TQW Magazin
Maren Richter on The past is a foreign country by Michikazu Matsune / Jun Yang

TIME IS MAN-MADE or, as Alexander Kluge would say: “People inhabit their life histories”[1]


TIME IS MAN-MADE or, as Alexander Kluge would say: “People inhabit their life histories”[1]

Power can be manifested in many ways. In order to finally rid the country of Japanese colonial time, Kim Jong-un turned back the time in North Korea by half an hour in 2015. A creative move of nationalist thinking, of seeing to a “liberated” collective identity. And, on the surface, a grand gesture of probably moderate relevance to the citizens of a dictatorial regime. These are the ingredients of a well-orchestrated style of government, brought into play by persons who we feel truly understand our fears of the other and protect us, for they not only defend our national borders against the outside world, they clean up and put things in order domestically as well, with vehemence and affect.

Narratives – and the same applies to time and evidence as well – can be interpreted and modified. In their performance, Michikazu Matsune and Jun Yang uncover a matter of concern that has been negotiated on many levels in recent years: the need to decolonise our thinking about memory and history as a linear, one-dimensional narrative that establishes power. Not infrequently, the “course of history” is told by way of mainstreamable moments and their (male) heroes, such as the spectacular moon landing, which glued people around the world to their TV screens, not least because television had only recently made this form of visually stunning distribution possible. Thereby, in passing, the public began to invasively and steadily penetrate the private.

In fact, the colonial instinct of humans took a giant leap that night. It was the first step in the conquest of space, or, more precisely, one of the first steps, but all the previous ones had lost their significance in the face of that epochal moment in July 1969. And it was the USA that won the point in the technology race in the Cold War.

“That’s one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind.”[2]

Or was it the other way round? A small step for mankind – one giant leap for a man?

Hannah Arendt sees humanity’s urge to conquer (the vita activa), accompanied by an increasingly scientific ability to survey and be mobile, as an indication of a modern-day alienation from the earth. Ten years before the Apollo mission, Arendt stated that the view from the exile in space suggested that humans were tired of the earth and started looking for new places to live in the universe.[3]

Whether the motivation is “tiredness” or a tireless urge to conquest, everything revolves around territorial thinking – as the performative history lesson, devised as a journey through time, shows by way of historical examples and subjectively experienced stories. “Where do I belong?” may well be a deeply personal matter of concern in this context. Ultimately, however, it is orchestrated by a political “Where am I allowed to go?” Right of entry, right of exit, right of residence, the right to mobility, identity politics and a faded welcome culture regulate our sense of belonging and shape visible as well as invisible borders – and, consequently, territories.

“Territories, claims, and ownership. Belonging to, identity – personal and national.”[4]

The stage itself remains minimalistic for the performance: two tables, two chairs and display boards with images of big and small moments in history, with spoken text added. For their critical and subtly ironic look at the human urge for occupation and domination, Matsune and Yang proclaim their own, albeit unknown, country. The poetic quote “The past is a foreign country”[5] points to the ambivalent feature that runs through the performance: the materiality of the im/material and the im/materiality of the material.

To give an example: for centuries, the oceans of the world were regarded as an international territory for trade – a point of view which lay the foundation for colonialism, until the UN declared parts of the sea national territories in the 20th century, which in turn facilitated the emergence of new phenomena such as lawless extraterritorial waters. In between were hundreds of decades in which oceans could become walls as a means of national self-isolation.

What is history? What is its time structure? How does history come about? When is it just a myth? Is it an object? Or a product?

In the opinion of Walter Benjamin, our understanding of history is fundamentally wrong because it is essentially based on the idea of progress. However, since history is only accessible by remembering the past and thus the past is only available in the form of stories, the past is no more certain than the future. The past and the future are equally dynamic, in motion, and equally open and fragile, according to Benjamin. The author wrote this in exile in Paris a few months before his suicide in the summer of 1940. “On the Concept of History”[6] is a fragmentary text. It may be assumed that it was not intended for publication but was published nonetheless. Thus, paradoxically, a private, incomplete document was stylised into a key text of the philosophy of history.

Moments governed by coincidences or particular interests abound in the history of history, as the performance demonstrates over the course of an hour. Sometimes they appear as rituals of power and sometimes as rituals of friendship or rivalry. However, it seems that they all require visual evidence. And that iconic photographic moment which, in the age of mass media, can move unchecked between the registers of fiction, authenticity and fetish, between proof and manipulation, criticism and affirmation. Despite this, photography is still an excellent means to construct cultural or personal spaces of memory. Even if neither photographs nor places have a memory of their own, they are able to consolidate and authenticate memories. They embody a duration that extends far beyond individual powers of recall, a family history or a political era.

And that, in a sense, is part of the dilemma of history, time and evidence, and of trying to make sense of them.
Accordingly, the performance ends in the following plain words:

J: Yeah…the world is an unfair place.
M: What a shame…


[1] Alexander Kluge, Chronik der Gefühle, Frankfurt am Main 2000, p. 11.
[2] From The past is a foreign country.
[3] Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder Vom tätigen Leben, Munich, Zurich 2002.
[4] From The past is a foreign country.
[5] The quote is the first line of the novel The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, in which a man remembers his youth.
[6] Hannah Arendt handed the manuscript to the emigrated Frankfurt Institute for Social Research in New York, which published the essay in 1942 as part of the volume Walter Benjamin zum Gedächtnis in a small edition as a hectograph print.


Maren Richter is an Austrian curator and researcher. She has until recently worked in Malta, where she realised the large-scale project “The Island is What the Sea Surrounds” for the 2018 European Capital of Culture, Valletta. Among other things, she has been researching spatial politics and the phenomenon of “fleeting territories” for many years in the scope of the collaboration “Grammar of Urgencies”.


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