FREMDGEHEN catalogue txt

Berlin North 2004 National Galerie im Hamburger Bahnhof

When coining the term „biopolitics” in 1976, Foucault probably never imagined that the phrase would give rise to works of art. Yet Lars Ramberg’s oeuvre could very well be considered as a reflection upon biopolitics: how the nation-state mixes life with politics in an attempt to manage the welfare of its population. While Foucault focused on institutions such as prisons and asylums, Ramberg tends to begin with collective artefacts – from signs to words – and then carefully excavates the complex laws that shape these artefacts into disciplinary tools. Taking Foucault’s archaeology to heart, the artist’s interventions not only reveal but also disturb the nation-state’s ordering of public space and individual bodies.

Take Ramberg’s Copenhagen installation Pølse aid, 2002, which began with the vending wagons that sell sausages on the streets of the Danish capital and ended up uncovering a law that gives only handicapped Danes the right to operate the wagons. Since the vendors’ monopoly comes at the price of their perfect health, Ramberg installed therapeutic lamps in some wagons, thus underscoring the state’s unique calculation between selling fast food, being healthy and marketing public space. The artist’s most recent project comes closer to home: to celebrate Norway’s centennial in 2005, Ramberg proposed to install three public toilets – painted in red, white and blue and christened liberté, égalité, fraternité – at the historical site Eidsvoll 1814 Rikspolitisk Senter, where the Norwegian constitution was written just outside Oslo. The toilets – designed by the French conglomerate J.C. Decaux as the winning entry in a competition to build a more intimate public toilet for Paris – acknowledges France as the origin for a model of both democracy and sanitation, the „highest” and „lowest” ordering of citizens. Given the historical impact of the French Revolution and J.C. Decaux’s actual domination of the market for public installations, Ramberg’s project considers the fate of two French exports that allow the Norwegian state to address the individual and the collectivity, to unite the intimate body of the citizen and the abstract body of the People. Although Ramberg’s installation was selected for the site, the project has since met with political resistance and a surprising lack of liberté for a young country.

For „Berlin Nord” – a display of international cultural relations – Ramberg has chosen the word FREMDGEHEN, which adroitly brings together the biopolitical history of both Norway and Germany. Appearing as a passport stamp or a neon sign, FREMDGEHEN – literally „to go foreign” – is a colloquial German term which denotes „cheating on a sexual partner.” Unlike the equally prevalent Seitensprung (a jump to the side), fremdgehen likens adultery and infidelity to a trip to another country. The borders of a partnership are confounded with the borders of a nation-state; sexual infidelity is bound to the explorations of an unknown territory, along with adventure, exoticism, escape, treachery. While the expression reflects the family’s central role in the German constitution, Ramberg takes the term over to Norwegian soil and excavates yet another history: the fate of Norwegian women who „went foreign” with German soldiers during W.W.II. In terms of partnerships, the women could not be called unfaithful, as most were single. Yet their liaisons – which often led to children and even to marriage – were regarded as acts of collaboration by the Norwegian state after the German occupation came to an end. Fremdgehen, once exported to Norway, has nothing to do with cheating and means nothing less than full state treason. In 1945, „traitors” not only faced public humiliation but also lost their jobs, were imprisoned and, in some cases, forced to work in prison. Liaisons recognised by the law were the most severely punished: Norwegian women who had married German soldiers were deprived of their citizenship and sent to Germany.

In the past decade, Norwegian-German „war children” have been given increasing prominence in both countries. While their history begins with the racial policies of the Nazis – the drive to produce Aryan offspring led the SS to create the institution Lebensborn e.V. in 1935 and later to establish foster homes in occupied Norway for babies born from German soldiers and „racially-pure” Norwegians – the story rapidly devolves into a patriotic and eugenic retribution, which saw the Norwegian state mix the symbolics of blood with the analytics of sexuality. While Foucault saw Nazism as a „naive” and „cunning” combination of blood, sexuality and state power, these elements were combined afresh in Norway after the liberation. Due to their German blood, the war children were feared in Norway as a future invading force, but they were equally disregarded as likely to be mentally handicapped. These two conflicting beliefs – about the strength and the weakness of German blood mixed with Norwegian blood – led the Norwegian state to seek several ways to deal with the unwanted children. The decision to send the children to Germany was rejected; some already living there in foster homes were taken to Norway. The Norwegian state then failed in its attempt to send the children to Australia – an immigration country – so that most of them remained in Norway and were subsequently united with their mothers, taken in by foster families or placed in state orphanages, often for the mentally handicapped. Like the fate of the war children, the fate of the Norwegian women who married German soldiers not only led to human trade in the name of patriotism but also reflects the nation-state – a supposedly abstract and secular entity – as both father and husband. During the war, Hitler was to sign personally the marriage licenses for his soldiers who had chosen Norwegian brides – at once embodying the law and acting as a father who might bless his son’s choice of a marriage partner. But by stripping the brides of their Norwegian citizenship after the war, the Norwegian state effectively acted as a cuckold father, who disowns his daughters for marrying outside the national family – in other words, not for pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations but for extra-national marriage. Fremdgehen, once transported to the history of Norwegian-German relations n the wake of W.W.II, mixes not only treason with sexuality but also patriotism with incest.

With FREMDGEHEN, 2003, Ramberg initially reworked the term as a rubber stamp, which appeared on his hand as a bureaucratic stigma and which could equally be stamped in a passport as the illegal diplomatic mark for an unrecognized country. Whether stamped on skin or on passport pages, FREMDGEHEN recalls that the border between countries are constructed in imaginary terms – from patriotism to sexuality – terms that nevertheless leave real marks on the body. Here, Ramberg has refashioned FREMDGEHEN nto a neon sign that sits atop the east side of Hamburger Bahnhof, close to where the Wall stood – a former national border that was once deadly, just as the border between Norway and Germany once marked racial purity, invasion, treason, retribution, deportation. Two Norwegian flags – made from red, gold and black German flags – on top of the facade of the building offer another image of international miscegenation. By accusing the museum of „cheating” and by „colouring” its flags, Ramberg not only remembers the violent history of the border between Norway and Germany but also underscores how cultural exchanges have replaced sexual ones. In times of peace, it seems that nation states are wont to exchange culture and goods; in times of war, and even in the lull after war, the main currency between countries are bodies – both dead and alive.

catalogue text by JENNIFER ALLEN