In art as in science, research is not just about gathering information, but also the ethics of engaging with existing knowledge and historical material. It is arguably with that principle in mind that Irish artist Gareth Kennedy – who often takes local history as his point of departure – accepted an invitation by Emanuele Guidi, artistic director of ar/ge kunst Galerie Museum, to do a year-long research project in Bozen/Bolzano culminating in the exhibition ‘Die unbequeme Wissenschaft’ (The Uncomfortable Science).
Kennedy researched the folklore of South Tyrol, a region long marked by historical conflicts between its German- and Italian-speaking communities. The artist came upon the story of the SS Ahnenerbe Kulturkommission, the Nazi’s so-called ‘ancestors’ heritage cultural commission’ which, between 1939 and 1942, worked to preserve the cultural customs, music, dialect and folk costumes of the region’s German-speaking alpine population. But, since most members of that population had just been displaced due to the effect of Die Option (The Option) – an agreement made in 1939 between Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler that gave German-speaking South Tyroleans the choice either to emigrate to Nazi Germany or to remain and lose all minority rights – the Kulturkommission had to bring people back to the region to stage and film their traditions and costumes.
Working through historical films and photographic material, Kennedy decided to focus on the theatrical aspects of this peculiar episode in South Tyrol’s past and respond to it and its protagonists through the language of folk theatre. Firstly, he cast a series of five characters for Five Masks for Stuben Theatre (2014): Richard Wolfram, head of the Kulturkommission; the ethnomusicologist Alfred Quellmalz; the photographer Arthur Scheler; Italian fascist geographer Ettore Tolomei; and, as an ardent opponent of the kind of völkisch approach represented by the former, the Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. Kennedy asked five local mask-makers to carve one of these characters and hung the resulting pieces in the exhibition space. These also became props used by the guest speakers, who all stood next to a mask during their presentations in a panel discussion on identity and folklore held in the Stuben-Forum (2014), a wooden mock-up of the Stube (the traditional Tyrolean dining room, centre of domestic life) that was created by the artist in collaboration with London-based South Tyrolean designer Harry Thaler, and which was placed at the centre of the exhibition space in the form of a stage. The 16mm film Maskenschnitzer (Mask Carver, 2014), transferred to digital, was projected on one of the walls of the Stube, and showed the mask-carvers at work. The piece echoes the style of the documentary re-enactments that Kennedy came across in his historical research, some of which were presented in the adjacent exhibition space, together with a selection of historical photos that show the ethnomusicologist Quellmalz and his colleagues at work.
Throughout the exhibition, Kennedy teased out the evidence to show that the Kulturkommission’s research was one big open-air theatre rehearsal. By re-enacting what was already a performance, Kennedy brought it into the present, insinuating that the act has continued ever since. After all, local folklore, staged over and over again, is still one of the main selling points for tourism in South Tyrol today. A scenic view of the Dolomites ends the video Maskenschnitzer (2014). It is beautiful, as the masks themselves are, as products of artisanal passion. And yet, the recent history of their exploitation for ideology and tourism makes relating to them an exercise in uncomfortable science.