Participating artists: Yuji Agematsu, Christian Bau, KP Brehmer, Peter-Ernst Eiffe, Jef Geys, iLL, Heino Jaeger, Jacqueline de Jong, Sigmar Polke, Recht auf Stadt und Alles Allen, Chris Reinecke, Annette Wehrmann and Laura Ziegler
Curator’s Guided Tour
Peter Ernst Eiffe & Friends relates the story of Peter Ernst Eiffe, a figure who became famous during the protests of May 1968 for writing absurdist slogans all over the city of Hamburg, to key contemporary and historical works. His activities during May 68 aimed to expose what he saw to be the absurdity of daily life in post-war capitalist West Germany, reflecting on this story now, it continues to touch on currents in art and contemporary politics.
This began in 1968, when a white-collar bureaucrat named Peter Ernst Eiffe was fired from his job at the Statistisches Landesamt Hamburg and was left by his wife and daughter. From here, he began writing on the streets of the city. Within a few weeks he had covered Hamburg—from mailboxes, to advertisements, street signs, subway stations, zebra crossings—with absurdist slogans, often including his address and phone number. The Hamburger Hochbahn issued him a fine for 900 DM, and he responded by issuing them an invoice for the same amount in remuneration for his works of art. On another occasion, he climbed the stage of a beauty pageant and signed the 1968 Miss University with the slogan “Eiffe also wants to become Mr. University” [Eiffe will auch Mr. Universität werden]. On numerous occasions he was seen standing on the street, proclaiming he was running for Hamburg Bürgermeister. Invited by Fritz Teufel to speak at the 1 May rally of 1968, he responded by shooting SPD activists with a water pistol. Suddenly, a white-collar bourgeois had become an unlikely figure in the anti-authoritarian student movement—even in the DDR his name was known. This all ended with Eiffe driving his Fiat Topolino, covered in slogans including “Freie Eiffe-Republik”, into the Hauptbahnhof where he was arrested and subsequently admitted to the psychiatric ward of Ochsenzoll. Despite being released and an attempt at normal life in Düsseldorf working at an advertising agency, he was readmitted to a psychiatric hospital in Rickling, Schleswig-Holstein. In 1982, he escaped and subsequently froze to death.
Eiffe’s activities during May 68 aimed to expose what he saw to be the absurdity of daily life in post-war capitalist West Germany, as he himself stated, “If you take the liberty of allowing your uncensored unconscious have an effect on reality in the form of a slogan, you can only do so in the hope that this can be perceived as a protest against the seemingly absurd world of the manipulated mind.” Although an outsider to the formal art system, his singular and noticeably avant-garde activities were akin to many artistic and political strategies in post-war Europe that were searching for new forms of expression and critique—be it in the Fluxus events or Happenings throughout Europe, the Capitalist Realism of the Rhineland, or the actions of the Situationists.
The film Eiffe for President: Alle Ampeln auf Gelb by Christian Bau provides a comprehensive investigation into the mythology of Eiffe and its persistence as an undercurrent in the history of Hamburg. This is set alongside, works by Jacqueline de Jong, a member of the Situationist International and publisher of the Situationist Times, who shows portable paintings, produced with the spirit of the derive; while a work by Yuji Agematsu was produced by walking New York City, showing a month of the artist’s obsessive and daily collection of detritus from the city’s streets. As one of the participants of Capitalist Realism, K.P. Brehmer’s satirical use of political iconography is brought together with an early film that examines significant structures and monuments in public space, while Sigmar Polke’s playful series of photos shows graffitied CDU election posters from the 1972 election as a form of political satire. Chris Reinecke’s works on paper and performances from the late 1960s onwards, fundamentally focus on the role of the artist and the relationship between their work and political action through performative uses of parody and satire. While local satirist Heino Jaeger’s drawings show a side of a Hamburg personality who also spent time in Hamburg’s mental institutions.
Jef Geys’ persistent examination of the function of the name as a signifier is shown in a series of posters derived from political advertising, where the artist playfully mixed recognizable names with the relatively anonymous names of everyday people. While Annette Wehrmann’s texts written on paper streamers bring together observations of everyday life in Hamburg with philosophical and aesthetic questions, ultimately asking the purpose of art in the social context. The performativity of the artist becomes political subject matter in the work of Laura Ziegler, who represents the figure of the artist in the form of a puppet educating themselves on past histories of political organizing. Anonymous collective iLL brings together political organizing with the aesthetics of contemporary street art, running street campaigns that unite Left politics and Hamburg’s club culture. While Recht auf Stadt and Alles Allen show examples of creative forms of protest that the networks have used in struggling for the self-empowerment of people living in the city and for use of its public space.
Presenting documents about the activities of Peter Ernst Eiffe, including archive photos and newspaper articles, the exhibition frames Eiffe’s absurdist slogans and agit-prop activities in context with historic artistic positions of his time, while showing how the themes of this story are reflected in more recent artistic positions and forms of political protest today. Through various works, this touches on the relationship between the urban subject and public space; the demand for art to take a position in public political life; the authority and function of the artist’s signature; forms of creative protest; and the use of satire, irony, and humor as a mode of critique.
In 2019, the book Eiffe for President: Alle Ampeln auf Gelb was published as an expanded version of the film by the same name directed by Christian Bau in 1995 — which was the first attempt to uncover and reconstruct the story of Peter Ernst Eiffe. In 2020 it won the Hamburg Book Prize.
Curated by Nicholas Tammen