‘We were beaten but that doesn’t mean that we were beaten morally,’ pronounced Léon Degrelle in 1983, on a special edition of the Spanish television programme La clave (The Key), titled ‘Nazi Hunting’. Degrelle founded the Belgian fascist party Rex in 1935 and collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. After Berlin fell in 1945, he fled to Scandinavia, only to make his way to Spain, where he was granted citizenship under Francisco Franco’s rule. In 1947, Belgium condemned him to death in absentia, a fate that he avoided by remaining in Spain until he died in 1994. In the intervening decades, he became an icon for European neo-Nazi groups.
‘Nazi Hunting’ was made in light of the extradition of SS leader Nikolaus ‘Klaus’ Barbie – also known as the ‘Butcher of Lyon’ – from Bolivia to France, where he was to stand trial for crimes against humanity, provoking an international debate about the statute of limitations for prosecuting war crimes. It is mentioned several times in ‘Summer Thoughts’ (2012–ongoing), a collection of letters written by Belgian artist Sven Augustijnen to curator Marta Kuzma, in which he relates his research into the history and recent resurgence of Nazism across the globe. The growing cache of letters has been exhibited in Kosovo, Norway, Taiwan and Germany, amongst other places, both on its own and alongside selections of archival material. At Jan Mot, the nine letters written to date have been printed on A1 vinyl sheets and stuck to the wall, while the episode of La clave plays on an iPad that is positioned next to a selection of related books.
Augustijnen anchors his study of Nazism and its opponents in the work of several figures, including the Swedish-born, Norwegian textile artist Hannah Ryggen, whose tapestries often feature anti-fascist themes. Etiopia (Ethiopia, 1935), for example, recounts the Italian invasion of Ethiopia with a twist, depicting Emperor Haile Selassie next to the severed and impaled head of Benito Mussolini. Ryggen’s life and work run like threads through Augustijnen’s letters. He tells Kuzma of his travels to Norway and Kosovo to see Ryggen’s tapestries, each time deepening and revising his knowledge and understanding. In his second letter, he writes that Etiopia was censored during the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, when curators covered Mussolini’s mutilated head with a cloth. Except, they didn’t. Augustijnen corrects his position two years later, having discovered that the tapestry was in fact folded to hide the entire section in which the dictator’s head appears.
The letters make numerous excursus via historical cases, which range from those of Barbie and Degrelle to the 2016 terrorist bombings in Brussels and the recent right-wing electoral gains in Germany, Austria, Poland and Hungary. They do so in plain text in a standard layout, as though heeding Theodor Adorno’s admonishment about the ethical indefensibility of aesthetic representation after the Holocaust. Imagery, too, is kept at an absolute minimum, present only in the second-hand sources of videos and books.
Augustijnen’s letters evoke the intense intellectual energy involved in forming associations between seemingly disparate facts and ideas, in linking major historical events and minor biographical details. In a particularly engrossing, if complicated section about the relationship between capitalism and fascism, we learn that the German industrialist Alfred Krupp employed former SS commander Otto Skorzeny as his sales representative in Argentina, and of further examples of Nazis in public office in postwar Germany. ‘Summer Thoughts’ is demanding: reading the nine letters alone, trying to absorb their countless facts and connections, required me to spend more than an hour in the gallery. This durational work requires a kind of attention that moving image might exonerate, and spending time with it feels necessary at a moment when the cyclical nature of history seems to be threatening its worst.
Sven Augustijnen: Summer Thoughts runs at Jan Mot, Brussels until 31 March.
Main image: Sven Augustijnen, 'Summer Thoughts', 2012–ongoing, mixed media, installation view, 2018, Jan Mot, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels