"I will artistically respond to Germany’s history and its correlation to present events in Europe. I have done extensive research on Germany, particularly its history over the last century. The books I have read detailing this history of massive shifts in politics and culture have heavily influenced the locations I plan to go to. I have also been keeping up-to-date on various tensions in Europe at the moment, particularly with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the Syrian proxy war/refugee crisis. Because of this research I became aware of notable parallels between situations in Germany's past and the present day."
I've become increasingly interested in this idea that the past and the present should not be seen as wholly separate--history informs the present to such a degree that it becomes impossible to get under the skin of any current crisis or conflict without delving into the big changes of the last century or so. Obviously the distant past is involved here as well, but if I go too far back, the project would risk losing focus and becoming way too broad to handle.
I'm also interested in the always-changing dynamics between government and populations, and the most extreme examples of this interest me the most. I guess I'm just interested in morbidity, and feel like the darker chapters of life and history are what need to be examined and kept in mind if people are to progress in any meaningful way. And, by using elements of Germany's past as an allegory for broader socio-political concerns of the modern day, I want to say something about international connectivity and co-dependence. Also important are grassroots movements within oppressive governments: countless people attempted to escape from East Germany and the grater Soviet Bloc between the 1950s and 1989. Student activist groups such as the White Rose posed challenges to the Nazi government despite so few members and means to disseminate information. The Berlin Wall itself came down in large part due to the Leipzig Monday protests and other pressures from within.
I should stress that I don't single out Germany as the only country where this method of critical historical examination makes sense--I have similar interest in Canada's history, for instance.
I will primarily work in both dry drawing media (graphite, charcoal, pen) and photography. When I go to relevant sites, I will sketch and photograph my way to a body of work that can be used and translated to make larger-scale drawings. Hopefully when this is all done, I will be able to exhibit all or most of this work at the Anna Leonowen's gallery, where I plan to have my first solo exhibition.
This past fall, I made a body of work on Urban Environment (under the "Drawings" tab). Here, I worked out a different style of working in dry medium, in a way that wasn't necessarily photo-realistic like my other work is. I was trying to work out basic ideas about drawing that I wanted to put into practice while in Germany, that touched upon similar-but-different themes of history. The project also involved drawing outside in the cold and translating small sketches into fleshed-out larger works. I am really happy I used this last term to develop the aesthetic language for myself. I will continue working with it once I get to Germany.
So, Why Germany?
And also the fact that Germany was largely the deciding point of these two main conflicts I've mentioned here: both World War Two and the Cold War. Besides that, Germany has been the epicentre and testing ground for many philosophies, at least within Western perspective. Martial order, modernist utopianism, surveillance warfare, nationalism, and Stalinist-brand communism all ran into brick walls in the tight span of approximately 80 years within Germany and elsewhere in Europe. All of this therefore makes Germany's history suitable to tell stories of current events, especially when we see similar rhetoric happening in the world as we did back then. The Syrian refugee crises as well as other problems have split the political left and right to the point where we see candidates for leading government positions going on nationalistic, fear-mongering rants. Having some awareness of these histories is, I believe, incredibly important in understanding and responding to where we are today. When I exhibit these works, I want people to see large drawings of political/social strife, anxiety, and crisis, and wonder if I'm responding to something in the past or something in the present.
I find that people are at least casually aware of the trajectory of Germany's last 100 years, regarding the Nazis and the East/West German split made by what were essentially proxy governments. Because of this awareness, I feel that responding this history would do well to bridge the gap between the viewer and the art.
I knew I wanted to do something relating to Germany since 2012. I really enjoyed my two brief visits to Berlin, and since I had a taste for dark chapters in history I was naturally drawn to the city where you can find some memorial to the Nazi or Soviet occupation around every corner. I also loved the idea that I might be able to learn a good amount of German during my time there. I'd learned a basic bit from listening to German music like Rammstein and looking up the translations to the lyrics, so I could order food at the very least. After I knew I wanted to do it, I started asking around about ways in which I might get things done. I wanted to do it under NSCAD University for school credit (I am working towards a fine arts degree with a minor in art history), so I basically had two options: either do an independent study, or do an exchange.
An independent study meant only earning three credits (compared to the full fifteen), no studio space to work in, and having next to no contact with any teachers, mentors or guides. As a result, I almost decided to do an exchange. I would attend a German university (preferably one where they offer courses in English), have studio space, and probably earn closer to 15 credits. But there were problems with this option too--I would still be anchored to a school's curriculum, schedule, and studio requirements, meaning I'd be doing something fairly similar to what I normally do, just with a change of locale. This would also make it hard for me to really see as much of Germany as possible, since I wanted to visit multiple places. Lastly, I was required to do at least one extra semester at NSCAD after completing the exchange, so even if I got the full 15 credits I'd have to take at least another 3 when I got back. There was a third option, though it was somewhat unorthodox--I could essentially co-opt an already-existing 9-credit class at NSCAD to allow me to travel. For this I needed to write a proper proposal and get a teacher to write me what amounted to a letter of recommendation, with the confidence that I wouldn't just go to Germany to jerk around for four months and actually do some consistent work while keeping in touch with the person who recommended me. Apparently the issue is that a lot of students who do this sort of thing often go travelling and barely produce anything because they're so distracted by the sudden freedom. That's why they're usually steered towards either the "independent study" or the "exchange" programs. But this third option was what appealed to me most, so I did a ton of research on different aspects of Germany to come up with a kick-ass proposal that would get me that teacher recommendation I needed.
At first I was interested in the 'remnants' of various cultures in Germany, from the ancient Roman architecture in the Rhine area to the Prussian pleasure palaces. I was sort of reading about Nazis and Stasis too. And then the Ukraine crisis happened. Ukrainian President Yanukovich, long accused of attempting to remove political opponents, rigging votes, bribing police, censoring the press, etc, decided to move the Ukraine away from the European Union and ally more financially with Russian politics. Protest led to Yanukovich being ousted and fleeing to Russia which in turn led to Russia invading and annexing a section of Ukraine with a band of mercenaries who then set up a puppet government there. The similarity to certain aspects of the East/West Germany split was so striking that I started reading about it.
From there, I decided to ground myself in the last century or so of German history for the purpose of drawing connections to modern day tensions. Here are the books I read:
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, by Robert Payne. 1973.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. 1960.
Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police, by John O. Koehler. 1999.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder. 2001.
Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, by Albert Speer. 1970.
Books I'm currently reading:
The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, by Frederick Taylor. 2008.
Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall, by Mary Elise Sarotte. 2014.
I'd also like to read some books on Berlin/Germany after the fall of the Wall and the Soviet Union, but anyway. The suprising thing is, before this all started I'd never read a history book right through. I'd only ever read history when school asked me to (though I sometimes read through Wiki pages on certain things). After I started the Life/Death of Hitler, though, I just got sucked in (even though a few parts of the book have been discredited as being wildly inaccurate). After I did my proposal, a past drawing teacher of mine named Mathew Reichertz agreed to work with me and grade me while I was in Germany. After that I just needed some signatures from some staff members on the board at NSCAD and all of a sudden I'd been accepted to go to Germany. Soon after I started researching the cheapest accommodation options. After looking at apartments, student residences and hostels, I realized that renting rooms through a website called Air BNB was the cheapest way to go. Got a place in Berlin, Munich and Leipzig so far! The place in Leipzig is only over $450 CAD a month, which is pretty good considering the sorry state of the Canadian dollar right now. Then there were the plane tickets. Why is it so expensive to fly on planes? People have to get around, right? Anyway, I got the tickets. Really, all I gotta do now is get Euros! I have a couple of Euros in coin form as souvenirs from the last time I was in Europe... I guess I can dig those out and use them for bus fare or something.
As the time counts down before the flight to Germany, I'm continuing to read, learn the language and research the areas I'm staying in. I'll write another blog entry about the last days of waiting, just before I leave.
Meantime, have a picture of my last trip to Germany (one of the few surviving photos from my time there)!