“We are on occasion reminded on occasion of a great plague pit, its underground presence rewarded with a blue plaque to signify its existence as both a terrible debacle in our local history and yet it tellingly reminds us of the foreboding possibility for futures yet unspoken”
Trauma is a strange attractor. Just as the spectacle of something empowering found in human currencies such as art, anthropological chronologies or archaeological effects are given high status, their symbols held aloft as proof of the development of civilization, their opposite attractors are often found subdued or hidden along the ravines and peaks of our urban landscapes and are often coaxed out annually in ceremonial form as a reminder of something not to be repeated. There is usually a loss attached these attractors. This condition of loss is embedded in the cultural and historical consciousness of people who suffered during the era or time in which these demarcations provide future value. They act as physical markers for that which should never have been and stand erect as bleak reminders for that which should never be forgiven, but rather should be forever understood.
Trauma as an attractor in the function described above is a condition that is made into an effigy by physical objects that bare the makings of collective mourning. We are reminded of great wars in cenotaph form. We see oblique rows of blindingly white crosses signalling unknown and untold death abroad, the physical remains lost to the swamps and winds of time. We are reminded of a great plague pit on occasion, its underground presence rewarded with a blue plaque to signify its existence as both a terrible debacle in our local history and yet it tellingly reminds us of the foreboding possibility for futures yet unspoken (this should feel very familiar in early 2020). We build museums to warfare. We give over swathes of national parks to remind us of genocidal pacts and we mark the fall of citizens from German brickwork buildings to the cobblestone streets below with wreathes and crosses exemplifying some of the better virtues of considering walls as anathema to progress.
Trauma is also something that can rise from the soil-its form hidden buried and laid unperturbed for decades, if not millennia. The mosaics of Pompeii, whose beautiful tile work and forms remind us of the simple kitchens basking in mediterranean light before the eruption of Vesuvius that have remained buried for 1000’s of years and are still being uncovered today give testament. Under the jungle’s canopy in South and Central America lie monuments to blood-temples enveloped in vine where ritual sacrifice once encouraged the celestial to act favorably upon its priests now vainly emerges its crown through the forest, slowly being counted and numbered, indexed and considered by radar and the depletion of natural forests. Mass graves in Spain are being unearthed under the watchful eye of Judge Garzon. We have born witness to skeletal remains fused and tucked in a lost series of embraces, the dry and dusky earth having been coughed out of their long dissolved tracheas-a scream by a poet, Lorca follows.
Finally, there is the end of all things amongst the locust groves. Here the brick and mortar barons of histories passed feel unregulated, unremembered and their reach tumultuous-similarly, a reverberating quill pen dipped into the cavernous well of black ink drips accidental and enlarges punctuations over the stretched parchment of the political orders of a new dawn writ large. In Deutschland bleibt nicht alles, was begraben liegt, unter der erde.
Land’s End: The Topography of Terror Site As Reflected in Contemporary Photography (Drittel Books, 2019) is a volume which features a compelling dialogue about the specifics of a traumatic historical site, its refusal to be hidden and its necessity to be documented. Inside the book there are a number of works from photographer’s that have visited the location over the past 30 years. Their works reflects the dark and frenetic history of the former Gestapo torture site and its former main function as SS Reich Main Security Office. Illustrated inside the book, we find an engagement with the Topography of Terror site that overviews the larger discourse about how we handle sites of trauma and how this trauma continues to beg larger discussions about history, memory and its uses in visual and political culture. The artists whose work features in the catalogue are as follows. Joachim Brohm, Michael Disqué, Klaus Frahm, Andreas Gehrke, John Gossage, Volker Heinze, Kai-Olaf Hesse, Bettina Lockemann, Elisabeth Neudörfl, Margaret Nissen, Michael Schmidt, and are joined by writings by Dr. Philipp Reinfeld and Ulrich Temple.
The Topography of Terror site, formerly the SS Gestapo offices, since its destruction at the end of World War Two has had an important history as a marker of traumatic importance. Its right to be enabled as a historical site has been challenged several times throughout the post-war period. Notably, the museum that has been built on the former SS grounds has had a long struggle to become incorporated as a site of historical and traumatic memory. Following the bombing of the block on which the museum sits and its subsequent razing of what remained of the buildings on the surface of the site, questions about what laid beneath the surface came to order in the subsequent decades after the war’s end. From standing on the site during the period of 1945-1993, little could be inferred as to its complete traumatic significance as disputes about its status as torture center remained prevalent until proper excavations of the grounds were handled in the years preceding the building of the museum on the site and the shift of attitude from “let it be” during the conversation changed to “needs to be known”. Prior, the location itself was a rubble-infused and semi-desolate patch of overgrown trees, brush and weeds. It once served a brief stint as a driving track for people who did not have licenses.
“From standing on the site during the period of 1945-1993, little could be inferred as to its complete traumatic significance as disputes about its status as torture center remained prevalent until proper excavations of the grounds were handled in the years preceding the building of the museum…”
While it had previously evaded larger physical evidence as to its role as a torture prison for the SS, the public was increasingly aware of its status as SS headquarters and during the decades after the war, a conversation ensued about turning the site into a specific location of memory. There were several attempts to locate the torture cells under the prison with the first excavation being considered a purposeful failure to find concrete evidence of the cells. This information was used in the following discussions to dismiss the notion that the SS were carrying out torture on the grounds and that in light of this, the grounds should be considered less of a symbolic location of the Nazi regime and should perhaps remain unused as a marker of trauma. Subsequent years and with the excavations surrounding the museum underway, the cells themselves were in fact found and the claims that the buildings functioned simply in a administration capacity quickly ceased and its symbolic importance as location of trauma was bolstered. The “exhibition trench” where the formerly buried prison/torture cells are displayed in their remains are one of the critical features of the site.
One side of the grounds also featured an abutment to the Berlin Wall, which made the site a natural point of interest in the years following the end of the Berlin’s division. It provided a number of photographer’s such as Gossage, Heinz, Brohm and Nissen a pivotal point of interest in the years preceding and proceeding the fall of the divided city. Brohm and Nissen’s images emphatically point out this aspect of the site. Brohm’s de-saturated and compelling images concentrate on surface abstraction. He reduces the layers of the peeling brickwork to their strata, indulging in capturing history, metalwork and a reverence for short focus. Nissen’s Images are more expansive and concentrate on details similarly, but also larger investigations of place and the wall itself.
The site seems to compel artists to focus on it in a few ways and having been there myself in November of 2017, I can understand why. First, there are the obvious points of historical examination between the longest surviving run of Berlin Wall still standing in the city and also the trenches next to it which feature the torture cells. The fascination of the site makes sense as it is at the core of many discussions about German history and also promotes the contemplative assurances of how making images of that which has been regarded as traumatic and unseen is incredibly important in conversations surrounding WWII. As pitifully difficult as it might seem, photographic documents and the visual discourse surrounding the war, no matter the levity, must be insured in order to act as a catalyst for avoidance in the future. We need these snapshot memorials to function within the larger framework of our understanding of the memory cathedral that we are building which reflects some unfortunate truths about humanity.
“As pitifully difficult as it might seem, photographic documents and the visual discourse surrounding the war, no matter the levity, must be insured in order to act as a catalyst for avoidance in the future”.
Second to the attempts to document the architectural apparatus of both the Wall and the trenches, a number of the artist whose work features in the book have made images of the foliage and flora that cover much of the grounds still today. This part of the location is where the aforementioned driving course was stationed. Andreas Gehrke and Michael Disqué make particular use of the overgrown areas as a metaphorical examination of how we perceive locations of trauma. Their work considers what registers to the eye often can often behold a much grander narrative that what we can first perceive by viewing the surface qualities of a site like this. Gehrke’s immersive images shot through different seasons become something of a futile sublime. That is not to suggest that the futility lies in the images themselves, which are delicate, multi-seasonal and beautiful, but rather that what they represent is not an awe-inspiring look at the natural world and its correlations between man and “God”, but rather its inverse, a look at the natural world and how it covers man’s occasion to digressions towards the grotesque in terms of ideology.
Michael Disqué’s work considers the same area of the site more forensically. He has consciously made photographs of the overgrown grounds with a typological effect. There is a quasi-scientific feel to this pursuit which is clearly intentional as is the reduction of observable form outside of the natural to function as representation-the whole of the work featured suggests positing the banality of his images with their ability to index something more nefarious and overlooked.
Land’s End is a successful and impactful interpretation about how photography, representation and site work in tandem to suggest longer and deeper unseen histories and how those histories, when trauma is considered, continue the discussion about the pathology of locations in a city that may wish they had been left buried. These artist’s natural fascination with the Topography of Terror site is not surprising. Having visited the site myself previously, I can vouch for its strange attractiveness as a site of uncomfortable spectacle-a walk around in the foliage next to the museum turns up strange relics in both brick and metal and there is something awe-inspiring and menacing at the same time. This book is a valuable gift for anyone interested in the Berlin, photography and the war, but also for the artists involved as most of this work is largely unseen or lies in publications that are not easy to find. The essays will appeal to historians, but also photographic theory enthusiasts as well. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.