BY Lothar Hempel in Influences | 01 FEB 13
Featured in
Issue 8

Karneval I

In this series, frieze d/e asks artists, curators and writers to think about the meaning and impact of a word

BY Lothar Hempel in Influences | 01 FEB 13

Photograph: J. Rieger (courtesy: Köln/Festkomitee Kölner Karneval)

Painted breasts, drunken animals, idiotic jokes. During carnival, people make fools of themselves. Ceremo­nially (but with contempt) they are handed the keys to the city. Then, for a while, they take power and abuse it. The established order is inverted, that’s part of the deal. The low life rises to the top, authority is humiliated, ridiculed and maltreated. Police officers are kissed and bombarded with horseshit. This ancient rite of spring, a celebration of eternal renewal, was once a dysfunctional corrective to the usual order of things: grotesque! Deepest, darkest Middle Ages. As winter comes to an end, before the fasting of Lent, public life is suddenly dominated by artistic motifs: trance and dance. Masks and music. Excess and eroticism. Spirits are exorcised. Lines are crossed. People get too close. The world becomes ugly, heathen, crude. A hooked nose. Papier-mâché. All this takes place on the street, in full view, nauseatingly vulgar. Everyone’s glad when it’s finally over, because it was so lovely: ‘I’m already looking forward to this time next year.’ And who can still say that these days? ‘Me!’, you shout.

But the best known carnival cities are also strangely fluid places: Rio de Janeiro, Venice, Cologne, New Orleans. They are home to a certain melancholy: crime, decrepitude, disasters. Like these cities, the carnival has an archaic wistfulness. It appears as an atavism, a throwback without a context, a ritual without a church; tired, homeless. What is excess without sin? What is a mask without taboo? How to laugh at something that is allowed to be said? This aspect of carnival recalls certain things in art that have been forgotten and disappeared. Frivolous secrets, refined practices, brilliant impudence. All this is superfluous in a shameless, totally accessible world.

In Cologne, on the last day of carnival, a straw effigy is set on fire. With it burns all that people wish to forget from the preceding days of revelling. The leftover ash is used to mark the shape of the cross on people’s foreheads. After the hideous visage, one final sign: catharsis.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Lothar Hempel is an artist who lives in Berlin. His installation Nachts, wenn alles schläft (At night when everyone’s asleep), a parade of felt puppets, stuffed animals and antique portraits, was first shown at Arnolfini, Bristol, in 2007, around the time of Carnival.