As my descent might imply, I’ve been growing up with the slowly fading burden of a sombre history, inevitably reminded of the gruelling atrocities of our ancestors in the 1930’s and 40’s. Whether it’s through exhibitions and talks, TV programs and films or simply school education, I’d say most Germans have a good awareness of their past, the debt towards other nations and especially the Jewish survivors of the Nazi torment. We mustn’t keep quiet about the bygone era – even though my generation shouldn’t be directly associated with the collective guilt – we address it, embrace it and remember from an early age. Because we owe it to ourselves.
Maybe that’s why I don’t quite understand the hostile voices that call ‘Exhibit B: Third World Bunfight’ a racist art concept that oversteps boundaries, yet demanding a boycott of the exhibition-performance-hybrid. Based on the phenomenon of the ‘Human Zoos’ of the mid-19th century, emphasizing the racial superiority of ‘civilized’ Europe over the black African population, artist and project curator Brett Bailey vividly depicts the suffering of the oppressed throughout the centuries until the present day. Call it crude, radical or excessive, but it’s definitely not art in the ordinary sense. It’s a shocking, authentic lesson about the abyss of humanity. A history lesson terribly needed. That calls for an emotive self-experiment.
And here I am, sitting in the ante-room of Edinburgh’s prestigious and richly decorated Playfair Library with a feeling of anxiety, nervousness and a strange indescribable feeling in my stomach. As my seat number ‘25’ is drawn and I set off upstairs to the main hall, observed by busts and portraits of famous – exclusively white – personalities of the establishment, the exhibition space suddenly makes perfect sense, evidently mirroring the feeling of human inequality I was about to experience within Exhibit B. What then awaits me is an almost unbearably painful walk past the living exhibits, who wordlessly portray chapter after chapter of Europe’s shameful colonial history, escalating into an outpour of honest human emotions and the renewed affirmation that man’s worst enemy is man himself. Only the beautiful, doleful singing of a traditional Namibian choir occasionally interrupts the chilling stillness. The effect, which Bailey wants to evoke here, is more than powerful. As just the simple look into a performer’s eyes becomes an acid test, the roles of observer and object have shifted diametrically. It’s the performers, who stare back from above, tirelessly following every move, look or emotion, while the visitor uncomfortably struggles to disguise his shame, pity and dismay.
‘Exhibit B: Third World Bunfight‘ still runs until 25th August 2014 at Playfair Library, Old College, Southbridge, Edinburgh EH8 9YL. More info on: Edinburgh International Festival.