Interview with Wolfgang Scheppe
The photographs depicted in the article “Objects of Desire – Die Suche nach den Dingen” in form 274 are taken from the catalogue “Supermarket of the Dead”, published in 2015 for the eponymous exhibition at the Dresden State Art Collections.
Ancestral worship in China has always been very important; the world on the other side is seen as mirroring the one on this side. The tradition of burning paper money to honour your ancestors dates from the seventh century. The objects in the exhibition represent the merging of materialistic perceptions of the world with traditions and customs.
We interviewed Wolfgang Scheppe, the curator of the exhibition, about this phenomenon, about how he works and the significance of consumer goods.
Where does the Chinese tradition of burning paper models stem from?
This oldest form of Chinese folk belief, although it is neither codified in writing nor an institutionally sanctioned faith, is nonetheless a current practice of everyday life. It continues to be practised as part of Chinese culture both in China and the diaspora. Its elements of animism and ancestor worship are the basis of all forms of religiosity, dating back many thousands of years. The ritual consists of burning paper imitations of money and objects as an offering to deceased ancestors, to alleviate or satisfy their needs in the afterlife, or to pay homage to gods and spirits. Recently, the paper models used for this ceremony have changed from imitations of traditional and local products to those that fill Western department stores. In this way, a counter world of paper has emerged, wherein almost all the globalised fetishes of our current brand-obsessions are offered up for fire sacrifice – from well-known cigarette and fast food brands, computers and mobile phones, to models of the latest luxury collections of shoe and bag makers, and even so-called premium car brands – the hereafter lacks nothing from the cosmos of representative consumer goods.
Can the practice also be seen as a form of Chinese humour?
Yes. The reason why all forms of domination in Chinese history, that are the imperial, the Maoist, and the state-capitalist, have been hostile towards the custom of fire sacrifice can be found in the anarchic element of mocking the notion of immeasurable wealth. The incarnation of the divinity of the Emperor was seen as an example of this. The mockery is achieved by setting on fire vast mountains of gold, money and valuables in order to transfer them into the afterlife. The American sinologist Charles Fredric Blake highlighted the double meaning of “mocking”: the paper models can be simultaneously understood as imitations and mockery, as simulacrum and ridicule. The real displays of wealth and destruction of the same in ceremonial feudal and state burials, onetime representations of power, are also held up to ridicule by the practice. The sheer abundance of the simulated wealth in the form of paper models given up to the flames by ordinary people also has a playful and subversive aspect in addition to the spiritual seriousness of transubstantiation – the transfer of symbolic gifts into the beyond. And that is why today, the symbols of Western brand culture are also treated with irony. Or are the many luxury goods in paper merely an illustration of shameless greed for consumer goods that have been made global by middle-class materialist hopes of the Western world?
What does the belief in the animation of objects mean and what impact does it have?
Originally, that is, in early and prehistory, instead of the scientific explanations we have today, it was animist ideas that were used to explain natural phenomena that were a source of unfathomable and constant danger to human beings who felt defenceless. So people tried to ward them off symbolically by seeing the objects of their surrounding reality as the work of spirits, and they tried to mollify them ritually. In a way, the contemporary worship of fetishised brand names and their products reproduces this animism. It isn’t the physical qualities and values of use, for example, of shoes or handbags that is significant, but being part of an always implicitly unexplained spiritual cosmos. I have called it ideational consumption: it isn’t tangible objects that are consumed, but transcendental notions that refine our subjectivity. The products of well-known brands have become sacred goods. Fire sacrifice and branding unite the logic behind the magic of representation, whereby it is enough that our desires are satisfied by a representative image – an effigy.
What is the story behind the emergence of the exhibition?
In Hong Kong’s markets, to our great surprise, we came across handmade paper imitations of Gucci shoes, Chanel bags and iPhones, and coincidentally, shortly thereafter, in the depository of the ethnological institutes of the Dresden State Art Collections, we discovered extraordinary historical paper models related to the tradition of ancestral worship and fire sacrifice. In China, antique objects from this tradition have never survived because keeping them is contrary to spiritual beliefs. They must go up in smoke and come down as ashes in order to realise their purpose – their transference into the world of the dead, whom they are supposed to benefit. This is why there are hardly any museum pieces relating to this important practice of informal and popular folk beliefs that have remained alive for centuries.
How would you describe yourself, as an artist or curator?
Neither. I am a philosopher who also looks at museum exhibitions as part of his work, and this includes reflecting on the nature of museum exhibitions and their possibilities. You could call such works “theory installations”, where an attempt is being made to bring the concept of an object directly into view. In the philosophy of German Idealism, in Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, this concept was referred to as “intellectual intuition” or the “sensuous appearance of the idea”. The intrinsic logic of every exposition lies in striving for such a cognitive quality in the process of exhibiting. It cannot be text, but it is always dependent on the idea of making the conceptual relations between objects clear to every sense of perception.