This is an awkwardly personal thing, inspired by a trip to Hamburg to see my mother’s oldest friend, when I found out about the grandparents I’ve only known through a handful of photographs. In this photomontage I’ve placed them in a photograph I took at Hamburg’s ‘miniature world’. (Though I use it to represent Hamburg, it’s a scene from Berlin: rubble, burnt houses, soldiers).
These miniature worlds seem to reach us in a way that a photographs can’t. Perhaps it touches an inner child and releases that ability to imagine that we lose along the way to adulthood. Maybe it’s simply the three-dimensions – we can peer into houses, hover above, crouch down to street level. It’s voyeuristic in a way a photo can’t be.
Over just a few days in 1943 allied bombing virtually destroyed Hamburg, killing 42,600 civilians and wounding 37,000. Incendiary bombs created a 1,500-foot-high tornado of fire that swept through the city, the temperature reached 800c. In the morning the streets were piled high with corpses.
When my grandparents’ apartment block caught fire in that bombing raid, my grandmother took her children in her arms and prepared to jump in to the canal from the window but the canal water was on fire. She ran to the front of the block and found the street was melting. When my grandfather heard of the raid, he deserted his post and returned to Hamburg to find his family.
When I had the idea to place my figures in a miniature land, I planned to use a Hamburg street scene with a Tiltshift treatment to get the same effect. But the photos of Hamburg after the allied bombing are so shocking I couldn’t do it. The surreal nature of this miniature world with its plastic figures and toy cars keeps reality at a safe distance – and somehow that ties in well with Germany’s post-war silence.
In the photomontage the mounted German soldier is outside the display box of this miniature world, behind perspex. He can be seen as helplessly standing by, or as a figure of authority, impassive and emotionally removed. The mother and children are faceless – their story could be told tens of thousands of times over by other German families. The family photo I used was taken a few years before the war – a few years before Hitler changed what it meant to be German for generations to come. I kept the sketches light and pale – I want them to have a ghostly quality – the ghosts in the cupboard.
What makes this story so interesting to me is the conflict of emotion it provokes. Can we sympathise with a mother facing this horror alone, two small children clinging to her? What about the father away at war who hears that his home has been set ablaze? Can we find that sympathy when they are German? Is it OK to feel sympathy for her but not for the man in uniform? (All men aged 15-60 were conscripted in to the German army). What about the young boy forced to join Hitler’s youth movement? Can we feel rage that the allied forces used such horrific incendiary devices on a civilian population?
Even in writing the short paragraph that describes what happened to my family during the bombing, I feel uncomfortable using any kind of words that might demand sympathy. I can only report it in black and white. Two generations on the collective guilt is still in my DNA.
When I was putting this together I thought a great deal about Anselm Kiefer. I had seen his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014, and more recently Bohemia lies by the Sea (see Reviews). As a consequence of that I listened to the Royal Academy’s podcasts on him – especially the panel discussion about his book Heroic Symbols and the performance art project ‘Occupations’. Also on Tate’s website is Lara Day’s ‘Inhabiting Collective Guilt and the Inability to Mourn’.
The German language has a word for ‘those born after’ – Nachgeborenen – which only serves to underline the monumental burden of being born German to the generation whose fathers made up the German army. Kiefer tackles it head on, which depending on your own interaction with his art may be seen as brave, attention-seeking, worrying…Though it’s interesting to ask that if he had chosen to ignore what was all around him – what would that have said about him? The very fact that he is German gives an ambiguity to his work that forces us to question ourselves.
Lara Day puts it very succinctly in the RA panel discussion. In his works Keifer is asking “am I a Nazi because I’m a German? am I a Nazi because of where I was born? Am I a Nazi because I am making this gesture? If the answer is yes, then are we not just continuing the (Nazi) idea that blood and soil ties identity and behaviour to where we are born?”
While my mother (7 years older than Kiefer) left Germany at her earliest opportunity to marry an Englishman, maintaining her role as one of the silent generation, Keifer isn’t hiding. He is tackling history head on, grappling with what it means to be German, and demanding that we question our own position alongside him.