Ulrike Kremeier on Haut, Stein for FOAM Magazine

Via portraits, architectural and city views, the photography project Haut, Stein (Engl.: Skin, Stone) focuses on how both society and individuals deal with National Socialist symbols as ideological ‘décor’ in public spaces and as tattoos on the human body. Arranged in two series, the project reflects systems of ideological signs and inscriptions on two tiers: black and white photographs that take an objective look at fascist signs — and their remains — in public spaces, on various types of buildings and on monuments are set in relation to colour photographs that bear witness to the transformation of former neo-Nazis or so-called dropouts.

While the images of deserted buildings and urban spaces register the casual- ness of the historical past and its traces, referring with cool distance to the unreflecteded ‘normalcy’ of the presence of those fascist props in our collective memory and perception, the portraits penetrate the individual space of the photographs’ protagonists. The camera, or the photographer’s take, fragments the bodies of the subjects portrayed. The focus is not on the individual but rather their ideological identity. The image then concentrates on the literal burns on bodyparts that now show a change or effacement of figures, signs or symbols of an ideology or group affiliation.

More than anything, it is these efforts of effacement that are of principal interest. Each long drawn-out process of tattoo removal through laser technology or the adaptation of motives through additional tattoos testifies to a slow, gradual and visible distancing from right-wing scenes and their forms of social organisation.

Jakob Ganslmeier’s portraits never show the subject’s whole body. The tattoos as well are either not shown in their entirety due to the subject’s posture or have already had their motives changed through laser interventions or additional ornamentations. The signs, thus, no longer carry the meaning of their original ideological creed. Furthermore, the subject, fragmented in representation, is always isolated in a void space. Through this decontextualisation and strict compartmentalisation of the subject, the photography documents the alienation of the portrayed individual from their radical right-wing network.

Through the two parallel photo series of portraits and of architecture and cityscapes, Haut, Stein exposes the ambivalence of de-radicalisation processes: the further a subject distances themself from an ideology, the paler and less recognisable the signs of affiliation with ideologically motivated communities become. At the same time, each individual change is situated in a context of continually present, radically right-wing connotations within public spaces; here, signs appear cut in stone and above all deconstruction.

In National Socialism, tattoos and affiliation with certain groups and their identity creeds or compulsory ascriptions played a special role: both SS henchmen and their victims wore tattoos on their arms. By their own volition, members of the SS — the so-called Protection Squadron — tattooed their blood group on the inside of their upper left arm in German or Latin script. Concentration camp prisoners, on the other hand, were forced to have their prisoner number tattooed on their forearms for registration purposes. From that point on, the names of the victims were erased, exchanged for numbers that robbed them of their identity. Each number was an ideologically motivated assignment of identity that signified the annihilation of the individual.

Whenever the public debate revolves around radical right-wing images, it usually concerns images with a clear message and effect: degrading, glorifying violence, racist and anti-Semitic. This includes inhumane memes that circulate in relevant chat groups, banners with violent fantasies that visualise unmistakable threats at demonstrations and images and symbols with irrefutable reference to National Socialism. This also includes inscriptions of any such sign or symbol on the human body.

At first glance, ambiguities and ambivalences seem to run counter to the propagandist aims of right-wing ideologies and their forms of articulation. However, by now, radical right-wing image practices make use of a full spectrum of visual strategies, and deliberately placed ambiguities and latencies are part of the scheme: today, not every radical right-wing image is immediately recognised as such.

Protagonists within the radical right have attained a competency working with visual media and strategies of community building that seems yet to be adequately analysed. They adopt popular and subcultural aesthetics and re-encode them. They develop signs, pictorial worlds and narratives that seem compatible with the so-called ‘centre’ of civil society. And they purposefully stage image-powerful events in order to feed their visual messages into the media’s circulation of images. All the while, visual ambiguities are implemented strategically: they protect images from censorship and producers from prosecution; they address new target groups beyond pertinent ‘scenes’, and they stoke a culture of distrust and doubt of the perceived, a culture in which radicalised ideologies supposedly gain plausibility. At the same time, they unequivocally aim to produce communitarian systems and identities.

Haut, Stein examines traces of inscriptions of (de)radicalisation processes and right-wing extremist ideologies from yesterday and today. The project points to the ongoing virulence of German history and vehemently objects to the idea that the chapter of fascism and National Socialism has been written to its end.