft Gütschow positions herself between these two poles. In her photographic depictions, the landscape is rendered abstract by means of lighting, so that the tree trunks stand out as ghostly forms against a dark, impenetrable background. While this diminishes the informational content of the images, the nocturnal setting and black background offers viewers first visual clues, and the title of the work alludes to an undefined guilt. Supplementary information on the series serves to recontextualise these images and reveal the layered history of the site, as in a palimpsest: an ordinary tree thus gives an account of past events.
The trees form an avenue along the path to Gütschow’s Berlin studio, which is located in a former warders’ house behind the Geschichtspark Ehemaliges Zellengefängnis Moabit (Moabit Prison Historical Park). The prison that used to stand on this site was constructed in the 1840s; the panopticon design made it possible to oversee all the cells from a single, central spot. The building gained notoriety from 1940 onwards when it was used as a remand prison by the Wehrmacht and the German police force, and subsequently by the Gestapo to detain resistance fighters involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944. The trees in Gütschow’s photographs are part of the former prison complex; they stand between buildings that once housed prison personnel and the prison cemetery, in which the remains of inmates and staff were interred. Only the area of this cemetery reserved for prison personnel is still intact; the grounds of the inmates’ cemetery were turned into allotments. Beate Gütschow has made this former prison site the focus of her artistic and critical approach to the subject of ‘landscape and homeland’. She explores the concept of Heimat [home, homeland] with specific reference to the period of National Socialism. Having become increasingly politicised in the context of the German nationalist movement in the 19th century, the notion of Heimat was a key element of the Nazis’ ‘blood and soil’ ideology. The photographed trees do not merely shape a contemporary landscape, therefore; they are also witnesses to the events that took place around them as a result of this ideology.
Fabian Röderer and Veronika Zöller, ‘Landschaft und Heimat. Beate Gütschow’, in Kunstverein in Hamburg and Uwe Fleckner (eds.), The History Show. Reader (Hamburg: Kunstverein in Hamburg, 2017), pp. 28–37.
Translated by Jacqueline Todd.