5 May – Liberation day and an exhibition

In the Netherlands freedom and liberation are celebrated in the 5 May. On 4 May at 8pm a reflective two minutes of silence is held across the country to remember and reflect on those who died during the Second World War and conflicts since. Wageningen, the town in which I live, is in party mood today, the somber remembrance ceremony that I attended last night is followed up with a festival and processions that will draw tens of thousands to the town.

It is not an inappropriate day to be visiting an exhibition in the far north of the country though, before I too return to the Wageningen celebrations. In the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden in the north west of the country an exhibition entitled Burdened Landscape is on display until 5 June.

The exhibition explores how landscape can function as a sort of physical memory storage for history, and in particular, parts of history that while not being occasions that we should forget, are periods that don’t make for easy reflection. As the exhibition guide puts it:

“Violence, war and conflict leave their traces, even in the landscape. The past is visibly and invisibly gouged into the soil. Some places have become tangible monuments to history. However, more innocent-looking locations can also bear heavy burdens. Time and again, memories give the ‘crime scene’ its charge.”

It is an interesting and engaging collection of work, covering locations such as the landscape around Auschwitz (Oświęcim), Kuwait, Hanover, Ukraine, Armenia, Stalingrad and most recently, the Mediterranean Sea and its role in the suffering of migrants because of conflicts in North Africa.

Discovering works by Anselm Kiefer within such a context isn’t perhaps that surprising but there are plenty of less familiar works that open thoughtful windows on their own landscapes.

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Hans Citroen’s photographs show intimate corners of domestic landscapes, between vegetable gardens perhaps, yet there between the slightly overgrown fences are the remains of a railway line. The track lies, seemingly forgotten, in Oświęcim a short distance from the nearby Auschwitz. You are challenged, no, forced to reflect on those who passed through this space towards such a terrifying and uncertain future. Yet now, here it is, the line slowly being reclaimed physically by the landscape, but at the same time a landscape that is so heavily loaded by its history of seventy-five years ago.

The way landscape recovers and reclaims is also visible in the large-scale series of photographs by Sophie Ristelhueber. They show images of the Kuwaiti desert and the way it holds a physical record of the Gulf War (1990-91). In some images the relics, the evidence is slowly being covered over, fading from view.  In others though you can’t help feeling that these remnants will remain every bit a revealing in the distant future as Hadrian’s Wall is to us today.

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On a more recent note, but maybe more disturbing for it, the video work Liquid Traces the Left-to-Die Boat Case by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani tells of the tragic fourteen days adrift at sea experienced by a group of seventy-two refugees from Libya. The result of the two-week period without rescue, was that only nine of the seventy-two survived to recount their experience.

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The exhibition deals mostly with the traces that war and conflict leave on the landscape, but departs from this a little to end with the image of Frenk Windels, sitting next the place he, without the necessary permits, buried his wife after her death. The result is a small domestic landscape with a huge emotional charge.

Back home in Wageningen, the landscape that surrounds me is beautiful, green and for the most part peaceful.  But look at little more carefully and the same Burdened Landscape can be found. There was heavy fighting on the nearby Grebbeberg in 1940 and the parachute landing for operation Market Garden of A Bridge to Far fame occurred just north of the town. These and other periods during the 1939-45 conflict are still all too present and 4 and 5 May of all days are the days to reflect on this.

 

 

Is that my work in a museum?…

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Mostly pupils’ work lives in a drawer at school.  Sometimes the better pieces are mounted on a piece of coloured paper and taped on a wall somewhere around the art department. Very occasionally a particularly impressive piece of work might make it into a frame elsewhere in school.  We all like a little recognition for our best efforts and achievements. My pupils are no different and like to see their work appear elsewhere around school.

It is extremely rare that pupil work makes the jump from the confines of the school building to a truly public space. On the part of the teacher this always involves extra work and organisation. As a teacher I am prepared to make that extra effort but with two criteria that I feel make it worth the extra effort.

  • it must be a location where the work is actually going to be seen by a broader public
  • it must be a location where the work can actually be nicely presented in a space where it looks good

These two criteria don’t sound too complicated but are actually in practice fairly difficult to meet.  But knowing that I had some good work from a group of classes I set out looking for a suitable venue. The local museum of the town where I teach (Oss, in the Netherlands) was for a time an option. Highly suitable, but at present they are going throughout a process of reorganization and so that possibility fell by the wayside. However, with the help of the museum’s excellent education department I was put onto the town’s council offices. The modern architecture of the building offers a very good exhibition space in its foyer that with, not too much imagination, could easily pass as an gallery space in a museum of modern art….a fact that I feel sure won’t be lost on my pupils when they see the exhibition of their work that I have set up this afternoon.

The exhibition is small, showing just three works. All three are group projects made by a total of seven different classes over the last three years.  All three relate to war and violence and how it is represented in art and the media. The works make use of references to Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May and the piles of discarded shoes from the victims of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

It’s all quite heavy material, but the new presentation of the collages and sculpture give an extra credibility and one that gives me a sense of satisfaction and the pupils too it hope.

War and conflict project

As a follow up to my previous post I thought perhaps a little more documentation of the There they stood…. project would be good. Firstly the the installation of the work as it is at school at the moment. Trapped behind the glass at eye level does seem to work well for it.

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Discussions with the local museum are ongoing and hopefully with time it will be exhibited there I would fantastic for the pupils involved to see their work displayed alongside the work of others in such a professional context.

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The close up work shows a little of the process involved in the project and in particular the poems written by the pupils about the likes of Picasso and Goya, whose work we have studied during the course of the project. It is worth remembering that the poems are being written by fifteen year old Dutch pupils who are writing in their second language.

If you haven’t watched the video documentation in my previous post, do take a moment to do so.

War and conflict in a school art project

There they stood, there they were…. is the name of a group artwork that I have been working on with three groups of 14-15 year olds that I teach, sixty-five pupils in total. It has been made within the framework of a cross-curricular project that we run at school. During these projects we take one global theme and explore it in various ways in the context of a variety of timetabled lessons. For our third years the theme is War and Peace. For my part, as an art teacher I use the project to take a look at how the war has been presented in the visual arts through the centuries and how the media deal with it today.

It provides a good opportunity to show the pupils how art can tackle the most serious of topics, how it can be quite shocking at times and how artists can use their artistic practice as a form of protest. After such a project there can be little doubt in the minds of the pupils that art offers important communicative possibilities even with the heaviest of subject matter.

Having said all that, I have been quite taken aback by the impact of the practical artwork that the pupils have just finished working on. The starting point for the whole project are the piles of shoes (and indeed other objects) that can still be seen at the site of the Auschwitz prison camp in southern Poland. A couple of months ago I spent time showing pupils these heaps of ‘left overs’ from the victims of the camp. I showed them photographs of the piles of shoes, suitcases, glasses, artificial limbs and even hair that is still displayed there. The images were greeted by a attentive silence. I visited Auschwitz a number of years ago, everything about the place is in many ways quite overwhelming, but it was without a doubt these traces of actual victims that left the greatest impression on me.
The reaction of the pupils left me in no doubt, the work form that I had in mind was going to be the right one. Each pupil worked on and over an old shoe, first covering it with paper and paint and then a layer of imagery, text and paint. Each shoe became a three dimensional collage that documented one of the many conflicts and it’s victims from war zones around the world in the post-Auschwitz period of 1945 up until the present day. Vietnam, Korea, the Arab Israeli conflict, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and others all featured in the work. Photographs, artworks, newspaper articles, maps and details of the destruction of each conflict featured on the shoe.
On the sole of each shoe a poem was added that the pupil had written about one of the artworks or photographs that we had discussed in the lessons. Images such as Picasso’s Guernica, Goya’s 3rd May or the Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam.

I have been able to display the resulting heap of shoes in a glass case at school that is, in its way, not unlike the glass cases in the actual prison camp, although the pupils’ version obviously being of a much smaller scale. The shoes trapped there, behind glass, and in the film shown here have gained a weight, a charge, that I had hoped for, but if I am honest has been more powerful than I had expected. Watch the film, judge for yourself, the music helps of course, but it is a charge that the pupils themselves can identify and relate to once past the initial excitement of seeing their own particular shoe in the documentation.

War memorial artwork continued

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The work of an art teacher is at times one that requires considerable patience. When you see a given class for two hours a week, on separate days and the project you are working on requires a certain of setting up time at the start on each session and clearing up time at the end, then the ‘big picture’ is sometimes very slow to unfold.

This is certainly the case with the war memorial shoe project that I’ve been working on. It feels like months of lessons have passed since the beginning of the big project, whereas I know from my diary that it is actually just a matter of a few weeks. But now as the project, spread across three classes, nears its completion things things are starting to fall into place.

Teenagers level of activity is interesting to watch in such circumstances. When you announce “and this is the last lesson working on this” inevitably the level of activity rises. Sustaining engagement and activity is the key. This particular project has had a number of different phases, a certain amount of donkey work preparing the shoe for the relatively intense, in terms of content part, that comes at the end. Maintaining interest in what becomes an over familiar object over the weeks requires strategy to freshen things up. The poetry element for these pupils who are being taught in their second language provided such a break and a good reminder of the seriousness on the content.

The photos here show the work of the first of the three classes to reach thr conclusion of the project. It is not the complete pile of shoes, but I am definately not unhappy with the way it looks.

War memorial artwork

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I’ve been working for a few weeks on an inter-curricular project with my three classes of 15 year olds that I teach.  The whole project has been hung up around the theme of war and peace and has involved contributions from the art, physics, English, geography and history departments and possibly a few others too.  My art part of the project was based on a couple of main points.  Firstly that art can be used as a carrier of a serious message or opinion.  Secondly, beauty is often a criteria that seems rather dominant in the minds of the pupils, but in this case, due to the seriousness of the subject matter, it wasn’t really appropriate or even relevant.  And finally I wanted to try and make the work about real issues and real history.

With all this in mind and with the experience of a visit I made to Auschwitz in Poland a number of years ago I set about making an assignment that turned around the shocking sight of the mountains of shoes of the victims of the extermination camp that can still be seen by visitors.  Lists of names of victims, the huge numbers involved and the scale of the camp make an impact, but these ‘leftovers’ marking individuals who died was truly shocking to me.

The resulting project, that is nearing completion now, has involved pupils using a shoe to make a three dimensional collage that documents conflicts in the period since the second world war. The photos here show the Auschwitz shoe stacks and the progress of the work of a few of the pupils.  More documentation will doubtless follow when the project is complete, but the working process and the tone of the collages that the pupils have made has been great to see.  This attitude has been reinforced by the poems that they have written on the themes we explored in the lessons, such as Goya’s 3rd May, Picasso’s Guernica and photography from Vietnam.  These poems too will find a place in the project when they are finally added to the sole of each shoe.