Essay

WHEN HISTORY WEARS A VEIL

by STEFAN BIDNER

 

PRELUDE
Like no other piece of clothing, the veil is symbolically charged and forms a narrative knot entangled with contemporary conflicts revolving around values, morality, identity, politics, and culture. While in the “secularized” West, the veil is considered an archaic relic exploited by fundamentalist Islamists in their bid to suppress women, in the Islamic tradition it is reclaiming its role in the protection of privacy and stands for cultural independence. Conversely, in the arena of civil liberties and data protection, in Western democracies veiling is at least ethically upheld as a means to protect individual freedoms. In this sense, the veil at once embodies disciplinization and freedom, anonymity and identity.

FLASHBACK: THE VEIL OF MEMORY
In 1968 the secularized world dreamed of the political revolution, but it did not lead to any fundamental changes. The following decade was defined by pacifism (the hippy movement) and terrorism (RAF, Red Brigade). But it was also a time of the grand utopias and social achievements like sexual liberation and emancipation.

The naked body was used as a weapon to seduce, break taboos, and assert its freedom. This new cult of the body found its strongest expression in the arts. On the search for the ideal form of physical love, people indulged in excesses (Muehl commune) with the objective of damasking democracy.

When intellectuals like Michel Foucault showed solidarity with the Mullah regime in Iran in the late 1970s, ideological values were up for discussion that since the revolts of the 1960s had emerged as a battle against the capitalist hegemony.

The veil was understood as a criticism of the flood of images, advertising, propaganda, and cultural industry. Objection, resistance, and iconoclasm were articulated out of various motivations, engendering misunderstandings, false alliances, prejudices, and twisted agendas to this day.

In Western subcultures of the 1970s, veiling and nakedness were not considered contradictory, but instead were viewed as a rejection of consumerism, status symbols, and economic dependencies. Starting in the 1980s, it appeared that ideological cultural struggles were being replaced with questions of identity and cultural attribution.

Does this mean that cultures have mutated into an ideologyfree zone where there is nothing left to negotiate except customs and origin?

FADE-IN: WHAT DOES THE VEIL CONCEAL?
The veil, then, is multiply coded and lends ambivalence and dialectical contrariness to any exhibition exploring the theme.

It stands for tradition, religious affiliation, conformity, and discipline, for crime, terrorism, anarchy, revolt, independence, republican values, and subsidarity, for objection, silencing, and anticapitalism. The veil is not just a simple piece of clothing or a modern accessory, it is part of speaking, of thinking, and of acting; it is political and economical, and it is increasingly constituting itself as technological. It acts as an object of both distinction and camouflage.

EPILOGUE
All these are often fundamental issues, the stuff art is made of. More than anyone else, artists pose delicate questions to themselves and to us as viewers. Each in their own way, they present our polarized and veiled society against the backdrop of historic circumstances. When history wears a veil, it needs to be assessed in reference to the present in order to arrive at new rules for dealing with the past.