Jochen Gerz makes friends with Germany’s ‘enemies’

The German-born artist has transformed a ‘hostile’ war memorial in Bochum into an inspiring project

Naming names: Jochen Gerz with one of the slabs in the Bochum church vestibule

Naming names: Jochen Gerz with one of the slabs in the Bochum church vestibule

 

Jochen Gerz is a lateral thinker, a self-declared subversive in the true sense. Confronted by a thorny cultural issue, he will turn it over and transform it into something radically different.

That’s exactly what he has done in the small Ruhr city of Bochum, once a powerhouse of coal and steel. It is now trying to find a new role as a regional cultural capital of sorts, even though its core is quite deserted after dark.

Gerz, a fit man of 74 who is now based in Sneem, Co Kerry, is in the process of transforming a memorial to the 1,358 people from Bochum killed during the first World War into something completely different (with no disrespect to the dead).

The memorial, installed in 1931, just before Hitler came to power, presents the names of the dead spelled out in gold mosaic. Unusually, they are accompanied by a list in much larger letters of Germany’s “enemies” in the Great War, from England to Siam (Thailand).

Gerz is offsetting this bizarre “enemies list” by inviting ordinary people to lend their names to his concept of a Square of European Promise, which will dominate a newly paved plaza around Christuskirche that until recently was a car park.

Those whose names are inscribed pledged they would make a personal promise relating to the future of Europe. “We don’t know what any of these promises are, only that they made them,” says Gerz.

Engraved in chalk-coloured epoxy resin on dark grey basalt from Armenia, each rectangle of three large slabs will have 600 names, starting with the one already laid in the vestibule of the church. There will be 14,400 names by the time it’s finished.

Most of the names are those of ordinary people, but they also include the mayor of Bochum, Ottilie Scholz; Bundestag president Norbert Lammert; and Alfred Salomon, the only Jew who returned to Bochum after surviving the Nazi concentration camps, who died only last year.

Also among the first batch of names is Manuel Neuer, the German football team’s famous goalkeeper, and Jochen Gerz himself – this is the first time he has featured in any of his works, he says. Most of them are Germans, with about 25 per cent from the rest of Europe.

Thus will a “hostile commemoration” be transformed into a “promise for peace, plurality and for a shared and peaceful future of Europeans”, says Gerz, who is delighted he persuaded the city to allow him to give a “new meaning” to the space.

There is nothing left of the late 19th- century church but its tower and steeple. The building was so badly damaged by the Allied bombing of Bochum during the second World War that it was replaced by a modernist church at the rear in the late 1950s. Behind its rather bland brick facade, the interior is beautiful, with sunlight refracted through stained-glass windows, as in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. It is now a much-loved venue for concerts, and religious services are also still held there.

The wooden doors of the old church have been replaced by glass ones, and, at night, the memorial chamber is illuminated in blue light, giving it an ethereal quality. A new lighting scheme for the square will also highlight the slabs of names to be installed around it.

 

Social empathy

Gerz’s project is a joint venture involving the Protestant Church, the city of Bochum and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. This is fortunate because it’s likely to cost more than €4 million; such a labour- intensive work of art doesn’t come cheap.

“Jochen Gerz questions our preconceived ideas of ‘us’ and ‘others’,” says Mechtild Manus, director of the Goethe Institute in Dublin. “Through the active participation of citizens in the creation of his art works, he generates a social empathy which is essential for our democracies.”

As she notes, Gerz’s work is as relevant to city policymakers, politicians, urbanists and architects as it is to artists and the art community. It should also help contemporary artists in Ireland and beyond in addressing the “contested and often controversial context of commemoration”.

Against the backdrop of debate about how the 1916 Rising should be commemorated, a timely symposium on the Gerz’s work, looking at how people, places and art might be brought together in a meaningful way, is being held at Imma later this week. The free two-day conference, Participation, Commemoration and Public Space, will examine Gerz’s projects spanning 50 years in Germany, France, England, Italy and Ireland.

His most talked-about project here, Where Has the Tiger Gone?, came about in 2012 when he teamed up with Joe Thoma, an art teacher in Sneem, to decorate the windows of vacant holiday homes on one of the approach roads to the village with pictures by local schoolchildren.

The symposium kicks off with an illustrated talk by Gerz himself called Who Cares: Thoughts about People, Places and Times, followed by a conversation with Declan Long of the National College of Art and Design. The audience will be invited to participate in the spirit of Gerz’s art.

 

The symposium Jochen Gerz: Participation, Commemoration and Public Space is at Imma on Friday and Saturday, See imma.ie

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.