My involvement with Duchamp began with a strange detour. I can't remember exactly when I first saw a work by Marcel Duchamp. My parents loved art, but avant-garde art was suspect to them. At the Munich Art Academy where I studied, Duchamp appeared at most in passing. But there was a seminar on the art and photography of the revolutionary events of 1918–19 in Munich. When we looked at the pictures and documents, we tended to make excessive interpretations because we lacked the background knowledge. At some point, this became too much for me. I began researching archives on my own and developed a particular curiosity for documentary photography.
The vast majority of photographs from this period were taken by a photographer named Heinrich Hoffmann. He later became known as Hitler's court photographer. I wanted to learn more about him and visited his daughter, Henriette von Schirach. That must have been 1977 or 1978. Upon our meeting, she held out a catalog with a portrait of a young man I didn't recognize: “Look! My father always did portraits of celebrities.” In fact, it was a portrait of Marcel Duchamp that Hoffmann had taken in Munich in the summer of 1912, which was reproduced in the catalog of the Duchamp exhibition at the recently opened Centre Pompidou. I had never seen the photograph before, and found it unsettling that this photographer should also have portrayed Duchamp. Mrs. von Schirach kept telling me that her father had not been a Nazi photographer, but only a documentarian of contemporary events. Of course, it was clear to me that Hoffmann was a National Socialist man of conviction, because he had already joined the NSDAP in 1920. She had also been married to Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi Reich Governor in Vienna, the person responsible for the deportation of Vienna's Jews.
Duchamp's portrait cast a spell over me and became the entry point for a long-standing examination of his work. The facial expression, the whole conception of the image does not fit into the genre of portrait photography, certainly not to that taken of artists at the time. The photo shows him completely frontal, strictly symmetrical, and without any discernible emotion. It's not a portrait that wants to warm or to encourage sympathy. It seemed to me like the head of a statue. Even like an object. Or like a ready-made? Duchamp wanted such a portrait and Hoffmann delivered it. Here, the photographer had a completely different function than in his sessions with Hitler, whom he himself revered as the coming “savior of Germany” and staged him accordingly.
In the summer of 1994, I was in Rome on a scholarship from Villa Massimo. I had had a difficult few months, as my exhibition Hoffmann & Hitler was being talked about negatively. It was a media-historical project at the Munich Fotomuseum that examined how Hoffmann's photographs stylized Hitler as “Führer” and still shape the ideas of subsequent generations. To do this, the photographs had to be shown. Some contemporaries, however, considered it an indecent breach and taboo to exhibit them in a museum, and they polemicized fiercely. How can you critically examine something if you are not allowed to exhibit it, I asked? For me, the whole situation was schizophrenic, a grave experience that I wanted to process on an artistic level.
In Rome, I had distanced myself from the confusion in Germany and could sort out my thoughts. This is how Zugzwang came into being and became my personal résumé on the subject of exhibiting. The walls of one room are placarded with two motifs, silk-screen prints in chessboard-like pattern down to the last square meter, in an identical manner and of equal value directly alongside one another: Hitler photographed at the end of the 1920s, Duchamp in the summer of 1912. Whereas Hitler's face is probably known to everyone in the world because of the photographs taken by Hoffmann, Marcel Duchamp, the artistic revolutionary of the twentieth century, is comparatively unknown. For me, there is a special relationship between the German exterminator who wanted to eliminate “degenerate art” and the international avant-gardist who questioned the very nature of art itself. Between those two views of art, the differences cannot be more extreme. This relationship is the essence of Zugzwang. It is not easy to accept. One does not mention Hitler and Duchamp in the same breath, and certainly one does not show them next to each other, even if it is only their portraits. The consciousness of the difference between image and depiction is indeed critical for all self-reflexive art (such as in Rene Magritte’s This is not a pipe). But does this critical consciousness fail in the case of traumatically occupied images? Does it confuse image and object as soon as defense and repression are involved?
Compared to the museums that exhibited Zugzwang over the years (there were ten of them), those that refused are clearly in the minority. However, as times have darkened, I have the impression that many institutes that exhibited it back then would not dare to do so today.