Polish Artist Plants Living Holocaust Monument in German Capital

Political art is the theme of this year's contemporary arts festival in Berlin, and one Polish artist is transplanting one aspect of the concentration camp to the German capital.

Daniel Rauchwerger
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Daniel Rauchwerger

"Berlin-Birkenau," a new installation by Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec, was put in place in the German capital last week as part of the Berlin Biennale. Surowiec, 26, took hundreds of birch trees from the area surrounding the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi death camp in Poland and placed them around the German capital.

Also featuring in this year's Biennale are works by Israeli artist Yael Bartana and Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar.

A still taken from “Zamach (Assassination), 2011” by artist Yael Bartana, which is being shown at the 7th Berlin Biennale.Credit: Reuters

This weekend also marks the opening of an exhibition in the Berlin Medical Historical Museum of Israeli artist Aya Ben Ron.

The birch trees, called Birke in German, lent their name to the Birkenau camp where as many as 1.5 million people, mostly Jews, perished between 1940 and 1945. The theme of this year's contemporary arts festival in Berlin is political art.

"This is an attempt to create a new kind of monument, a living monument," said Surowiec, who has had commemorative plaques erected in front of the trees. "With the help of nature, I try to continue a generational mission of deepening the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. "My project is effectively based on giving back the 'inheritance' to its owners."

Biennale director Artur Zmijewski, also Polish, says it seems paradoxical to his compatriots that a place where Germans committed one of the worst crimes against humanity is not in Germany, but in Poland.

This installation, one of many at the Biennale which is not confined to a gallery or museum, is therefore partly about the "politics of history", he said.

The Holocaust and the Palestinian territories are strong themes at the Biennale this year, which is run by the contemporary art center KW in former East Berlin but sprawls throughout the entire city.

The Berlin Biennale was founded in 1998, inspired by the Venice Biennale, and aims to showcase little established young artists and provide a forum for experimentation.

The seventh edition officially opened on Friday and runs through July 1, but many projects such as Surowiec's began ahead of the official opening.

Zmijewski, 45, has said he wants "the exhibition to become a political space that resembles a parliament more than a museum."

Bartana, 41, will hold the "First International Congress of The Jewish Renaissance Movement," a symbolic project calling for the return of Jews to Poland that she created through video artwork.

"We call for the return of 3.3 million Jews to Poland to symbolize the possibility of our collective imagination - to right the wrongs history has imposed," Bartana says.

From May 11-13, she hosts a "parliamentary debate" on the questions: "How should the EU change in order to welcome the Other? How should Poland change within a reimagined EU? How should Israel change to become part of the Middle East?"

Jarrar used the Biennale to develop his artist-activist project staking out Palestinians' right to a sovereign state.

Jarrar, 36, shot to international prominence last year by offering unofficial passport stamps of his own design to foreigners arriving in the occupied territories.

For the Biennale, he created a postage stamp for the "State of Palestine" with a drawing of the Palestine Sun Bird flying near delicate flowers.

The stamp was issued by Deutsche Post and can be used in the regular mail. More than 20,000 stamps have been sold so far.

"After I printed official post stamps in Germany and Netherlands, people started using these stamps to send letters all over the world," he wrote in an email.

"We are not allowed in the Palestinian post office to print postage stamps with the words 'State of Palestine'."

Jarrar said he felt artists should be politically engaged and not just leave it up to politicians to act.

"We should think and work hard to speak out against injustice," he said. "We should make art that will make a difference."

Ben Ron's solo show "A Voyage To Cythera," named for the Baudelaire poem, part of his "Fleurs de Mal," is comprised of sculptures, video and sound installations and was designed for the city's medical history museum. The main theme addressed by the artist in her project is the perception and representation of the body in art and medicine. The exhibition opens on Sunday and will run through September 9.

Zmijewski, who focuses on moral and political issues in his own video artwork, told Reuters he wanted to create an atmosphere in this year's Biennale "in which people start to fantasize about political issues and try to redefine politics."

He believes recent shocks like the financial and debt crises had made civil society more politically engaged, demonstrated by the eruption of protest movements like "Occupy."

This trend towards greater political engagement was reflected in art too, yet he still felt that artists today all too often offered only theoretical questions in their work rather than practical solutions to problems.

During his research for the Biennale, Zmijewski compiled a 400-page thick book on political engagement in culture today, the different strategies deployed and results achieved.

He interviewed artists and artistic-minded politicians or activists, from the Russian underground art collective Voina to a former mayor of Bogota, and entitled the book "Forget Fear."

"Art is politics," said the stern curator, who sports closely cut black hair, a beard and moustache, and rarely smiled during his interview. "We don't have to change existing politics, we can just propose our own politics and even propose a different kind of politician."

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