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Berlin is not Sarajevo, but they have more things in common than the obvious at a first glance. Kathrin Becker on city furnishings, fleetingness, and raising awareness in public space.
"De/construction of Monument" is a project about the symbolic content of monuments: it analyzes the ideologies and relationships of dominance which only become decipherable or visible at the moment they are erected or destroyed. What is it about this phenomenon and the debate accompanying it that interests you?
Kathrin Becker: For a long time now, I've been interested in art from socialist countries and their successor states. Paradigmatic transitions like those that have taken place in the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are especially interesting: from a socialist notion of art, particularly in the sense of an independent path pursued under Tito, to an understanding of art today that is revealing itself everywhere as a "dictatorship of the ethnic nation." To typify this transition using the example of monuments opens up an interesting spectrum. Conceptual art forms have had a great tradition in the former Yugoslavia since the 1970s. The doctrine of socialist realism did not hold sway there as completely as in the states of the Warsaw Pact; modernism was very much part of the official line on art. A very important part of the work undertaken in "De/construction of Monument" is the aspect of counterweights: forming counterweights to the conservative notions of art held by the new national elites.
"De/construction of Monument" counters an ethnically defined concept of nation prevalent in Bosnia-Herzegovina with an artistic corrective, one that focuses on cultural openness and communication. How can one connect a project that originated in such a specific political context with the reality in Germany?
On the one hand, there is no doubt that there is a tradition here as well that ideologically appropriates and exploits monuments - think of the monuments in East Berlin. And even our democratic state has no qualms about demolishing the ideological signs of a past rule, a praxis of "damnatio memoriae." On the other hand, the monument in public space and its functions is a fiercely debated topic, especially in Berlin: and I'm not just thinking of the recent controversy over the Holocaust Memorial by Peter Eisenman, but also the monument for Rosa Luxemburg. And beyond this connection, Sarajevo and Berlin are tied together in their being places saturated with history: for Sarajevo, World War I, and the Balkans War; for Berlin both World Wars and the Wall. And last but not least, we should not forget that many war refugees from Bosnia fled to Berlin - this is another connecting element.
Are these parallels visible in the works for "displaced"?
The works in Berlin emerge from an observation, namely that the themes taken up in "De/ construction of Monument" are symptoms: symptoms of social processes for the current state of a city. All of the artists involved in "displaced" have visited Sarajevo, except Šejla Kamerić, who lives there in any case. Their observations about Sarajevo are the trigger for their works; they seek out correspondences with the state of Bosnian society. The complexity of monument history will thus play a less significant role in the Berlin project than in Sarajevo. It will be addressed in so far as all projects are being developed for public space. That is in itself already a statement on the issue of art's representative dimension.
Which issues and questions are to be placed in public space?
Awareness for the dialectic between public memory/public amnesia and the economy of attracting attention. The project's artists are not working on the complexes of East-West relations and monuments. But this is not motivated by a sense that East-West history has been exhausted as a theme; on the contrary, it's just that there seems to be more pressing issues at the moment, namely generating awareness for displacement and how, in a media-dominated society, our historical memory is becoming increasingly tied to agendas that seem to shift almost on a daily basis. And this naturally includes monuments. But today it is more important to focus on themes like migration processes, expulsion, and nationalization tendencies in the heart of Europe.
Therefore the title "displaced"?
The idea for the title came to me under the impressions left by my trips to Bosnia-Herzegovina. From a European perspective one can say that the country is a "displaced nation," in the sense of being excluded from Europe. Our project is concerned with the condition of being ousted, or of being shunned. In a kind of reflex to what is happening in Sarajevo, awareness is to be raised and enhanced in Berlin; the events are to be retrieved and re-placed in public consciousness.
Nevertheless, the works - especially with their being realized in public space - must reflect the local context as well. How is this connection being sought out?
Stih & Schnock strive to grasp analytically how history and memory are taken up as themes and the functions art performs in public space. For ten days they will write a column for a Berlin paper that focuses on life in Bosnia- Herzegovina in a seemingly perpetual state of emergency. The works of Danica Dakić and Maria Thereza Alves tend more toward poetical metaphors: Dakić makes use of the human voice, while Alves uses the plant world to show the interpenetration of history, economics, and identities. As far as Šejla Kamerić is concerned, one clearly notices that she is younger and has grown up in a media-dominated world: her strategies are public strategies. For "displaced" she deals with the imminent threat and the creation of security - aspects not only dominating Bosnian society, but which are playing an increasingly important role here as well after September 11 and Madrid. In contrast, for Edgar Arceneaux personal history is important: begun in 1999, his installation project "Drawings of Re-moval," for which he cuts out elements from drawings and reassembles them anew, emblematizes precisely the process of remembering and forgetting.
Both the public space as well as the monuments are thus grasped to a large extent as dematerialized - that is, we shouldn't expect to see an equestrian statue on a market square?
And if so, then at the most as mimicry. All artists involved share the view that contemporary art is deconstructive, and "displaced" is not to be some kind of city furnishing. It was clear from the very beginning that radio shows, intervening in subway advertising, or similar such actions are possible. In this regard it is interesting to note in turn that the new monuments selected for Sarajevo within the framework of "De/construction of Monument" are all block or cube shaped. In Berlin, the monuments take on unexpected forms such as sounds, newspaper articles, and plants. In any case, there will be an element of fleetingness in all the works. And this fleetingness stands diametrically opposed to the immobile presence of monuments and how they are thus susceptible to ideological monopolization.
Interview: Christiane Kühl
Kathrin Becker is managing director of the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein and head of the NBK Video Forum. She studied art history and Slavic studies in Bochum, Moscow, and Leningrad. For "relations," she has taken on the project leadership for "displaced."
The text was published in "read relations 3", the magazin of the projekt "relations".