She Stands Apart: Antigone on this day in 1978

Imagine it is the morning of November 17th, 1978. George Steiner was visiting Oxford University, conducting research for his book Antigones, which he would publish six years later. He is sitting down to breakfast with the other dons, leafing through the days newspapers.

He picks up a copy of that day’s Oxford Mail, and as he reaches page 10, his eyes fall on what seems to be an advertisement for the now defunct Oxford-based car manufacture British Leyland.

The ad, focused on the Land Rover model, as sold in South Africa, and includes the tag-line: Leyland Vehicles: Nothing Can Stop Us Now, but rather than an idealized image of the rugged, off-road car, there is a photograph of a group of soldiers surrounding a black man, prostrate on the floor, seemingly at the moment of arrest and before being flung into the back of a Land Rover. The text relates, with a particular pride, how the military authorities continue to rely on the Land Rover, in spite of stiff competition from Leyland’s overseas competitors. While Steiner, spluttering over his morning cup of tea, may register the dissonance between the brutal image of South African apartheid and the presumed idealization of advertising genre, he was not to know that this was in fact an artwork by the German-born, US-based artist Hans Haacke, as part of his series A Breed Apart which would later be shown as part of an exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (here is another of the series, as the cover of the exhibition catalogue).

The catch-phrase “A Breed Apart”, borrowed from British Leyland’s Jaguar series, had become transposed on the racial oppression of black men and women by white authorities in South Africa. Haacke subtly brought this political situation back to the city where the corporation whose product played a role in the violence was based. Furthermore, as an ad campaign, he primed his audience for this work’s presence in his exhibition to come. (Here is an installation shot of the whole series, now owned by the Tate).

Of course, George Steiner was not able to register the nuance of this gesture, as his head was full of versions of Antigone and passing over the rest of the Oxford Mail, he picked up a week old copy of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that someone must have brought back from a visit to Germany. Onto his second cup of tea, and chewing a slice of buttered toast, Steiner seemed anxious to find something specific in the culture pages. After a fevered search, he stopped on one page and release a triumphant ‘Yes’. There was a review of a recent production of Sophocles’ Antigone by Christoph Nel in Frankfurt upon Main, which was of especial interest to Steiner as it was taking place at the time of the trial against the terrorist Red Army Faction in Stuttgart‐Stammheim, as well as the suicide of the defendants in prison, and their ensuing funeral.

 

Among their number was Ulrike Meinhof, whose writing was included in the programme notes of the production. Here is a selection that Steiner read in Oxford:

Protest means to say that such and such does not suit me. Resistance means to see to it that whatever doesn’t suit me no longer occurs…the line between verbal protest and physical resistance was first transgressed at the protests against the assault on Rudi Dutschke during the Easter holidays. Let us acknowledge: those who condemn the throwing of stones and arson by politically powerful entities but not the…bombs dropped on Vietnam, the terror in Persia, and the torture in South Africa…their arguments are hypocritical. 

We can imagine on reading this, Steiner quickly returned to the Oxford Mail and Haacke’s manipulated advertisement and realized that the resistance story of Antigone, being played out in Germany, was also taking place in South Africa. Little did he know that at that very moment, in Bilbao, Spain, a baby girl would be born, who would grow up to embody this spirit of outspoken resistance against the atrocities and violence of her day, and would offer a model and example to those who had the honor of living alongside her, for her daily love, drive and guidance, her vigilance, protest and care, in acting and standing apart as a shining star for us all to follow. This post is dedicated to her – happy birthday, Rebeka!

 

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