Interview: Julian Hetzel on Schuldfabrik

Julian Hetzel, creator and director of Schuldfabrik, confesses his guilt and explains how soap is at the centre of social change

feature (adelaide) | Read in About 5 minutes
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Photo by Ben and Martin photography
Published 07 Mar 2019

“We are all born in a place in society where we inherit certain privilege and guilt,” says Julian Hetzel, whose immersive theatre installation Schuldfabrik is making its Australian premiere at Adelaide Festival. 

The installation piece, which uses human adipose tissue from liposuction surgery to create bars of soap, is 'based on curiosity and research into the concept of guilt and debt'.

“Schuld is a German word. Germans have a very specific guilt fabric that they continue working on and unpacking,” says Hetzel. “Social, political, religious guilt. This concept of schuld means guilt and debt, including moral, social, ethical and financial obligation.”

Hetzel aims to use this combination of guilt and debt to create a stimulating and provoking art piece. “Our guilt doesn’t do anything but make us feel bad,” says Hetzel. “Can we see our guilt as positive? Can we see it as a resource that we can make something productive out of?” 
Human fat is closely linked to first world guilt, and was therefore the perfect embodiment of social and moral guilt. “It is the body’s way of storing energy and there are many reasons for obesity, but we made the assumption that guilt is fat and fat is energy and energy is guilt – it is a triangle.”

After discussions with legal advisors and liposuction clinics, Hetzel found a clinic who would, with consent, donate their patients’ tissue. In the factory tour, the audience is exposed to live liposuction surgery and the resulting soap bars. “We are posing new questions and creating new guilt,” says Hetzel. “How does this guilt contribute to the auto-generative circular nature of the work? The fat is turned to soap, then to money, then water and health and life.”

All of the proceeds of the installation’s soap sales, under the label SELF, go to a not-for-profit organisation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to create water filtration systems and increase standards of hygiene. “Hygiene is one of the most urgent needs of the world,” says Hetzel. “The fat of the rich produces soap, an artwork, and the money then goes to people in need. We also donate one bar for each sold to the same communities, so impoverished countries can cleanse themselves with the fat of the rich from first world countries.”

At the core of the piece is the idea of compensating for moral and ethical wrongdoings. “What are our ways of compensating?” asks Hetzel. “I have a critical perspective toward charities and the ‘good-doer’. When you donate, when you purchase fair-trade items, you are visible as this good-doer.” There is a selfish gratification from this guilt-fuelled spending, which Hetzel aims to challenge. “We are a true non-profit organisation. We are suggesting ways to reconsider and to propose a future for corporate social responsibility on a much larger scale.”

Hetzel aims to spark some big conversations and confront global topics with the work. “Guilt and debt carry great political, historical, religious and economical implications,” he says. “We receive strong reactions – people saying we should close the shop or not do the project. When the press release came out for Adelaide, I won’t call it a shit storm, but responses were fierce. People from Jewish communities said they had concerns due to the links with German history. But this work is larger than that – it is all of the complications of living on this planet and not exploiting one another. The soap is a reference to the Holocaust and as a German, I’m always thinking of ways to not keep [our history] under the carpet. This is an important way of bringing it into the open.”

There are, however, levels of understanding within the project. “If you simplify and scandalise the line, you can narrow it to human fat, but the whole experience is much more complex,” says Hetzel. “We have found a way to display the content while showing respect to history. We are asking how do we commemorate these histories? How is that being exploited?” Being the Australian premiere, Hetzel is interested to see how it is received. “How do we deal in a post-colonial world? What are our ways of compensating?” he asks. “I see you’ve just had a major law case with Cardinal Pell. In the factory tour we have a room which is literally a confessionary – people can purify and empty themselves there and leave issues behind. This is very timely in Australia.”

Audience responses have been positive, with conversations around obligation and guilt often occuring post-show. “People feel the urge to discuss and to speak and to process it,” says Hetzel. “It’s stimulating, inspiring, provoking, interesting.

“We’re preparing a spicy meal.”