Brothers Grimm

A suitcase of memories

Kassel is a strange setting for Documenta, now one of the largest contemporary art festivals, held every five years. It was a hotbed of Calvinism, a refuge for the Huguenots in the late 1600s, home to the Brothers Grimm, the capital of Westphalia, and later a Prussian province. It has a grand palace, built by Wilhelm IX (now the main museum, with a surprising collection of old masters) surrounded by the sprawling landscaped gardens of the Bergpark, culminating in a grand monument to Hercules, who lords it over the place. From his vantage point over the Wilhelmshöhe, you can see straight down into the city centre.

While the city centre cannot be described in anyone’s book as attractive or imposing, it stands as another kind of monument (so unlike the mythological hero on the hill) to the horrible history of the twentieth century. As a major industrial area and a hub for the German train network, it was a prime target for bombing, and 90% of the centre was destroyed during WWII. There is an extraordinary photograph in the vestibule of the St Martinskirche of the city completely flattened (the church itself was almost entirely rebuilt; the bottom half of its towers are what remained of the medieval structure, the upper half are 50s modernist), like Richter’s aerial paintings of bombed cities, reduced to a maze of rubble-strewn streets. My friend, the poet Siriol Troup, has a guidebook of Kassel from 1901, and she talks about the experience of going around a city now unrecognisable in its text, the historical city, the archeological city. You could be anywhere, with its anonymous 60s low rises, the hallmark of many British city centres.

But it’s what did happen here that is always present. The Aschrott Fountain, named after the Jewish benefactor Sigmund Aschrott, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. In 1987 the artist Horst Hoheisel created Negative Form on the spot of the fountain, a ‘counter-monument’ as he called it, a fountain that exists below the ground (and can be viewed through grates in the pavement).

There was a sub camp of Dachau located in Kassel, and from platform 13 of the Hauptbahnhof rail station, Jews were sent to Auschwitz. A permanent memorial marks their deportation: a wheeled trolley, the kind they might use to transport materials round the station, which holds a glass case containing narratives written by Kassel schoolchildren imagining the lives of the deportees; their stories are wrapped around stones, like the stones you lay on Jewish graves to represent the visit of the living to the dead, and placed carefully in the case.

The Hauptbahnhof is the setting for some of Documenta’s most poignant work: William Kentridge’s exuberant and inventive video installation on time and colonisation; Susan Philipsz’s haunting strings that echo across the empty tracks; and Janet Cardiff’s guided tour which fuses past and present.

Perhaps it’s because Cardiff, like myself, is a North American responding to Europe (the meeting of the new and old world) that I find her work so compelling. The tour begins when you are issued with an iPod and headphones, like so many modern travellers trying to block out the world around them, only this time you are being asked to engage in an entirely different way: you find yourself standing in the station watching a film of the spot you are viewing in real time, so that there is an odd sensation of experiencing the real and the imagined at once. Cardiff provides a narrative that records her thoughts and feelings about this place. As she watches people pass by in the busy station, she reflects, ‘so many people wear black here.’ A trombone player appears from nowhere to provide a soundtrack to her thoughts (like a mourner at a New Orleans funeral procession), a ballet dancer glides across the polished floor, and all the time, we see the people who are occupying the current moment, a moment which will flash by, while Cardiff’s film is about what we preserve, what we keep. There is the suggestion of a relationship, one which is recalled, as if it might already be in the past. She says:

Memories are like a different form of travel; it’s like filling a suitcase that we pull behind us and we open and close when we need to.

Cardiff’s tour is about how we commemorate what we have lost as well as what we can see before us, how certain places, like Kassel, contain invisible histories, which are palpable in our response. The suitcase provides an analogy to the way we move from one place to another, how our lives are portable and fast-moving, but also how we carry the past with us. I’m reminded of the poem The City by Cavafy:

You said: ‘I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.’

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

More on individual works at Documenta in future posts. For the best coverage of the festival, go to my esteemed colleague Vici MacDonald’s blog:

An excerpt from Cardiff’s film here:

Photos of St Martinskirche and the Hauptbahnhof by Amy Stein