When I first came to Taiwan in 2019, I visited the Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park (human rights memorial and museum) in New City Taipei where young artists held some inventions throughout the memorial site (since 2007). The participating artists were also invited to human rights institutions and museums in Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Gwangju, South Korea and Berlin, Germany.
It reminded me of my ongoing research of how to relate contemporary art, especially live arts, to a rather monumental moment as in remembrance. Growing up in the German Democratic Republic, since the reunification of East and West Germany, the politics of commemoration have been central to a new national representation of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The states of Germany and Israel are historically linked to each other as the nation that organized and perpetrated the European Jewry and the nation established as an answer to antisemitic persecution, but in the past 50 years, this relationship has undergone a process of normalization, both politically and culturally. In 2016 and 2017, the partner institutions Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) and the Center for Contemporary Art Tel Aviv (CCA) worked together to produce a set of performances and exhibitions entitled “Conditions of Political Choreography,” which used artistic choreography to examine the space of memory situated between Germany and Israel in the period since 1990.
Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the project set out to investigate links between historical perpetrators, victims, and liberators, as well as continued manifestation of these dynamics in the present day. The project examines uneasiness with the culture of remembrance, which cultural scientist Aleida Assmann in her book Das neue Unbehagen an der Erinnerungskultur (The New Discontents of Remembrance Culture) ascribes to the fact that what and how we remember has become increasingly defined by governmental policies of purification — both in Germany and Israel. The two states have established their own specific ways of remembering the Shoah. Yet where are those rituals of remembrance situated in times of an enduring political conflict in the Middle East, as well as in light of Germany’s political responsibility to abstain or participate in international wars? And also, in the face of the fight against Islamist ideology in Germany and racism against its Muslim population and growing animosity towards Arabs in Israel? The topic of this exhibition, the memory space between Germany and Israel, further straddles the question of the relationship between the New Europe and the Middle East.
For this exhibition, the question of how it is possible to remember the Second World War and the Shoah was actually a secondary concern. The primary concern was rather the problem of historical awareness in the face of European weariness and the growth of racism in democratic societies. The task of imagining a dialectical memory that is complementary to both historical knowledge and personal recollection demands multiple perspectives. A key perspective here is that of migration, which is one of the greatest challenges of our time – and simultaneously lies at the very foundation of the European political order. If such a form of remembering could be achieved, it could potentially change the nascent transnational memory project of the 21st century for the better. For a reunified Germany in a New Europe, it would mean, amongst other things, redefining the relation of the memories of the Shoah, Stalinism, and Colonialism; for Israel, it would mean recognizing the Shoah and al-Nakba as constitutive elements of the present. In the award-winning yet controversial book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2014) the Israeli author Ari Shavit demands to accept the “cruel face” of Zionism, the historical recognition that Israel was founded in part by the expelling of Arab population from what became its territory. The perspectives of diaspora and migration now radically alter ideas of either German or Israeli society as homogenous entities engaged in battles for inclusion or exclusion, the latter already drawing its identity from a diasporic history of expulsion and escape. This altering view has the potential to crack consensus notions of national historiography.
The exhibition’s choice of international artists reflected this circumstance. Organizers specifically sought out voices of dissent and works that offered artistic renderings of formative historical conditions. The cooperation of the two partner institutions offered a potential contestation of the historical relationship between Germany and Israel, a relationship based on solidarity with the Israeli nation state. The joint effort served in the creation of a memory space, by which one may point beyond the current horizon and into the future.
Working in traditional media such as film, video, installation, painting, and photography, artists were asked to develop interventionist approaches to performance and works which could open multi-perspectival spaces of experience and be understood as constitutive elements of memory. The exhibition highlights remembrances of violent histories, converting them into multivalent discourses, which then manifest in the different dimensions of physical space, performance, and participation (movement, object, situation). Unlike a linear dialogue between two interlocutors, the plurality of multilogue-communication (many-to-many) allows the past to connect to the present in more complex ways. The act of remembering becomes a way of imagining the future. In a culture ordinarily focused on remembrance, this performance-exhibition used choreography (in the place of classical artworks) to open up a space of contradiction between Tel Aviv and Berlin. It proposes cooperation as a challenge to be, or to become, different in a variegated chorus of individual voices.
The fixed point of the exhibition, the “Arena,” served as the site of the choreography, i.e., movement in space. At exhibition locations in Tel Aviv and Berlin, an architectonically custom-made, flexible, and adaptable space was created, in which the exhibitions––choreography for choreography, exhibition piece for exhibition piece––continued to unfold over the entire duration of the exhibition period. In this way, the experience became less about wandering and more about permanent positioning. Choreography was taken as an extended practice which, initiated by artistic research, produces space instead of filling it. The artists went on a research trips to Tel Aviv and Berlin in order to develop new works which responded to these locations. The “Arena” became the space of the exhibition and movement, in which live performances, actions, and shows took place simultaneously. The project connected current discussions about the extended concept of choreography with the search for an extended concept of memory culture. Just as choreography is separating itself in the current art discourse from classical dance ensembles, the debate around memory culture is also beginning to separate itself from classical forms such as monuments and memorial sites. Common to both new approaches is the search for forms of progressive instability and memory, which avoid monumentality. Contrary to the imagination of history as protocol, in the form of artistic choreography, remembrance becomes an open forum for analysis and production, enabled by a variable set of artistic tools.
The participating artists had recourse to a large repertoire of media and artistic forms, which enabled them to start from existing practices of filming, documenting, publishing, exhibiting, visualizing, and archiving, and then extend these to an understanding of choreography as the production and organization of situations and movement. In the curatorial sense, the choreography was thereby made artistically, and politically effective, so that from the me-expression of each individual performer could be abstracted in favor of a situational, post-representative we-production. Artist architects were invited to Berlin and Tel Aviv for the assembly of an architectonic space, which united both institutions (as a “Arena”). Both engaged critically with space, employing ideas of participation, publicness, and other social dynamics. They created enigmatic architectural displays, which engage in critical approaches to both artworks and art institutions. These spatial interventions explored artistic possibilities of comprehending “space” as an elementary constituent of political performance. The intermediary “stage pictures” stride through various styles and periods and invite one to participate in the goings-on.
Noam Enbar / Yonatan Levy, Antigone (2016/2017), speech and sound performance, 60 min, Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, 2017 © Neuer Berliner Kunstverein / Joseph Devitt Tremblay
Through choreography, the project reflects significant tendencies in art at the beginning of the 21st century related to discussion of remembrance. Resistance, dissent, and migration mark the present generation, for which objections to today’s “world society” form part of its artistic self-perception. The project sets its point of departure as the memory space between Germany and Israel, and from there, it goes on to explicitly reject Manichaean images of history, creating new productions, which play out in episodes to evoke a new space of the past and future.
Back to the beginning: I hope that through curatorial and artistic empowerment, such sites as a form of materialised politics of commemoration will be brought to life as a social space again and again, together with untold and forgotten histories beyond the national paradigm.
For more information on the artistic works of Yochai Avrahami, Yael Bartana, Noam Enbar / Yonatan Levy, Christian Falsnaes, Ohad Fishof / Noa Zuk, Michal Helfman, Leon Kahane, Adam Linder, Antje Majewski, Markus Miessen, Ohad Meromi, Susanne M. Winterling, et al., please see:
Conditions of Political Choreography
Sophie Goltz is Assistant Professor at the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She also serves as a Deputy Director for Research and Academic Programmes at the Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (NTU CCA). Her main research interest focuses on art and public spheres, critical spatial practices, and urban cultures. In 2017 together with an interdisciplinary group Goltz has submitted an expert assessment for a new research institute of urban art for the city of Hamburg. In 2018 her book Passages. Art in Public Space Hamburg since 1981 will be published with Spector Books. It also reflects on her tenure as Artistic Director of Stadtkuratorin Hamburg from 2013 to 2016.”
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