Monument to Syria in a Divided Dresden

The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.

On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.

The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.

In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.

Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.

Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.

Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:

Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden;  Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.

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What & Where: The Guard Who Jumped the Berlin Wall

What: Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer (Walljumper), 2009
Where: Brunnenstraße, Berlin, Germany

In June 2009, a few months prior to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new sculpture appeared on the streets of the German capital. Mauerspringer (Walljumper) by Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders depicts a life-sized East German border guard named Conrad Schumann, in the midst of his daring escape to West Berlin on 15 August 1961.

Schumann was just 19 years old when he became the first GDR soldier to officially defect to the West. His escape came on the third day of construction of the wall he had been sent to guard, at this point little more than a low barbed-wire fence. As his colleagues were distracted trying to keep back a throng of bystanders, Schumann made his break for freedom.

Captured on camera by West German photographer Peter Leibing, the image of Schumann with head bowed and arms spread mid-air above the barbed wire was dubbed the “Leap of Freedom.” It was published around the world and rapidly became an iconic symbol of the Cold War. Even now the poster depicting Schumann’s jump remains one of the best-selling items at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Conrad Schumann’s spur-of-the-moment decision to leave East Germany showed remarkable foresight. Following the construction of the Berlin Wall a “death strip” patrolled by armed guards divided the city. Between 1961 and 1989 only 5,000 Berliners successfully crossed from East to West, with over half of them soldiers and policemen.

Watch a short film by Bianca Döring including footage of Schumann’s desertion:

Images: Top – Florian and Michael Brauer and Edward Anders, Mauerspringer, 2009; Bottom – Peter Leibing, Leap of Freedom, 1961.

Exhibitions of the Month: From Germany to Lenin

This month sees the closure of the British Museum’s chronicle of Germany, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Germany: Memories of a Nation is an ambitious retrospective, attempting to tell 600 years of history through objects in a single room. The country’s difficult Cold War history, divided between the Soviet-backed German Democratic Republic and the Westernised Federal Republic of Germany, is just the latest in a series of complex and traumatic episodes in its search for nationhood.

Reviews have been decidedly mixed, but if you want to form you own opinion Germany: Memories of a Nation remains open at the British Museum until 25 January 2015. The exhibition also accompanies an eponymous 30-part BBC radio series on German history presented by British Museum director Neil MacGregor, which you can listen to from the comfort of your own home.

If you’re on the other side of the Atlantic this month, Yevgeniy Fiks has a new exhibition in New York, hot on the heels of his curatorial triumph in Monument to Cold War History.

Until 17 January 2015 the James Gallery at CUNY is presenting a display of the Russian-born artist’s own paintings and installations entitled The Lenin Museum, focusing on the fascinating issue of homophobia as a Cold War weapon.

Image: Yevgeniy Fiks, Untitled (The Lenin Museum), 2014. Mixed media, 7′ 10″ x 5′ 8″ x 4′ 6″. Photo: Julia Sherman. Courtesy Yevgeniy Fiks.

Featured Artist: Thierry Noir

Thierry NoirOn 9 November 2014 the world looked back to the momentous day, 25 years earlier, when the Wall came down.

French street artist Thierry Noir is credited as the first person to paint on the Berlin Wall, in April 1984. Noir had moved to the west side of the city two years earlier and was living in a squat that overlooked the infamous crossing. Saddened by the sight, one day he spontaneously decided to begin his illegal artwork in an act of defiance. Instead of intending to make the wall beautiful or joyful, Noir painted to highlight its strangeness, to “transform it, make it ridiculous, and help destroy it.”

Noir had to paint quickly to avoid arrest by East German guards, developing a ‘Fast Form’ style by simplifying the figures into a continuous line formed of one or two bright colours. Over the next five years Noir painted on the wall daily, with his colourful cartoon animals and human faces eventually covering an entire kilometre of its surface.

Many artists followed Thierry Noir’s lead in painting on the Berlin Wall, from Keith Haring’s stick men to Dmitri Vrubel’s cheeky picture of Brezhnev and Honecker in a clinch. Yet despite these years of work, Noir was relieved to see the wall destroyed: “It was not an art project, it was a deadly border. One hundred and thirty six people were killed because of the wall – everyone was just happy that it went away.”

Thierry Noir continues to live in the German capital and to produce work in his signature style, which since the end of the Cold War has became an iconic symbol of freedom. Noir’s Berlin Wall paintings remain on the portions of the wall held in the East Side Gallery and in New York City, and in 2009 the artist was invited to contribute to the restoration of what is now a historic monument by repainting several sections of his work.

Images: Top – Thierry Noir painting on the Berlin Wall, 1989; Bottom – View from Thierry Noir’s bathroom, Berlin, 1989.

What & Where: The East German Surveillance Station in Los Angeles

What: Christoph Zwiener, ADN Pfoertnerhaus (ADN Guard House)
Where: 9300 Culver Boulevard, Culver City, LA – until 2 November 2014

To mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, Los Angeles is the temporary home of a GDR surveillance booth. German artist Christof Zwiener has reimagined the 1970s guardhouse as an art installation, with the 2 by 1 metre space hosting a series of exhibitions.

The project began in June 2013 when Zwiener saved the ADN Pförtnerhaus from demolition. The last East German monitoring station remaining in a public space, it was originally located in the Berlin parking lot of state-run news agency ADN, from where the authorities had a good vantage point to spy on reporters. The booth has since hosted exhibitions across Germany and is now moving between the LA and OC counties before reaching its final destination, in the sculpture garden of the Wende Museum in Culver City.

ADN Pförtnerhaus began its Californian tour near a permanent installation of remnants of the Berlin Wall on LA’s Wilshire Boulevard. There it featured an exhibition by Berlin artist Sonya Schoenberger of 2,000 keys from abandoned East German police barracks. It is now situated on Culver Boulevard until 2 November 2014 and is filled with a sculpture of a giant flip-flop by LA artist Friedrich Kunath.

You can find out more about the project and see photos of previous exhibitions at the ADN Pförtnerhaus website.

Images: Top – Sculpture by Friedrich Kunath, on display in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Culver Boulevard, 2014; Bottom – Sonya Schoenberger with her exhibition Key Delivery in the ADN Pförtnerhaus, Wilshire Boulevard, 2014.

Exhibition of the Month: Degenerate Art

While focusing on a notorious exhibition which pre-dated the Cold War by a decade, Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 at the Neue Galerie in New York helps to contextualise the complex politics of art that arose after World War II.

Soon after the Nazi Party seized control in Germany, it launched a virulent attack on the visual arts. The drive to remove ‘subversive’ elements in German art culminated in the Denegerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition, which displayed some 650 works of modern painting and sculpture that had been seized from the collections of fleeing citizens and removed from museums. The exhibition was originally held in Munich from 19 July to 30 November 1937, before it commenced a 3-year touring exhibition to 11 cities across Germany and Austria. Afterwards many works were destroyed or sold to fund the country’s military campaigns, an event which has ongoing implications for the art world due to frequent claims for restitution of stolen artworks.

Kirchner - Brucke ArtistsThe exhibition was intended to prove the Nazi’s thesis that modern art was a Jewish conspiracy intended to corrupt German society – despite the fact that only a small number of the featured artists were Jewish. However, whether there to ridicule the art, or mourn its removal from public view, in an awkward turn of events the exhibition welcomed over one million attendees in its first six weeks, vastly more than those who visited the concurrent Great German Art Exhibition in Munich, displaying art of which Hitler approved.

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union would pursue artistic policies and invoke anti-modernist language with striking similarities to Hitler’s campaign against ‘degenerate’ art. In an ironic twist, the art that the Nazis decried as ‘Bolshevik’ would also be rejected in the USSR and instead championed by its Cold War rivals.

Until 30 June 2014 the Neue Galerie exhibition reunites some 50 paintings and sculptures from the exhibition by modern masters such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde. 30 additional works on paper, together with posters, photographs and other memorabilia, tell the story of this infamous moment in art history.

Images: Top – Adolf Hitler at the Schreckenskammer (Chamber of Horrors) exhibition, a forerunner of Entartete Kunst in Dresden, 17 August 1935. Photo: Reuters; Bottom – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke), 1925–26. Oil on canvas. Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

What & Where: Gerhard Richter’s Hidden Mural

What: Gerhard Richter, The Joy of Life, 1956
Where: Deutsches Hygiene Museum, Dresden, Germany (not on display)

Richter mural of the German Hygiene Museum, Dresden, 1956An early mural by one of the world’s most famous artists takes pride of place in the foyer of a major German museum – but you can’t see it. In 1956 the 24-year-old Gerhard Richter created The Joy of Life whilst an art student at the Dresden Academy of Arts. As an example of the official Soviet artistic style of socialist realism, in which Richter was forced to work, the ten-metre-long mural is an inevitable paean to the wonders of socialism, depicting exuberant workers dancing against a backdrop of factories and tractors. After his defection to the west, and his subsequent criticism of the art produced in his native East Germany, the mural was painted over by the authorities in 1979.

Since the Berlin Wall came down, there have been repeated calls for the mural to once again see the light of day. However, Richter has dismissed the work as ‘a waste of money’ and ‘not worth preserving’. No doubt the artist is troubled by the prospect of adding to his public oeuvre a work in which he takes no pride, produced under a system in which he had no faith. Until such time as the mural may be revealed, one can only speculative on its relative flaws and merits from this meagre black and white photograph.

You can read more about The Joy of Life in an article published in The Art Newspaper: Cold War cover-up to continue.