Can we grasp it?

At the beginning of the project a question that remains unanswered in its complexity loomed large: Is it possible today, 40 years after Adorno’s Education after Auschwitz, to render artistically the experiences induced by a visit to a former concentration camp? Or does his famous dictum still hold sway that all culture after Auschwitz, including its urgent critique, is rubbish? (alle Kultur nach Auschwitz, samt der dringlichen Kritik daran, ist Müll)

The way in which we look at a place through photographic images is as old as the medium itself. Concepts such as “documentation”, “interpretation”, “approach” have long been common currency not just in the artistic discourse, where they are usually confidently applied to describe a specific imagery; they are also very familiar to us in the way in which we use photography in everyday life. And so it was with the idea of utilising this tradition in a place of Nazi horror, thereby trying to counter oblivion through visual remembrance, that 15 students and two lecturers in photography at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig spent three days at the Mittelbau-Dora Memorial outside Nordhausen in October 2009.

Unlike other and better known Nazi concentration and labour camps, the Memorial has very few concrete testimonies left to the reign of terror. Moreover, the site has undergone many changes in its eventful history over the past 65 years. it is also often inaccurately associated in people’s minds with the idea of a “Nazi rocket factory” and as a result has become unpleasantly “mythical”.

Visitors to the site today are first of all struck by the landscape, which might be perceived as “picturesque”, not to say “pretty”. As they walk through the woods, punctuated by a few scattered foundations and information boards, they could certainly be misled by the site’s leisure or recreational value, if they were to ignore the signs and the information, which remain unobtrusive unlike for instance in Buchenwald or Auschwitz. There is the former parade ground remodelled in the 1970s; the building that once housed the camp’s fire brigade; and more particularly the extant crematorium with the section of the underground tunnel system with the armaments installations that is now accessible again; and then the modern architecture of the new visitor and information centre – they all meld into a commemorative display that is difficult to grasp.

Consequently, after the three-day visit, there was a great deal of uncertainty about the extent to which these experiences could provide the basis for artistic responses, and whether contemporary images were even capable of providing a response to these places and their history. However, the initially tangible experience of “mediated” history, in both its didactic educational form and its aesthetic form, certainly prompted a further exploration of these questions. As part of the follow-up to the excursion a seminar was organised which first looked at the different theoretical discourses relating to the concept of the “culture of remembrance”. Essays and articles by Aleida and Jan Assmann, Peter Burke, Jürgen Hannig, Siegfried Kracauer, to mention but a few, paved the way for discussions which made the works shown here possible in the first place or had a decisive influence on them.

The students worked on their projects for over a year; various approaches were adopted then rejected, amended, substantiated or abandoned. Most of the individual projects turned to other, associated places, searched for (auto-) biographical references, and sought to establish links between what had to be perceived and what was perceived. Thereafter the works dealt increasingly with representing the past in the present rather than attempting to make the past visible in an image, something which, contrary to popular belief, photography can achieve only to a limited degree.

“What, then, is made visible?” was the legitimate question. The view of a stone quarry, barely recognisable as such in the distance between the houses of a residential area, only becomes truly relevant if one is aware of how it came about and the history of the village depicted. The image of the video broadcast of a commemorative ceremony is reminiscent of the media-based aesthetics of a World Cup, and the attempt repeatedly to photograph a tunnel entrance that was blasted shut in 1945 only to realise as a result that it cannot actually be described reflects the limitations of historical portrayals through images. And yet the potential of photographic and artistic commentary lies precisely in the limitations of what can be depicted. Not in its clarity and its unmistakable message, but in an “open-endedness”, an irritation, and therefore an invitation to reconcile what is seen with one’s own perspective, experience and knowledge. Given the sheer scale of the barbarity, the idea of “wanting to grasp” is unlikely to lead to an “ability to grasp”, which is precisely why it is indispensible.

The works featured in this catalogue and showcased at the exhibition expand on the context of the Dora seminar with contributions that were made at the same time by other classes at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig and focused on similar places and historical reconstructions. The discourse that surrounds remembrance is always and necessarily shaped by what is actually remembered through the media-inspired zeitgeist. It has also made clear that inter-disciplinary co-operation involving, say, historians, sociologists, architects and artists is arguably now more important than ever before. The World on My Doorstep is the title of a publication by American photographer Paul Strand, and that world has indeed become more complex, its history less simple to differentiate, its present more difficult to describe.

To answer at least in part the question raised at the beginning: the works of the Dora project also express a sense of “Never again!”, not with an admonishing and moralising finger or other catchy slogan whose form rather than content are partly to blame for society’s widespread disenchantment with history. A foreign student at the HGB recently remarked that, for him, institutionalised remembrance in Germany had to do mainly with the materials concrete, steel, glass and the colour gray, in other words with an aesthetic that shapes representative purposes in completely different areas, too. The remark is as obvious as it is interesting: shouldn’t it be different?

Torsten Hattenkerl