How Contemporary Art Can Help Create a Culture of Remembrance

In the face of creeping far-right thinking, an exhibition in Munich underscores the role contemporary art can play in ensuring historic atrocities are never forgotten

Inaugurated in 2015, 60 years after the end of World War II, Munich’s Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism serves as a locus of remembrance in a city long known as the ‘capital of repressed memory’. Featuring archival photographs, objects, documents and short films, the museum’s permanent exhibition gives a chronological account of Munich’s role as the city in which the Nazi Party was founded during the Weimar Republic, documenting its reign of terror, the rise of the resistance, the war years and the postwar response. Located on the site of the former Nazi Party headquarters near Königsplatz, which served as an arena for militaristic propaganda rallies, the museum is surrounded by the city’s haunting past. Next to the new building lies a weathered plinth: the sole remains of a memorial dedicated to those who died during the failed Nazi putsch of November 1923.

The presence of this historic stone in close proximity to the recently constructed museum correlates with one of the central issues raised by ‘Tell me about yesterday tomorrow’, an exhibition curated by Nicolaus Schafhausen and Juliane Bischoff, which features works by 46 international artists including Cana Bilir-Meier, Loretta Fahrenholz, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Ydessa Hendeles, Arthur Jafa, Michaela Mélian, Emeka Ogboh and Hito Steyerl. In the face of the creeping normalization of racist and far-right thinking in recent years, the curators examine the potential of history to identify and challenge present-day anti-democratic processes.

Keren Cytter, Fashions, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich

‘Fostering a culture of remembrance is crucial to the future of our democracies,’ write Schafhausen and Bischoff in the accompanying exhibition literature. ‘It creates awareness not only of the historical conditions that have led to exclusion, degradation and destruction, but also of our responsibility for ensuring that these processes – created and influenced by people – do not repeat themselves.’ Installing a contemporary art exhibition within a permanent museum display designed to foster an engagement with history engenders certain risks – for instance, that one or the other might appear damaged or exploited. In ‘Tell me about yesterday tomorrow’, however, both elements come together on equal terms, complementing each other in unexpected and productive ways.

In her series ‘Recyclingpark Neckartal’ (2019), Berlin-based photographer Annette Kelm focuses on 14 travertine columns commissioned from a Stuttgart quarry by the Nazis in the 1930s. The pillars were intended to form part of a monument to Benito Mussolini in ‘Germania’, Adolf Hitler’s planned rebuilding of Berlin as the capital of his new world order – a project overseen by architect Albert Speer. As the war progressed, however, construction on Germania (for which 40,000 homes had been demolished) gradually came to a standstill and the columns were never brought to Berlin. In Kelm’s photographs, they are shown from three different angles: almost overgrown by nature, overshadowed by a huge waste incinerator and with a row of cars parked directly in front of them. These three perspectives seem to epitomize the approaches society generally takes to dealing with the burdensome legacy of the past.

Kent Monkman, The Deluge, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 3 × 2.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich; photograph: Orla Connolly

Elsewhere, Keren Cytter’s video Fashions (2019) portrays the fictional interactions of a mother, daughter and grandmother who live together in a flat. The work examines contempt for older people as one of the fundamental precepts of fascist dogma. Moreover, it invites viewers to reflect on the transgenerational emotional devastation wreaked by fascism and the ideology it propagated even after the war in publications such as the popular child-rearing guide Die deutsche Mutter und ihr erstes Kind (The German Mother and Her First Child, 1934), of which millions of copies were printed. Its author, the Munich-based doctor and Nazi supporter Johanna Haarer, made only minor alterations to the postwar editions that continued to be issued until the late 1980s. Among other things, the book advised mothers to ignore the emotional needs of their babies and to keep touch to a minimum. Attachment theory assumes that this behaviour can lead to lasting emotional disturbances handed down to subsequent generations. The manifest contempt for old people in Fashions shows an intergenerational incapacity for emotional empathy that appears uncomfortably prescient in the light of current discourse around the treatment of the elderly during the coronavirus crisis.

Other works, such as Willem de Rooij’s Proposal Towards the Memorialization of ‘Asoziale’ and ‘Berufsverbrecher’ (2019), directly address remembrance practices. De Rooij proposes the addition of two new plaques in the memorial room at the former Dachau concentration camp, to include groups of as-yet-undocumented victims. The Nazis classified individuals as ‘Asozial’ (antisocials) or ‘Berufsverbrecher’ (career criminals) on an often-arbitrary basis, applying these labels equally to prostitutes, LGBTQ+ people, the homeless, petty criminals, social misfits, those who were allegedly ‘workshy’ and those guilty of serious crimes. According to the German Culture Council, members of this heterogeneous group – who, for decades, were not officially recognized as victims of National Socialism – account for an estimated 70,000 of those imprisoned in concentration camps. While De Rooij was researching Nazi persecution of LGBTQ+ individuals and their marginalization in terms of postwar commemoration, he discovered that Dachau’s International Memorial (1968), by Yugoslavian artist Nandor Glid, did not include any reference to them. Only in the mid-1990s, following a campaign, was a pink triangle, the badge they were forced to wear in the camps, installed in a neighbouring memorial space. But, without any inclusion of the black and green triangles worn by those deemed ‘antisocials’ and ‘career criminals’ respectively, remembrance of all holocaust casualties remains incomplete. In 2018, the German government included in its coalition agreement a pledge to recognize these forgotten victims and, earlier this year, parliament passed a corresponding bill calling on the government to increase public awareness and to secure all victims a place within the culture of state remembrance.

Baseera Khan, Nike ID #1, 2018, Nike Air Force One mid-tops, acrylic glass boxes, books, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich 

The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site commemorates the first camp opened by the Nazis shortly after they came to power in 1933. Artist Sebastian Jung visited the memorial in the summer of 2019 and captured his impressions in rapidly executed pencil drawings (Memorial Site Dachau on 9 August 2019, drawings, 2019). In these works, Jung focuses on the way visitors approach the memorial, showing them mainly as outlined silhouettes using their mobile phones to take photographs that will soon be forgotten in the cloud. Installed alongside the Munich Documentation Centre’s permanent display of artefacts, Jung’s drawings highlight the difficulty of keeping remembrance alive but, as with so many of the works in ‘Tell me about yesterday tomorrow’, they also underscore the role contemporary art can play in ensuring such historic atrocities are never forgotten and, crucially, never repeated.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

‘Tell me about yesterday tomorrow’ is on view at the Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich, until 30 August 2020.

Main image: Annette Kelm, Recyclingpark Neckartal, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, Munich

Kito Nedo lives in Berlin where he works as contributing editor for frieze and as freelance journalist for several magazines and newspapers. In 2017, he won the ADKV-Art Cologne Award for Art Criticism.

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2020

frieze magazine

April 2020

frieze magazine

May-June 2020