The Rowing Machines


In the awareness muscle training center in Museum Villa Stuck, the training room comprises a series of exercise machines where visitors have the opportunity to work out while being asked questions on specific topics by the exhibition’s instructors. While most of the machines are used in this circuit, two rowing machines are left out of this training, as they have an individual function away from the interview/training that the others are involved in. The two wooden rowing machines are filled with water sourced from the Isar, the river that flows through Munich, Bavaria and Austria. The most striking part of the rowing machines are not the apparatus themselves, but rather a mirror-feature attached at the helm of the machines, with the image of a refugee reaching out an arm for help in the ocean.

The photographs have been digitally composed to fill the mirror while still allowing the visitor to see themselves in the reflection, causing a conjunction between the subject matter and the viewers own appearance. The sobering imagery is particularly contextually relevant. While Germany may have one the highest refugee intake amounts among western countries, there has been great contro- versy within Germany at Chancellor Merkel’s immigration policy. This being said, Germany’s response can be seen as impressive in comparison to those of other European nations. The drowning of hundreds of migrants a year and processing of thousands of asylum claims all over the Mediterranean is seen as an uncomfort- able subject in a lot of circles, especially as while the issue is one of life and death to those escaping war and terror across the sea, it is one of population control, safety and cultural concern on the mainland. The response of European nations and nationals to the refugee crisis has come under criticism for irresponsibility in aiding refugees and for anti-immigrant sentiment being spread leading to political polarity and an absence of empathetic pro- blem-solving.

The rowing machines are between two of Geoffroy’s specially designed carpets. The first on the rear wall is an intersection of three prints; Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, the ‘Always Question the Structure’ machine in the middle and the black “Münchnerkindl” emblem that is the city of Munich’s coat of arms, the title “The Awareness Muscle Training Center” is written above. The mix of these three images is a reference to Munich’s context, the Paul Klee painting was famously named “The angel of history” by Weimar writer Walther Benjamin. The Klee painting was originally shown in Munich in 1920 but would first gain recognition after appearing in Benjamin’s writing, where the writers cynical and mystique characterisation of the awkward figure in the painting,

captured an essence of the existentialist fears and discomforts of the era. 100 years later, the presentation of this painting between the institutional imagery of the Münchnerkindl and the “Always Question the Structure” workout machine, puts a question mark onto what situation we currently find ourselves in, and question whether the angel of history will watch us repeat societal mistakes in the future.

The other carpet, hanging directly behind the rowing machines, is a neon yellow image of two stick-figures steering a boat, with the caption “Beeing a Passif witness makes me a criminal”. This inhibits the most prominent sentiment of the rowing machines. To denote the connection between this statement and the rowing machines, the image on the mirrors are important to discuss here. Two drowning men, arms out seeking assistance. This type of picture, while shocking, is not uncommon in the news and media. The mass sinking of overcrowded and ill-designed refugee boats, leading to the drowning of hundreds of migrants at a time, is not hidden from the public. The figures of the crisis are reported on multiple platforms, in newspapers, on the news, by politicians in parliament. It is common knowledge that the refugee crisis has caused the deaths of multiple hundred asylum seekers, both at sea and on land in Europe. However, there is a gap in the reporting of the crisis and our relationship to it. The rowing machines with their frontal and confrontational pictures remove this gap and force visitors to question their place in this situation, whether they feel part of it or not they cannot deny a knowledge of it. The yellow carpet with its provocative slogan produces an internalized response to the refugees seen in the mirror. The nature of the mirror provides an extra gritty reminder to the rower; one’s own reflection interacts with the drowning person, delivering a sobering personal message of responsibility. Europeans are afforded a neutral stance on the refugee crisis; this machine is an uncomfort- able reminder that interacting with the crisis from a purely obser- vational standpoint does not reduce the death toll or help anyone.

A glowing light-fixture backed with mirror to the right of the machines also shows a rower, but with “History does not bring immunity” written across it. These in collaboration with the rowing machines imagery and the Angelus Novus carpet present a clear message of personal responsibility, the emergency state of human rights and historical ties between the past and now that inspire to set off warning signs in visitors and cause them to evaluate the way things are on a humanitarian level.

text by Elena Hansen