Adorno's Grey
Hito Steyerl at Wilfried lentz

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

‘Grayness could not fill us with despair if our minds did not harbor the concept of different colors, scattered traces of which are not absent from the negative whole. The traces always come from the past, and our hopes come from their counterpart, from that which was or is doomed [...]’ – Theodor W. Adorno in Negative Dialectics

Reportedly so, the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno had requested the auditorium where he taught at the Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt to be painted grey. In so doing, this alleged act was to aid, perhaps even raise concentration among his students. In the video installation Adorno’s Grey by filmmaker and author Hito Steyerl, we come across a search for ‘Adorno’s grey’ which is possibly hidden beneath layers of paint that have been applied over time. In that, a team of conservators is working on site: scraping away and working through different layers of paint and material, but after a – more and more physical – attempt, the disclosure of the grey remains provocatively latent... That is not to say absent (as an idea). The conservators and Steyerl’s effort to unveil the physical residue of Adorno’s request adds to a more open-ended and speculative situation in which Adorno’s motives for the grey – if any – remain equally indefinable, unspoken. From the quotation above, we could for instance direct towards an implicit reference to Hegel’s claim that ‘philosophy paints its grey in grey’ (Philosophy of Right), which means that ‘philosophy succumbs to the existent’. It’s one remark in the world of possibilities this work gives rise to.

The visual part of the work, showing the auditorium and the conservators at work (and the documentation thereof), coincides with a voice-over telling the story of an incident to which Adorno was subjected in 1969. At the time and in the years preceding, the stability of the West German democracy led to an increase of student protests and upheaval. During one of his lectures, Adorno was approached by female students who bared their breasts to him and danced around the lectern. We hear a witness confirm, to his judgment, that the act took twenty to thirty seconds during which Adorno hid behind his briefcase and clumsily collected his papers and left the auditorium. The course was canceled and marked Adorno’s last lecture until his death in August 1969.
In consultation with two philosophers, the interpretation of both acts – the grey and the student intervention – lead towards some interesting thoughts on why Adorno would have been provoked, and for what reasons at all (he was not alien to interaction with women); his presupposed decision and request to have the space painted grey. In praise, it is among the great potential of Steyerl’s work to avoid any sense of conclusion. Perhaps for its impossibility, but more so in light of the idea of ‘thought-surfacing’: the space that is shown in the video creates a support structure, allowing to both highlight and discuss the narratives which merit continued dialogue. Also in terms of display, the installation: a projection-cum-class room with volumes reminiscent of blackboards that now function as a projection surface, makes for a highly immersive context and backdrop from which the recollection and staging of these stories become part of a coherent and thoughtful presentation. The exhibition is accompanied by a number of paper timelines, among one for naked protest, monochromes and for Adorno, giving a chronological but selective view of historical events relevant to an understanding of the work (which ties in to Steyerl’s work, balancing between academia and the visual arts). 

Ultimately, the shuttered gallery space, painted in various grey tones as part of the installation, shows us that ‘the grey things have their colourful shadows’ – which leads me to think that in the wake of the current politicization of culture, in Rotterdam, and elsewhere, there are still a manifold of stories and imaginaries to be explored, placing the artist on the spot for the right reasons, so to speak.

Hito Steyerl – Adorno’s Grey
11 November – 15 December 2012
Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2020