Rescuing Problems in the Future World

Die Bücher (The Books), 2021

Die Bücher (The Books), 2021

The series titled »Die Bücher« (The Books) by Annette Kelm (*1975 in Stuttgart, Germany) began in 2019 on the occasion of the group exhibition »tell me about yesterday tomorrow« at the NS Documentation Center in Munich. The artist dedicates herself to the books that fell victim to the burnings and bans of the National Socialist regime between 1933 and 1945 and pays tribute to the authors, designers and publishers with this series of works. The essay »Rescuing Problems in the Future« elucidates Kelm’s unique view onto these books and their significance to the present day.

MIRJAM ZADOFF is director of the NS-Documentation Center, Munich; NICOLAUS SCHAFHAUSEN is a curator and was artistic director of the exhibition »Tell me about yesterday tomorrow«"; and curator UDO KITTELMANN is artistic director of the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden. The authors are also the editors of Annette Kelm’s »The Books.« The artist book comes out in June 2022 with the publishing house Buchhandlung Franz und Walther König, Cologne.

Annette Kelm has a marked compulsion to apprehend and interpret reality. Her artistic practice is typically driven by a quest to locate the interstices between history and art, transporting her beyond our society’s agreed understanding of these disciplines. The artist’s systematic methodology is defined by a search for reality and a need for comprehensive systems of order, though she calls into question both of these.

Kelm’s work seeks neither to resist nor to conform. Her photographs investigate the world in which we live today. Her working processes thematize our current struggle with perceptions of history and the seemingly endless ways in which they can be interpreted.

For the Tell me about yesterday tomorrow exhibition at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Kelm produced a series of photographs showing mostly first editions of literary works by both famous and less well-known writers. These volumes are a selection of the books burned and banned by the Nazis as part of the “Action against the Un-German Spirit” on May 10, 1933. This was intended to extinguish generations of writers and their work from the nation’s collective consciousness. The present catalog contains the one hundred images that comprise Kelm’s series. The book Die verbranntenDichter (The Burned Authors) by Jürgen Serke was published in 1977, with photographs by Wilfried Bauer. This writer-photographer duo played a key role in raising awareness of the authors banned by the Nazis among the post-wargenerations in Germany, as well as triggering a broader interest in literature related to exile.

German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799) claimed that metaphors are far cleverer than their author. Thus, Kelm’s work series Die Bücher (The Books) both approaches the reality of the books at face value and addresses the biographies of the authors behind them. Kelm’s work is current because it stands apart from politics, suggesting that art can save our future world.

Kelm’s gaze on the carefully arranged books is detached and matter of fact. Her photographs are highly precise, sharply focused, neutrally lit, and taken from an objective angle, all of which bring out the fascination with the factual. The material worlds depicted in detailed, mostly frontal shots emphasize their translation into photography’s two-dimensional space. By tidily presenting the books beside one another, Kelm suggests that the authors’ lives and stories are on equal footing.

These lives and stories recollect the polyvocal nature of the Weimar Republic:this was Germany’s first experience of an open-minded society where numerous groups gained visibility and found a voice for the first time, representing a new public sphere.

Women’s rights activists had as much of a say as social democrats, communists, anarchists, sexual scientists, pedagogues, and novelists—many of whom were Jewish. This was the diversity that was intended to be stamped out from libraries and bookshops, museums and collections, and finally from society itself. The resulting gaps endured long after 1945 and continue to influence our understanding of homogeneity and diversity today. A considerable number of the burned books were not reissued nor returned to the public consciousness after 1945. Kelm arranges them alongside books that were bestsellers in West Germany and East Germany. Here, the familiar and the forgotten stand on equal footing.

The intimacy which Annette Kelm generates in her photographs induces a certain unease. The books acquire an individual physiognomy and appear to have a presence of their own, allowing them to regard us. In our consciousness, they activate a resonance chamber that concretely considers memory, and literary recognition or the frustration thereof. In his final book, Lerne Lachen ohne zu Weinen (Learn to Laugh without Crying, 1931), Kurt Tucholsky uses publishing to counter the demise of democracy. He was a celebrated author at the time, but his battle was in vain. There was no way of halting the downward spiral, so commentary was the only option.

They say the medium is the message. To take this to its logical conclusion, by burning books, one destroys their message. But the perpetrators were wrong about this: the medium is destroyed but, as the authors of the burned books said at the time, “Our voices remain untouched.” The authors themselves were persecuted, forced into exile, prevented from working, or murdered.

History is an unfinished process of overwriting, deleting, newly interpreting, and rearranging fragments. A worrying tendency has emerged in recent years: censorship has become menacingly topical and is perhaps more relevant today than ever. Constantly, people around the world are being persecuted due to their opinions and attitudes. Freedom of press and media are restricted, access to knowledge blocked, and books metaphorically burned. Virtual surveillance systems are being used to monitor expressions of opinion on social media. No one can claim that censorship
has been done away with. Long is the list of countries that suppress freedom of expression, censor art and literature, imprison or murder individuals for what they have written or said. Indeed, this is no less of an issue in liberal democratic societies. Censorship today persists through broader forms of media and employs different mechanisms than those of 1933 while also becoming increasingly difficult to recognize. Censors today are more subversive, their methods are subtler and better concealed. This raises new questions about free speech and censorship: are we growing accustomed to a new inequality?

These are just some of the reasons behind our firm belief in the importance of showcasing Annette Kelm’s work series Die Bücher as an artistic practice in current theories of discourse. Kelm uses the design capabilities of the medium of photography to locate and portray for us these lacunae of knowledge. Her photographs communicate precisely these ideas and the resulting questions that must be frankly and unsparingly posed, questions that remain relevant and important today. For this reason, we would like to focus anew on the power and intentions of these books and their authors. Internationality, individuality, freedom of expression, and tolerance are more important now than ever.




Annette Kelm (b. in 1975 in Stuttgart, Germany) lives and works in Berlin. She studied at Hochschule für Bildende Künste Hamburg and is one of the most important representatives of contemporary photography in Germany. Themes of seeing and displaying, the constructed nature of images, as well as the disclosure of the circumstances of their production, run through Annette Kelm's work, in which documentary and staged images stand alongside one another.

In her still lifes, portraits, landscape, and architectural photographs, Kelm documents the modern everyday culture and often uses object photography to do so. Removed from their original ...
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