Embargo till 11
by Reinhard Braun
Camera Austria (Graz, 2011)
Again and again, Šejla Kamerić has related her experiences during the almost four-year siege of the city of Sarajevo in the early 1990s to the contradictory social value system of a post-communist Bosnia-Herzegovina newly established after the war. A common background for this has often been working through the lasting traces of resentment, violence, power, but also of guilt and shame. These traces are ultimately inscribed in memory – and thus in the significance of history for the construction of the present. For this reason, they also influence the ongoing attempts to imagine a (new?) identity that is not marked by mutual guilt and fear. This also repeatedly involves the highly conflicted relationship between “East” and “West” that is permeated by misrepresentations and reciprocal projections, as well as the question of which role the “East”, the “Balkans” plays for the “West”, and finally also which role Kamerić herself plays as an artist within these practices of designation, the attributions she finds herself confronted with, and which representations are projected onto her works.
In her exhibition for Camera Austria she shows – for the first time in Austria – the series “Embargo till 11” (2010), which focuses on the nucleus of the history of the 20th century: the regime of National Socialism. Here, however, she makes use of an indirect intervention, so to speak, which takes into account the non-representability of the reality of the events. On twenty-five poster stands we see, on one page each, framed lines from song lyrics, into which small format black and white photographs are inscribed, so to speak. The photographs show collecting cards from the tobacco company “Austria Tabakwerke AG”, which were distributed with cigarette packages. A collection album was published in 1940 with the title “How the Ostmark was Liberated – Adolf Hitler and his Path to the Greater German Reich”, into which all 314 cards could be inserted. The original back sides of the collecting cards can be seen, also framed, on the back side of the poster stands: “Picture No. 261: A Viennese house finally Jew-free raises the white flag. The collection album with detailed texts is available in every tobacco shop for Reichsmark 1,–. AUSTRIA TABAKWERKE A.G. FORMERLY ÖSTERR. TABAKREGIE”.
These collecting cards thus document the diffusion of a regime of images into the most commonplace contexts of behaviour; many of them involve pictures that were already familiar and widespread at the time (such as from military parades, staged scenes, speeches by the Führer, enthusiastic crowds), which together with images from everyday life completely occupied the terrain of the visual.
In “Embargo till 11” these images appear in song lyrics, such as from Leonard Cohen and the Bangles, are thus placed in a new context of the production of a collective remembrance, a shared memory and culture. “Lyrics refer to the image as a straightforward association game that is free from any history or memory references. In this way the work investigates the process of remembrance and assumptions.” (Kameric´) Whereas Cohen sings sentimentally about his attempt to be free and laments how he betrayed all his friends, this story about the desire for reconciliation is in stark contrast to the cheering crowd climbing trees to catch a glimpse of the Führer, a crowd that is thus in a collective delirium and about to transgress the boundary of humanity that Cohen sings about. Does crossing that boundary itself still have consequences for the popular culture of our time? Or when a parade of National Socialists is seen next to a line like “Just another manic Monday”, referring to the grind of working life, the fear of coming too late and losing the job, to the frustration about everyday life and its lack of perspectives – we inevitably associate this for ourselves with “Arbeit macht frei”, the camps, forced labour.
These images that Kamerić infiltrates into precise contexts of meaning, are they not shifters for the multitude of images that we know, that we can call up, and that have left indelible traces in our common culture? But before the back sides of the collecting cards can be seen, visitors are led past the song lyrics and pictures to open up a space for their memories, knowledge and associations. So if it is a question of what is shown, what is to be seen, then Kamerić always also shows us what we already know, but which we can only very laboriously take possession of, if at all, because “the impossible has been forced to pass over into the real” (Giorgio Agamben). All that remains then is to ask which reality “Embargo till 11” “speaks of”.