Irish artist revisits 'Slaughterhouse-Five' with installation to illuminate firebombing of city
Slaughterhouse-Five memorial wall by Ruairí O'Brien, at the Dresden trade fair. photograph: derek scally
The building on the outskirts of Dresden has a raked, snowcovered roof. Its white facade bears an illuminated sign: “Hall 1”.
What is today part of the city’s trade fair was, seven decades ago, known as Slaughterhouse Five. On the night of February 13th, 1945, huddled in the meat-locker basement between horse and cow carcasses on hooks, more than 100 American prisoners sheltered together as Allied firebombing above them incinerated the city and 25,000 of its citizens.
“Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic,” wrote one of the prisoners, Kurt Vonnegut, in 1969.
Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the most celebrated English-language novels of the 20th century but little-known in Germany. Now, 44 years after it appeared, Irish artist Ruairí O’Brien has confronted Dresden with Vonnegut’s curious protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who, as well as war, encounters aliens and time travel.
Last week, O’Brien unveiled his Slaughterhouse-Five installation in Dresden on the eve of the bombing anniversary. It is a daring attempt to splice, if not reconcile, reverent and irreverent memories of the same horrific event.
Like its literary template, O’Brien’s work has many levels. A wall-mounted lattice of 135 back-lit panels, it superimposes on a map of Dresden’s dense, pre-bombing layout its spare post-war successor.
Red lines distinguish between destruction and post-war planning. Other panels contain quotes from the book, pictograms of scenes and information on the author. Images of the ruined city are juxtaposed with a panel about Dresden’s own book-burning, on March 8th, 1933.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut tells readers that Billy has come unstuck in time. O’Brien suggests that, on that terrible night in 1945, Dresden did too. “A city is like a toy: when it’s broken you can never repair it fully, you’ll always see the marks,” he said. “We have to be grown up about it: when it’s gone, it’s gone.”
In a city once compared to Florence, which has invested huge effort restoring its architectural crown, those are fighting words. But O’Brien is no stranger to controversy in his adoptive home.
A decade ago, he caused a fuss by setting up a private, miniature museum to a public, literary giant: Dresden-born Erich Kästner, author of Emil and the Detectives. Another project recalls East Germany’s prefabricated apartment blocks. O’Brien likes to explore where urban and historic memory intersect and for this architect with artistic and archaeological talents, Dresden is a troubled treasure trove.
Everyone in the Saxon capital agrees on why it is important to remember 1945 – but how to remember the infamous date is a hotly contested affair.
At the Slaughterhouse-Five premiere, local man Steffen Kluge said many ordinary Dresdners were tired of the political fights and official ceremonies, which he dubbed “mourning-on-demand”.
He saw in O’Brien’s Vonnegut installation a chance to reconnect the specificity of Dresden’s destruction with the universality of Vonnegut’s anti-war message.As the crowd left the cellar of Slaughterhouse-Five, there was a buzz in the air. Two artistic Dresden outsiders – Vonnegut and O’Brien – had, four decades apart, delivered a welcome breath of fresh air to a stale debate.