angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Month: October, 2013

Frieze London’13… should this piece be there?

Walking the labyrinth of this year’s Frieze London was a bit like exploring a huge playground for adults… or children actually. Lots of bright colours, smiley faces, flower-power daisies, a dog seemingly made of balloons twisted together and Jeff Koons’s  vast, kitsch (hideous) sculptures surrounded by bodyguards… Image

There were also many collage-based works, which of course interested me. Paint applied over photographic and printed material, transporting the literal reality of a photograph into another, more imaginative sphere. Several fun, beautifully crafted, clever and witty pieces too – large embroidered till receipts raising everyday rubbish into a grander sphere.  And a few pieces by some of my favourites – Cornelia Parker, Francis Alys, Tacita Dean – that added a depth and authenticity that I know I can trust.

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Some of the work is undoubtedly rubbish, part of the Emperor’s new clothes syndrome that I learnt from my recent experiences at Art College is all too alive and kicking. It makes it hard for the uninformed, or even the moderately- to well-informed, observer to distinguish what art is worth trying to engage with and what is not. At one point I was looking at a child-like drawing of a talking lemon only to look down and find myself almost treading on an exact replica of the original Auschwitz sign ‘ARBEIT MACHT FREI’ arranged in three pieces, as it had been found when it was retrieved from the thieves that stole it in 2009. Even the tools used to cut it up were dotted around it according to some arbitrary aesthetic .

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I don’t think things get much more serious than the Holocaust, so seeing the infamous words in such a commercial and showy-offy context inevitably felt distasteful. It was as if they had fallen from the sky of another world, like the Coca Cola bottle in the film The Gods must be crazy. The artist apparently wants it to “reference historical memory” and I guess it could just be argued that putting it here could be a good thing, a wake up jolt to remembering what has been before… But what a lame, vague and inadequate explanation “referencing historical memory” is. Surely another level to the work needs to exist if you are going to engage with one of the biggest atrocities ever? And when a guide came round and revealed that this was the last of 3 editions, each selling for 300,000 Euros (or was it pounds?) I felt a little sick. He himself didn’t know what to make of it and wondered what and where the work of art was within the piece. Maybe my background makes me more sensitive than others to the preservation of an aura of humility and respect around anything to do with the Holocaust. Or maybe this fulfils all the criteria of art – to challenge, confront, ask questions, reveal, remember etc etc. Then again, maybe it is simply a demonstration of the superficiality, insensitivity, greed and opportunism the current art world encourages and feeds off.

My blog format only allows me to insert four images when I had wanted to share at least 10 scenes from the fair. So I’ll wrap up with what I found to be quite a powerful piece in which art reclaims some of its more mature voice to say things that otherwise remain unsaid.

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Is there a point in still talking about Second World War Germany ?

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I found it almost impossible to write over the summer or to organise my thoughts into some sort of coherent flow while the sun shone outside producing the intrepid army of courgettes that now lies liquidized in my freezer. Instead I hung out in Nazi Germany, trying to organise 9 years of research into a 40 minute talk for schools and as yet unknown audiences. It was a process of willing black and white photographs to come to life to reveal what has been lurking in the corners of Germany’s post-war national silence for 50 years. But I also found myself wondering (with regular twangs of self-doubt) what the point is of still talking about this subject? And is it still relevant and important for today’s younger generations of English and Germans to engage with Hitler and the Holocaust, or have Bin Laden & other contemporary despots taken his place as ‘Dr Evil’?

Many of todays under 50-year-old Germans express having “die Schnauze voll” (a full snout, or being sick to the back teeth) of the themes of Nazi Germany and national guilt. Does that impart the message: “What Grandpa did has nothing to do with me. I don’t have to bear his guilt”? Or are they expressing the desire for release from the incessant discourses and policies of atonement and apology that infuse German political, social and cultural life?

With the benefit of only being half-German I have enough distance to still find the subject infinitely fascinating without being fully identified with it. But it’s an on-going and at times difficult process trying to unravel how the inevitable impact on my mother of such a huge historic episode ended up having such a defined, albeit less tangible, impact on me.

Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, many Germans of the grandchild generation do bear the burdensome, yet often denied, guilt of their grandparents. According to Harald Welzer’s research “Grandpa wasn’t a Nazi”, two thirds either see their grandparents as heroes, resistors or victims of National Socialism. It’s natural to defend your family but as far as I am concerned, that is enough reason to keep talking about it. For me it has only been possible to understand my grandparent’s position in this period by looking at their potential, albeit unwitting, culpability in the face. In her memoirs my grandmother conveys the fear of living under a dictatorship and challenges her critics by asking what they would have done? I ask myself the same question. And in my talks I ask my audiences the same. Plus: What do they do in the face of discrimination, racism, injustice today? We wouldn’t all be the heroes or resistors of our daydreams or online personas, nor mere victims. So at what point do we, even in our inaction, become ‘guilty’?

After a couple of rehearsals of my talk, I learnt from the comments made that there were various points to it. But above all it was the personal stories of my grandfather, my mother and me that were relevant in bringing to life the challenges, decisions and actions of an ordinary German family in and after the Second World War. Maybe it is important to remember that as humans we all have choices. But we also have fears and weaknesses.

For more information on my talk The other side: The Second World War through the eyes of an ordinary German family please go to http://www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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