Written on 6. January 2023

Today, two years ago, my phone was buzzing with messages and photos from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. People asked me: “Did you see that coming?” I was puzzled because I had captured the aesthetics of the Capitol stormers in my installation Das Reich from 2017 about the German “Reichsbürger movement”. Until last year, I had never been to the U.S.

In my  installation, composed of furniture, objects and video, I found a visual language to speak about the self-proclaimed “Reichsbürger” (citizens of the German Reich), who deny the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany. They claim that the German Reich is still in power. I created the dystopian vision that the “Reichsbürger” had taken over the Kronprinzenpalais Unter den Linden in Berlin, and installed an emergency Reich government using furniture, arranged in a cultic formation resembling Stonehenge.

During the Capitol January 6 insurrection in 2021 I thought a lot about this work. Not only because the aesthetics of the attackers in Washington matched the installation in detail, but because of the question of dealing with a political movement whose aesthetics could be considered  “weird”. What I realized is that it is challenging to convince people about the danger of people and movements, when their self-staging seems weird, funny and laughable. In the case of the “Reichsbürger”, it is a racist, white-supremacist and violent hate-movement of conspiracy believers, that during the pandemic, gained more and more supporters throughout Germany. Don’t be fooled by the aesthetics.

In September 2022 I opened my show Re-Education at the SculptureCenter in New York. I transferred my practice from the German to the US context. Firstly, because I felt my work dealing with the ”Reichsbürger” movement in Germany could pave a new way of speaking about what happened on January 6 in Washington in an artistic language. Secondly, I was wondering how a critical artistic practice can deal with the Trump presidency and its implications on politics and society.

A central work of the show, Rustic Traditions, looks at the role that furniture played during the storm on the Capitol. Furniture was used as weapons and to break in, but congresspeople also used them to barricade themselves inside their offices or hid underneath their desks, using them as shelters. One rioter put his feet on a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office, symbolically claiming power. The urgency of the show – connecting the far-right conspiracy scenes in Germany with those in the US – came again to the forefront when a actual plot to overthrow the German government in order to install a new “Reich” was uncovered in Germany last month.

After 10 years of researching the “Reichsbürger” movement, and after looking closely at the January 6 events in Washington, what is my resolution for the new year 2023? We need to take people wearing viking horns and carrying rustic weapons seriously. If we continue the discussion about whether they pose a threat or not, they will take over the government buildings and institutions for good. And then it will be too late.

Photo Das Reich: Ladislav Zajac
Photos Re-Education: Charles Benton

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