“Homage to Eugene von Gundlach” by Diango Hernández

In the spring of 1970 the German documentary filmmaker Eugene von Gundlach departed from Frankfurt airport to Havana. For more than two years von Gundlach carefully planned his first trip to Cuba. As an outdoor photographer and wildlife documentary filmmaker he knew better than anyone else the art of dealing with complex circumstances, nevertheless his next project pushed him to become a sophisticated traveler and a skillful mechanic.

For years von Gundlach focused only on documentaries that portrayed the wildlife of Socialist countries. In his first series of documentaries titled Socialist Nature he masterfully captured—with a strange combination of precision and passion—the natural world in countries such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and the USSR. The works of Eugene von Gundlach are difficult to categorize, they constantly shift from nature to geopolitics, and his films are documents of great interest for science and at the same time for politics.

What is the difference between a deer from socialist Poland and one from West Germany? What is the difference between a Hungarian colony of aspen trees and a French one? Specialists can answer these questions with accurate answers but von Gundlach answered them with his 16mm Arriflex film camera using beautiful black-and-white tones that portrayed with subtlety the nature of the communist East, the world that, at that time, was forbidden to experience for the capitalist West.

Two years before leaving for Cuba von Gundlach realized that it wouldn’t be possible to bring his 16mm camera with him. The Cuban government— especially during the 70s—had severe regulations about film cameras and journalists traveling to the island. This particular condition made him think in a different way and compelled him to create a master plan. What is known today as the “von Gundlach strategy” is linked precisely with Eugene von Gundlach’s first trip to Cuba.

His strategy consisted of dismantling his 16mm Arriflex camera in Germany and cataloging every single piece of it in order to put them back together once he reached Cuba. In this way, Eugene von Gundlach smuggled his camera into Cuba during the spring of 1970. Hundreds of little screws and parts made their way concealed in his clothes, shoes and books. The precious luggage also included a complete photo inventory of every single element of the camera and, inside of his handbag, the last but not least important thing: a tape recorder with a precise voice recording of the assembly instructions. One of the most demanding of all tasks came later, while assembling some mechanisms; he realized that some important parts were missing. During his entire first month in Cuba von Gundlach concentrated exclusively on handcrafting the missing camera parts. By the end of June 1970 he managed to get his Arriflex running perfectly.

Socialist Hummingbirds was the working title that von Gundlach used for the documentary that he and a small crew of Cuban enthusiasts started shooting during the summer of 1970 nearby El Escambray, a mountain range located in the former province of Las Villas. With the help of some locals von Gundlach penetrated a dense tropical forest and arrived at the very core of Banao, the holy place where the smallest living bird lives, El Zunzun.

“Silence, I need silence” he would often write in his travel diary. I guess he wanted to get as close as possible to the Zunzun but the shooting sound of his 16mm camera did not allow him to do so. As a result of his technical struggle Socialist Hummingbirds rather than the birds themselves shows in detail the magical places where they live. After watching the documentary many times, I am not sure anymore if E. von Gundlach was disturbed or satisfied with his camera noise. In one of the last entries in his diary he wrote: … for the first time I am aware while filming that I am carrying a camera. I know by heart every single part of this camera; I can tell by the way the camera sounds when I must stop filming and start watching in silence what surrounds me.

 

„Hommage an Eugene von Gundlach“. Diango Hernández

Im Frühjahr 1970 flog der deutsche Dokumentarfilmer Eugene von Gundlach von Frankfurt nach Havanna. Er hatte seine erste Reise nach Kuba mehr als zwei Jahre lang sorgfältig geplant. Als auf Außenaufnahmen spezialisierter Fotograf und Tierfilmer verstand er es besser als jeder andere, mit komplexen Situationen umzugehen, dennoch sollte ihn das folgende Projekt zu einem erfahrenen Reisenden und geschickten Mechaniker machen.

Jahrelang konzentrierte sich von Gundlach ausschließlich auf Dokumentarfilme, die die Natur in sozialistischen Ländern beschreiben. In seiner ersten Dokumentationsreihe mit dem Titel Socialist Nature gelang es ihm – mit einer seltsamen Mischung aus Genauigkeit und Leidenschaft – die natürliche Umwelt in Ländern wie Bulgarien, Ungarn, Polen und der Sowjetunion meisterhaft einzufangen. Von Gundlachs Arbeiten sind nur schwer einzuordnen. Sie pendeln zwischen Natur und Geopolitik und seine Filme bezeugen ein großes Interesse für Wissenschaft und auch Politik. Wie unterscheidet sich ein Hirsch aus dem sozialistischen Polen von einem Hirsch aus Westdeutschland? Was ist der Unterschied zwischen einem ungarischen und einem französischen Espenwald? Fachleute können diese Fragen präzise beantworten, aber von Gundlach zog es vor, seine Antwort mit einer 16mm-Arriflex-Filmkamera und großartigen Schwarz- Weiß-Farbtönen zu geben, die die Natur der osteuropäischen kommunistischen Länder mit großer Behutsamkeit porträtieren, einer Welt, die dem kapitalistischen Westen damals versperrt war.

Zwei Jahre vor seinem Abflug nach Havanna erfuhr von Gundlach, dass er seine 16mm-Kamera nicht würde mitnehmen können. Insbesondere in den 1970er Jahren gab es in Kuba strenge Vorschriften in Bezug auf Filmkameras und Journalisten, die das Land bereisten. Dieser Umstand zwang ihn, seinen Zugang zu ändern und einen Masterplan zu entwickeln. Was heute als «von-Gundlach-Strategie» bekannt ist, ist untrennbar mit dieser ersten Kubareise verbunden. Diese Strategie bestand darin, seine 16mm-Arriflex-Kamera in Deutschland zu zerlegen, wobei er alle Teil katalogisierte, um sie nach seiner Ankunft in Kuba wieder zusammenzubauen.

So gelang es Eugene von Gundlach im Frühjahr 1970, seine Kamera nach Kuba zu schmuggeln. Unzählige kleine Schrauben und Teile waren in seinen Kleidern, Schuhen und Büchern versteckt. Die kostbare Fracht umfasste auch ein komplettes Fotoverzeichnis aller Kamerakomponenten sowie in seiner Handtasche – nicht ganz unwichtig – ein Tonbandgerät mit einer präzisen Aufnahme der Montageanleitung. Eine der größten Herausforderungen sollte sich ihm allerdings erst später stellen, als er während der Montage der Kamera feststellen musste, dass einige wichtige Teile fehlten. Während des ganzen ersten Monats in Kuba war von Gundlach ausschließlich damit beschäftigt, die fehlenden Kamerateile in Handarbeit herzustellen. Erst Ende Juni 1970 war seine Arriflex wieder voll einsatzbereit. Socialist Hummingbirds (Sozialistische Kolibris) lautete von Gundlachs Arbeitstitel für die Dokumentation, die er zusammen mit einem kleinen Team kubanischer Enthusiasten im Sommer 1970 zu drehen begann, und zwar in der Nähe von El Escambray, einem Gebirgszug in der ehemaligen Provinz Las Villas. Mit einheimischer Mithilfe drang er in den dichten tropischen Wald bis ins Zentrum von Banao vor, dem heiligen Ort, an dem der kleinste lebende Vogel, El Zunzun, zuhause ist.

Ruhe, ich brauche Ruhe, schrieb von Gundlach immer wieder in sein Reisetagebuch. Es ist anzunehmen, dass er so nahe wie möglich an El Zunzun herankommen wollte, was jedoch durch das Kamerageräusch unmöglich gemacht wurde. Diese technischen Schwierigkeiten führten dazu, dass Sozialistische Kolibris weniger die Vögel selbst in allen Details zeigt, als die magischen Orte, an denen sie leben. Nachdem ich mir die Dokumen tation unzählige Male angesehen habe, bin ich mir nicht mehr sicher, ob Eugene von Gundlach über das Kamerageräusch verärgert oder froh war. Einer seiner letzten Tagebucheinträge lautete: … zum ersten Mal bin ich mir während des Filmens bewusst, dass ich eine Kamera trage. Ich kenne jedes einzelne Teil dieser Kamera auswendig; ich kann an ihrem Geräusch erkennen, wann ich eine Pause einlegen muss, um meine Umgebung in aller Stille zu betrachten.

“Socialist nature”
3. July – 7. Sept. 2014
Opening: 2. July 2014, 7 pm
Landesgalerie
Museumstraße 14
4010 Linz
info@landesmuseum.at

Press release

Diango Hernández. Socialist Nature, Wappensaal – Landesgalerie
3 July to 7 September 2014
Diango Hernández portrays the concept of nature in the political context of a socialist regime. His installations with real tropical fruits thus stand for pleasure and sweetness, however also colonialism, monoculture and exploitation.

Hernández puts himself into the role of a fictitious scientist, Eugene von Gundlach, who permitted himself the freedom in the 1970s of only researching the beauty of nature. Hernández is not only an artist, working on the occasion of the exhibition in the guest studio of the Linz Salzamt [Salt Office], but he is also the embodiment of the scientist Gundlach, who documents the former no man’s land between Upper Austria and the Czech Republic in the period before the fall of the Iron Curtain, with a polaroid and video camera.

At the latest since his participation in the Venice Biennale in the year 2005, the artist Diango Hernández, born in 1970 in Sancti Spiritus (Cuba), has held one of the most prominent positions in international contemporary art. In solo as well as group exhibition Hernández was and is represented worldwide, most recently in the Marlborough Contemporary Gallery (London, 2013) and in the Kunstverein Nürnberg (2014). His first major survey was held in 2012 in MART (Rovereto).

The great master narration, against which Diango Hernández positions his creative counter-narration, is the paradigm of the Cuban Revolution. He addresses the cohesiveness and propagandistic strength of this narrative in every one of his exhibitions with his differentiating artistic positions. He rehabilitates the allegedly “unimportant” – the individual from his point of view – by bringing the focus onto his own personal history and biography in his contemplations and representations. He thus subjects the utopia of the Cuban Revolution step-by-step to a deconstruction using his own biography.

As a consequence his work revolves around the topic of individuality. His entire socialisation in Cuba had been oriented to having the individual merge into the collective. That explains his zest for the radical, individual perspective. This level of individuality is a late arriving and hard-won crossing of the line in the system that shaped Hernández. The individual perspective at first stands for the reinterpretation of the collective values and perspectives. The great experiment of the revolution as a linear narration of the progress can no longer credibly integrate the ideological contractions since the 1990s. The tremendous propagandistic energy of the Cuban Revolution perceives the artist as superfluous, which stands in painful contrast to the real state of contemporary society. As an artist Hernández traces his generation’s profound disappointment of having been committed to a future that never actually happened. Propagandistic socialisation, stagnation, disinformation and isolation, exile and migration, personality cult and an ideologically distorted view of the history of Cuban society are the subjects Hernández tackles in his works. History becomes the medium of his reflection.

“Socialist Nature” in Linz represents a new step in his grappling with the history of his homeland of Cuba. In his broadly composed panorama Hernández draws on a term, which has played a quite subordinate role in socialism in particular – namely nature. He plays with the image of the tropical paradise, perceived by a fictitious traveller, Eugene von Gundlach, who documented nature in communist countries in the 1970s as a field researcher. As artist-in-residence Hernández has also to a certain extent vicariously ventured with his protagonist into the former no man’s land between Upper Austria and the Czech Republic, in order to capture impressions of nature there.

Diango Hernández creates spaces, in which he stages visual and poetic historical narratives, which evade linearity and clarity. The Utopian is linked with the Actual; fictitious and factual coalesce, which invites reflection on actual historic circumstances.

Catalogue presentation
“Socialist Nature” with Diango Hernández and Gerhard Obermüller
Thurs, 4 September 2014, 7.00 pm
Publication “Diango Hernández. Socialist Nature”
DISTANZ Verlag GmbH, Berlin, Volume 1 (September 2014)
Publisher: Landesgalerie Linz
Authors: Timothy Vermeulen, Gerhard Obermüller
Cooperation partners: Barbara Thumm, Berlin; Capitain Petzel, Berlin
German/English, 13 x 18 cm
Catalogue of the Upper Austrian State Museum N.S. 160
ISBN 978-3-85474-2978-2
photos: Ulrich Kehrer