Übersetzungen 01 (Belz) - work in progress

An impression of the past – artist Semâ Bekirović on the making of 'Übersetzungen' (translations)

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

During a residency program in Chemnitz artist Semâ Bekirović dives into the GDR-history of the town. A relief depicting the revolution of the German working class by Johann Belz catches her eye: for weeks she is occupied with making a silicone impression of it, ‘an unfilled mold as a monument to the maker, that could (potentially) be filled with anything’.

"Anyone can be creative," he quipped, "it's rewriting other people that's a challenge.” (Bertold Brecht)

In the midst of the first wave of the covid pandemic (and the accompanying wave of cancellations pouring into my inbox) I suddenly received an email, asking if I would consider participating in the Dialogfelder residency program in the East German city of Chemnitz. Chemnitz is situated on the edge of the Ore Mountains. The city’s fortunes have been closely linked to the excavation of ore and coal. Economic highs were often accompanied by political instability. During World War II, ammunition was produced in Chemnitz, and the city was bombed heavily. During the GDR era uranium was mined in the area. The city became a model socialist town. The huge (and rather bizarre) statue of Karl Marx that still prominently stands in the city center is a reminder of the name it had at the time: Karl Marx Stadt. After the Fall of the Wall, most mines were closed, and a large part of the industry shut down, resulting in high unemployment. Chemnitz was emptying rapidly. Today, many of Chemnitz’s buildings have been taken over by plants and raccoons.

In recent years, lots of migrants have moved to the area. Sadly, and all too predictably, they serve as scapegoats for (part of) the disillusioned native German population. The low rents, the large amount of vacancies, and the relative ruggedness of the city make Chemnitz attractive to students, artists and tech companies. Formerly overgrown courtyards have been transformed into temporary neighborhood cafes, a gallery is giving away art, and projects for children are hosted in a circus tent. Many of these activities are organized by Klub Solitaere, the foundation that also houses Dialogfelder.

‘In a predominantly negatively reputed metropolitan area, the Dialogfelder seek to break through the existing visual and emotional barrier to the neighborhood, creating occasional interventions as reasons to stroll and pause.’ (Dialogfelder website)

Octavio is a student and, as a member of the Bordstein lobby collective, organizes alternative tours and a neighborhood festival. During our tour we pass by some sculptures from the days of the German Democratic Republic. He reflects on this period in history, which he only knows from stories.

According to Octavio, little attention is paid to the GDR during history lessons in schools, but recently he read the diaries his grandfather kept at the time. Ironically, Octavio's grandfather, a committed pacifist, ended up in a high position in the military. In his diary he describes his questions and concerns, such as when he heard about the possible placement of nuclear missiles at the West German border, with an explosion impact of 10 tons but a range of only 32 kilometers.

We decide to make a film, in which Octavio reads from his grandfather’s diary. When Octavio reads the words out loud, a dissonance arises: the diary is written in the first person, but Octavio's young appearance makes it obvious that he could not have experienced the events described himself. Later, during editing, we decide to include the moments between takes, when he is drinking water or reflecting on the text. This way, the text is not only “translated” into a voice of today, but also provided with context.

In 1972, in the Brückenstrasse, four praise poems by Bertolt Brecht were converted into relief walls by various artists (*). Further down the road, on the corner of Bahnhofstrasse, stands the relief ‘Kampf und Sieg der revolutionären deutschen Arbeiterklasse’ (1976) by Johann Belz. Despite its size (about 6 by 15 meters), it manages to appear almost invisible. The relief depicts the revolution of the German working class. From up close, I see hundreds of figures engaged in battles and celebrations. But seen from a distance, the relief disappears against its background: a gigantic wall in almost the same color. A work of art in camouflage.

I ask young people what the ubiquity of images and architecture from the GDR era means to them

The relief 'Kampf und Sieg der revolutionären deutschen Arbeiterklasse' by Johann Belz

Catalogue on Johann Belz

Later I ask young people what the ubiquity of images and architecture from the GDR era means to them. I soon find out that most of them don't seem to pay much attention to these artefacts at all. A young artist tells how she experienced the Wende: from one day to the next she noticed a change, as if the world had shifted slightly, but she was too young to understand what exactly was going on.

I read about Brecht, how he saw his plays as a dramaturgy for participants, rather than as a theater for a passive audience. I wonder how he would apply this principle to a city like Chemnitz.

In a perhaps somewhat clumsy attempt to bridge the gap between past and present, I organize a number of workshops in which I invite passers-by to trace the images on the Brecht monument with coloured markers as they see fit. I am waiting with boxes of markers next to the reliefs (which are safely wrapped in plastic foil for the occasion), but passers-by seem hesitant, they all skittishly move on. Then a Turkish woman and her son stop to talk to us. They arrived in Chemnitz the previous day, and are exploring their new hometown. They keep drawing all afternoon. When a large group of children joins them, all bets are off, and the result is beautiful.

In a perhaps somewhat clumsy attempt to bridge the gap between past and present, I organize a number of workshops in which I invite passers-by to trace the images on the Brecht monument with coloured markers as they see fit

A still from 'Übersetzungen 03 (Brecht)', een videoinstallation based on a workshop 

A still from 'Übersetzungen 03 (Brecht)', een videoinstallation based on a workshop 

A still from 'Übersetzungen 03 (Brecht)', een videoinstallation based on a workshop 

In the meantime, I have gotten in touch with Sonja Belz, Johann Belz's widow. In the morning before I cycle to her house I scour the internet for more information. I read that Belz was seriously injured as a soldier in the second world war, and that he took his own life before the artwork on Bahnhofstrasse was completed.

Sonja Belz is an artist too, and well-known in the cultural life of the city, talks candidly. How happy they were at first when Johann was awarded the commission with his original design, and their disappointment when the same design was rejected a little later on the grounds that it was “not socialist enough”. Having two young children and a new home, they had already spent most of the money for the assignment. Meanwhile, some of Johann’s work is criticized for being “decadent”. After a long series of sketches and rejections, he implements some of the committee's suggestions into a new design. He manages to convince the committee, but falls into a serious depression himself. Johann calls the work a “Scheißrelief”, while he continues to work on it. Sonja still remembers how she modeled for him for days on end, naked, with her arms in the air in an ice cold shed. She says she will never forget the excruciating pain in her arms.

After Johann's death, artist friends completed the artwork. Sonja tells me how much she hated the relief, but has grown to love it over time. She is delighted that I want to do something with the statue. I intend to make a silicone impression of it, an unfilled mold as a monument to the maker, that could (potentially) be filled with anything.

The municipality approves my plan. I order 200 pounds of silicone and fill my days watching mold making tutorials on youtube.

I have met two art enthusiasts who want to help me with the project. Matthias is a blacksmith, Peter works as a model builder of machine parts, but has had little work lately, due to the corona crisis.

Matthias and Semâ working on the silicone impression of the relief

Detail of the silicone impression

My initial expectation, to be ready within 3 days, turns out to be hopelessly optimistic: in the end, we will be working for almost two weeks. This is not the first time that I have naively embarked on a project, but it is the first time that so much is at stake. In my enthusiasm I have spent my entire budget plus a significant portion of my savings. At night I am plagued by imaginative nightmares in which the project ends in disaster.

In blue, the relief finally seems to be breaking away from its dark background. Droves of people pass by to marvel at our project. A child remarks that the blue color makes her see the sculpture for the first time.

Most passers-by appear to like what we are doing. Others are shocked and ask if we are painting the relief. A number of people visit us daily, to monitor our progress. Layer after layer we apply the silicone paste to the sculpture. Our bodies start to hurt from the long hours of physical labor, and personal conversations about art, politics and history arise.

In blue, the relief finally seems to be breaking away from its dark background

A part of the relief exhibited

Peter talks about the way trauma gets passed on through generations. He himself comes from one of the millions of families whose relatives did not return from the war. They left a hole is never talked about. I tell him about my father, who, as a toddler, fled Bosnia with his family during the German occupation, and spent most of his childhood stateless in refugee camps. Same war, different shit (or same shit?)

The exhibition opens, but my work is not yet finished. I show the videos I made of the workshops around the Brecht monument, and the work I made with Octavio about his grandfather's diary. I hope to finish at least part of the relief before the finissage.

We want to release the silicone, but it is stuck. Millimeter by millimeter, we remove the dried silicone from the statue. We’re exhausted, and Pieter and I get involved in a tiring political disagreement. Matthias compares the process to the removal of a scab from a recently healed wound. When we remove the last piece of silicone from the statue, it is night. The silicone skin lies at my feet like a huge amorphous blanket. It is too thin, and has not kept its shape. I feel the urge to throw it into a garbage container immediately.

Peter thinks he can fix it by putting the silicone mold back onto the statue and hardening it on the outside with resin. I am tired and pessimistic. Besides, I don't have time: I have an online teaching job the next day. While I spend my day glued to my Zoom screen, Matthias and Peter return to the relief with part of the silicone form. For the second time in this story, the realization of an artwork is saved by friends of the artist. At least part of the work can now be shown at the finissage.

Many people involved in the projects come to watch. Octavio is there with his grandfather. When she sees the mold, an emotional Sonja Belz says that it is as if Johann is still alive. Matthias performs with his band while Peter and I dance around like fools.

On my last day in Chemnitz, I pay another visit to Sonja. This time we discuss her own work. Sonja makes beautiful, refined bobbin lace works. The often abstract motifs are woven together in ingenious mathematical patterns. Bobbin lace is a technique that has been practiced in the ore mountains for centuries. When mining collapsed after a long period of war in the 17th century, the proceeds of the bobbin lace kept people alive.

Sonja Belz shows her work

Work by Sonja Belz

I ask Sonja how Johann felt about her artistry. She says that she started making lace when she was six years old, but that she only picked it up again after his death. Throughout the years, she has exhibited her works in many places. I think of Johann, whose abstract works were dismissed as too decadent, and I ask her if she ran into the same problems during the GDR era. No, she says, her use of abstraction was not seen as a problem, as her work was "only" considered to be folk art.

I need the original relief if I ever want to finish the rest of the silicone mold, so I decide to store it in Chemnitz. When I drive away the next day I have the feeling that I also leave a part of myself behind. While driving along the Autobahn, I listen to the news, about refugees, diseases and wars, and I have the feeling that I live in a bobbin-laced world hanging together with knots and threads.

 

* The sculptors of the Brecht Praise Poems are, , Martin Wetzel: Relief „Lob der Partei“, Stele „Lob des Kommunismus“, Eberhard Roßdeutscher: Relief „Lob des Revolutionärs“, Joachim Jastram: Relief „Lob des Lernens and Lob der Dialektik“

Thanks to,  Sonja Belz, Peter Schultz, Matthias Kulutacs, Irene Hug, Dialogfelder, Klub Solitaer, Knut Dietz, Marcus Bruystens, Els Willems, Tudor Bratu, Emma Dietrich, Octavio Gulde, Muriel Wolf, Chemnitzer Filmwerkstatt, familie Gulde, de stad Chemnitz 

Semâ Bekirović
is an artist

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2020