Hannah Arendt's Denkraum (Thinking Space)
The Experience of an Experimental Exhibition

by Peter Funken

(Translated from the German by Kathrin Nussbaumer)

The idea and initiative for this exhibition, Hannah Arendt Denkraum (Thinking Space), came from a political scientist and a publisher, both of whom have taken great interest in the world of Hannah Arendt over many years. Wolfgang Heuer and Sebastian Hefti initiated this experimental project. That is probably no coincidence: Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who would have celebrated her 100th birthday on October 14, 2006, was a political thinker. To this day, political scientists and philosophers have kept her theories fresh in their minds and those theories inform their debates. During her New York years in the 1950's and 1960's, Hannah Arendt was very interested in contemporary art, about which her husband Heinrich Blücher was quite knowledgeable, and with whom she often had discussions. Nevertheless, her primary interests did not center on creativity in a design sense, but rather on an exploration of the human and anti-human, of politics and freedom, of work and thinking, both in terms of what they are in themselves and what they represent for the future. Artists just like others, have shown an interest in her work. That work has only started, during these last years, to be seen as highly relevant to art, especially as Western culture has entered a period of severe crisis, a crisis that Hannah Arendt had diagnosed quite early. The topics and problems she chose to analyze have increasingly been taken up by artists and curators, especially once it became clear they could no longer ignore questions about the shape of the future. We live in times of complex transformations that concern not only the working class but the overall value system of the Western world, and which has raised unanswered questions about globalization and the development of a cultural society. In Hannah Arendt's work artists find the kind of thinking that encourages them to intervene, to express critically and skeptically their concerns, positions and what those concerns and positions mean for society. Arendt's way of thinking has to be understood from a viewpoint that is resistant to ideology, one that offers intellect and creativity, poetic power of expression, as well as factual knowledge. Everything comes with the radical invitation to think for ourselves, to speak, to publish-in an exhibition, using all the means of art and within the confines of a Denkraum that is open to all who care. Ideally, the Denkraum, housed in the building of a former Jewish girls' school, resembles a think tank and a memorial simultaneously, while being neither, serving instead to connect people as diverse as scientists and business persons, or rather, those whose primary orientation to the world is through action, to politics, philosophy and art. In that sense, the Hannah Arendt Denkraum is a space for thinking freely and for making connections, opened up by Arendt's reflections and the contributions made by the artists to this exhibition. The artists certainly were inspired by Arendt's thinking, but they neither illustrate the theses of this thinker of Jewish descent, nor do they prioritize or document her life. The exhibits are intended to be the product of a present- and future oriented dialogue with Arendt's method of reasoning, serving as a catalyst for the artists in their efforts to interpret present and future social developments and giving a voice to their artistic viewpoints that in turn trigger new discussions. All of this is happening as the participating artists let themselves be inspired by Arendt's main topics and take them up in their own creations: the contributions of Judith Siegmund and Johan Lorbeer focus on the present and future of work. Parastou Forouhar and the Swiss contributors Sebastian Hefti, Susanne Hofer and Katrin Oettli concern themselves with totalitarianism as mass phenomenon. Adib Frick and Martha Rosler deal with the central media of expression: language and writing. Thomas Hirschhorn's piece, created in cooperation with the philosopher Marcus Steinweg, as well as that of Volker März, focus on artistic access points to the person of Hannah Arendt and to her thinking. Tobias Hauser's installation asks questions about personal freedom and the interference of the state, while Ram Katzir takes up topics like persecution and expulsion both as a generalized Jewish fate and Hannah Arendt's individual fate.

Having in mind Arendt's critical forecast concerning the future of a working society, Judith Siegmund started reading circles in the town of Weißenfels in Sachsen-Anhalt, where unemployment is particularly high. In a course entitled "calling-job-drag? Working Creating Acting", texts such as Arendt's "Vita Activa oder vom tätigen Leben ("Vita Activa. Of the Active Life") were read and provided the starting point for discussions between people with very different biographies. In the exhibition, the artist shows videos of interviews with the participants of the reading circles.

In his contributions, Ram Katzir highlights the position of the paria, the stranger and outsider, whom Hannah Arendt references in her thinking and whose fate has become her fate. Kafir's sculpture called "Petrification/Versteinerung" is a suitcase made of rose-brown colored stones from Jerusalem. The artist displays his work in combination with a glass case filled with stones and stone dust in the lobby of the Brandenburg Science Academy, which is in close proximity to the place where Hannah Arendt was arrested in 1933. Johan Lorbeer also takes up the topic of the stranger and outsider in his performance "Bios Xenikos", during which he appears to defy gravity; without touching the floor, he leans against a wall and talks about Arendt's metaphor of "thinking without railings (Denken ohne Geländer)". [1]

In her flash animation "Just a Minute", as well as her installation "Where have all the people gone", showing torture scenes, the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, comments on her experiences living under a totalitarian dictatorship. Sebastian Hefti, Susanne Hofer and Katrin Oettli in their complex video installation "Auditorium Elements and the Origins of Totalitarianism" refer to Arendt's discussion of totalitarianism as a general phenomenon and her epoch-making work "Elements and Origins of Totalitarian" (1951) in particular. The latter work was divided into parts and read by public figures in front of an audience. The entire 45 hours of those lectures were videotaped and Hefti/Hofer/Oettli used it to create a video installation for the Berlin Denkraum.

In her quote installation "Reading Hannah Arendt", which contains Arendt quotations in German as well as English, Martha Rosler makes direct references to the war rhetoric of the United States. Thomas Hirschhorn's "Hannah Arendt Map", created in cooperation with Marcus Steinweg, attempts to show how one can approach this political thinker artistically. Hirschhorn says about their piece, "I don't have to be a Hannah Arendt expert. What I try to do is grasp her philosophy as a work of art. I'm able to approach her work, touch it, enter into a dialogue with it, and understand it-as an art work." Volker März's viewpoint also seems to be of a personal nature, as the artist approaches the person Hannah Arendt by portraying her sculpturally over and over, from new and different perspectives. His piece "The Storage Room as Denkraum" shows 333 clay sculptures on an industrial shelf, all of them representing Hannah Arendt. In a photo series März describes "The Disappearance of Hannah Arendt". Songs composed by März accompany both contributions. In his installation "Smoking/The Coming and Going of Reasons" (Smoking/Das Hin und Her der Gründe), Tobias Hauser concerns himself with Hannah Arendt as a smoking thinker, a kind of "Icon" of the twentieth century. [2] Using smoking as an example, he refers to the great extent of state interference in individual people's lives today, which, he points out, is met with great consent and serves to distract us from truly important social problems. Adib Fricke (The Word Company) developed a text in several parts for the exhibition. He researched pieces of text with pertinent terms from Arendt's work in databases of various text corpora, then fragmented them and pieced the fragments together as an installation. The result is formulated as a random, artistic placement; it is subjective and at the same time centered around Hannah Arendt.

An integral element of the exhibition is the Reading Room, where important texts and publications of Hannah Arendt can be found in German and English. A question that is both central and to the point is meant to address the present and reads: "In what kind of a world do we want to live in the future, and what needs to be done in order for us to construct a society that allows us to live in self-determined freedom"? Without artistic forms of realization we will not get very far in dealing with and solving the complicated problems that grow out of this question. Without the artistic, subjective, and publicly discussed interpretation of what concerns all of us; namely freedom of thought; the right to express our own point of view; the chance to build a democracy for the future; and the critical analysis of the term "work", we will be unable to act. A society needs artists, and all of us need art as an illustrative system of models and concepts that scandalize and spread intellectual unease. Despite being an expert system, the sensual origin of fine arts provides many people with access to ideas and offers these ideas, unlike scientific discourse, for public discussion. There is research in art too, and it uses scientific methods and results. Art speaks to everyone in general, and in that sense is similar to democratic participation [in the political sphere].

Over the last decade a younger generation of Arendt scholars has encountered her artistic, or to be more precise, her literary side and the close connection between critical thinking and poetics, as well as metaphoric language. Artists have also discovered Hannah Arendt and her way of thinking over the last years, and it seems as if they are still at the beginning. That alone makes the exhibition project Hannah Arendt Denkraum a venture into still unknown territory and an experiment with the future, using the means of art to suggest directions. Artists will not solve social problems; that will be the task of democratic politics. However, artists will contribute to asking questions in unexpected ways and to phrase more precise alternatives to those that we presently have.

The exhibition is set in a building that represents modern architecture, created by the architect Alexander Beer in 1927/28. His life ended in 1944 in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. Thanks to fortunate circumstances, Hannah Arendt was spared the fate Beer shared with so many European Jews. Totalitarianism, culminating with the extermination of the European Jews and many others, is not explicitly the focal point of the exhibition; rather, it is the background for any and all thinking that deals with the topics of freedom and self-determination.

The Denkraum, which is the exhibition, reaches beyond the exhibition's time and space. It is a point of departure,
a paradigmatic proposition that asks to be fulfilled, just as much as it is a space of initiation and debate about topics like "the present", "the future", "politics and art". It would be wrong to assume that the exhibition only started with its opening on 14 October 2006. Rather, it began with the discussions concerning the selection of the participating artists and culminated in the controversy surrounding a planned piece of art by Volker März. The curatorial task of the exhibition required an angle that allowed for critical debate about the desire to experiment. As is common in any emergence of new things, tentative exploration preceded the building of trust that was necessary for the creation of the novel art intended for this exhibition. By independently attempting to perpetuate her philosophy, the pieces reveal connections to Arendt's thinking. Therefore, we ourselves will most likely seek to enter into a dialogue with those artists whom we trust to initiate this task; the embodiment of thinking into a piece of art. Our plan for the exhibition was based on the idea of enabling and developing art and a Denkraum. In this context, Hannah Arendt's optimistic use of the term natality could be applied not only to people, but also to artwork. As is common in the creation of something new, we learned that you have to have faith in the future; you have to jump and let yourself fall, even when you have doubts. You have to accept difficulties. They are the beginning of optimism. The work for this exhibition project was a conscious border-crossing from the field of art into the area of political thinking and the freedom people have to use their own imagination. I think that the participating artists were faced with an exciting challenge. On behalf of the whole team, I would like to thank them all for their readiness to both discuss and cooperate. In addition, we express our gratitude to all sponsors and supporters who made the exhibition in honor of Hannah Arendt's Centenary possible. Thank you for recognizing and acting on this opportunity to promote independent thinking, criticism, and artistic experimentation.


[1] "Geländer" translated here as "railings" might also be translated, within the above context, as "handrails" or "safety net".

[2] "Smoking/Das Hin und Her der Gründe" translated here as "Smoking/The Coming and Going of Reasons" might also be translated, within the above context, as "Smoking/the back and forth [to and fro] of Reasoning". That is to say, the social prohibition, which constantly makes me entertain question like "Should I smoke or not smoke?", "Is this Right, or Wrong?", "Yes, or No?".