I was in search of a shoe shop when Google Maps took me the long way, through sprawling arcades and into a throng of tourists in a narrow street. Following their upward gaze led me to the Anne Frank Centre, Berlin. It was not the building where Anne Frank famously hid during the Second World War (that was in Amsterdam) but a permanent museum commemorating her life while providing a platform for exhibitions in discussion of National Socialism. The continuing urgency of Anne Frank’s historical moment is reflected in the dense crowd filling the sidewalk nearly eighty years after her death. Distractedly I abandoned my shopping mission to wander onwards. There were no water dinosaurs. Giant aquatic creatures come later in this account (and lived much earlier in history) so for the moment I continue to navigate Berlin as people read Anne Frank and heavy reptiles bob blissfully in Australia’s Jurassic inland sea.
The past is not static and will not stay buried; it is poised waiting to leap forward. Walter Benjamin provided the analogy of ‘a tiger’s leap into the past’ to describe moments of urgency wherein events from one time erupt into another.(1) In this process moments and objects are ripped from their context and catapulted into their future, opening up new knowledge through the constellations of relation that form around them. Since reading Benjamin I have welcomed the past as an irrepressible cat that wildly disrupts my house, knocking over objects and swinging claw through paintings; creating an emergency that must be addressed. Benjamin brings urgency to the relations with history, in his words:
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was’… it means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.(2)
In this formation, the future does not become an improved version of a spent past and history is understood as having the potential to be vital and radical. Moving with Benjamin’s leaping tiger, I follow two artworks that erupt forward with history.
In Simon Fujiwara’s Likeness, 2018 (now at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin) a life-size Anne Frank made of wax is seated at a desk poised as if writing in her famous diary. She is placed well back in a cordoned-off, sterile gallery. Two television monitors hang side by side, surveillance-monitor-like well above the heads of viewers who peer in to the inaccessible space from the front of the installation. The left displays footage of a robotic camera that undertakes a sequence of movements studying, scrutinising and perhaps attempting eye contact with the wax model of Anne Frank, while the right-hand screen concurrently plays the recorded footage. The experience of viewing the work is one of being suspended between representations of an arrested moment. In the split second repeatedly depicted Anne Frank glances up to meet the eyes of someone (seemingly loved and welcome) interrupting her at work. Her childishly innocent look becomes a disquieting, unblinking stare without end.
The essay accompanying the work recalls Fujiwara’s visit to the wax figure of Anne Frank at Madame Tussaud’s in Berlin and his observance that her eye position had been designed to maximally engage with a camera held at the height of an average male viewer.(3) The wax girl meets my eye while a mechanical lens curiously meets hers. Most animate in the assemblage is the moving camera whose energetic performance brings to mind the liveliness of drones and other human driven remote eyes. The mechanical camera reminds me of lovable robot ‘Number 5’ in the 1986 film Short Circuit who becomes sentient raising the now familiar filmic theme of the danger potential in future human machine relations. The power of Fujiwara’s work is in its ability to hold the past and the present in a gridlocked stare-down, creating a temporal pause in which to think into the future. Endlessly looped: the work is hard to look away from.
The approach to politics and history taken by Fujiwara is starkly different to that taken by the Anne Frank Centre. The later instrumentalises the historical moment through creative practice to illustrate their political agenda of addressing the trauma of National Socialism. Fujiwara’s Likeness approaches Anne Frank as an idol holding the trace of multiple views and representations. The timing of his recalling the image of Anne Frank might trigger a feeling of danger in relation to growing power of far-right politics globally. Framed this way her direct gaze could jolt a warning. Without dictating a political or ethical position, Fujiwara locates viewers firmly in technological and political relations of the present time. The work creates an ungoverned space for new thought, in this potential that its political importance lies.
Also launching backwards into the unknown, Emmaline Zanelli’s Looks Like a Fish, Tastes Like a Lizard creates an encounter with a dinosaur. The Ichthyosau was a marine reptile that swam in the now dry inland seas of Australia. Zanelli makes her curious approach through a world of improvised props, explorative performances, and collaged worlds. On her website Zanelli launches the work with its own mythology, she writes:
“A wife and husband have been searching Queensland for reptiles that lived over 150 million years ago in Australia’s inland seas. Independent of any employer or institution, they have done this for 15 years. Recently, however, they uncovered a complete Ichthyosaur – a rare and important discovery drawing international attention and large monetary offers for casts. When I met this couple and asked them to tell me about their discovery, he replied ‘we found an Ichthyosaur. Looks like a fish, tastes like a lizard.’ Then they left.”(4)
This enigmatic (potentially fictionalised) encounter leads Zanelli to explore the edges of being human. The work restlessly seeks experience of an extinct animal body, often through Zanelli’s own. Glimpses of the Ichthyosau are found in the artist strapped with colourful objects and moving in what could be a post-apocalyptic, uncomfortably cramped room. In another image the creature’s jawline is echoed in a photo of a domestic dog as it snarls and recoils its head. The works are imbued with the excitement and failure of seeking and becoming. There is urgency in the handling of the material as she appears to employ rapid-fire making; backdrops crumple to the floor and raw edges are shown. There are delicate moments too, a human finger becomes dinosaur-like as hand curls into claw - perhaps finding dangerous dinosaur ancestors in human evolution.
Zanelli’s approach sits counter to the methods of natural history which have sought knowledge through categorising, preserving and dissect dead animal bodies. Pseudo-scientific props for her investigation are created for the camera: a microscope improvised from polystyrene with toilet rolls and an excavation knife stuck in a steak echo the techniques of natural history while humorously undermining them. Zanelli attempts to embody, en-spirit and evoke the Ichthyosau rather than to control it and in doing so welcomes the mystery and impossibility of knowing the animal other. The work gives rise to thoughts on our own extinction and the fragile animality of our bodies while providing a reminder of the power of play, humour and absurdity in facilitating unruly thought connections.
So, what of the future? These artworks make no predictions and give no answers to the challenges ahead. To think forward with them is to welcome approaches that are themselves comfortable with not-knowing. Both works treat art as a space for ungovernable and unpredictable thought. Herein is art’s importance for the future: its power to stake out spaces of encounter with the potential for wild new knowledge, and with that, hope.