RESIST, FLEE OR PARTICIPATE?
Monumental memorial by Anne Wenzel in Boijmans Van Beuningen
Manon Braat, Kunstbeeld 05-2010
In the middle of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen lies a commemorative space bedecked with heavy ceramic floral wreaths. "Requiem of Heroism" by artist Anne Wenzel is a contemporary memorial that inevitably evokes passionate associations with the commemoration of the Second World War.
Anne Wenzel is German. This fact cannot help but make the presentation of her monumental "Requiem of Heroism" more intriguing than if she were to have a different nationality. Wenzel (1972) belongs to a generation that can in no way be held responsible for events that took place in the Second World War. How does she feel about this herself? And how can this question be posed without causing her offence? Caution is thus required. But even before I utter the first tactfully formulated question, she pre-empts it.
"The fact that I am a German living in the Netherlands is precisely why I became interested in the imagery of Nazi Germany. Everyone knows that signs and symbols are misused by totalitarian systems and yet, in spite of this knowledge, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by them. I am interested in taking forms that everyone immediately associates with a specific context, reducing them to their most basic element and examining the extent to which form can be regarded separately from content."
In 2007 Wenzel made an installation with flags and ceramic sculptures in Kunstvereniging Diepenheim, which was an almost exact reproduction of an image from the nazi era. All she omitted were the swastikas, eagles and other explicit references. The result: nobody recognized the Nazi imagery.
If she had remained in Germany, she says, her fascination for this symbolism would probably never have arisen. The subject would be far too delicate. Moreover, a certain distance is necessary in order to observe it. And that distance, Wenzel believes, is impossible to create in Germany: "There, you are constantly reminded of the enormous guilt that your nation bears for all eternity."
In Boijmans Van Beuningen, Wenzel now presents an installation of floral wreaths: a universal symbol for the commemoration of the fallen of war. In the middle of a centrally located hall in the museum, Wenzel built a dark grey, sheet metal plateau. A plinth of the same material, which stands on the plateau, bears a large floral wreath, with smaller wreathes strewn around it. The flowers are modelled in clay and glazed primarily in shades of grey with white, red and green accents. Wenzel has closed off the four alcoves in the corners of the museum space with fences of the same anthracite-coloured metal. Behind the bars, floral wreaths can again be seen on plinths or hanging on the walls of the alcoves. "Requiem of Heroism" is a tremendously imposing, monumental installation. One cannot escape the immense, ponderous gravity of the war symbolism and the massiveness of the sculptures - a single wreath can easily weigh 600 kilo.
The installation is made even more poignant by the fact that the flowers in the wreathes are withered. The ceremony is over; the time for collective remembrance has passed. Wenzel: "The moment of commemoration itself is entirely stage-managed and proceeds according to strict protocols. Briefly, there is talk of fellowship. Only after everyone has gone, and just the withered wreaths remain, do you have the space to ask yourself how you want to relate to that imposed heroism. Do you allow yourself to be swept along by it or not? Everyone knows that the sites where memorial services are held and the rituals they involve are contrived and designed in order to stir people's emotions. I am interested in the personal choice that the individual makes in regard to these mechanisms. I do not wish to condemn, but I do want to say to people: know that you are being manipulated, understand what you see. Moreover, I find the contrast between the transience of the flowers and the heroism of the monument very beautiful."
Pacifism and nationalism
For the past few years, Wenzel has been conducting research into how memorials are designed and how visitors perceive them. She went to see a large number of war memorials in Berlin and visited the region around Ieper, the Belgian town where half a million Belgian, French, German and British soldiers perished during the First World War and which has over 170 war cemeteries. According to Wenzel, the memorial grounds of the different countries in Ieper reveal how nations deal with their own history. The British, for example, have beautiful, extremely well-tended cemeteries, where fresh flowers are always laid. You can visit them by coach and on special helicopter flights. It is a tourist attraction, a place for the collective experience of emotions.
The German area is less well-kept and feels much harsher according to Wenzel. The German visitors don't really know how to deal with the place. Over the years they have been concentrating mostly on coming to terms with the Second World War. This is also evident in Berlin, where a large monument to Ernst Thälmann, leader of the German Communist Party during the Weimar Republic, has stood since the nineteen eighties. Wenzel: "The monument remains standing because socialism is an important component of the city's history, but it is not maintained and is always covered in graffiti and bird droppings. And that while Germans are actually very 'gründlich'. They have obviously yet to find a place for that part of history."
With the floral wreaths in "Requiem of Heroism" Wenzel also addresses the Dutch collective commemoration. We associate the laying of wreaths primarily with the National Memorial Day on May 4th, when Queen Beatrix lays a wreath at the National Monument on the Dam. Pacifism and nationalism meet at this kind of official memorial ceremony, according to Wenzel. On the one hand the horrific consequences of war are recollected, but on the other, the soldiers who gave their lives for the fatherland are honoured as heroes. The Dutch, however, do not really enjoy hearing talk of nationalism. They prefer to close their eyes to their own dark chapters in history, in Wenzel's opinion. "During the Second World War, the Dutch were certainly not as innocent as people always maintain", she exclaims, laughing but still scornful. "For years the impression was created that the Dutch were all part of the resistance. But the truth proves to be rather less seemly. Many Dutch people collaborated with the Nazis and sometimes also actively assisted in the extermination of the Jews."
According to Wenzel, nationalistic sentiments are still largely denied today. She loses sleep over the popularity of people such as Fortuyn and Wilders, "but here everyone still thinks that it will all just blow over. With my German history, I am constantly thinking: for heaven's sake watch out!" She does not mince her words when she says that the Netherlands simply refuses to admit that there is a support base here for right wing radicalism. To her, Wilders is unequivocally radical right wing: his pronouncements are in violation of the constitution and he polarises and radicalises people. "However, according to research, it appears that Wilders is not radical right wing but 'new right wing'," she scorns. "What utter nonsense! When asked, every Dutch citizen would plainly assert that the Belgian Vlaams Belang Party is radical right wing, as they would for the politics of Jörg Haider at the time, and that of Le Pen and Berlusconi. But they invent a new term for their own radical politics in order to tone it down. No, the Netherlands is still far from being wide-awake. There ought to be some serious research for once, into why right wing radicalism is able to exist in this country. But first the fact of its existence here must be accepted."
In order to open people's eyes, Wenzel often uses familiar signs and symbols in their literal sense. "But", she says indignantly, "no one ever notices the political statements I make. The flags in Diepenheim, a sculpture I made of fighting dogs, they were all about right wing extremism in Germany. My visual idiom is so obviously derived from universally known elements, but nobody has ever seen that! Sometimes, I have thought: do I really have to use swastikas so that somebody finally notices the political implications of my work? In a recent television interview I insisted on talking about the political references in "Requiem of Heroism". The editors cut everything out. I get the idea that the Dutch like to keep things cosy, safe."
Is Anne Wenzel courageous for unflinchingly bringing up subjects from the blackest page in her country's history? And why do we prefer not to see the admittedly unmistakable political references to right wing radicalism in her work? Why does it feel so uncomfortable to talk about it, while she views history with such common sense and honesty? She candidly tells that her grandfather fought for the Nazis, as did the grandfathers of all her girlfriends at school. Wenzel: "In theory, you had the choice to resist, flee or participate. Only, in practice it proved that you would need to be extremely heroic to join the resistance as a young man in the middle of the war. My grandfather was no hero. Personally, I have never had a problem dealing with this. But in the Netherlands, people say too easily: your grandfather was a collaborator."