angela findlay talks

Germany, remembrance and alternatives to punishment and shame

Category: Art

Holocaust Memorial Day, 27th January 2015

 

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Today was Holocaust Memorial Day, commemorating the day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the advancing Soviet army seventy years ago. Today Jews and non-Jews alike were reminded to remember what so many of us have no personal recollection of. Reminded how important it is to remember so that it will never happen again.

Today was also the launch of my talk on German Memorials and Counter Memorials, the second in my trilogy of talks “The other side” about World War II from a German point of view. It was a happy coincidence that King William’s College on the Isle of Man invited me to give this particular talk on this particular day, for it encouraged me and my audience not only to think about the victims of the Nazi policies of annihilation but also about the perpetrators and Germany’s ongoing and thorough process of apology on behalf of them.

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One would hope that remembering the victims and the horrors would be enough to prevent such atrocities being repeated; that humanity as a whole would have learned the lessons. Alas, Bosnia, Rwanda, the Sudan, Cambodia and all that is going on now prove the truth in Primo Levi’s warning: “What happened can happen again.”

The last survivors of Auschwitz are still alive amongst us, offering us glimpses into a time and world that, even to them, must now be almost unimaginable. Their stories travel to our schools and enter our lives through our televisions, radios, and Internet. And yet even seventy years on, we still can’t fully grasp how, or even that it could have happened. For those of us who are non-Jewish and do not experience the visceral pain of having lost whole generations of our families, the stories and images still have the ability to shock, filling us with incomprehension at the extremes to which humanity, or rather inhumanity, can go. In Britain we have been spared the fate of becoming victims, fleeing persecution and war, losing everything we had to live in freezing, filthy, disease-ridden conditions. It is easy to feel complacent and confident that that won’t happen to us here. And maybe it won’t. But what I often wonder is how quickly any of us could become perpetrators. The jihadists have brought massacres of innocent people into our societies and the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris has galvanized people into action and protest. It would be easy to point our fingers and blame the people we feel threatened by, just like ordinary Germans did in the 1930s (albeit largely due to the anti-Semitic propaganda). And I imagine that just like ordinary Germans  became capable of actions, or non-actions, that no one would have ever imagined, so could any of us. Give us a shortage of water, a shortage of food or fuel or wood or even just cut off the Internet or phone lines for a wee while! It wouldn’t take long…

I know it is important to remember but sometimes I ask myself why it is so important to “remember” something that was before our time. What are we remembering? On what level? And to what end? These are questions I am going to be asking throughout this year in monthly blogs and a programme of talks, art exhibitions, collaborations, writings and discussions. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the end of WW2 and 10 years since I started my research into my German roots. And to mark the occasion I want to see what can help us truly learn the lessons of history, what can we ourselves do, to ensure that “Never again” really is never again.

 

Image 1: Gleis 17 / Platform 17, Grunewald Station, Berlin (1998)

Image 2: Memorial for the deported Jews of Berlin (1991) by Karol Broniatowski

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Remembrance Sunday: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip…” For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey.

It’s 11am on 11.11.14 and that makes it time to write down my thoughts and reflections on what has been going on recently in terms of Remembrance.

Watching the Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance on Saturday night, I was struck once again by how well we British do pomp, symbolism and ceremony. It was truly powerful and with its combination of stirring music, potent narrative, and visual spectacle it has become an art form. Developed and refined over decades, it is designed to move you. And these days, I am quite sure, to make you cry.

Which is why I came away once again feeling slightly irritated by it. Irritated by the format that we are used to seeing  in the films of Spielberg and other directors of sentimental, patriotic films, designed to manipulate your heart strings and tear ducts  Nothing necessarily wrong with that, except that we seem to be living in a era where showing emotions, and watching other people showing their emotions in order to make us show our emotions, is not only de rigueur but essential to good viewing. It’s actually quite a feat to succeed at making such grandiosity sentimental. I don’t want to knock it as the sentiments definitely have their place. And there were many, many genuinely moving bits. Personally the inclusion of the young German boy praying in German for reconciliation and peace was the brave, albeit blink-and-you-miss-it, touch that I so long to see more of.

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But once again I have to ask, what are we being asked to do? On the one hand we are remembering (though most generations now can’t “remember” they can only imagine) and honouring those who died; those who gave their lives “in the ultimate sacrifice”. And of course that is crucial, “lest we forget”. But, in order for those men and women not to have died in vain, isn’t it of equal importance that we remember, with as visceral an experience, the true horrors of war? I’m not suggesting that there should have been dismembered limbs and shrapnel raining down on the audience instead of poppy petals, but by beautifying the ceremony to the extent it was, are we not being lulled into continuing the belief that war is all about honour, patriotism and other such lofty values?

I am wondering if some of the language we use hasn’t become outmoded to the point of being sloppy, ambiguous and actually not true. Doesn’t “The Great War” for example still smack a little of triumphalism? And if World War I really had been “the war to end all wars” there wouldn’t have been a Second World War, nor would our politicians be quite so gung-ho about entering into current war situations.

And talking of politicians, there was one bit of BBC commentary (and I usually love the BBC) where the commentator revealed that: “David Cameron was close to tears and bit his lip”. For goodness sake, that sounds like something out of Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean really, of what interest or relevance is that to the event? Why does his political position have anything at all to do with our personal or collective processes of remembering? (Unless it had been a demonstration of remorse and humility by Tony Blair of course.)

OK, I know I am biased. I study, write and lecture about the German process of remembrance and how different it is in form and effect from the British process. Their constant and overt references to their own aggression, destructivity and shame have made them into a nation of active pacifists. I accept that one could dismiss this difference as being purely due to them being the ‘losers’ and us the ‘winners’. But I don’t believe that is the point. Can we really talk about winners and losers in relation to WWI when more than 16 million are dead? Does the presence of poppies everywhere (oh no, I have stumbled into the contentious domain of poppies) really do the job well enough? Poppies were and are a great national symbol, but they seem to have gained such momentum and significance that they actually might be preventing us subsequent generations not only from grasping the horrors of all warfare but also from acting in ways that will ensure that it really doesn’t happen again. It is all too easy to substitute deep and effective contemplation with a poppy.

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That said, like most people I too love the ceramic poppy field at the Tower of London, an immersive and beautiful spectacle. But its disappearance is critical to the concept and its success as a memorial. The fact that Boris Johnson and The Evening Standard successfully campaigned to have its presence extended and preserved is missing the point and robbing it – and the people – of its potency. Those 888, 246 service men who died didn’t have that chance to extend their lives for even a second. Missing the poppies, losing the poppies, confirming the poppies to memory, those are the kinds of experiences that will teach us to love and treasure what we have, to act on opportunities while they are there and to preserve the memories in our own hearts “Lest we forget”.

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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Having to tell people you are good… the joys of being self-employed

The week ahead is a dauntingly big ‘Admin Week’ for me. Daunting because, for the self-employed, “admin” basically involves telling people that you are good; that they want you and need you. This doesn’t come naturally to the artist in me, precisely because I see my paintings as a way of saying what I want to say without having to say it. And the other parts of me don’t like it either, because they just don’t.

Sure, I have been known to get on my soapbox and spout off about things I believe in, that’s no problem: the huge defects of our prison system; the benefits of the arts to offenders; the potential power of apology within Restorative Justice, the un-funnyness of out of date anti-German jokes; recycling; growing potatoes; the music of The Cat Empire… I clearly spout off about a lot of things. But I find it harder to tell people how good my paintings are and why they should buy one, or how well my talks have been received by schools and why they should book one, or  how great my forthcoming art course on the Greek Island of Skyros will be and that they really should enrol. And yet that is precisely what this admin week requires me to do.

Let’s see if I can make it less painful for myself.

According to the schools and the general public, my talk Crime, Prisons and Offenders – the role the Arts can play is: “brilliant”, “fascinating”, “inspirational”, “thought-provoking”, “intelligent”, “informative” and for many, “the best lecture I have heard”. If you book my lecture you will get to know why.

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I am also offering a new talk which I am very excited about: The other side – Germany, looking forward through the shadows of the past. Years of research into my own anglo-german dual nationality give a picture of an ordinary family in World war II Germany. I also reveal many interesting things that the English don’t seem to know about Germany’s post-war burden of guilt and how they are dealing with it. You can read more about it or book it here

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My mother and her siblings, Berlin 1945

As always my paintings are  available to view, buy or commission here.

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37˚ and rising 76x76cm (mixed media with oil)

And my forthcoming art course on the Island of Skyros from 6-19 July will be truly wonderful for anybody who would still like to book. It is a unique opportunity to learn some of my techniques (Read about them in the article in July’s edition of The Artist magazine) and to spend delightful days bathed in sunshine, warmth, laughter and tzatziki.

Oh roll on Admin Week and get me out there.

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Why chairs…?

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Thoughts can fly (2012), 100 x 100cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Re-dressing absence, Stroud Cemetery (2009) Collaboration with Shirley Margerison

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Him undressed (2013) 60 x 60cm. Mixed media and oil on canvas

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Untitled – 3 (2010) Installation in vault. Armchair with cigarette packets

I have just returned from a trip to the Cinque Terre in Italy. People always ask if I take my paints, assuming painting is something I love to do all the time. Actually painting is hard work and painting a painting invariably involves being confronted with oneself. So I like having breaks from that. But I can never get away from being inspired. From looking at something and having ideas about what I could do with it. I can’t imagine ever being able to switch off the desire to create out of the raw material I gather.

And so in Italy, I found myself not simply losing myself in the blues of the sea and sky, or even in the Prosecco “Spritz” cocktails, but instead pursuing what seems to have become a slight obsession with chairs. Chairs by windows, empty chairs – we’ll have to wait for the latest paintings to be painted. But now I can see that chairs have captured my imagination for several years.

I instantly loved Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 conceptual piece One and Three Chairs when I first came across it; such profound questions within as humble an everyday object as the common chair. I also remember how when visiting prisoners in their cells in Cologne Prison, the absence of a chair would leave me nowhere else to sit other than on their beds. But I have now recognised that behind my personal interest in chairs hover two stories that instilled themselves as living images in my childhood imagination. The first was the part of my mother’s war time account when she told us that after fleeing their home just outside Berlin in 1945, the Red Army came and slashed open the silk seats of their chairs in search or jewellery or money.

The second was of her father returning from the war, a broken man who sat in the same chair on the veranda and smoked himself into his grave.

1945 to 2013 in one painting

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Untitled (with lipstick) 2011

by Angela Findlay

My most recent solo show Fragments of time at McAllister Fine Art in Godalming is entering its final week. It shows work combining photographic collage and oil and is a development of ideas and techniques that led to a collaboration with John Helseltine and a joint  exhibition Filling the cracks in 2011

Reflecting on the paintings I find myself wondering where to next? This body of work has been the result of several years of an on-going interest in capturing glimpses of the everyday, usually overlooked and yet often very beautiful testimonies to peoples’ lives within the privacy of their homes. Initially I worked from a dawning sense of the fragility of what we call “home”, a paradox in the face of the security and consistency we seek there.

In 1945 as an eleven year old German girl, my mother fled her home with her younger sister, the approaching Russian army a mere 40 miles away. The few stories of her childhood experiences float silently in my imagination, their edges blurring with those of my own memories. The implications of her sparse accounts didn’t register fully until I was older. But the images she sketched of a Berlin in flames, the train station heaving with jostling people, and the agonising choice of which doll to take – the beloved but threadbare one or the brand new one from her father on leave from the front? – began to provide a source of inspiration for my work.

My mother’s home was taken over by the Russians, the seats of the chairs slashed in search of money and valuables. All was lost except what they could carry with them. Their home disintegrated. Yet the building still stands. I visited it a few years ago, wandered around imagining those that inhabited its tall-ceilinged rooms after they had left. And then later, through the Soviet occupied times. If I scratched at the predictably white wood chip paper that plasters the walls of so many German homes today, filling the cracks, creating a crisp, clean albeit bumpy, blank surface for the next occupiers, would I stumble on traces of the colours and patterns they chose to line their world? Would I come closer to understanding what happens when your world falls apart and vanishes?

www.angelafindlay.com

www.angelafindlaytalks.com

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