Real Fictions, Fictitious Realities by Thomas Wulffen
in: catalogue: Blacked Out - George Cup & Steve Elliott - Retrospective, Berlin 2008


The country of Transnistria was recently the subject of a report in Deutschlandradio. This was not an examination from a literary perspective, but instead a journalistic report about Transnistria’s struggle for international recognition. For eighteen years, this tiny country not so far from Odessa has existed after declaring itself independent of the Moldavian Republic. Transnistria is not recognized by any other country and exists only for the inhabitants of Transnistria itself. What status does the nation of Transnistria possess for those who are not its inhabitants?

During the course of the theorizing about the structure of matter in the field of atomic physics, the English atomic physicist Peter Higgs conceived of the so-called Higgs particle, also known as the Higgs boson, whose existence has up till now not been proven. With the help of this construct it is possible to resolve contradictions in the Standard Model. If no trace of the Higgs boson is ever found, then the Standard Model is false.

In 1973 there appeared in the collection of texts Idea Art edited by the art critic Gregory Battcock a short text about the artist Hank Herron entitled “The Fake as More,” written by Cheryl Bernstein. Only thirteen years later was the text exposed as a fabrication and fiction by the critic Thomas Crow in his article “The Return of Hank Herron.” 

These examples bear witness in various ways to the function, impact and significance of fiction. The example of Transnistria is situated on the level of fictional objects in political space. Even if this state exists as such, on the one hand its non-recognition denies legitimation to its existence. But on the other hand, self-assertion is a fundamental element of every national order. The justification for the invasion of Iraq by American troops in 2003 largely consisted of a fiction based on the existence of weapons of mass destruction asserted to be in the hands of Saddam Hussein. The point of departure for this undertaking was information furnished by a BND agent with the alias “Curveball,” whose credibility was already subject to doubt beforehand, but whose assertions fit conveniently into the political calculations of the Bush administration. In political controversies, fictions are again and again declared to be realities, in order to be able to defy one’s opponent.

In the field of science, the use of fictitious objects is a more or less legitimate means of scientific investigation and university debate. If inconsistencies or contradictions arise in a given system, they can be temporarily abrogated by the deliberate utilization of fictitious entities. The aforementioned example of the Higgs boson is one instance of this. But at the same time there is an indication here that a fictitious object can become a real one. This does not, however, allow the reverse conclusion that a real object can become a fictitious one.

Or could it be that we have here underestimated the significance of literature as an essential part of culture and art? In literature, there occurs the conversion of a real figure into a fictitious person. A famous example of this is the novel Buddenbrooks. Verfall einer Familie (Buddenbrooks. The Decline of a Family) by Thomas Mann, for which the history of the author’s own family served as the basis for the plot of the novel. What status does the figure of Tony Buddenbrook assume with regard to the model Elisabeth Mann? Is it not permissible in this case to proceed from the assumption that the figure of Elisabeth Mann takes on representational elements from the fictitious figure Tony Buddenbrook which are capable of effectively changing the real person?

In the contemporary highly complex societies of post-industrial nations, it may be considered as a given that their manners and means of identification are based on both so-called real and fictitious attributions. There where the dividing line between fact and fiction is scarcely perceptible any longer, the personality as well comes to be blurred in its situation somewhere between fact and fiction. Who is Brad Pitt? Who is Hank Herron? The latter can be reconstructed on the basis of the text by Cheryl Bernstein. But who is Cheryl Bernstein? For her part, Cheryl Bernstein is a figure penned by the art historian Carol Duncan who, together with her husband Andrew Duncan, developed the figure “Hank Herron.” 

This story, in the double sense of the word (translator’s note: Geschichte, “tale” or “history”) has been repeated on various levels and can itself make reference to a sort of model. Stefan Koldehoff’s book entitled Meier-Graefes van Gogh is subtitled Wie Fiktionen zu Fakten werden (How Fictions Become Facts). In 1998 William Boyd wrote the story of Nat TateÞAn American Artist 1928-1960. Behind this quite successful fiction (the text is complemented by photographic material on the life and work of Nat Tate) stand not only the man of letters Gore Vidal but also the musician David Bowie. In 1993 Warren Neidich discovered the “unknown artist” and, in a book of that title, situated him in the context of art history. But in fact this artist only constitutes a part of art history to the extent that he comes to the fore as an aspect of familiar depictions of artists’ meetings. It is also a matter, however, of an ironic self-image of Warren Neidich, who himself plays the unknown artist. The oeuvre of Dirk Dietrich Hennig is simultaneously a mirror and a repository for the theme of fiction and fact in the field of contemporary art on the level of the person, the archive and the operating system which is art.

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