Modern Tiergartens

Jun 24, 2020



Until the age of photography, the ruling classes were composing large-sized family albums by assigning painters. In turn, their portraits have marked the historical periods. Relatively recently, the capture of individual faces is democratized by the new media. The commoners were included in archives of history through the mediation of technologies of mass reproduction. Simultaneously, the easy capture of individual faces has eased the bio-political regulation of populations. The explorations of codependent selfies now feed the newest face-processing tools. When the possibilities of data-based portraiture are accelerating, the suspense of the future needs a moment of retrospective.


While biking along the corner of the flea market in Amsterdam, in the shadow of so-called Stopera – or the 1980s city hall build on the ruins of the Jewish district – I have spotted a colorful detail. A face gazing. From the asphalt, I have picked up the biography of Frederick the Great. I suspected that he might be related to my new project. It is one of the books I took for a closer look in Berlin. Unsurprisingly, the biography contains decadent affairs and fairytale-like extravagances. After all, it regards the lifestyle of the royal family.

The book opens with the curious notification regarding Frederick’s two older brothers. Both died as babies: one after his baptism with a massive crown that was put on his head; the other withered away after the cannons announcing his birth were fired too close to his cradle. The episodes of Fredrick’s upbringing follow. As he was a thin, slender boy whose face was nothing but two big blue eyes, it wasn’t easy to reshape him into the ruler of the expanding kingdom.

The evolution of German dominance among competing European nations happened to be at its core business of a succession of various Frederick’s, or, to be more precise, Hohenzollern’s dynasty. The territories of the kingdom were de facto enlarged family gardens, a patchwork of multi-cultural pockets in need of constant care. The defense and maintenance of the new borders demanded homogenization of subjected people. In contrast, the royals amid their competitions and territorial wars were exchanging marriage partners across the borders. However, the excessive limitation of the ‘blue blood’ participants meant that they made a significant international but a relatively small inbreeding family.

Today, the codependency between the identity of a people and its desired weeding gardeners seems intact. The acceptance of a decisive autocrat is most evident in oligarchies across Eastern Europe, but also on the surface of the modern American dream. Over there, the new style of governance is an ongoing four-year spectacle: mediagenic scandals revitalize the magic of autocratic extravagance. Regularly fed by the semi-religious rallies, these are the rituals of ‘bread and games’ provided by the king caretaker. What might seem funny to a distant observer is the demonstration of adoration and loyalty to the master. The ordinary mortals who make resentful crowds long to be weeded from: scary aliens, sneaky intellectuals, fake journalists, bad artists, and other traitors.