Book project

 

Ground-Plans of Concentration Camps

A Book Project by Ulrich Wagner

Text by Stefan Soltek

 

“The whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts” (Fritjof Capra)

 

Dachau

 

Weltanschauungen and their modes of thought are subject to the various currents within society and culture, and thus linked to historical periods. Until early modern times, the view of the world as a homogeneous cosmos governed by divine predetermination was dominant. With the growth of scientific knowledge and an increasingly anthropocentric explanation of life, the world picture gradually became less simple. At the beginning of the 17th century, there was a crucial change: unified world views based on Paracelsian thought – as represented, for instance, by the work of the English physician and philologist Robert Fludd or by Matthaeus Merian’s copperplate engravings – were displaced by increasingly specialized methods in medicine and natural science. These two disciplines called in question the notion of the macrocosm of divine and natural forces and its reflection in the human microcosm. The emphasis on logical analysis and on the specialization of knowledge established itself and was to have a lasting effect on modern civilization. It was to remain the task of the artists to create music, poetry and painting according to a broad, holistic vision of existence and to warn of destructive forces threatening it.

 

 

Dachau

Leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Dachau Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 21 x 21 cm,

Leporello size: 21 x 950 cm,

Total size: (unfolded): 124 x 197 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1994

 

The research work of the physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra provided a new impetus for the project of developing an integrated world-view by taking into account interdependent systems and not yielding to one-sided interests. Ulrich Wagner’s artistic work draws on this direction, resting on the conviction that abstract pictorial signs can broaden perspectives and foster concentration on a sensitive reading of fundamental principles. Particularism and linear objectives are abandoned.

 

Dachau

Leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Dachau Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 21 x 21 cm,

Leporello size: 21 x 950 cm,

Total size: (unfolded): 124 x 197 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1994

 

Nazism proved a most horrific example of how an ideology, supported by totalitarian radicalism, ends in disaster. The will of an individual, Hitler, was declared the law of a people. The concentration camp was devised as the most terrifying instrument for the unconditional execution of this will. It was developed on an industrial level and perfected for mass murder.

The aim of Ulrich Wagner’s four books on concentration camps is to grasp the significance and the consequences of perverted thinking at its worst. This perspective seeks to explain the background of the ideological way of thinking; it dominates the documentary work and makes for Wagner’s unusual, thorough and sober approach to the holocaust. The work explores the terrain with great care and sublimates extremely restricted gestures into atmospheric density. This gives it an exemplary quality.

The concentration camps Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Mittelbau-Dora, and Auschwitz-Birkenau are the topic of the project, which Ulrich Wagner finished in the winter of 1994-5. The camps were selected for their history, size, and different functions. Within them, every crime was committed which men and women in concentration camps had to suffer: internment, forced labour (especially for the arms industry), and extermination. Each book concentrates on one of the camps and comprises a single-page fold-out showing no more than the ground-plan of the camp. Only Birkenau (Auschwitz), because of its exceptional size, takes up three pages. This corresponds to the three stages of its construction. The books do not contain any text. Their grey cloth covers bear the name of the concentration camp, and the slip-cases a sentence by Fritjof Capra: “The whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts.” The ground-plans of the camps are copies true to scale, taken from the original plans, made out of pulp. Lines and spaces indicating outlines and courses of paths, walls, and buildings, i.e. the structure of the complex, are in light grey (Dachau), black (Sachsenhausen), black and grey (MIttelbau-Dora) cast into an anthracite background tint. Wagner decided not to provide a key.

 

Leporello Sachsenhausen

 

Leporello Sachsenhausen

 

Leporello Sachsenhausen

Sachsenhausen

Leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 23 x 23 cm,

Leporello size: 23 x 1300 cm,

Total size: (unfolded) 187 x 187 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1995

 

Each fold-out is subdivided and folded in such a way that the single continuous sheet can be unfolded alternatively either as a long band, or – folded diagonally across in certain sections – as a rectangle. As a long band, the fold-out is a succession of grid squares which form about 10 metres of horizontal lines and rectangular spaces lined up next to each other. The flow and repetition of stereotyped forms take place in a sequence with no particular rhythm. Without beginning or end, the lines read as part of a procedure whose message induces self-reflection in the observer. It is difficult to go beyond that; at most, the structure hints at a way in which interruptions are not accentuations and points are not clues. Why “Dachau” or “Mittelbau-Dora”, why “Sachsenhausen” or “Birkenau”? The extremely long fold-out opens up an unusually large time-space in order to search one’s memory for pieces of information and surmise, for words and images connected with the names of the concentration camps. Ulrich Wagner accentuates this “guideline” by his choice of colours: anthracite and grey in conjunction with the felt-like, roughened material of the pulp make for a strange ambivalence: tactility on the one hand and yet a clear refusal of any emotive approach on the other characterize the language of the work. The dominant emotional reaction is that of being disconcerted. Via its indifference, the fold-out refuses to transmit any unambiguous message, but calls upon the observer to develop one.

 

Sachsenhausen

Leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Sachsenhause Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 23 x 23 cm,

Leporello size: 23 x 1300 cm,

Total size: (unfolded) 187 x 187 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1995

 

This effect is modified when the fold-out is unfolded rectangularly. All the lines and spaces can then be viewed at once, so that the observer can see the ground-plan of the camp. Thus, the locality becomes concrete, and the name is associated with the “indication” of its complex. Wagner wants the observer to realize that the atrocities in the camps were preceded by their “invention”, that they were planned and implemented in buildings and areas in order to guarantee easy control of the mass of prisoners. A simple reference to the plan recalls the rationally calculated realization of inhumanity, of industrial mass murder. This has a disconcerting effect, as Wagner does not use any of the conventional approaches to the holocaust. A crucial premise of his work is that possible ways of describing the holocaust in words and images are exhausted in principle, though not necessarily in terms of quantity. His conclusion is thus to call attention to the events in the concentration camps in a different yet ultimately more powerful way, by means of signs.

Wagner does not show what happened, neither does he offer a picture of the scene at which the crimes took place. He goes back to what remains fundamental, to the plan. He presents it like a product of sedimentation, as if an archeological task had to be fulfilled in order to preserve the foundations of what has been forgotten. Wagner has found a non-verbal way of expressing the fundamental difficulty in our efforts to come to terms with the holocaust: whatever is shown of Auschwitz defies comprehension. Nonetheless, Wagner’s account using sign language is precisely that which permits us to start from scratch; to gather information about what happened in the concentration camps, to secure evidence. This applies especially to a generation for whom there are no longer any authentic eyewitnesses, a generation which can hardly be reached by merely expressing consternation.

How difficult it is to acquire such information becomes obvious from the scanty (and sometimes non-existent) entries – with only minimal reference to secondary literature – in one of the leading current German encyclopaedias:

 

Mittelbau-Dora

Leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Mittelbau- Dora Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 31 x 31 cm,

Leporello size: 31 x 1200 cm,

Total size: (unfolded): 187 x 250 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1994

 

(Meyer’s Encyclopaedia in 25 Volumes):

“Dachau, chief town of a district in Bavaria, FRG, on the Amper […] One of the first National Socialist concentration camps was situated on the outskirts of D. The SS had already built the camp in March 1933 to imprison political opponents of National Socialism. From 1933 to 1945, approximately 200,000 prisoners from 24 European countries were interned; between 1940 and 1945, at least 34,000 of them were killed. During World War II, 125 branches and command posts were annexed to the camp. They supplied the arms industry in South Germany and Austria with labour.”

Mittelbau-Dora: No entry, also no mention in the article “concentration camp”. “As a result of the bombing of the Military Research Institute for the development of international rockets in Peenemünde, the camp “Dora” at Nordhausen (Harz) was set up in August 1943. The inmates of the concentration-camp were interned in galleries dug out of the mountain Kohnstein. There, under unspeakable living and working conditions, they built the “Mittelwerk”, a gigantic underground factory for the mass production of the rockets V1 and V2. Until May 1944, the prisoners were moved into huts; prior to this, they had been accommodated in sleeping galleries. The empty chambers were used for mass production of the V1 rockets. “Dora” became an independent concentration camp named “Mittelbau”, which became operative on 1 October 1944. More than 30 branches belonged to the concentration camp complex where approximately 60,000 people from more than 40 nations were held captive. On 11 April 1945, the camp was liberated by American soldiers. More than 20,000 people had died during imprisonment there. The Americans removed rocket parts, documents and papers to the USA. After the American withdrawal from Nordhausen, the Red Army continued to remove important material. In 1948, the Russians closed the entrances to the galleries by blowing them up.” (Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial, 1995)

“Sachsenhausen, municipality in the district of Oranienburg, Potsdam […] From 1936 to 1945 S. had a National Socialist concentration camp; during World War II, its inmates were obliged to carry out forced labour. More than 50% of the approximately 200,000 prisoners died (many of them when the camp was cleared in April1945).”

“Auschwitz (Polish: Oswiecim), town in Poland, district of Cracow, near the Vistula […] occupied by German troops in 1939. In 1940, the SS established a concentration camp at A. and extended it in summer 1941 into an extermination camp, mainly for Jews. Until Soviet troops occupied A. (27 January 1945), between 2.5 and 4 million people died there (estimated numbers). The camp complex consisted of 3 main camps (I. the original camp, II. Birkenau, III. Monowitz) and numerous secondary camps; Monowitz and many secondary camps were labour camps for annexed factories of German groups of companies.”

Wagner’s work is a delicate venture. Folded plans of concentration camps made of hand-made paper – is this not a kind of origami performed with the most inappropriate subject imaginable, a decorative piece of art which is bound to be tasteless?

The books withstand such criticism. Inevitably, the critical question is whether the significance of Auschwitz has really been sufficiently acknowledged (cf. the remarks on the encyclopaedia, above) at a time when, while attempts to deny the fact of Auschwitz are rightly considered abhorrent, the mass murders in the concentration camps are tending to fade from view. Wagner’s work unmistakably opens up a new level of reflection on the incomprehensibility of the holocaust. The extremely condensed code of the simple ground-plan signs is far from a superficial treatment of the topic. A great deal of time was spent selecting and visiting the camps as well as obtaining copies of the original ground-plans. Translating the apparently simple idea into the meticulously precise craftsmanship required to make the ten enormously big sheets – ten copies were made of each book – also involved a great commitment of time. The choice of hand-made paper as the medium for the plan signs is crucial for creating the effect of as it were “grasping” their subject, as one actually feels the black and the grey with one’s fingers while unfolding the page, thereby once more modifying the reading process. The contrast between the colours and the theme of the high-grade hand-made paper emphasizes the transposition of architectural drawing to the level of a monument – appropriate to the gravity of the topic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

Three leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Birkenau Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 31 x 31 cm,

Leporello size: 31 x 2600 cm,

Total size: (unfolded): 250 x 405 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1995

 

 

These four books are the most recent works of an artist who has been working with signs for many years. These signs are the instruments Wagner uses to make the structures tangible, to define patterns which, as fields of tension between rhythms, signals, constant factors, and contrasts, require a concentrated perception. Wagner’s signs are not to be understood as symbols. If, among the purely geometrical signs, the motif of a stylized knife appears, this looks as if it were the slightest possible subjectivization, nothing more.

Auschwitz II (Birkenau)

 

Three leporello, black handmade paper with superimposed grey

Ground plan of the Birkenau Cocentration Camp

made of pigmented paper pulp

Page size: 31 x 31 cm,

Leporello size: 31 x 2600 cm,

Total size: (unfolded): 250 x 405 cm

Number produced: 10 copies

1995

 

 

The concentration-camp project does not belong in this context of Wagner’s work. On the one hand, the starting-point of the project is made explicit, as is the intention: the concentration camp and the question of what it signifies and to whom. On the other hand, there is the particular way in which the subject matter is stripped to its essentials, as well as the radical basis for the examination of something which has been conclusively judged but which has been understood neither as a whole nor in detail – there seems to be an influence from the long-standing work with signs which in themselves do not have meaning. Also in the context of the concentration-camp topic, their abstract quality does not fully dissolve. In all its diagrammatic triviality, the plan does not indicate the cruelty which arises from its realization. Different as the whole is from the sum of its parts, so the observer’s brief glance at this plan is relative to an understanding of it. At best, the ground-plan indicates that it was implemented; only the colouring and its modelling in pulp – foreign to the genre of the architectural plan, costly, and perfectly controlled in its total inconspicuousness – achieve that kind of alienation which complements dismay at the mass murder with reflection on the origins of the concentration camps.

However, these books are not exclusively meant as a reflection of the historical fact of the concentration camps. Rather, as indicated at the beginning of this essay, what concerns Ulrich Wagner is that they are to be understood as the grossest perversion of a way of thinking that radically enforces extremely narrow-minded interests. Thus, he sees the concentration camps not as an isolated phenomenon but as the extreme expression of a problem which, in principle, remains with us today: imposing narrow limits on life instead of allowing it to be balanced by means of interdependent thinking. Thus, the ground plans of the concentration camps become a drastically simple expression of the most brutal contempt for and extermination of humanity. They represent a distorted image. They signify the catastrophe brought about by totalitarian and mechanistic thinking devoid of any sensitivity for the diversity of life.

Wagner’s books are documents which cannot just be filed away. They point ahead to the urgent need to reform human thinking in terms of open forms of thought.

Stefan Soltek

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