There are global moments in history that feel like tipping points of major changes when you view them retrospectively. In the case of Michael Kerstgens exceptional new book 1986 (Hartmann Books, 2021), the writing on the wall could not be more clear looking back at the year. I remember 1986. I am old enough to read the terrain of Michael’s photographs in a manner that feels semi-familiar but slightly detached as I grew up in America and his images are from West Germany. That being said, and given the rise of global culture that was rooted in the 80s, things do not look or feel that far away in the book. I understand these images though I grew up thousands of miles away in the Mid-West. That I understand them is a testament to the transitional nature of the Twentieth Century to connect cultures and nations through consumerism and its global inter-connected concerns.
That I have to spell out West Germany itself is also an indication of changes that would manifest in the following moments that stemmed from the year 1986. Though it is not easy to see causation from Kerstgens images or necessarily link certain events to change without some amount of conjecture, one can read events such as the explosion of the No. 4 reactor at Chernobyl and the resulting tragedy as a tipping point that would usher in major changes in the following years in regards to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachov has made note of this. In my adult years, I have looked back at this event as something still nearly incomprehensible. I have researched the notorious “Elephant’s foot” mass of radioactive waste that had been filmed by some poor soul who could not have made lived long after making the images. It still haunts me. It still haunts us. It charged the idea of the Soviet Union with doubt and lament, which in turn challenged global politics and the Soviet empire itself.
1986 saw a series of cultural and political events that seem like momentous points on our recent timeline. As a child, I remember vividly the explosion of the Challenger spaceship and teacher Christa McCauliffe’s death. I have written about the experience of watching the Challenger ship blow up on television at school. I remember the lead-up to the launch of the Challenger and our classroom being adorned with photographs of space exploration and our teachers speaking to us about the importance of teachers, particularly female teachers being given the experience of space travel. The television was wheeled into class and we were given the opportunity to watch the event live. The explosion is still very vivid in my memory. Perhaps it is an enforced memory, but I remember vividly the silence that followed. Imagine being a teacher trying to explain that to a room full of nine-year-olds. Fumble. Silence.
In other news, and as a consumer event listed in Kerstgens book, Run-D.M.C. release My Addidas, a song exploring the burgeoning culture of sneaker fetishism and the phenomenon of B-boys and B-girls getting their funky fresh swag on. Fashion in Kerstgens book stands out as something that has certainly changed, but the consumer tendencies reflected in his images has as much to our contemporary culture of expenditure as it does in the year 1986. Shopping malls and the encroaching global shift from labor and industry to consumer societies are evident in Kerstgens brilliantly saturated photographs of people at “leisure” shopping. Kerstgens records the phenomenon of leisure society through a series of shopping images, but also images of the early moments of what will become gym culture fueled in no large doubt by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise to global prominence.
I’d like to find more examples of how 1986 pleasantly dictated our future. The historical record is often built from tragedy. The events that punctuate a year such as 1986 are outlined in the number of unfortunate events such as the Challenger explosion and various plane hijackings and notations about The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the bombing of Libya, and perhaps most presciently, the Iran-Contra affair. I can also still visualize seeing Oliver North on television, but not understanding anything about why he was in trouble. I can see him testifying with his hand raised “As Above” before a committee of gray old men asking him questions. In one sense, that event shifted US policy in South America towards the Middle East, a region of the world in which America now conducts its most painful theaters of war.
Throughout Kerstgens’ book, I am reminded of the year and my place within his observations, even if spread oceans apart. In retrospect, I can see cultural shifts that would later come to define my adulthood such as the release of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Stand By Me, River’s Edge, Maximum Overdrive, Cobra, Sid & Nancy, Raw Deal, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer-all of which would leave their mark on me in the coming years. I would go so far as to suggest that the release of Blue Velvet in particular shifted the cultural landscape of cinema and opened the door to Gen X’er’s cultural apex of American self-doubt that would be highlighted in the 90s. The year 1986 was a blockbuster year for cinema.
In music The Smiths would release The Queen is Dead, Metalica released Master of Puppets (their zenith moment), Slayer released Reign in Blood, Madonna released True Blue, Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, and Janet Jackson’s Control debuted as part of an important cultural weave which formed the genesis of many childhood memories. I still frequent Reign in Blood and Master of Puppets often, though admit at the time True Blue was probably a bigger album for me. I didn’t make it back to the Beastie Boys until Ill Communications. Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen also charted in 1986, an oddly propagandistic piece of Americana that would define Springsteen’s career despite his best album being Nebraska, the Janus head of the same coin.
Essentially, Kerstgen’s book points out a number of global events and attitudes that would define the closing of the 80s as it segued into the 1990s. The groundwork for globalism, the continuation of neoliberalism, and the expansion of market ideologies are on display in his book. His emphasis in on the social and cultural strata of the West and West Germany, particularly the area of Essen just as de-industrialization was beginning to take root in a region built from industry. The shift from manual economies to economies of libidinal market influence was at a crossroads and is reflected in the work. In terms of style, I am reminded often of Tom Wood’s work when I look at the book, though Kerstgens concerns are slightly different. In terms of the book’s concept, I will suggest that it is a brilliant tactic to that takes a number of unintended and disparate visual ends pulled from the artist’s archive and sews them up under the rubric of chronological enforcement by using the onus of 1986 as a cover solution for much more prescient concerns that lurk “underneath” Kerstgens images.
I tried to leave out the word nostalgia in this write-up as I do not think it necessary. Nostalgia is as I have pointed out elsewhere is generally patterned with positive remembrance. Given the subject matter discussed, anti-nostalgia is implicit in the tragic overtones that define many public events of the year. 1986 in hindsight suggests a year in which the winds of change (yes, Scorpions) were on the horizon and nevertheless began with indirect movement in the year 1986 itself. 1986 is a super impressive book and one of Hartmann’s finest this year. I will say again that I believe Hartmann Books are having a banner year with publications. Highly Recommended.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Michael Kerstgens.)