The Exhibition “Traumwunsch” of Stefan Otto in Gallery Sinne (9 January -1 February 2015) claims to “explore the dark area of his family’s history”. His grandfather was a Czechoslovakian Sudeten German, who served Nazi-Germany during World War II transporting raw materials and equipment along the Danube between Budapest and the Black Sea. This is more or less everything that is revealed in the exhibition about the grandfather’s involvement in the Nazi regime. We learn nothing about Stefan Otto’s grandfather’s role in the Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Germany from 1935 to 1946) or about his or his unit’s involvement in the war itself. The exhibition is all together silent about the Nazi crimes.

In order to fill the gaps let’s quickly quote some facts from a historical exhibition project in Germany. The exhibition Crimes of the Wehrmacht portrayed the Wehrmacht’s participation in and responsibility for a war that differed from all others – considering it was what could be called a war of annihilation: “Without the Wehrmacht the Einsatzgruppen and the units of Higher SS and Police Leaders would have been unable to realize the mass murder of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht established military administration headquarters in the field and in towns and villages; these headquarters were the seat of executive power in the area as long as a particular territory was under military administration. All such Wehrmacht headquarters were charged with registering the Jewish population of the region, forcing Jewish inhabitants to wear a readily visible mark on their clothing, and confining Jews to the ghettos. Besides implementing these anti-Jewish measures, Wehrmacht units were also involved in executions. Numerous commanding officers expressly legitimated the mass murder of the Soviet Jews in their daily orders. Members of the military administrations in the occupied Soviet territories also filled their coffers with the property of those murdered by confiscating it, in agreement with the Wirtschaftsstab Ost, as ‘Jewish property’. In their reports the Einsatzgruppen repeatedly emphasized the smooth and ready cooperation with various levels of the Wehrmacht.”1

While this is not mentioned in the exhibition at Gallery Sinne, we are confronted with a much more detailed insight into the grandfather’s travels across Europe after the war, between 1945 and 1948. We see a map of Europe highlighting Otto’s grandfather’s travel route along with a series of romantic poems, framed and hung, which the grandfather composed during his three-year journey and wrote with borrowed typewriters along the way. The poems describe the landscapes he passes through, the weather and the need of a life that is and must go on. It seems as if history starts at 1945 – when the war and the murders actually ended and the concentration camps were liberated. Thus, the exhibition is not about a Nazi grandfather who wages war and participates in exterminating Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists and others, but about a Nazi grandfather who is a poet wandering around post-war Europe: he is distanced from the Nazi crimes and neutralized, described as yet another lost person. And further, the same way as the grandfather used his romantic poems to overwrite the crimes in Germany, it seems that his grandson uses a romantic representation of research to overwrite the problematic history of his relative. In this way, the research seems to do the same as the poems, which is to hide and silence more than it shows.

Excavation of memories
All around the exhibition space the soundtrack of the highly aestheticized video can be heard, giving a sentimental atmosphere to the nature-romantic poems, the map of his walking route across post-World War II Europe and the artist’s similarly nature-romantic paintings. As we don’t hear about any crimes, the grandfather himself, “a Nazi and a German” becomes victim of war and his story is presented as one of human suffering. In the text accompanying the exhibition, the gallery director Markus Åström claims “Stefan Otto’s art is an excavation of memory.” He invites us to identify with the lonely Nazi on the road, asking: “What was [he] thinking when, scared, starving and disillusioned, he traipsed through Europe looking for his loved ones?” But what memory is excavated in the exhibition? We have seen that it is not that of the grandfather’s involvement in Nazi crimes. That “area” of their family history remains untouched. Instead, what Otto is perhaps excavating are the human sides of the old Nazi, individualizing the past overshadowed by him being a Nazi, and even showing that he was a creative person, a poet.

In his review of the exhibition in the newspaper of the Left Alliance, Kansan Uutiset (3/2015), leftist art critic Otso Kantokorpi goes so far in depoliticizing the historical events that he first describes his own grandfather’s imprisonment at the Tammisaari prison camp after the Civil War in Finland and seamlessly continues with Otto’s grandfather’s story of being captive in the prison camp of the Red Army in Romania. This comparison with Kantokorpi seems quite problematic as Kantokorpi’s grandfather was a red revolutionary, and Otto’s grandfather was a Nazi. In his review, Kantokorpi speaks of a trauma and its duration. At this point, at the latest, we are left with some questions: Who is traumatized from World War II? Can we talk about trauma and disillusionment in the same way when addressing the side of the Nazis and the side of their victims? Who should we emphasize with?2

Associations and meanings
For Kantokorpi, the most impressive work in the exhibition is the large video projection with a 15-minute spectacle of collapse and crumble in an urban space. The only nod to any time or location is a sex advertisement and another for a lubricant cream. Not so far fetched, Kantokorpi writes that the visual effects in the video associate in his mind with discharged semen dissolving in water. Another element in Stefan Otto’s exhibition is a huge puzzle collage of various square-shaped black & white photo-prints, over which an enormous image of Otto’s grandfather is printed. The realization of the work is clumsy and kitschy. At closer observation, the collage includes current and historical images of the extreme left and extreme right, mixing them up and grouping them seamlessly together as if they were equally bad or equally good. The face of Otto’s grandfather emerges from this synthesis. Despite the highly conservative message, this work is the second most impressive piece according to Kantokorpi, who seemed to like the exhibition overall.

The exhibition text tells us that the starting point for Stefan Otto to begin working on an installation about this difficult topic are his grandfather’s poems written during his post-war travels. The poems in the exhibition are not translated, so for someone who does not know the German language, it may not be obvious that there is repetition of words such as “Heimat”, “Krieg” or “Blut,” which are associated with the language of the Nazi regime. In his book The Language of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer writes “[m]aking language the servant of its dreadful system, [the Third Reich] procures it as its most powerful, most public and most surreptitious means of advertising.”3 Another example is the word “ewig” (eternal), which appears repeatedly in the poems. Aside from its religious connotation, this word was also excessively used in the dictionary of the Language of the Third Reich (LTI), in which Nazis themselves portray Nazism as the heroic Teutonic religion. Klemperer writes: “Ewig is simply the most forceful special case amongst the numerical superlatives, which are themselves but a special case in the midst of the ubiquitous LTI superlatives.” In Stefan Otto’s exhibition the meaning and implications of the language of Nazism are left without any analysis and instead figure as part of the romanticized narration of his grandfather’s journey.

As discussed above, the exhibition sentimentalizes the journey of a Nazi and asks us to emphasize with him. In his exhibition text Åström writes: “The story of this family can act as a link between then and now. We live in a Europe that is still in an age of mass migration.” How are we to understand this comparison? Does Åström want to say that today’s immigrants are also fascists? Or does he mean to say the Nazis were not so bad after all?

Minna Henriksson and Nora Sternfeld

1 Hamburger Institute for Social Sciences, Crimes of the German Wehrmacht. Dimensions of a War of Annihilation 1941-

2 Harri Mäcklin in Helsingin Sanomat (Kulttuuri 22.1.2015) is along the same lines in his review, titling his text as “Natsi-isoisän kohtalo koskettaa näyttelyssä” (the destiny of the Nazi-grandfather touches in an exhibition).

3 Victor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich, LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii, A Philologist’s Notebook, Translated by Martin Brady, Bloomsbury London 2013, p 16.

3 thoughts on “Hiding the Past – The Journey of a Romantic Nazi in Gallery Sinne

  1. Markus Åström

    To Minna and Nora.

    Here I will try to explain some of the details and angles you find difficult in Stefan Otto’s exhibition ‘Traumwunsch’.

    When I write texts for the exhibitions in Sinne, I have to keep things short, informative and inspiring. So there are always a lot of things left unsaid. Which I also think is good. I do not want the handouts to be a user’s manual for the show. Instead I try to point a way to look, not going into too much detail or explanations about what you see.

    In this case I thought that the horrors of the Third Reich did not need an explanation. I expected the audience to already have those pieces to work with and that we could continue from there. And the story of Otto’s grandfather begins after the war. So that was our starting point.

    You ask “what memory is excavated in this show?” It is a family memory. A memory that has been subsided and much later reemerged when Stefan and his mother were cleaning the old house and found poems and texts of his grandfather. A shameful secret in the family that was kept hidden and quiet. So in this show it is about the transmission of an unpleasant memory to a grandchild and how this grown up grandchild is handling it. Without being able to confront his, long gone, grandfather.

    But if you look back at my text, you can see that it is not the memory of Otto and his grandfather that is excavated, but that “Stefan Otto’s art is an excavation of memory.”. Not this specific memory, but memory understood in a more general way. Later the text asks: “What is it made of? What patterns of behaviour does it generate in us? And how does it affect the way we look at the world?” I was hoping that this part of the text would trigger something in the audience. That they would see that memory is not something that is only in you at this very moment. That memory is something that moves from person to person. And because of interpretation, missing links and facts it changes shape and makes us what we are and what we think. In this particular case it was about the artist being angry, confused and sad.

    I was surprised that you did not mention the photographs in the exhibition. This, because they speak very clearly and could be the very answer to your questions. In these pictures Stefan has painted on his grandfather’s old dull photographs of nature and cityscapes. Painting in new nature growing over the old scenarios. The world his grandfather knew disappears in the background, decaying, and Otto is occupying the space with abstract vibrant colours and life.

    The poems in the show were not exhibited as artworks. Putting them on display was more an act of creating a seance. Bringing the main character back into the space. Giving him a presence and making this person look into our eyes. The language used in these poems is of course the language of a nazi who is still holding on to the old ideals of the reich. For him it was romanticism but for us it is something very uncanny. There were no more texts found. So there is nothing from before nor later to compare to. All we have are these feeble attempts to write poetry.

    The photo-collage of Otto’s grandfather, was an attempt to create a portrait out of horrors visualizing all the cruelty that man creates, carries and passes on. In these hundreds of pictures you could find much more than just a juxtaposition of right wing – left wing, equally good – equally bad. There were suicide bombers, serial killers, deranged cult leaders and the like. A grotesque chaos depicting human darkness. A sad portrayal of filth in which the grandfather was embedded.

    Connecting this family story to the mass migration of today was more an opening up for the audience to think about on who’s side they are and how their values will affect the lives of generations to come.

    The video work ‘Traumwunsch’ was the centerpiece of the exhibition and because of it’s orchestral soundtrack it also gave the whole exhibition its tone. Even if it is focusing on destruction it is still a very beautiful and aesthetically strong piece. And like an erupting volcano or the mushroom clouds of a nuclear bomb it has a spellbinding effect on the viewer. A slow hypnotic swansong of humanity.

    And here also a link to the original exhibition text.

    Markus Åström

    • Dear Markus,

      Thank you for your response. We appreciate your serious and open answer. But also there are a few moments which make us to ask even more questions:

      In the context of an exhibition dealing with a Nazi, what does it mean to write an inspiring text? And about the claim for informativeness: the informations about the concrete involvement of the Wehrmacht in the crimes of the nazis don’t seem to be as widespread as you mention. What is rather very present in the common sense is a vague image of terror. This is exactly why information is actually important, while allusions are not. It is exactly the performative act of believing that “we already know enough” that very often comes together with the silencing of the involvement in the concrete crimes.

      Beside that the text was not very informative in explaining the works in the exhibition; what was the material and the background to the individual pieces. It only pointed to the viewer a way to look at the work, to set a certain focus. This focus, and what is left out of it, is precisely what we criticize.

      As part of that we critique that the exhibition starts in the moment Otto’s grandfather is freed from the prison camp. As if you could separate the story of a Nazi in the war from a Nazi just after the war. We think that the Nazi-horrors should be explained anywhere and at all possible occasions. There is enough revisionism in Europe of today.

      When we spoke in our text about the romantic representation, we were among other works also thinking of the photographs, on top of which Stefan Otto had painted. Similarly to the video they turn the destruction into something aesthetic, even transcendental. The same way a cloud of nuclear bomb can be viewed aesthetically. And both examples contain another much more serious reality, which can nevertheless be ignored.

      In the photo collage, where you write that you can find all the horrors of the cruelty that man creates, the filth, there are also unfortunately images of anti-racism and anti-fascism. This is what we found problematic in the work. And if paralleling the migration story of Otto’s grandfather with today’s immigrants is about choosing sides, we are again asking, is the choice to be made between migration (represented both by today’s immigrants and and old wandering Nazi after the WW2) and non-migration (today’s fascist EU-border politics)?

      Nora Sternfeld and Minna Henriksson

  2. Pingback: Hiding the Past – Commentary by Minna Henriksson and Nora Sternfeld out now | CuMMA - Studies in Curating, Managing and Mediating Art

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