Grenzerfahrung. Text

The following essay examines the potential of the Post-Industrial landscape to develop an ethically informed aesthetic through an analysis of an installation created in Germany in a factory site.

It was published in a book comprised of the papers presented at a conference organised by my late friend and colleague, Dr. Gwen Heeney, titled: Material Memory: The Post-Industrial Landscape as Site for Creative Practice (ed. Heeney, G.) ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-9937-6.


The creative potential of the Post-Industrial Landscape.

Dr. David Jones

“… (the Holocaust) towers high above the past genocidal episodes in the same way as the modern industrial plant towers above the craftsman’s cottage.” (Baumann, 2010, p89)

The fate of Jews, Homosexuals, gypsies and those who opposed the Nazis in Germany and the occupied countries under German occupation in WW2 has been read by Giorgio Agamben and Zygmund Baumann, as a distortion of, but only possible with, the bureaucratization and the division of labour of modern industrial capitalism. This paper discusses the installation Grenzerfahrung, which I created at a symposium, sited in an unoccupied factory building belonging to the furnace manufacturer ELIOG in Römhild, Germany. This was close to Weimar; the Lonely Planet travel guide informed readers that just a short bus ride away is the concentration camp of Buchenwald; this is where my grandmother was killed by the Nazis and where we must assume her mortal remains were incinerated. Bauman quotes Feingold: “the concentration camp was also a mundane extension of the modern factory system. Rather than producing goods the raw material was human beings and the end-product was death” (Baumann, 2010, p.xii).

I worked collaboratively with the visitors and residents of Thuringia to make ceramic work that responded to the destruction of humanity; the work emphasised the determinant of morality that Emmanuel Levinas has called the “face of the other” (Levinas, 1996, p7), in my search for a new direction in post-industrial expression.

Grenzerfahrung utilised found and appropriated waste industrial materials from the factory site. Its physical presence was based around a ‘skeleton’ constructed from re-purposed waste shelving units appropriated from the factory and installed in the space; they implied a series of interlocking meanings: fundamentally the shelves stood as a limit – dividing the gallery space – a liminal condition (a border or Grenze in German). It could be read as the dividing line that allowed the Nazis to perceive Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, communists as less than human; it could be read as the old border separating West and East Germany (Römhild is but 5 kilometres from the Cold-War border with the west of Germany, that actually separated families for decades). The shelves also stood for the stacked bunks of the concentration camps, which held the bodies of human beings that the Nazis regarded as raw material for processing in the factories of death. The use of industrial shelving served to emphasise the objectification that had occurred in the minds of the Nazis, concerning their victims, who were treated as industrial material for processing.

            It referenced the form of the installation Wirtschaftswerte (Economic Values) by Josef Beuys, where he had employed a set of iron shelves to structure the work. He had stocked the shelves with basic food stuffs and tools from the former GDR and had employed his own personal vocabulary of materiality – plaster block with pencil and fat; he had also included paintings appropriated from the collection of the host museum in which it was shown. The paintings in Wirtschaftswerte were to suggest an aspect of bourgeois luxury; I used porcelain, glazes and salt-glaze firing to indicate a contrast between the inner and outer worlds of the prisoners in the camps. When I experienced Wirtschaftswerte I was conscious that, without the war, that life in the GDR could have been my own; for Beuys, the artefacts from the GDR “represented a simplicity and authenticity that reminded him of his childhood” (Beuys, 2011), opposed to the commodification of life in the West. Grenzerfahrung was also an opportunity to experiment deeper with the concept of collaborative working, a version of Beuys’s notion of Soziale Plastik (Social Sculpture).

The ceramic elements contained on the shelves were both self-authored and created in collaboration with audiences; Grenzerfahrung also included ready-made and waste found materials from the factory site, to stand for the industrialization of the Holocaust. On the shelves, like exhibits in a Wunderkammer, were individual elements, groups and undifferentiated piles of materials, redolent of the piles discovered at the liberation of the concentration camps. The installation utilised the indexical marks of making as symbolic representation of the hand-made as a signifier of “the other”; this was significant as it conceptually embodied the essential quality that Hannah Arendt had argued defined homo faber  (man-the-maker, her definition of humanity  in a state of freedom) (Arendt, 1998, p14).

The choice of ceramic as a material was also metaphorically loaded: Clay is a product of the erosion of rock; ceramics is the transformation of that muddy substance back into a rock-like material by fire; it is thus ideally suited as a symbolic transformative material to represent the change of lives into object-hood. Local clays (earths) as well as industrial clay bodies were utilised to convey the compromised narrative of place, and bodily memories. Meaning is burnt into ceramic in firing, reiterating the fate of the bodies of the victims of the Holocaust. These pieces were juxtaposed with the appropriated waste from the factory, which is marked by the patina of use. The firing of ceramics, conducted in a variety of kilns, alluded to the fires of the crematoria of the Nazis, which had been built using kiln-building methodologies, by the German kiln manufacturer Topf und Söhne of Ehrfurt (whose name was proudly displayed on the iron-work of the doors using a well-designed type-face, and was interestingly still in business until the early 1970’s).

The objects I designed to populate the shelves were symbols of the lives that were corrupted by the Nazis; these were the piles that have come to be seen as iconographic of the Holocaust when they were discovered in piles on the liberation of the concentration camps – they were wedding rings, toys, hair, shoes, piles of human bone ash, urns. I worked collaboratively with groups of visitors ranging from school parties to interested local people to re-create these elements in local clays – work to stand for a future where industry had not been corrupted as a factory of death.

One of the most significant newly conceived elements of the installation were Zusammenstücke (“together pieces”) made with a roll of clay squashed between my hand and that of the visitors to the studios, including many school parties. The multiplicity of Zusammenstücke, that occupied the space of a handshake, were an imaginative suggestion to the audiences of the possibility to move from the alienation of factory production to a re-awakening of the handmade and via that to access “the face of the other”.

When the work was finished it was installed in two alternative formats: the audience was confronted by the gallery space being bordered or divided by the installation. As they approached they encountered the materiality/thingliness of the pieces placed on the shelves. Firstly through the appearance of the elements and secondly through tactile engagement, the objects on the shelves connected the audience to that embodied narrative of hand-making – they put their hands where mine, and those of my collaborators had fashioned the pieces. By confronting the audience with these ambiguous objects they experienced the aura of the work transmitted through an intimate relationship, that stood for “the face of the other” or as the intuitive ethical interaction characterised by the philosopher Martin Buber as I  –Thou (Buber, 2003, p7). In short it is that direct confrontation with another’s humanity through a phenomenologically embodied narrative.

The making and ownership of artefacts is an aspect of our being. No objects came to my family from the time before the escape of my mother on the Kindertransport from Germany, and there was no direct communication from my grandparents’ time in the camps, so I am working with intuited apprehensions concerning their experiences which manifest themselves fundamentally as “the uncanny”  – the “unheimlich” (Freud, 1919), which literally translates as the “un-homely” in German, while its contrary is Heimlich,”concealed, hidden, in secret, [as well as homely]”. This makes the choice of the vessel and its associations with the domestic and the home, significant as a vehicle of expression, as the work represents the dislocation of ordinary life by historical events, alluding to a pre-industrial time of hand-made pottery. For the Grenzerfahrung installation, contemporary imperfect vessels, signifying damage, were created. These were deliberately manipulated with crude hand and finger marks, imprinted by striking with hard-edged tools or cracked and broken, fired damp so that they would explode; some were used to hold the spilling clay rings. The cutting and tearing of the clay vessels found an echo in the iconography of Judaism: keriah is the tearing of clothes in Jewish mourning rituals which is instated by  the gash/cut embedded marking incised on the vessels. The clay rings subverted the appropriation by the Nazis of gold wedding rings collected in abundance from their victims, solely for their material commodity-value.  The collaborative making gave an intrinsic value to the clay rings that have no material worth in themselves, since they are quickly made from cheap found clay.

In order to underscore this narrative of the fate of the Jews, torn paper containing extracts of Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge, which draws the reader’s attention to the black hair of the Jewish girl, Margarethe, murdered in the camps, were positioned on shelves. In my installation Grenzerfahrung Iused swarf – the waste trimmings of industrial metal-turning, placed on a shelf, to represent this aspect of her humanity that had been shorn on entry to the camps.

The contrast of the handmade with the anonymous quality of industrially produced goods and waste, was philosophically significant: ontologically the piece of clay that is formed between my hands and those of the people whom I contact is the space of our almost touching in meeting. It was made physical through changing it into material. These clay forms, moulded by our hands alone, were then fired. The artefacts on the shelves will endure past our own death, for kiln-fired ceramic remains have almost the longest duration of any man-made products. Making and firing ceramics, like the making of all works, as Hannah Arendt observed, has “the capacity for producing durability” (Arendt, 1998, p172). Time is embedded as an essential part of the embodied narrative of the ceramic object; a vessel  can be read as a memento mori, making us aware of our own inevitable death and drawing attention to our own authentic existence in the way the vessel was used as an image in the Bible. In this way I made a symbolic replacement for what did not come to me from my grandparents. They are the material accompaniment to our history. Frank Wilson (1999) and Charles Wolfson (1982) have perceived the hand as central to the evolution of intelligence, sociability and human being. Hand-made objects carry the ethical and moral connotation overlaid by the Arts and Crafts Movement, as well as being imbued with the ethical significance, standing for “the other”, as envisioned by Levinas (1996).

Richard Shusterman explains that with significant works: “ethical content so often deeply pervade[s] the artwork’s meaning that the work could not be  properly understood without attending to its ethical dimensions” (Shusterman, p133). My work is non-utilitarian and informed by Modernism; it reads craft as sited between design and art, essentially as part of a continuum reaching back millennia rather than the “radical rupture in time created by the Holocaust (Hoffman, 2005, p.87); it demonstrates an ethical meaning embodied in the work. The visit to Buchenwald brought home the ironic parallel between kiln-firing and the crematoria, (and gas chambers). They had been carefully designed by teams of engineers at the furnace manufacturer Topf und Söhne to dispose of vast numbers of human bodies in as efficient and cost-effective a manner possible – a corrupt inversion of our current concern with sustainable developments in ceramics and kiln design, further underlining the need for an ethical framework to be considered in all applications of industry rather than a position of disinterestedness. In this way methodologies evolved in the pre-industrial world transport a new significance to the post-industrial landscape.


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