IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN
site specific project in the library of the Goethe Institute in Bratislava
photo: Adam Šakový and artist's archive
In my childhood, I collected and redrew postcards, made bows, arrows and headdresses, watched The Treasure of the Silver Lake with bated breath, mourned the death of Winnetou, memorized the names of Native American tribes, drew imaginary prairies on maps, invented chiefs’ names, wrote a book. These days, I’m returning to childhood play and have been working on In Someone Else’s Skin (“Fremde Haut” in German) at the library of the Goethe Institute in Bratislava. The curator of the site-specific work is writer and publicist Michal Hvorecký. I am creating a new section of Karl May’s novels (set in the U.S. Old West) which reveals a critical look at the tradition of playing Indians in our environment, especially in the context of German literature and culture where “playing Indians” has been deeply rooted since the nineteenth century. As in my childhood, anew, I redraw illustrations from books onto transparent covers. I overlay motifs and try to put them into critical relationships. Play can be an effective ideological-didactic tool. Relatively unopposed by us, it inculcates power schemas, racism, violence.
The new section of the library includes, for example, a second German edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1893 Leatherstocking Tales, with illustrations by Paul Moritz. The cover shows the main character, Natty Bumppo, dressed in an Old Germanic costume, standing next to Native Americans, which is nonsense, historically speaking. The illustration is ideologically tinged, suggesting that the ancient Germanic people are akin to Native Americans, connected to nature, bravely resisting the oppression of the colonizers—the Romans and the British. Next, I address the works of authors who played a significant role in the adaptation of the Wild West into the German but also Eastern European environment: Rudolf Cronau, Karl May, Buffalo Bill, Karl Bodmer, Carl Henckel, George Catlin, Friedrich Gerstäcker, Balduin Möllhausen, etc. Just to follow in the footsteps of Karl May, a bestselling author in Germany, is a great adventure. His books have been period-adapted to a fatal degree and without the author’s awareness. In the 1930s, they were edited according to the National Socialist doctrine and, for example, names that sounded Jewish were dropped from the stories. Even in 1923, In Mekka was published by the Karl-May-Verlag publishing house under the name of Karl May, despite the fact that it was written by someone else in accordance with the needs of the time.
(from Jaro Varga, Smuggling the Past into This Brief Moment by Eva Heisler)