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  Freitag 8, 14.02.03

Retrofit for immortality

by Ralf Hanselle

In the depths of the soul
Precisionist photography takes Andreas Magdanz ever closer to the former GDR government bunker in the Eifel region of Germany
Andreas Magdanz has a lingering eye. Not necessarily an unusual characteristic for a photographer growing up in the Düsseldorf region of Germany. In the tradition of neo-realist photographers such as Charles Sheeler or the more recent Düsseldorf Becher school, Magdanz has a preference for straight forms and lines and post-industrial figurations. For German photographers seeking to carve a niche in the international scene over the past few years, the possession of a cool eye and matrix vision has been an absolute must.
Like Bernd and Hilla Bechers before them, a new generation of precisionist photographers over the past 20 years such as Thomas Ruff, Axel Hütte or Walter Niedermayr adopted apartment blocks, semi-detached houses and entire alpine panoramas as the subject of their photography. The presence of students does not, however, necessitate the foundation of a school.
Many of the forms and points of reality compiled and documented by the Düsseldorf academics at first glance seem somewhat »arty«, but seldom transcend the façade itself. What you see is what you get. Nothing more can, or should, be expected.
Andreas Magdanz as simply another collector of hard forms would not, on the surface, be worthy of note. His photography, after all, simply focuses on right-angled structures, apartments devoid of people and the flighty dress code of the old democratic republic. There are red-and-white salt and pepper sets manufactured by EmsaPlastik, red upholstered furniture in the furniture-fair fashion of the early seventies, and grotesque electrical appliances worthy of any Kraftwerk album cover. A touch of retro, a smattering of industrial design; this is the initial impression of the images captured by this ‘63-generation photographer.
One has an uneasy sensation, however, on finding out that most of the images were taken a good 112 metres under the shale crust of the northern Eifel region. These photographs of thick steel doors and spacious canteens bear no relation to the images of decommissioned open-cast coal mines of the Ruhrgebiet industrial area captured by the photographer couple Hilla and Bernd Becher, but document the most expensive defence structure of the time built by the government of the old federal republic: the »Marienthal Office«.
From its inception in 1972 until completion, this structure remained the emergency relocation site for the federal constitutional and governmental organs in the event of warfare and for defence purposes. A bunker consisting of 897 offices, 936 bedrooms, five medical centres, a printing works and even a hair salon.
The collection of photos in this large-format book record architecture for the worst-case scenario. Austere black-and-white images, devoid of humans, breathe life into our imaginings of what happens when nothing else can happen. Andreas Magdanz spent months inside the subterranean labyrinth located south of the former capital of Bonn, photographing ventilation ducts, offices and conference rooms. The 367,000-m² government bunker, which was decommissioned in 1997, appears in these images as a sober, laborious monument.
This 160-page book lays bear the cloven angst of the old federal republic, like a core sample from the depths of the East-West condition. The nuclear strike, subject of innumerable emotional and moral-laden films and essays, is viewed from a semiotic standpoint. No fall-out, no panic, no emotions. In their stead, an immense industrial tunnel housing a larger-than-life subterranean barracks; global dread reduced to the most prosaic of basic forms. The orderliness of the structure reflects life in an atomic state-of-emergency. In the confines of the barracks, basic human requirements are reduced to an elementary level. Marienthal is the apparent victory of functionalism over fear.
The photography of Andreas Magdanz ultimately codifies the primeval human megalomaniac fantasy. Within reinforced concrete walls, the dream of immortality once again rises from the ashes. Deep under the rock of the Eifel, the ancient myth of timelessness lives on within the folds of the earth. It has been the subject of countless stories, from the Middle Ages to modern times. The government bunker is simply the most recent variety, the spelunca aevi of the atomic age.
More significant even than actual survival - which the bunker can guarantee for a month - is symbolic survival. And in this respect the »Mariental Office« slides easily into the pattern of existing myths and legends. The saga of Barbarossa - the tale of the »Peace Emperor« Frederick awaiting his final return in Kyffhäuser’s Thuringen - springs to mind here. Created in times of war and plague, the aim of such tales was to bring the »principle of hope« to the poor souls of the suffering masses. One day, goes the story, the saviour/leader will emerge from his cave to bring forth order from the chaos.
Romance, too, is filled with fantasy. Primitive myths of immortality, in which heroes and wise men survive within the depths of caves, remaining unscathed by time, have been adopted and modified by writers from Novalis to E.T.A. Hoffmann. From Falun to Tanhäuser’s Venusberg, we are confronted with grottoes to eternal life. In the 19th century tunnels and pits became places in which wisdom and knowledge, as well as fossils, were laid down and preserved. The new German introspection found its domicile deep within the earth. Here, the politics-weary generation of romantics stored their fantasies of regression, making these tunnels their magna mater.
Such being the rationale of the structure documented by Andreas Magdanz, something of this faith in mythology still remains within the government bunker deep under the earth. The magic of sparkling crystals and enigmatic minerals have been replaced by the wizardry of technology and industrial design. Those viewing the precise arrangement of control stands and rooms housing gigantic turbines are permitted a glimpse of the dialectic aspect of the logic behind the enlightenment. Even if the light of reason were finally to burn out in the fire of the nuclear super nova, this tunnel within the mountain leads us to believe that the light can once again be ignited. Razor-sharp corridors and straight lines, therefore, symbolise no more than the retreat house of human logic.
It seemed, initially, that the photographic works of Magdanz would return the bunker to its erstwhile state. The complete absence of human life, the almost sacred serenity which emanates from the pictures, transforms the barracks into hallowed halls of immense scope. Sober signs and articles lying around are elevated to the status of sacramental objects and saintly frescoes. The implausible becomes plausible. A motif for the redemption of antiquated human condition.
In the 50s the philosopher Günther Anders put his finger on it: »Our powers of imagination are equal only to our powers of creation«. A dilemma, a unique solution to which is being sought in Marienthal. Because those unable to imagine a nuclear war should at least be able to utilise revamped mythology to make the idea tolerable. Perhaps the DM 3 billion invested in the structure was less of an investment in life as it was in a concept.
Man, according to Günther Anders, »belongs to yesterday«. Where there is threat of drowning in his own artefacts, he seeks refuge in the imaginary cosmos of prehistoric man. By which token the pictures of Andreas Magdanz, presented as the modern regressus ad uterum, are once again more than topical in this post Cold-War era.
With the US thinking about the pre-emptive employment of atomic weapons within the framework of its »National Security Strategy« and the anti-terror discourse having arrived at the level of bible-belting channels, something is definitely amiss. In the depths of the soul reason, it seems, is resting in bonds.
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