In their ongoing quest for creating public works that meaningfully impact society and provoke examination, Various & Gould bravely trespass the silent agreements and disagree.
During their recent multi-week installation in Berlin, the street art activist duo rips at the roots of Western Colonialism by messing with the permanence of statue materials and decades of history and its retelling.
The results are colorful and sometimes bitter, usually illuminating.
By targeting the 6 meters (19.6 foot) statue of the first German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck they created a paper-cast of the man and “took it symbolically off the pedestal under the eyes of dozens of spectators,” they say.
The de-mythologizing work brings the man and his history down to the level of the everyday person, and through of series of performances and discussions over a 5 week period from August through October, the street artists and their collaborators hope to crack open some of the conspiracies that were wide open for everyone to read about when white guys split up Africa like so many spoils.
“For ‘Monumental Shadows’,” V&G tell us, “a series of seven artistic paper impressions of monuments in Europe is planned.” This particular installment is set “against the historical background of the Berlin ‘Congo Conference’ (1884-85),” which regulated the colonization of trade in Africa by fourteen countries, effectively partitioning the continent in a formalizing of theft and imposition of power. Aside from that, it was great.
Using colorful papier-mache techniques of wrapping the sculpture and bringing the pieces to the ground for performers to interact with and formal discussion panels to happen, Various and Gould intend to recall the false narratives and address the underlying debris of social and structural racism in German society specifically, western society generally.
“Our concern is to break the power of the white narrative on colonialism by proposing a change of perspective,” they say, and their accounts of responses by passersby range from supportive to corrosive; from outright verbal attacks on dark-skinned members of the crew to Boomers stopping by to say that all of this topic was essentially passe and not necessary anymore. “We fought colonialism already in 1968!” said one woman as her husband shouted profanities at the couple.
In a story similar to those of American confederate statues coming down, there also were a fair number of people who stopped by the art project to protest the disrespect to the legacy of the statue and their personal ownership of historical events.
“Two black members of our team were still finishing some last bits of work on the scaffolding while the rest of the team was preparing the lunch break down on the ground,” they say. “Suddenly a woman (white, German, in her seventies) came by and started to shout up into the scaffolding, addressing our two team members: ‘I am outraged! This is my history.’”
“One of our team in the scaffolding answered instantly: ‘This is also our history.’”
This is not the first time that Various and Gould have created large-scale installations involving public monuments and the repositioning of historical perspectives – See our 2017 article “Marx and Engels Statues Re-Skinned & Re-Located” for example.
Perhaps because of the increasing tensions today in Europe and the US and elsewhere due to voracious crony capitalism and corruption creating a fast gulf of opportunity – and increased anxieties due to the coronavirus, V&G say they were a bit more soured than usually by the vitriol directed at them and their art project – including the unusual multiple requests by police to show permits. There were other subtleties of course.
“We noticed in many conversations with outraged citizens, that they would behave far more respectfully towards a white, cis male team member, than for example towards a female and/or person of color,” says Various.
“In general many passers-by kept bothering our team members in a number of ways,” offers Gould. “Very frequently people trivialized the German colonialism and Bismarck’s role in it.”
And for the black members of the team, the experience was also intense at times.
Billy Fowo, who worked as part of the team on the scaffolding and on the paper-casting is part of Colonial Neighbours / SAVVY Contemporary, posted this on his Instagram @karl_fowo at the end of the second week:
“Though very personal, I think the presence of people like me who don’t look ”German” to their eyes, in this process, made the pill even more bitter to swallow. But what do the words ‘my history’’ constantly sang as a chorus by this second group really mean? Bismarck & Co in organizing the 1884-85 Berlin conference – didn’t they unfortunately/ unconsciously make us ALL part of ”that history!” Of course, this is not a question! If it were one then the answer is obviously YES! We are ALL part of ”that history”. We ALL build histories! We are today more than ever in dire times, and it is vital that in rewriting and writing the pages of our histories, we completely destroy the narrative of the single story and start including multiple perspectives.”
Thus the power of monuments, and art in the public sphere. Various & Gould again do the hard work of helping us examine those who we revere, and the messages we integrate into our institutions and our daily life. Equitable society needs these questioners and questions about the ‘monumental shadows” cast over others.
“We have to deal with people who feel entitled to exclude other people from participation, from conversation, from civil rights, from society, from history,” they say.