The first stanza of perhaps the most overquoted poem in the English language, William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” concludes with the lines “The best lack all conviction, the worst are filled with passionate intensity”. From the vantage point of nearly a century later, the reader can perhaps understand why it remains the go-to poem for troubled times. Yeats himself, champion of Irish nationalism and a delusional romantic, surely knew enough about the dangers of passionate intensity and its seductive character in the political realm, but at moments of crisis, the longing for “the best” to turn up with the a set of convictions and passionate intensity to straighten out a troubled world often reasserts itself. Political ructions have returned to Europe, and with them the attraction of conviction and passion in politics. In this context Sven Johne’s work “Dear Vladimir Putin” (2017) expresses a certain manifestation of this sense of longing for simple, clear and distinct solutions.
Johne is known for film works that tread semipermeable boundaries between reality and fiction. I had occasion to see two of Johne’s films at the exhibition, Requiem for a Failed State, this month in Leipzig at Halle 14 in the city’s expansive art complex, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei. In Requiem for a Failed State, I found Johne’s “A Sense of Warmth” (2015) to be particularly affecting. It recounts the (fictional) tale of a labour psychologist who drops out of her professional life to work in a research facility on a remote Baltic Sea island that has become a key site for the migration of birds from Europe to Africa. “A Sense of Warmth” offers its viewers an entirely plausible narrative, indeed, I thought it was a documentary when I began watching and listening to it. Perhaps key to the power of Johne’s films is their quotidian quality which borders on the banal. Only through their sheer overfamiliarity does their fundamental strangenesses emerge. The tropes of quasi-documentary works of visual art appear frequently in “Dear Vladimir Putin”: out of sequence voiceover, meticulous close ups, the presentation of everyday life as a ritualistic set of practices, and, of course, “unflinching” focus on the marginal and obfuscated aspects of contemporary life (in this case, an undiscussed but lengthy scar on the leg of the actor (Gottfried Richter) playing Johne’s protagonist, Peter Bittel, which Johne decides to linger upon in an extended shower scene). Many viewers will concentrate on the content of “Dear Vladimir Putin”’s voiceover narration, in which Bittel, an engineer who once worked in the Soviet Union, attempts to convince the Russian President to accept Dresden and Saxony as new exclaves of contemporary Russia. Rather like Kaliningrad, Bittel notes; it may not be easy, but at least there would be a sense of purpose. For me, the narrative was the least interesting aspect of Johne’s film. Anyone prepared to scroll through the comment threads of an article on Putin or Ukraine can find similar sentiments voiced, but it is Johne’s sense of how images connect and how artifice emerges from studied presentations of “natural” or familiar events that makes the film worth the viewer’s time.
Far more interesting than the film, for me at least, was Johne’s “Heroes of Labour” (2018) a truly menacing collection of images of twelve top motivational speakers and their quotations hung in rows beside each other. From the affable Zig Ziglar, a pioneer of the genre, to the eerie, otherworldly, cephalically epic Anthony Robbins, the status of these “success gurus” is a reminder that there are whole enterprises built by those who are filled with passionate intensity to attempt to convince those who lack all conviction that their problems can be solved with sufficient doses of the drug of self-belief. Kanye West’s recent tweet that the endurance of slavery in America for four centuries “sounds like a choice” is only an extreme variation of a more pervasive ideology that can be summed up in the pearls of wisdom featured in Johne’s work, for example: “Earth is heaven. Or hell. Your choice” (courtesy the motivator, Wayne Dyer, who cultivates the look of a weird half-golf-pro-half-card-sharp). Or the less imperious “If you can’t get a miracle, become one,” aphorism that Johne presents next to its coiner, Nick Vujicic. As you stand before the smiling faces and inspiring axioms of these giants of the self-help industry, an English accented voice intones mantras along similar themes; the viewer can then turn attention to the video work “I am the Power” (2018) which traces a journey through the streets of Dresden in ghostly black and white. These streets, firebombed to rubble in the Second World War, are also the fictional home of “Dear Vladimir Putin”’s protagonist, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the birthplace of the Islamophobic movement disfiguring Germany known as PEGIDA, as well as representing a major electoral powerbase for the Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD), the far-right party that currently operates as Germany’s publicly funded national opposition party in the Bundestag. Uneasy times indeed, and the works of Johne capture their spirit somehow much more completely in works like “I am the Power” and “Heroes of Labour” perhaps because of how much they leave out, reminding the viewer that the story of history is as much that of those lacking all conviction abdicating the agency they possess. Zig Ziglar and Suze Orman wouldn’t let white nationalists take over the world (would they???), why might the rest of us?
Dear Vladimir Putin/I am the Power
Until 9 June
Images courtesy of gallery Klemms Berlin.