Sven Augustijnen, ‘Summer Thoughts’

At Jan Mot, Brussels, nine letters written by the artist track the chilling resurgence of Nazism across the globe in recent years

‘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.


Sven Augustijnen, 'Summer Thoughts', 2012–ongoing, mixed media, installation view, 2018, Jan Mot, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels

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.


Sven Augustijnen, 'Summer Thoughts', 2012–ongoing, mixed media, installation view, 2018, Jan Mot, Brussels. Courtesy: the artist and Jan Mot, Brussels

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

Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer based in London, UK. Her book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration is published by Phaidon (2017).

Most Read

The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018