Reception of the topic of exile in the arts

bookcover: Michael Lentz
Michael Lentz: Pazifik Exil, 2007
© S. Fischer Verlag, cover design: Gundula Hißmann and Andreas Heilmann, Hamburg

Reception of the topic of exile in the arts

In January 2013, French performance artist Gilles Welinski had himself confined in a container for three days in Hamburg’s city centre. Between the hours of 12 p.m. and 8 p.m. he was exposed to the eyes of passers-by, who were able to observe him through spyholes. In this artistic performance entitled Exile, which was presented by the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Welinski confronted the feelings of exiles: What does it mean to be homeless, and to be stared at in a foreign country? What does it mean to be unwelcome? What does it mean to lose your roots and the reference points for your identity? Being captive and losing control, fear, desperation and having no voice become gestures of expression in Wellinski’s artistic work.

This artistic examination of the phenomenon of exile shows the conflicts between states that are not free, and personal fates that result from the lack of freedom. Artists approach the experiences of foreignness and the trauma to which people in exile have been or are being exposed, but also the necessity of a new beginning, and the adaptation and mutual harmonisation in a new cultural environment. In contemporary German-language literature, there are examples of exile becoming a narrative layer for the story of a novel. In art, the conditions of life in emigration become universal models of foreignness and displacement. A frequent political leitmotif is the critique of the suppression of freedom of opinion and the freedom of art. Another motif is the processing of exile in documentary form in the sense of bearing witness. Films make use of this topic, whether in the documentary genre or in dramas: Individual fates that are linked with political topics provide the opportunity to identify with people and confront the social conditions in which they find themselves.

Contemporary artists choose the topic of exile as their subject from different perspectives: whether as material singled out from cultural and social history that requires critical processing, or as a representation of human fates in the context of migration.

However, exile was and remains an opportunity, even for an artist not immediately affected, to deal with the personal situation of one’s own exile. This applies to artists who left Germany from 1933 on just as much as those seeking asylum in a foreign country today.