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Video pioneer

Friday, November 02, 2018

Marcel Odenbach's exhibition Tranquil Motions has unquiet moments, says Ronita Torcato

There's something of the will-o'-the-wisp about German Jewish video art pioneer Marcel Odenbach, whose works are on display at  the National Gallery of Modern Art. Or should I say a sailing vessel swerving around something; many instances of which can be viewed in his videos. Turning circles is the most common manoeuvre for a boat and where Odenbach is concerned, he is, rather was, continually turning around himself during our brief interaction at NGMA. His films, at least the ones I watched, are marked by impressive 360° circular shots ranging from children on a roundabout to a plane careening madly round a dense forest. Or so, I thought until Odenbach told me it was a drone!

Turning Circles is the name of his 2009 16-minute video (German title Im Kreise Drehen) which is being screened, aptly, under NGMA's majestic dome. In this B&W film, Odenbach focuses on a Holocaust memorial  in Lublin, Poland. He begins with shots of two  youths gambolling on a grassy knoll. Soon, the camera zooms into the rough surface of a wall, then orbits in a long shot that goes round and round and round. Odenbach superimposes footage of Jews rushing through the concentration camp while a soldier directs them towards...(their deaths?) If it wasn't for the archival footage, I'd have thought I was looking at an archaeological structure from antiquity and not Majdanek, the most notorious death camp after Auschwitz and Treblinka. The film ends with the two boys ambling through the circular walkway.

At an introductory talk delivered at the exhibition sponsor Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai, Odenbach noted how the (cunning) Nazis located most of the concentration camps in Poland and how Buchenwald was set up on a pretty hill above Weimar (where the writer/statesman Johann Goethe and his friend, the poet/philosopher/physician Friedrich Schiller had lived). The ghost of Nazism perpetually  haunts Odenbach, who also turns his gaze to India and Africa. Like other European colonists (Belgian/ French/ Italian), the Germans too laid a heavy hand on their African colonies. Odenbach  focuses on tiny landlocked Rwanda, which was part of Germany's East African colonies. In 1994, Berlin was alerted in advance about Rwandan genocide but did not respond. No other country did. Not even the USA.  Hutu militia gangs would slaughter around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Odenbach does not react when I ask him why no one intervened. I think he should have (said something) after all, he is of Jewish stock. This part of his bio, he rattled off.  One grandfather was born in France and grandmother in Belgium. His father, a Dutch Jew  married a first cousin in Cologne where Odenbach was born in 1953, not too long after WW2 and the horrors of the Holocaust which consumed almost all of European Jewry alongwith large numbers of Communists, Catholics, Slavs and gypsies. Odenbach has family in the Congo; he now lives and works in his native Cologne, but has lived earlier in Ghana, yet another ex-German colony. I don't know why this constant migration reminds me of the Wandering Jew who is, in Christian legend, doomed to live until the end of the world because he taunted Jesus on the way to Calvary. But unlike Martin Luther, I admire the Jews and Israel, warts and all.

Odenbach's work combines the personal with the political, and touched on issues of  migration, racism, xenophobia and oppression. The past invariably impinges on the present. I went online to watch his video installation In stillen Teichen lauern Krokodile/In Still Waters Crocodiles Lurk, which thematizes the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It presents a bucolic Rwanda alongside documentary material and excerpts from the United Nations’ film archive, but is strangely devoid of stark images of those stomach-churning crimes.  Hate-filled venom urging Hutus to murder Tutsis can be heard on the soundtrack from a radio. Most of the films have impressive Oscar-worthy sound design by Richard Ojijo.

In Im Schiffbruch nicht schwimmen können (Foundering, and You Can‘t Swim)  three African  immigrants  are looking at a heart-rending artwork in the Louvre: The Raft
 of Medusa painted by Théodore Géricault in 1819. In 1816, the Medusa  was despatched by France to take over Senegal  from the British. En route, it  was shipwrecked,  transforming the crew into cannibals.  In Odenbach's video,  the men sit in front of the picture in silence,dreaming, perhaps of a place called home.  “Hope and home"  for Odenbach, "always means salvation and fight.” Matthias Muhling curated the exhibition, which is open to the public till November 30.

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