Decolonizing our Ancestors

Review / July 2023
Decolonizing our Ancestors: Julius von Bismarck’s “When Platitudes Become Form” Exhibition 
by M. Folescu

Embedding the past into the present looks effortless, since time simply unrolls on a clear path, once the first step is taken. Choices do determine the future, but once they are made, we can only learn the history, as it was, replay the events, as they happened. Linear narratives are a pleasure to sample; they break the chaotic constant questioning that might otherwise ensue. Most everyone realizes by now, on a theoretical level, that linearity is an editing technique, a way of creating a polished montage out of disparate distorted details. Rarely do we let this influence our actions, however.

Julius von Bismarck, in When Platitudes Become Form, currently on view at the Berlinische Galerie (Berlin, Germany), is showing us how the past gets constructed in convenient narratives. The artist, taking an autobiographical stance, engages the tropes of decolonization and of fabrication. Both can be seriously considered or derisively trivialized. As the great-great-great-great nephew of Otto von Bismarck, the notorious nineteenth century chancellor of Germany, responsible for genocide on a large scale in Germany’s colonies, he is uniquely positioned to tackle this task head-on. An easy, cliched response would be to just brush Julius’s efforts as a reaction of “white guilt”. Others might even see this exhibition as an attempt of “whitesplaining”: why is a white guy trying to appropriate the struggle led by the people in the former colonies to recover their past? Who gives him the right to speak in their name? The artist is aware of his privilege and knows that there is no masking the fact that he is related to Otto von Bismarck. He doesn’t attempt to speak in anyone else’s name; he’s pointing out that decolonization is not unidirectional. White descendants of white colonizers must listen to the relevant voices, and then they must act. Julius does that; he intervenes where he can, seeking to amplify the voices of Otto’s unknown victims. At the very least, the very act of wondering whether he is related to Otto will hopefully lead people into looking up Otto von Bismarck and finding out his dark history.

The first artwork one sees is a large cloth (12 x 9 meters) abstractly representing the waves reflecting the sunlight of the so-called “Bismarck Sea” in the Pacific Ocean. “Landscape Painting (Bismarck Sea)” looks like a huge zebra pattern is moving in the breeze of two electric fans. The cloth is accompanied by a triptych of photographs showing it floating on the surface of the sea off Papua New Guinea. Julius is referencing the engravings that were made during the colonial era and shows us a way in which pictures like these were used to appropriate the world and legitimate the white rulers. One interesting aspect — and one difficulty of decolonizing efforts everywhere — is that renaming of the places that were once conquered erased their original history, which is usually impossible to recover. The fact that the archipelago and even mountains in Papua New Guinea are named after Bismarck’s family might give the wrong impression, just like the engravings, photographs, and paintings of old. It might look like the crimes committed under colonial rule were not that bad, since the locals are still using these names, and thus holding in high esteem the colonizing rulers. Julius warns us not to commit this error.

Two more rooms in the show address the same theme, requiring its viewers to take a good look at “The Elephant in the Room” and to think whether they too “Like the Flowers.” First, “The Elephant in the Room” is a site-specific installation, part of a series developed specifically for this exhibition. Two huge works, consisting of a life-size replica of a giraffe and a copy of the equestrian statue of Otto von Bismarck that occupies a place of pride in Bremen, meet the unassuming viewers and begin “assaulting” them, by seemingly disintegrating under their surprised eyes. The artist made these two statues as enormous push puppets, held by cables that make unnerving popping sounds, as the sculptures slowly disintegrate, with Otto falling from his horse and apparently losing his head. The figures appear to be whole initially, and once they collapse they piece themselves back together, in a very complicated mechanical dance. Interestingly, when the giraffe is falling to pieces, Otto stands bravely looking above the viewers’ heads; the giraffe re-becomes vertical only when Otto is being dismantled, limb by limb, in a very vivid metaphorical demonstration of the conditions under which the natural world can be whole.

Julius chose the giraffe to illustrate the problematic way in which Europe’s colonial powers appropriated animals, plants, and natural resources by force. This is a reminder that regarding far away lands as “exotic” will lead us to think about their inhabitants — human and non-human alike — as species apart, as others to be studied and exploited only, instead as part of a kinship.

The artist shows us what all of us should be thinking: instead of honoring Otto von Bismarck with countless monuments throughout Germany, we should dismantle and expose him for the monster that he was. During his Chancellor-ship, Germany ruled by force its colonies, committing many crimes in the form of land grabs, exploitation of labor, and genocide. This installation is a timely reminder of our critical engagement with public monuments that honor murderers, slavers, and exterminating historical figures. We should not hide these figures in history: this would not do justice to their countless victims. We should, however, stop desecrating our fora with their grand memorials.

The other room presents a site-specific installation consisting of many large sculptures of dried plants. In “I like the flowers”, Julius is, again, expressing the brutality of exploiting and appropriating exotic nature. The plants come from former colonies and many of them are still bearing the names of the Europeans credited with discovering them, despite the fact that they already had local names, now long forgotten. The paradigmatic example is that of the Bismarck palm tree (or Bismarckia nobilis), originating from Madagascar and obviously named after the same late nineteenth century Chancellor of Germany whose last name Julius bears.

Julius von Bismarck successfully demonstrates a way for “decolonization” to not just be one of the trendy terms of the progressive left, but of taking contentful form and offering us a path to understanding the present, and to hopefully avoid repeating our bleak history.

Image Credits: Image 1: Ausstellungsansicht „Julius von Bismarck. When Platitudes Become Form“, Berlinische Galerie © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023, Foto: Roman März.
Image 2: Julius von Bismarck, I like the flowers (Strelitzia Nicolai), 2017, Courtesy Julius von Bismarck; alexander levy, Berlin, und Sies + Höke, Düsseldorf © Julius von Bismarck / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023
Image 3: Ausstellungsansicht „Julius von Bismarck. When Platitudes Become Form“, Berlinische Galerie © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023, Foto: Roman März.
Image 4: Ausstellungsansicht „Julius von Bismarck. When Platitudes Become Form“, Berlinische Galerie © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2023, Foto: Roman März