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Street-haunting art

What it means to stumble upon one of artist Gunter Demnig’s ‘Stolperstein’, a 10x10cm memorial to a murdered victim of Nazi oppression.

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : Sep 08, 2020

After having sheltered in place for almost five months, first in India from March to May, then in Südtirol, northern Italy, from June onwards, it was exhilarating to board a train from Bozen to Salzburg. It would be my first voluntary ‘trip’ in post-lockdown Europe. I was keen to explore if my having been in a state of rest for almost five months might have positively impacted by ability to ‘see’. I remained committed to altering my habitual behaviour when it came to consuming travel. Before I would have wanted to visit as many museums as I possibly could, guided as I was by an internalised fear of missing out. I would scavenge for meaning and pursue every scent of metaphor I could chance upon until my body had exhausted itself and had felt validated as a traveller.

My methodology would remain centred in strollology, while embodying the spirit of the Flâneuse, exemplified so animatedly in Virginia Woolf’s wonderful 1930 essay, Street Haunting: A London Adventure, in which her premise for indulging in the luxury of walking half across London between tea and dinner was the sudden impulse to procure a lead pencil. The desire for the object becomes the obvious excuse, a ruse for adventure. In the course of the wandering, she is led by her observations and enters the subjectivity of the people she encounters through the fertility of her imagination, either by projecting upon them thoughts and feelings, or drawing them out based on their bodily gestures. The trick that both these methods espoused was to not pre-empt the nature of one’s probable experience; to not over-design or over-plan one’s route so as to allow more scope for revelation.

Luckily, I didn’t have much time to do much tertiary research about Salzburg. I had been too busy settling into my new home in the Italian Alps, adjusting to a diet completely different from what I was accustomed to, learning German, a language I’d had no previous experience with and that I never assumed would be associated with Italy in any way, and trying to keep my homesickness at bay. I wasn’t traveling for leisure. I had been invited by the Salzburg International Summer Academy of Fine Arts to participate in the launch of the book, Navigating the Planetary: A Guide to Navigating the Planetary Art World—Its Past, Present and Potentials, to which I had contributed. I got in around noon on August 19, and walked from the station to the hotel. When I sent my German mother-in-law photographs of the view of the Salzach river from my room, she responded with a tip. I should consider visiting the famous Cafe Tomaselli, which was frequented by Salzburg’s most beloved resident, Mozart. I had a vague memory of reading somewhere about how the waitresses still dressed in a French maid uniform. Though the outdoor tables on both the ground and first floor were occupied primarily by locals, the indoor seating was vacant. It was a reminder of how travel was no longer a leisurely activity but was imbued with undertones of risk. I made my way to the Fortress Hohensalzburg, where the Summer Academy is located, choosing to walk instead of taking the funicular, and was frequently blown away by the magnificent views.

Some of the most astonishing views of Salzburg can be accessed from the windows of the Salzburg Summer Academy, within the Fortress Hohensalzburg | STIRworld
A sprawling view of Salzburg from one of the windows of the Salzburg Summer Academy Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

Salzburg is an attention-seeking city. Everything around you call out for your gaze. It is spectacular. So it came as an unexpected surprise that en-route from Ursulinenplatz towards the Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln—a beer garden where beer is still served from wooden kegs, I stumbled upon a Stolperstein. I am not even sure how I knew to recognise it. I had perhaps read about the memorial project and a trace of it remained in my head. There was a big group of people ahead of me, and they wondered why I had bothered to pause in the middle of the street. I could read the German inscription on the plaque, “Hier wohnte Auguste Volkmann (Here lived Auguste Volkmann). I paused in memory. I knew that my stopping to bear witness activated the memorial, even though I had forgotten the specifics of the project.

Gunter Demnig has created the world’s largest decentralised memorial to Holocaust victims | STIRworld
En route to the Augustiner Bräu Kloster Mülln was one of Gunter Demnig’s Stolperstein Image: Courtesy of Rosalyn D’Mello

I read later that the project had been initiated by the German artist, Gunter Demnig back in 1992, and commemorates individuals at their last place of voluntary residency or work before they fell victim to Nazi terror in the form of euthanasia, eugenics, or deportation to a concentration or extermination camp, or escaped persecution by emigration of suicide. Wikipedia informed me that as of December 2019, 75,000 Stolperstein have been laid, making Demnig’s project the world’s largest decentralised memorial. Discovering this one plaque in the middle of the street in one of the world’s most beautiful cities changed something fundamental about my experience of Salzburg. The element of chance, the aligning of my gaze with the location of the 10-by-10-cm brass plaque and my ability to recognise the memorial nature of it completed a cycle of creation and observation while validating the existence of a person who had a full life before he became a victim of one of the most cruel chapters of contemporary history. The decentralised nature of the memorial made my encounter with it so different from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Demnig was playing with the idea of a stumbling stone, which is what the German word, Stolperstein roughly translates to. He was also attesting to traumatic incidents wherein Jewish graves were purposely desecrated and the stones used to build sidewalks.

This ongoing artistic intervention is premised on a belief enshrined in the Talmud, that “a person is not forgotten until his or her name is forgotten”. What is communicated is the elusiveness of a person and their being, which is otherwise impossible to access. Demnig hand-makes each plaque on commission by descendants of Holocaust victims, from Jewish, Sinti and Roma people to homosexuals and political prisoners. He travels with a hammer drill, a chisel and a trowel to remove existing cobblestones, which he replaces with a stone overlaid with his brass-plated inscription and is supported by a network of volunteers who sponsor the stones and obtain permits from local authorities. Each stone costs 120 Euros and is determinedly hand-made and not mass-produced. While the septuagenarian artist began initially laying stones in Cologne and Berlin, he expanded the project to Poland, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Ukraine, Hungary and other European countries from where the Nazis deported people to death camps.

For a brief moment when your gaze meets the surface of Demnig’s brass plaque, you are connected to a human life that was lost as part of the Nazi pogram| STIRworld
Demnig’s Stolperstein memorials, dispersed all over Europe, can really only be accessed through the quality of one’s attentiveness Image: Georg Sander, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Demnig’s stumbling stones felt like a street haunting mechanism, a way of invoking the murdered dead within the present. And although Salzburg as a city is rife with artworks, especially considering for 100 years it has been the site of the Salzburger Festspiele, this small memorial testified to the incredible agency an artist can exert over how historical trauma can be invoked within the mundane present through gestures that feel anonymous, that are not necessarily hinged on the identity of the artist, nor do they require the gaze of the visitor in order to have a meaningful existence. They are complete acts in themselves, restorative and commemorative, offering a form of dignified closure to mourning descendants even as it performs like a scab over a still-healing wound.

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