"Receptacle for toxic culture", 2021 - an attempt at resignification

Receptacle for toxic culture, 2021,

Oil on canvas and transparent textile fibers with the bronze bust of Hitler
by Hedwig Maria Leys from 1932 in a glass box,70 x 57 x 39 cm
 

Receptacle for toxic culture, 2021,

Oil on canvas and transparent textile fibers with the bronze bust of Hitler
by Hedwig Maria Leys from 1932 in a glass box,70 x 57 x 39 cm
 

 Receptacle for toxic culture, 2021,

Oil on canvas and transparent textile fibers with the bronze bust of Hitler
by Hedwig Maria Leys from 1932 in a glass box,70 x 57 x 39 cm
 

Receptacle for toxic culture, 2021,

Oil on canvas and transparent textile fibers with the bronze bust of Hitler
by Hedwig Maria Leys from 1932 in a glass box,70 x 57 x 39 cm
 

How to deal with toxic art 

One of the demands of our time is to remove from public view historical testimonies and also works of art that no longer fit into the 21st century, we wish to live in: In Boston, participants in an anti-racism demonstration toppled into the harbor basin the statue of Edward Colston, who had donated large sums to hospitals and schools but owed his fortune to the slave trade. In Belgium, monuments were damaged to King Leopold II, who had allowed genocide in Africa in the 19th century. In Virginia, a statue of General Lee was lifted from its pedestal. Around the world, monuments to Christopher Columbus are being disposed of.  

The question arises whether the disposal of such testimonies of committed injustice really serves the victims, or in reality not rather the perpetrators, in the sense of amnesia. But how could one deal with them differently? How does one turn a monument of the past into a memorial of the present? 

I was confronted with these questions when I received a call in the summer of 2021 from Dr. Annette Werntze, the director of the Wilhelm Morgner Art Museum. In the context of the exhibition From Expressionism to New Objectivity, which was to be shown at the Morgner Museum, curator Dr. Klaus K√∂sters had decided to integrate a bronze bust of Hitler into the exhibition in order to symbolically illustrate that Soest's time as a "city of art" had been forcibly ended by the National Socialist dictatorship of art. In 1932, Hedwig Maria Ley had made the bust. Justifiably (especially in view of the current polemics about unwelcome legacies of the past), the museum felt obliged not simply to place the bust in the public space of the exhibition without comment, but to present it - in the context of a work of mine - in such a way that the former "monument" would be transformed into the testimony of a tragic past as well as the expression of a critical present. The following key points were important to me: 1. the juxtaposition of the year 1932 (date of the bust's creation) with the year 2021 (date of the current presentation). The first date should also visually locate the bust in another time. The second date should illustrate the view of our time on the past.  2. the head would not stand upright, but lie down. The evocation of a fallen monument should be echoed in it. At the same time it could be avoided that the viewers looked Adolf Hitler in the eyes. 3. I also wanted to refer to the fact that some aspects of history occasionally (and for the most diverse reasons) appear indistinct, blur before our eyes, become "invisible" or forgotten. 4. Finally, a central concern of mine was to create a work that would be reversible, because our view of the past should not appear to be the last word in wisdom, but should in turn be open to future revision. 

All these aspects could best be linked by placing the head in a glass box. The impression of a showcase housing precious objects had to be avoided, so I turned the box around so that it was open at the top, as are terrariums in which spiders, snakes or other dangerous creatures are kept, or "toxic cultural objects"; a term that also appears in the title of the work. I had the two narrow sides of the glass box covered with frosted glass foil, with the date "2021" punched out on the right narrow side. Through these cut-outs in the foil, the look was supposed to enter the box and be drawn directly to the opposite narrow side, on which again, now in white letters, "1932" could be read, in a typography borrowed from Hedwig Ley's text "How my Hitler bust came into being". Designed at an average eye level, the two dates are placed so high that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see the bust itself through the punched-out 2021. If one wants to see it, one must step directly in front of the glass box. Even from this perspective, however, the unobstructed view of the head is blocked, as it lies between several layers of transparent veils, which repeatedly show how Hedwig Ley is in the process of putting the finishing touches to the bust. If one looks through these layers, they visually cling to the bust, that is, to the testimony of the past, soon to become a source or testimony themselves. As long as this genesis of history remains visible, as long as sources are not erased but always reclassified, as long, in other words, as the process of history remains transparent and changeable, as long, I believe, the manipulation of the past and of the people who look upon it from the present does not have too easy a game.