digital seit 2020
digital seit 2020

Time Loops: Reenactment, reconstruction and historical mimicry

Einbau des Tympanons am Hofportal
Quelle: Humboldtforum, SHF/Stephen Falk

This text wants to analyze the ways mimesis is performed nowadays in public space through two artistic approaches: reenactment and reconstruction. Whether reenactment (theatrical reconstruction)  focuses on collective time based practices, reconstruction (architectural reenactment) embraces spatial simulations of the past. Both aesthetic representations of historical facts could be considered as keys to social behavior either to embody the past or to propose alternative futures. A critical reenactment needs then a creative approach. How can we engage in a dialogue with  these methodologies from an artistic perspective? How could artistic practice harness re-enactment?


Vikings, medieval knights, pyramid builders, pirates and mutineers, cowboys and Indians, explorers, slaves, pilgrims, and soldiers.  

A reenactment is the action of performing a new version of an old event, usually in a theatrical performance. On the 20th century, reenactment became a common social event commemorating historical achievements. Reenactments are  “retrospective travel,” as a means of engaging with the past in order to promote cultural understanding in the present. Reenacting an earlier journey may thus be a gesture of utopianism, a possibility to play the past in search of an alternative ending. But reenactment can be also an act of witnessing and mourning, of  legitimize determinate facts, as monuments or memorials do. 

In the Symposium organized by Cristina Baldacci, Clio Nicastro, and Arianna Sforzini on iCi Berlin on 2017 about re-enactment in contemporary art, this process of creative repetition branches out into at least three directions: (1) the return/survival of the past understood as generating meaning and values for both present and potential future/s, in terms of what one could call a symbolic archaeology; (2) an epistemological challenge to the traditional dichotomy between true and false, original and copy; and (3) a performative bodily practice that physically re-stages events, challenging the relationship between subject and object, reference and representation.

1 And 2  are particularly interesting perspectives considered as emancipatory actions: participants can rewrite history by taking an active part in its re-activation. Reenactors are capable of creating a new collective will.   

The ‘mimetic faculty’ 

The ‘mimetic faculty’ is an elusive concept, highlighting human inclination to mimic or to imitate, to produce symbolic forms, representations and artefacts that mirror and also perhaps transform their objects.  In ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art, in particular, with correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty, truth, and the good. The term, derived from the word ‘mimos’, meaning mime or mimic, related with questions of imitation, representation, and expression. Mimesis, may be said to generate impure, adulterated, or creatively inflected representations  which exaggerate or project qualities that are similar between the object and its representation.

Mimesis was presented as a filosofical concept by many thinkers thourh history, from aristoteles to Benjamin. 

Re-enactment embodies a relationship between self and other, subject and object through its imitation.

Walter Benjamin (1892)

For the german theorist, a world dominated by linguistic representations and correspondences increasingly dwells in ‘non-sensuous similarities,’ such as the ones between a written word and its signified. But rather than simply being a system of arbitrary signs (as proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure), Benjamin suggests that language represents an increasingly disenchanted and codified extrusion of mimetic production. The perceptual world of modern man contains,” he writes, “only minimal residues of the magical correspondences and analogies that were familiar to ancient peoples”.  Language has codified our representation of things, and though, make a bigger distance between the representation and its object of representation itself.

Michael Taussig (1940)

Taking up Benjamin’s ideas, Michael Taussig  re-articulated the idea of Mimetic Faculty. Against the distance imposed by modernity, he insists that symbols matter, that the human capacity for image-based, sensuous (related with 5 senses, in contraposition to image based knowledge) communication provides an alternate (and valuable) means of apprehending and acting upon the world.  The power of the mimetic faculty devolves from its fundamental sensuality: miming something entails contact.

Taking Benjamin ideas, we could think about how this reconnection to a sensuous mimesis could be produced  by a  reenactment, by the physical reproduction of the mimetized object. Reenactment is the strongest representation, the strongest connection between represented and representation.

Homi K. Bhabha (1949)

For the postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha, Mimicry appears when members of a colonized society imitate and take on the culture of the colonizers. Mimicry, and in its performed correspondence, reenactment,  is a sign of a double articulation; a strategy which appropriates the Other as it visualizes power. 

On the photo essay Cook’s Sites: Revisiting History,  anthropologist Nicholas Thomas and photographer Mark Adams re-enact the first arrival of British Captain James Cook to New Zealand South Islands, which marked the beginning of cross-cultural contact between western colonizers and Māori communities.

Mark Adams: “View in Pickersgill Harbour after William Hodges’ “A view in Pickergill Harbour, Dusky Bay, New Zealand, 1773”

In their view, reenactment can both destabilize historical interpretations and help rethink the present by asking, for example, how cross-cultural contacts might have transpired differently and whether colonialism was a necessary outcome. 

Confronting historical facts with present time by refusing the inevitability of past events and suggesting conditional futures, the photo essay proposes that if other things could have happened then, those other things may happen now. An engagement with history may not enable us to anticipate the future, but it should make the past less predictable.

Rather than eclipsing the past with its own theatricality, reenactment ought to make visible the ways in which events were imbued with meanings and investigate whose interests were served by those meanings. But, as Vanessa Agnew points out in her analysis of Adams photographs, to say that experience furthers historical understanding is clearly problematic: body-based testimony tells us more about the present self than the collective past.

A direct example of historical mimicry performed as reenactment could be found on the Guam History & Chamorro Heritage Day Festival, inn Umatac (Guam).

Guam History & Chamorro Heritage Day Festival, in Umatac

This example of popular culture, local people  reenact the arrival of spanish conquer Ferdinand Magellan to the Isle and the beginning of the colonization. 

The festival provides community awareness of the history staging the brutal cruelty imposed by colonizers against the warm hospitality offered by the Guam community.  The staging is ironically witnessed by many western tourists visiting the Isle, in an exercise to collectively make visible  the post-colonial inheritance.

If you are not touched by a conflict, you need to look for it.

The archetype of artistic reenactment is exactly focused on this goal: the Battle of Orgreave, by Jeremy Deller, re-enacts the fight between  biritish police and striking miners in 1984, staged by over 1000 people  including 200 former miners who witnessed the original conflict 13 years earlier. 

Is agitational, it sets people in motion – by setting them in e-motion. It is political because it is a drama between actors, not a tragedy within actors.      

On both cases, Magellan arrival to Guam and Orgreave miners battle, history is reenacted by the oppressed faction. Historical facts are presented on these cases  by the losers, by the forgotten side of History.  The players of the game are not random actors, but empowered communities who, through the restaging its traumatic past, are positioning themselves towards the future. 

Reducing the distance with the historical fact and moving the focus from distant militar battles to recent political fightings, Deller increases the social impact of his proposal and underlines its political value, understanding his affective potential.

Originated from his own personal memories of the 1084 battle assisted on Tv, the reenactment was organized by a series of Professional Associations and Reenactment communities, who researched all details of the historical fact to make an accurate representation.

For the Opening Ceremony of Public Art Munich Festival in 2018, artist Massimo Furlan reenacted the football game between esta and west Germany on the 1974 World Cup on the same stage: Frei Otto Munich Olympic Stadium.  

The reenactment was carried by only two performers: Franz Beil and Massimo Furlan, who saw the game on Tv when he was a child, as Jeremy Deller did. 

In his work, Massimo Furlan questions the act of representing: he revisits icons, tackles the question of failure and the distance between the model and the living, producing in this way a burlesque and poetic effect. Compared with Deller reenactment, his work does not touch power related conflicts, as the police aggression to the miners or the colonialist  violent invasion of Guam.

Massimo Furlan: Ein Reenactment des WM-Fußballländerspiels DDR – BRD 1974
| © Sandra Singh

Sometimes reenactment stages a historical fact that has not yet occurred. On this case it is used to be called preenactment.

An interesting congress about this topic took place in 2018 on ICI Berlin, where Oliver Marchart described pre-enactment as the Artistic anticipation of a political event to come, the outbreak of a future conflictual event. The capacity to move and be moved takes place between the poles of memory/history and vision(s) of the future. 

Artist Lea Langenfelder und Sophie Lichtenberg project, P-reenacting Reenactments, considers p-reenactments as rehearsal of future events, and analyzes the training camps where journalists are prepared by soldiers of the Bundeswehr for foreign assignment in crisis areas through a six day immersive war scenario. Journalists and soldiers rehearse a catastrophe to get ready to afront  it.

For this purpose, the artists examine the purposeful use of immersive strategies in non-artistic contexts as the military exercises in Hammelburg and assume that they are comparable to artistic immersive mechanisms as reenactment .

Reenactment can have a performativity related with Speech act: staging an event for a certain community can mean it actually happened. 

Reenactments can also be traced in many other formats: from reality programmes (an example is The 1900 House,  historical reality television programme made by Wall to Wall/Channel 4 in 1999 where a family reenacts the daily life of the Victorian era of early 1900s) to virtual simulations (as The 1920s Berlin Project, a historical role-playing community in Second Life  intended to simulate daily life in Berlin during the Weimar Republic).

The Berlin Wall  and DAU

The most extreme reenactment produced on this way was the Ilya Khrzhanovsky Dau Project. 

For over three years, a cast of 10,000 extras, 400 principal roles lived in a  specially constructed set called “The Institute” in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, a reconstruction of  over 12,000 m2of a Soviet restricted-access Institute in 1938-1968, reenacting the life of the Nobel Prize-winning Soviet scientist Lev Landau. The project was largely financed by telecom oligarch and philanthropist Sergey Adoniev, who also founded The Strelka Institute and has a close relation to Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Khrzhanovsky has involved such prominent partners as Brian Eno, Marina Abramovic and Massive Attack in his project.

The reenactment, filmed 24 hours during the 4 years, resulted in over 700 hours of 35mm film, and was finally released in Paris last January.  But such megalomanic reenacted expected a different premiere: for the Berlin screening, a reenactment of the soviet occupation of the city would surround a section of central Berlin with a replica of the wall for four weeks from October 12 to November 9. Visitors would have been required to buy a visa to gain access to what the organisers promised would be “a special experiential space” bordering the city’s central boulevard, Unter den Linden. The replica of the wall was to be destroyed “in spectacular style” at the end of the work on November 9, the 29th anniversary of the fall of the original.

Due to technical reasons, Berlin Council denied the permission to produce such reenactment. 

The Berliner Schloss

The simulation was based on an idea by the architecture historian and Schlatter expert, Goerd Peschken, and his friend, the architect Frank Augustin.

Both had intended in a study in the early 90s to create a backdrop-like replica of the castle, in which, as a kind of metamorphosis, gradually the real castle could return.

This idea was reworked by Wilhelm von Boddien in such a way that he painted the castle photorealistically three-dimensionally on a large façade wallpaper in the best “trompe l’oeil” manner. or this he won the French big screen artist Catherine Feff, who had already installed similar simulations in Paris. She realized the façade painting on nearly 10,000 m² in 1500 man-days, hand-painted by 50 Parisian artists.

The subsidiary of Thyssen AG, Düsseldorf, Thyssen-Hünnebeck GmbH, Ratingen, as the most important scaffolding manufacturer in Europe, sponsored the necessary scaffolding for the attachment of the facades, which was later included as the largest of its kind in the Guinness Book of Records.

On June 30, 1993, the exhibition was opened in the presence of the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, and many celebrities. Millions of visitors watched the facade simulation until September 30, 1994 and were convinced by it.

The Schinkel Bauakademie

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, built in 1836, repaired after the war and then demolished in 1962 for the GDR Foreign Ministry, is now going to be reconstructed by the Bundesbauministerium und Haushaltsausschuss des Bundestags. As it happened on the Berliner Schloss, the reenactment of the pioneer design by Schinkel is considered as a littell reconstruction, as a mimesis.

The re-opening of the bauakademie is not even thought from the perspective of updating an architecture institution as the architecture school created by schinkel: reenactment is  based only on its reconstruction, without reprogrammation, without a critical analysis of which positive aspects of the original projects should be brought to the present days.

Founder of the Berlin Architecture Gallery, Ulrich Müller, has teamed up with the journalist Florian Heilmeyer and curator Oliver Elser, to promote a campaign against the reconstruction of the replica through 10 thesis, proposing an open process to rethink critically what could be constructed there.

Oliver Elser, director of Deutsche Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt a. M., is familiar with architectural reenactments in the context of destructed monuments in the after-war unified Germany. His battle, few years ago, focused on the visibilization of the Neue Altstadt (the reconstruction of 15 old town houses between the cathedral and the Römer) as the political project impulsed by nationalist  radical right wing Claus Wolfschlag and Wolfgang Hübner against modernity.

Trüby is concerned with the more than justified warning that reconstruction architecture has become the key medium of authoritarian, national, historical revisionist rights.  Reenactment is used as the materialization of conservative ideologies.  

The time machine is activated to erase social progress and to freeze concepts as local identity (related with original unpolluted germanity)

Against the instrumentalization of re-enactment by power and politics, artists have the opportunity to critically retell history. If we understand reenactment as an artistic and original creation, we can understand history as a dynamic organism that is able to shape our space and our relationships through its subjectivity.

Let us reenact!