It is easy for him who keeps his foot free from harm to counsel and admonish him
who is in misery - Aeschylus
We only become moral when we are unhappy - Marcel Proust
Dear Kristian von Hornsleth,
I hope Africa leaves you alone. I never really wanted to go back after my two trips to Kenia and Mali. You know the old joke you hear in the airport-lounges where you stay hours and hours if not days, because the plane is late and no one cares about it. Standard answer: we have our problems, you have yours, but you always have been part of ours. If you cannot stand it, go back to Europe and leave us alone! Good old Europe, thank you Mr. Rumsfeld, for reminding us of the difference.
No, I always hated Africa. I remember the conversation with Graham Green at the Bar of the Ritz in Paris, when he was already the old gentleman, Sir Graham Green. He was not too keen on Africa either. He preferred Asia after all, and so do I. I did an interview for the Spectator in 1988 and had to ask him after his memories of Hotel Bars. I remember Green was talking about the Majestic Hotel in former "Saigon". Built in 1928, the Majestic Hotel offered opulence much closer to the life Graham enjoyed as a wealthy and famous novelist. Perhaps he liked the Majestic because here he was somewhat insulated from the dangers of the street. In the cosy central courtyard, lounging around the pool, he could easily have imagined being in Nice or St. Tropez. He was a born again Frenchman.
Years later I visited The Majestic and its roof bar with its fine view both up and down the river where you can contemplate the strange flavours of Vietnam's cultural melange from a safe height. After dark, above the dark tangle of bamboo scaffolding and corrugated iron shanties on the opposite bank, giant neon billboards advertising Carlsberg, Phillips and AIWA seem to hang suspended. Icons of the re-instated corporate pantheon. Even more incongruous is the mariachi band on the Majestics' open roof-deck, wearing sombreros and black suits and playing Mexican swing. I remember buying a bottle of Scotch and spending the evening talking on the phone to Chantal. She always calls me "Petit". "That's him playing, the dandy, journalist, informer, man about town. People know him as a regular at the bars and, where he could be counted on to make an appearance each night at cocktail hour, with cane in hand, dressed in a dark-blue jacket and open-necked white shirt." She doesn't like to be lost in translation, as much as I do. Ah, yes the joke: Africa is a huge country, many airports and no lions.
On a plane between Shanghai and Dubai I saw the movie "Hotel Rwanda". A slam to the West's discreet non-involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hotel Rwanda, as Xan Brooks writes in his critic for the Guardian rumbles in with a two-pronged agenda: to slam the West's discreet non-involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide and to salute one man who stood up and made a difference: Paul Rusesabagina. In reality he was a Kigali hotel manager who turned his Belgian-owned resort into a sanctuary for about 1 200 Tutsis and moderate Hutus and saved their lives through his actions.
Mr. Hornsleth are you the brave white Paul Rusesabagina? Do you hide a few hundred poor soles under the warming coat of western decadence and take advantage of public relation effects? That does not stand for the western discreet non-involvement!
Smart Ass Hornsleth, you sleep well in the happiest country of Europe, Denmark. "An internationally successful working artist is using all possibilities of personal freedom of speech, of developing his markets and his international reception. He generates his economic wealth through fun and fame. "Fun, Fame, Fortune!" He is subjectively pushing his artistic value system and acting in his world, which is the international world of art. The individual and his individual wishes are his driving force. His fame becomes a key tool to improve peoples living conditions!" That is how we can read it on your website. So as I know from the press mirror you have sent me, you are really very famous in the Republic of Denmark. 30 Million "Media contacts" in not even two month with one project: Respect!
This works out, but how does this affect the life of people from your village? Your website sketches their situation very realistic: The perception of a human being from a village in the countryside of Uganda: They try to survive as a farmer or as a peasant. They live without electricity without any kind of security system and without any ambition to work on anything else than surviving the existentially and socially very difficult situation. The world ends in the capital of Uganda to get medicine against malaria. The world consists of this life condition and this social surrounding. The surviving of the family is the main goal, everything else is not essential!" This serious description of the social situation is convincing, but how does this relate to the famous contemporary artist in the West?
As I read you went to the village in Uganda in order to convince them to use your name and gain through this a new and enduring tool to improve their living condition. What you ask for is to buy the second given name on their identity cards. What they get are animals to enrich their personal life. You are offering an economic deal to people who never would be able to do any economic deal of this kind without your offer. You point out that they as individuals own something, not essential to them, which has an economic value. Until now 380 people chose this way to improve their situation on short, medium and long terms. You just want a photo of them showing their identity card with their second given name "Hornsleth". These photos are your artworks, no personal rights of the photo remain with the person photographed.
I am not sure if this is cynical or idealistic, inhumane or humane and a real way to help. The difference is that these people take "Hornsleth" as their second given name in order to improve their lives. This alone is your and their decision. And the marketing and public relation of this act as contemporary art is very efficient as we see, and you even give the leader of the village the possibility to speak about the situation of his people in the media. But why do we still think you are not like Paul Rusesabagina? Because he did it because he did it, you did it to become famous and you took something of their identity away. Rusesabagina is a hero! Are you a hero, too or are you a fool? I did not find any reference neither in cultural history nor in the history of economics related to Africa. Except the slaves exported from Africa had to take the name of their new owner. Obviously you are not owning them and they are not working for you. Do you really want to help them or just get famous on their behalf?
Prometheus - to mention one example - was a great benefactor of mankind in Greek mythology. Prometheus stole fire from the gods, gave it to man, and taught him many useful arts and sciences. This sympathy with mankind roused the anger of Zeus, who then plagued man with Pandora and her box of evils and chained Prometheus to a mountain peak in the Caucasus. Prometheus tricked Zeus. In his anger over the trick Zeus took fire away from man. However, Prometheus brought it back again to man. Zeus was enraged that man again had fire. He decided to inflict a terrible punishment on both man and Prometheus. Mr. Hornsleth are you tricking us, are you tricking the people in your village, are you tricking yourself, the political power in Uganda or are you not tricking anyone? The beautiful Pandora was sent by Zeus to mankind. Eventually, Pandora's curiosity about the jar she was forbidden to open became to great. She opened the jar and out flew all manor of evils, sorrows, plagues, and misfortunes. However, the bottom of the jar held one good thing - hope. So is there any beautiful Pandora and what about the hope of these people?
And there is the other story which comes to my mind: Phaeton, the son of the sun-god Helios. When Phaeton ("the shining one") finally learned who his father was, he went east to meet him. He induced his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun across the heavens for one day. The horses, feeling their reins held by a weaker hand, ran wildly out of their course and came close to the earth, threatening to burn it. Zeus noticed the danger and with a thunderbolt he destroyed Phaeton. He fell down into the legendary river Eridanus where he was found by the river nymphs who mourned him and buried him. The tears of these nymphs turned into amber. For the Ethiopians, however, it was already too late: they were scorched by the heat and their skins had turned black.
Phaeton wanted to show he was a son of a god, he wanted to show, look, I am important. No matter whether we think of Prometheus or Phaeton, both had to face the result of their actions, no matter whether they did it from a humanistic or egocentric point of view. You are border-lining between the two aspects and I guess you have to move on the razor's edge like a snail. You have to please both expectations, the humanists and the egoists, the idealists and the cynics. This is a very tough demand and a very high price you pay to be famous.
You show through your photos individuals with an individual voice and an individual perception of the world as such and they chose you to communicate their existence to the world. Mr. Hornsleth, you are their ambassador and the person who explains who they are, where and how they live. Even if they naturally do not care about contemporary western art, they accept this artist offers a solution tool to improve their live situation. Hornsleth is a voice for them to communicate their own individuality beyond their own horizon." You go to Africa and convince people to take your name as a given name and then you make them look as if this was their own free decision to take you as their personal ambassador. You want to tell us that someone who does not travel and does not care about any outside country chooses you as an ambassador to the world? Therefore your public relation is part of campaigning their wish to speak to a world they do not even have been interested in? You are saying this wish aroused through your artistic intervention?
So this work is a testimony of responsible creativity as suggested by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Mary Shelley writes in her Preface to Frankenstein, that her aim was "the exhibition of the amiableness of domestic affection". The novel shows the results that a lack of domestic affection can have on art, results which allow Mary Shelley to call her novel "my hideous progeny". It argues that by focusing on the issues of paternal negligence and the need for responsible creativity, Shelley's novel deconstructs the story of Prometheus as a masculinist narrative of patriarchal authority. And now you, the Viking, give us an example of what she ideally meant with your way of letting the people ask you to represent their interests, by an artwork representing the very person?
Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is widely understood as an allegory on art and art production. Victor creates the monster like an artist creates an artwork, while the process of production of this very art-piece, neglects humanistic, emotional or social as well as ethical values. Victor dangerously ignores the human affection that arises from the domestic sphere. In setting up a common parallel, that between the artist as creator and God as Creator, Shelley suggests that the artist must take moral responsibility for his fictive creations. Mr. Hornsleth you go one step further, you are dealing with really existing people of a number of over 300, how much more must be your moral responsibility, which you have to take over through your artistic intervention into their lives. Victor Frankenstein, as a pseudo-artist, creates a monstrosity and you create what?
Your website puts it like this "Where does the art start and what makes it a great art project? The art starts with the decision to realize this projects, to go to Africa, to understand the situation, to dialogue with the people from the village, to find a solution with the village leaders and to think of an economic deal which is good for both sides. The art is a process and an experience; a new experience for the people from the village and for the artist himself. The art is a process of generating this idea and dealing with different cultures, different continents and all kind of barriers. The art is the result: The living situation improved. The consciousness of the people in the village as well as the artists' changed. The result is art which perhaps changes the opinion of the visitor of shows of this work and perhaps make many people aware that they can do something to improve people's living conditions not only in Africa, but in general."
The question remains why do you expose yourself and your work so macho then? Why do you not just say I want to help people in order to do something responsible with my creative energy. I still do not believe. Until now I think you write "Fuck you art-lovers" over Pamela Andersons chest, or engrave kill the bitch on a jewellery collier or all the other pseudo-decadent cliché kitsch. This is exactly the type of artists Mary Shelly's criticizes. This Hornsleth we know seems to be closer to Shelly's good friend George Gordon Byron (1788-1824), better known as Lord Byron who featured extravagant living, numerous love affairs, debts, separation, and allegations of incest and sodomy; he was described as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Byron served as a regional leader of Italy's revolutionary organization the Carbonari in its struggle against Austria, and later travelled to fight against the Turks in the Greek War of Independence, for which the Greeks consider him a national hero. From what we read in the Danish media we might see a new Lord Byron in you: Kristian von Hornsleth.
Let us change our perspective for a second, we are getting to sentimental here. Let us try to understand why we all like it so much if you give pigs and goats to the poor people of a desperate village in the middle of Uganda?
If we look into the official websites of the Uganda Government or the information material sent to me by the Embassy of Uganda, the state has always been a land of rich soils and good climate. These have supported a trebling of the population in the last 30 years to approximately 26 million people. Most Ugandans still live on the land and more of Uganda's wealth comes from agriculture (42%) than from either industry or services (38% and 20% respectively). But Uganda is also a landlocked country wrapped around the shores of Lake Victoria. The official wording of Ugandas government is: "Many people today think of Uganda as a great success story – and they are right in many ways. Since 1987, we have enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth. Liberalization and privatisation have created new opportunities and a growing middle class; new businesses have opened; urbanization has created new suburbs for the new middle class who enjoys better infrastructure and services, indeed a better standard of life..." What the government does not tell us is the social conditions on the countryside. People living in small villages on nothing or nearly nothing and try to survive on nearly nothing. Most often no school education, no medical infrastructure and no electricity and no social net at all, as we know it from Denmark, Germany, France or other countries of the European Community.
Mr Hornsleth, you show us the opposite and your own solution to management of this social situation of a big part of African contemporary society, you are not showing us the new middle class of Uganda, you are showing us the poor who cheer up because their personal life situation improves through your action. Through the whole operation you created a win-win situation for you and your people, but you tricked the governing elites in Uganda. So what are they going to do? Whatever they do, it will do good for you. Congratulations for this. And we hope that you are not like "The Interpreter," promoting the idea that African elites are generally bad and it needs the help of the good white.
Why do we love this action so much? Do we love the Danish Robin Hood in the forests of Uganda, taking the money from the white capitalists in Copenhagen and giving it to the poor African people or do we see tricks and virtuously covered ideas of self promotion and public relation on behalf of the poorest of the poor?
I think we love it as we appreciate movies like "Hotel Rwanda", because they are grounded in "the undefined but persistent feelings of guilt that we, the West feel about contemporary Africa." We are not Prometheus like you, we are no hero or saint, we are nervous about getting involved since it's not 'our' place. The movies celebrate Africans who tried to do something about their lives and political situation and now you are showing us your subjective vision of dealing with the situation.
Is it either this feeling of guilt or is it the fascination about the idea of Africa through books like Kiplings "The Jungle Book" and the imagination of a huge Arcadia which is in reality a paradise with wild animals, amazing landscapes, great light and a lot of poor Africans as ethnic or tribal performers? Rudyard Kipling wrote about the jungle in India, but had accrued much knowledge through listening to others and using research. The tales in "The Jungle Book" are fables, using animals in an anthromorphic manner to give moral lessons. The verses of The Law of the Jungle, for example, lay down rules for the safety of individuals, families and communities. Here we are: animals indicate ethics and moral habits and transform the way of thought of people in the village and stimulate our western imagination of help organization.
Our guilt focuses on the authentic. Lynn Smith in her article in the Los Angeles Times about the German drama "Nowhere in Africa," which won the Oscar for best foreign-language film in 2003 testifies the productions reach for the authentic. Does authenticity mean to take poor people to play poor, or rich people play poor for the western wish for authenticity and then drive back to their new middle class bungalows in the suburbs of Nairobi? The director probably meant be aware of the clichés we have in the west and try to avoid them, but what does that mean, African romanticism or how romantic it is to be poor, without energy and water? Despite the physical hardship, it was important to shoot in Kenya to make the film as authentic as possible, says Peter Herrmann, who travelled with the crew. As an ethnographer who had spent several years in Africa, he says he knew how to get things done with little money. I think the term little money sounds authentic to western expectations. Little money sounds also familiar in the way Hornsleth works.
After shooting the film team formed a foundation and held special screenings in Germany to raise funds to support Mukutani, the village where they filmed and whose inhabitants appeared as Swahili-speaking extras. Herrmann returned to Mukutani. Using a generator, he screened the film outdoors at night for the community. "The whole crowd was laughing," he says. "They were very excited to see themselves and people they know." Even without knowing specific words, he says, they understood the universal language of relationships in the movie. So what do the people who see themselves showing their modified identity card think when they see the show. First of all they never see them because they have no passports, second they never know how to finance a trip like this, if they would know where to book the tickets.
All the press writing on the project trust your descriptions, photos and film-material if they would go there and see the reality, they would not talk so much about you Mr. Hornsleth, but the situation of people in a country which regards itself as well doing with a growing middle class. If that is the reason for this project and not self promotion I think you have developed and executed an excellent idea. If it is just because you want to be famous then congratulations, you made it, but wait Prometheus had to pay with his lifetime for his attitude.
Graham Green wrote in 1960 "A Burnt-Out Case" which was set in the African nation of Kongo. The protagonist is a world-famous architect, who is the victim of a terrible attack of indifference, he no longer finds meaning in art or pleasure in life. Arriving anonymously at a little village, he is diagnosed as the mental equivalent of a 'burnt-out-case'. However, he loses himself in working for the people of the village, his disease of mind slowly approaches a cure. So if this is your way and you are starting to work for these people and help them to improve their live condition in an ongoing way I congratulate you and I am the first to say this is really serious contribution to contemporary art and responsibility of creativity. The one thing which was left in Pandoras' jar was hope. If hope is the one result I think the whole project deserves respect and recognition.
Villa St. Michele, Fiesole the 20th, September 2006