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  • Julius von Bismarck: “I got hit by lightning”


Julius von Bismarck: “I got hit by lightning”

Julius von Bismarck’s new show at Berlinische Galerie addresses questions about his ancestor Otto von Bismarck and our complicated relationship with nature.

Julius von Bismarck in his art studio. Photo: Makar Artemev

The centrepiece of your new show, When Platitudes Become Form at the Berlinische Galerie, will be an enormous, collapsing statue of Otto von Bismarck on a horse. Can you tell us about it? 

One of the focuses of the show is on monuments and how they function and change over time. And this sculpture – which is a reproduction of the only statue of Otto von Bismarck on a horse, from the city of Bremen – will be collapsing and then rising back up again. This is technically not easy when scaling up to this size, and we can’t make it from real bronze as it would be too heavy, so we’ve been experimenting with materials.

Everything that’s believed or been written about [Bismarck] – is a historical construction. 

The hidden joints will be made of aluminium. I had in mind that child’s toy, normally in the shape of a giraffe, where you push a button and it collapses. I was thinking about the naivety of being a child, doing things that are so innocent but actually quite brutal. The way it falls, it’s basically dying, and in the show, we have a sculpture of a giraffe too; a foreign animal that originally came from a far away continent where we used to take whatever we wanted. 

How does it fit into the context of your exhibition? 

My work is mainly about how we see nature and investigating the consequences of that outlook on how we live our lives. I believe nature is a construct, a human invention. History used to be man-made – not even woman-made but made by powerful men that decide what’s written down. Men like Bismarck. We’re taught at school that he is a national hero because he founded the modern German state. Some see him as a warmonger, and we know he was involved in the division of Africa at the Berlin Conference.

There’s so many different ways of seeing him. Even though I’m a descendant of his – he’s my great, great, great, uncle – my show is not about saying he did something good or something bad but about his role as a German monument. In Berlin alone, there are 12 streets named after him. And everything that’s believed or been written about him – is a historical construction. 

A collapsing giraffe and Bismarck on horseback. Photo: Roman März 

For the exhibition you’ve made a contour painting of the Bismarck Sea, which lies in the southwestern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Papua New Guinea. What was your response to discovering this part of the world is named after your relative? 

It’s not a good feeling, it’s a bad one. Look where it is on a globe – which is actually how I discovered it; my parents never told me about it, they might not even have known. I had no idea Germany had a colonial history in Papua New Guinea. It’s just a black spot in history. And I don’t see any reason why it’s not part of our school history lessons, because what happened there is pretty horrific. 

In what way? 

It’s just a black spot in history.

We have to be careful how we talk about it, because it can be very hurtful for the ones affected. But effectively, white people drew the line between human and non-human – not between humans and everything else but between white humans and everything else. They wouldn’t accept the people living on these islands in Papua New Guinea as being human, so they could just kill them.

And most people didn’t even question it. There was a belief that it was actually good because these people were ‘wild’. When I went there, I wanted to visit this place that’s named after my family and I was interested in the construction of nature – the name-giving is an important part of that. If you name nature, you’re categorising it and appropriating it, too. 

What was your experience there? 

Our whole worldview and humanist ideas are based on extremely bloody expeditions.

That the legacy of colonialism gave us the power to explain the world. And it started with Alexander von Humboldt. That’s what I’m doing in the exhibition with the series I like the flowers, which has sculptures of dried plants that have been pressed flat. It is a brutal act, turning three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional ones. It still looks beautiful – but it’s a version that is easy for us to work with, a way for us to understand the world, to explain it, name it and to rule it. We’re always trying to explain nature and humans are part of that categorisation.

Before we brought skulls back, we made casts from living humans, all in the name of science and research that fills the storages of European museums. Our whole worldview and humanist ideas are based on extremely bloody expeditions: travelling somewhere on a ship full of armed men and researchers, collecting cultural goods, killing people, murdering living beings, then naming things after ourselves, like the Bismarck Sea. 

For all the ambivalence attached to your family name, have there been any benefits from it? 

I think there’s advantages and disadvantages that people don’t even know about. Some people hate me because of my background. Maybe curators don’t want to put me into a show that would have been important for me because they see me as that ‘aristocratic guy’. Often, it’s a subconscious thing. Names have an effect on you. People judge me based on my name.

Some people hate me because of my background.

When I started my artist career, I wondered if I should change my name. And back then, I was really in the left scene, going to all these demonstrations and protests, squatting houses, and it was cool to have this name because it was so far removed from who I was. So I kept it. And now I think it was a mistake, because it makes me come across as a more established artist. There are people who don’t see me as that progressive, young leftist person anymore, they see an old white establishment figure. 

Were there financial benefits, inheritance? 

No, because our part of the family lost their property in the aftermath of the Second World War. What my parents have is what they earned themselves, or what they have from my mum’s family. 

Your close family was featured in your artwork ‘We Are Family’ (2013), a complete recreation of your family Christmas, with your living room furniture and your parents and siblings sitting there with you. 

Like a teenager, I was sometimes embarrassed when my parents showed up to an opening. So I decided, maybe just face up to the embarrassment, expose my family and be true about it. And I love my family, so why shouldn’t I make them part of my art? It’s this tradition: we read out letters, then open the presents, And so will our children. Back then, I wasn’t working so much with the idea of nature, and I wanted every work I made to be particularly different from what I had done before. 

Why are you so drawn to the concept of nature? 

I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and the desert was the first landscape I saw. But my grandparents had a little house in the Alps, where I would go on holidays, which was a vastly different landscape and culture. Then in the 1990s, we moved to Berlin. So I never saw a landscape as something that is just there. I always felt it could be dramatically different. And the culture that I grew up in always felt that it was somehow constructed. You can learn that stuff in school, but experiencing it first hand is very different.

The culture that I grew up in always felt that it was somehow constructed.

I remember as a child in Saudi Arabia, seeing people hanging from a tower of a mosque. And it makes you completely rethink the idea of what is normal, a word that just doesn’t make any sense. How we perceive the world comes down to the question of perception, and when you apply that to nature, you end up with what philosophy is actually saying that everything we see is a cultural construct.

In animism, these distinctions are not so clear. I spent quite some time working with indigenous people in Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico who follow animism. Just to understand it, because I didn’t trust what white people had written about it.

For a few years your work focused on weather like lightning, was there also an impulse to control nature? 

Well, I got hit by lightning… I was sleeping in the car on the tip of a mountain, somewhere where you should not be in a thunderstorm. But when I parked there, the weather was totally fine, the sun shining. I fell asleep and was woken up by lightning hitting the car, making all the vegetation around me burn. I thought I’d been hit by a rocket because you don’t think of it as ball of fire, right? There was no rain, that only started five minutes later when the thunderstorm moved over. 

Did you feel it? 

No. But I was in a shock. I didn’t realise till an hour later what must have happened. I was lucky I was in a car. Anyway, this got me interested in this moment of control, acting and reacting. And research into lightning is difficult because that’s exactly the problem. You cannot make lightning, you have to wait for nature to make it and nobody can afford to wait forever.

What is nature if not an abstract feeling?

So I went to Venezuela to the area where there’s the most lightning in the world and shot up these rockets into thunderstorms with a wire attached. But you need a thunderstorm, so I was there’s a lot of time waiting around. Mainly failing to catch it. We’re making a film about it now, Talking to Thunder. Included is my research with the Wiwa people in Colombia, talking with these people about lightning and thunder. It’s kind of an abstract documentary – abstract like weather. 

There’s a movement in art to get people to care more about nature, but you’re taking a different approach… 

I think it’s very important to inspire more people to care about nature. But I’m trying to identify the problems within ourselves that block us from doing the right thing. This is how I see my job as an artist: to inspire people to change their relationship with nature and maybe act in a way that is less harmful.

This is not supposed to tell people to now walk everywhere and bike more often. As an artist, I want to do things that are hard to express with words. That’s the power of art, and I’m trying to create abstract feelings. And what is nature if not an abstract feeling?

  • Berlinische Galerie When Platitudes Become Form through Aug. 8, details.