Struck by Lightning (in his car)
Julius von Bismarck: Talking to Thunder, Hatje Cantz, 2019
Julius von Bismarck’s account of being struck by lightning while asleep in his car has the quality of a bar-room tale. But when set alongside his other creative work, featuring thunderbolts, fire, and crashing waves, its symbolic potential becomes apparent. In fact, this found work of autobiography illuminates the images that appear throughout this volume.

To be struck by lightning is a unique occurrence. There is something miraculous about it. Within a classical frame it conjures up the grandiloquent hand of god—massive power issuing from the heavens, for good or ill. Being struck by a thunderbolt sets up an origin story; a kind of mythical beginning. Conversely, a spectacular conclusion—Zeus sending down his wrath from the heavens in order to smite a fool or would-be foe. Bismarck’s vignette certainly leverages both polarities; apparent inspiration for his projects concerning lightning—the spark that inspired him to pursue others touched in a like manner: a group of shamans taken down by a bolt from the blue, or a herd of Swedish deer, struck off this mortal coil in an instant. Indeed, Bismarck’s origin story underpins his pursuit of these others’ literal endings. All the while, a fact of the matter remains:

Bismarck was struck by lightning in his car. His automobile might have been on top of a mountain but it drove there. He was no wanderer above the mist but a man asleep in a European sedan. Cocooned in its profane shell, parked on a paved road, his body was prone, his eyes shut, and his mind absent, when the sublime came to meet him. And in that moment, when it did, the prosaic interface of a Volvo would mediate between his person and the live wire of a paradigmatically higher power. He was asleep at the wheel of romance.

Lightning doesn’t strike twice—at least, not in the same place. Blink and it is over. When Bismarck awoke he thought his vehicle blasted by artillery. It took some time for him to understand the situation. He was late for his own experience. The shock of missing it seems to have been burned into his artistic psyche. In later years Bismarck would begin working on a mechanism capable of bringing a lightning bolt to him; so that he could, we imagine, stage another rendezvous—this time, on his own terms. Deploying a kind of celestial fishing line—a metal wire shot up into storm clouds by a rocket (its spool drawing down electrical energy to a chosen location)—Bismarck’s enterprise seeks to catch and harness potency.1The exact destination; the bulls-eye: his own body, clad in a bespoke metal suit (looking, suspiciously, like chain-mail for a medieval knight on a grail quest); a protective outfit to conduct the charge around but not through his self. The project continues. Lighting has been summoned in test events, striking the ground and palm trees. Bismarck believes his carapace is nearly ready.

In the meantime, he chases down other situations where people and beasts have truly seen the light. Before his future showdown, or duel, Bismarck plays a knight errant, impatiently following where electrical storms lead. Coming hot on the heels of others’ (fatal) dealings with the sky, he arrives late (like thunder) to survey their fallen bodies. Then he effects an image-making, or taking, from the scene (the horns of each dead deer, for instance; a story), manifesting the deadly event’s echo in his authorship or artistic voice. Close but so far, Bismarck speaks to the decisive moment, and for it, in place of the dumb (the deceased), as if there can ever be real dialogue with a power too quick for human, animal or machine. A power once here, already gone…

Throughout such dealings, these schemes, Bismarck seems to live as Echo to lightning’s plenitude and indifference; its Narcissus. The latter arrived when the artist wasn’t ready, charging him with a reverie that he, Bismarck, might really have, hold, or become It. A reverie that would order his working life hence—that he might revalue his initial encounter by casting aside the bathos of automobile armor for more heroic accoutrements and dramaturgy. The shamans met their fate with eyes open, while performing a ceremony. So, too, the deer, huddled together in a field. There was pathos. Speaking to the surviving shamans Bismarck draws out their confession: they take the blast as evidencing their own guilt; punishment by a bigger magic than their own. There is something innocent about this speculative relation, in as much as it is resolved. By contrast, Bismarck labors under a repetition compulsion—his actions asserting the incomplete aspect of his experience, perhaps because he was not punished enough for sleeping, or surviving. Now, in as much as he wants to have the lightning, he welcomes being taken by it. Persons who have been directly struck by hundreds of millions of volts and lived to tell the tale bear extreme mental and physical scars. Bismarck’s trauma, at least in part, obtains in the prosaic mediators between him and such a superlative burden.

Indeed, the contemporary poetics of the automobile are not what they once were, when the latter was a key figure for modernism; ancillary to the new Prometheus, facilitating his world making agenda and rhapsody. Marinetti’s ‘racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath,’ drove the Futurist agenda. Then, the poet could demand a ‘hymn to the man at the wheel’. The vehicle was dangerous, intoxicating, and magic. From such rhetorical heights, ‘erect at the summit of the world’, the automobile’s total victory (covering the globe in asphalt) could only roll downhill in song. Indeed, the ubiquity and hence banality of its power is such that while cars summit ever more actual mountains (saving today’s Nietzscheans from hiking) a contemporary artist like Bismarck feels compelled to turn towards the unalloyed thunderbolt, even as the first electric vehicles enter mass production.

With this in mind, it is necessary to consider Unfall der Mittlepunkt Deutschlands (2013), in which the artist staged a crash by a black VW Golf into the Imperial Linden Tree (famously marking the geographical center of Germany).2 In this work, as with the coming together of automobile and lightning in the artist’s ‘found’ experience, confrontation between an emblematic ‘natural’ figure and the car’s banality obtains. In fact, the symbolic nature of the state (the German state) appears at issue in the slippage between tree, vehicle, animal and (the artist’s own) person. The prosaic aspect of the contemporary car casts symbolic shade over the matter; over lightning, mountains, roots, and prospects for Bismarckian heroism. The romance of nature was central to the Prussian imaginary; a vision that was later incorporated into the Nazi ‘natural order’. After the Second World War this state, and its antecedent image-ground, was put into question. Its soil, Wagner’s theatre, its sturm und drang, indeed, the whole nature of the German imaginary, had to be rethought. The wanderer had to get down from the mountaintop, and the very topic of triumph became suspicious. Suspicious, that is, until das auto made a plausible case for German excellence on the world stage. In ‘neutral’ language an engineer chorus professed a vehicle for pride in vorsprung durch teknik. But this pride was, at all times, to be measured; and emanating from reasons measurable—the aesthetic against sublimity; an anti-romance of brakes and airbags. Was this a real u-turn—we must ask—or just better sublimated overcoming?

In such traffic with romantic and post-war vehicles for the German-nature Bismarck is playing with fire. But the incendiary is precisely at issue. It is only a small step from a metaphorical wildfire, and promethean mytho-poesis (with its attendant topic of punishment) to the burning fact of our time: Marinetti’s fascist racer and today’s ‘family car’ are related—weapons of an unrelenting war against non-human nature; der umwelt. The deer were fried by the sky but they had a better chance of being run over. Every spew from an exhaust stokes the flames of forest fires, burning all the more frequently; helps the hurricanes that whip the roofs from houses: Climate change, punishing everything, and everyone, is the thunderous reply to our narcissism.

The picture of Bismarck’s material preparations for a conscious showdown with lightning clads the topic in a costume that best describes our historical hubris: Modern, ‘technical’, rhetorical surface-engagements have dissembled about our dealings with the environment. They promised the receipt of power and the mitigation of risk. If there are conflicting interests (an anthropocentric term) then we will be victorious; If we have done wrong, we can make it right—the error of our ways merely a prelude to some kind of enlightenment or success. Within this Kantian frame the world remains enchanted, if only through humankind’s moral vocation. But Bismarck’s work appears to cast this stance as errant; quixotic. As his travel to disaster zones suggest—Because it is too late. A Christian kernel (that you may be forgiven if you confess) underpins the thought that we can look at horrible scenes and be redeemed through the appropriate affordance of our egos—indeed, that this affordance provides a reason to look. But such a reason is beginning to ring hollow: The heroism of the gaze frays around the edges when we encounter visions of communities displaced by hurricanes, and the gigantic flames of forest fires, knowing what we do about the ecological facts and (lack of) political will. Knowing what to do does not mean it will ever get done: Running around in rhetorical suits of armor does nothing to stop lightning striking. In a like manner, King Xerxes could not stay the tide, even by ordering the sea to be whipped. Perhaps a thought like this is at work in Bismarck’s iconographic choices.

But what if Bismarck’s imagery taps into something else altogether? What if the project in question is more a channeling of recent disaster movies? Arguably registering popular anxieties attending our climate crisis, mainstream cinema revels in destruction. Parallels would seem to obtain between the artist’s footage of Hurricane Irma’s aftermath and such films. This may be the point. But the structure of his video work manifests some divergence: Commercial films have beginnings and and endings, each arriving at some sort of conclusion or narrative reckoning with the nature of the disaster in question. Bismarck’s work does nothing of the sort. Within his art, at least, there is no neat summary of causes, blame, and/or prescriptions. This lack of conclusion is significant as, when it comes to our present ecological emergency, calls to action predominate. Avoiding any call, or conclusion, it is as if Bismarck’s footage delivers images from the dream of the sleeper in his comfortable car. There is no drama in this place, only a floating eye, sliding impassively across desolation in the manner of a god (or, at the very least, a non-person). Drama, we suspect, can only obtain with the emergence of the character, the ego, upon waking—out of the dream, into self-awareness and a moral universe.

A will to aestheticize hurricanes and forest fires, today, is the dream of a time before waking that lingers on, illicit, in our reveries. It is the errant dream of a fair fight (between a man and a thunderbolt; a deer and a car; dreams and action; knight and windmill). It is the dream of a conflict that concludes with a reasonable outcome, perhaps, even, a graceful one: It is the dream of a space and time in which to talk to thunder, directly, and come to some reasonable compact. It is the dream of meditation in the midst of an emergency; philosophy and poetry—clear-eyed and world-making—withstanding the heat of the moment and all that is to come. What is most disturbing about this vision is that we, along with Bismarck, are coming to suspect that it can only be dreamt at the end of the road, windows up, with only airbags and a little metal between us and a rude awakening.

1 re-tooling Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment of 1752
2 The description of the project on the artist’s website states ‘The car had clearly suffered substantial damage, yet the tree remained unharmed. The accident was protocolled on April 15, 2013, by the police, and press reports followed. All expressed astonishment about the accident, since it seemed almost impossible that the VW could have swerved from the street to impact this central tree, considering the bushes and large boulders in its path. Only after some detective work did the police find out that the car was crashed prior to its encounter with the tree and then lifted into place at the site of the supposed accident by the artist and his team during the night of April 14, 2013.’