31 artists interpret World War I with a souvenir from the front

Sawdust bread wrapped in barbed wire or a bloody butcher's block: a simple cube of oak wood bearing the traces of WWI was the starting point for the artworks in the exhibition "1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever."

Many areas in northeastern France were completely destroyed during World War I. Because of the vast amounts of human and animal remains and the countless unexploded gas shells and grenades, some areas of the infamous "Zone Rouge" remain off limits to this day. A war that ended 100 years ago still leaves its traces in nature.

The Osnabrück artist Volker-Johannes Trieb, initiator of the project "1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever," has often worked with wood that bears traces of this conflict. His idea was to get artists from the different countries involved in World War I to work with the same material to create a memorial exhibition underlining the 100th anniversary of the war's end.

Thirty-one internationally renowned artists were invited by curator Mattijs Visser to join the project. Each of them was asked to represent one of the 29 signatory states of the treaties of Versailles and the Paris Peace Conference, along with Russia and Ukraine, which had signed a separate peace treaty before the other countries. "We were surprised to see how quickly the artists accepted," he said.

Read more: World War I captured in film

Film | 05.11.2018

Wood that witnessed the war

Each of them was given a cube of wood of 30 x 30 x 30 centimeters (approximately 12 cubic inches) that would serve as the starting point for their work. The wood came from the Hirtzbach forest in Alsace, one of the disputed fronts of the conflict.

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Germany / Günther Uecker: Untitled

The exhibition "1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever," shown at the German Reichstag in Berlin, was commissioned to commemorate the end of the First World War on November 11, 1918. The works were created by artists from the 31 countries involved in the conflict. This one is from the German sculptor and installation artist Günther Uecker.

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Günther Uecker: Untitled, detail

Uecker has been using nails in his art since the 1950s. The Düsseldorf artist's symbolic works, which deal with different political issues, have been featured in different Bundestag exhibitions, including the 1996 installation entitled Fall, in remembrance of the pogrom night in Germany on November 9, 1938. He also designed the Bundestag's Prayer Room in 1998–99.

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Bulgaria / Nedko Solakov: Dead Warriors

Each artist was given the same material to create a work for the exhibition: a cube of wood of 30 by 30 by 30 centimeters (12" x 12" x 12") from oak trees that stood in a fiercely disputed section of the front in Alsace. Through discolorations or even leftover war projectiles, traces of the conflict can still be seen in the wood itself. This work is by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov.

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Nedko Solakov: Dead Warriors, detail

One of the best-known Bulgarian artists of his generation, Solakov has regularly participated in international exhibitions, such as the Documenta 12 (2007) and Documenta 13 (2012), and the Venice Biennale in 2001, 2003 and 2007. His storytelling works include historical references and touches of humor. Here, he added a few ink spots to the cube of wood to create a work called Dead Warriors.

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Austria / Hermann Nitsch: Untitled

Austrian avant-garde artist Hermann Nitsch turned the cube of wood into a symbolic butcher's block covered with blood, recalling the brutality of war. World War I caused 20 million deaths and about 23 million military personnel were wounded, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

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Hermann Nitsch: Untitled, detail

Nitsch has long shown his fascination with bloody scenes. His performances in the early 1960s were so provocative that they led to court trials and imprisonment. Although the 80-year-old artist now avoids killing animals during his performances, his "120. Aktion" from 2004 still involved a slaughtered bull, five dead pigs and 600 liters of blood. The blood on the wooden block, however, is paint.

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South Africa / Wim Botha: Untitled

Botha is best known for his sculptures carved out of books. The South African artist often juxtaposes light and movement with dark figures in a state of conflict. The pieces of glass placed around the wooden skeleton in this piece mirror the work's current surroundings, adding new elements and questions to the history of war.

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Wim Botha: Untitled, detail

Born in 1974, Botha is one of the youngest artists in the show, along with the Ukrainian Aljoscha and the Turk Cevdet Erek. The exhibition's oldest artist, the Romanian Geta Bratescu, was born in 1926. Interestingly, her installation was the only one to include a video on an iPad. "Variety in the forms of expression was important in the selection of the artists," said curator Mattijs Visser.

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Ireland / Sean Scully: The Disappearing Boys

The Irish-born American-based artist Sean Scully is renowned for his large abstract paintings. However, for his work entitled The Disappearing Boys, he created a very concrete sculpture. John, Johannes, Jean: three versions of the same name in English, German and French are engraved on a coffin, referring to three of the major European powers at the center of the world conflict.

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Sean Scully: The Disappearing Boys, detail

The curator of the exhibition, Mattijs Visser, said he was fascinated by how the works on show reveal deep connections with the country of origin of the artists. The title of Scully's work can be seen as a reference to those who were abducted, killed and secretly buried during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. These victims were known as the Disappeared.

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Australia / Fiona Hall: Fell

War and death also have consequences for subsequent generations. The Australian artist Fiona Hall placed a charred cradle on a coffin in her work, entitled Fell. The sculptor was the first to represent Australia in its new pavilion at the Venice Biennale when it opened in May 2015.

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Fiona Hall: Fell, detail

Hall is renowned for transforming ordinary, everyday materials into organic forms in her works, giving them historical and contemporary relevance. With the sawdust from her sculpture, she also created a bread that's wrapped in barbed wire. Sawdust was sometimes added to baked goods during World War I to compensate for shortages of flour.

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Armenia / Jean Boghossian: Double World

Born in Syria, the painter and sculptor Jean Boghossian is Lebanese and has been living in Brussels since 1975. Since he is also of Armenian descent, the international artist represented the country at the Venice Biennale in 2017 as well as in the "1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever" exhibition. He split his block of wood into two pieces.

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Jean Boghossian: Double World, detail

Boghossian is renowned for his experimentation with fire and smoke in his works. In Double World, one side is burnt, representing the losers of the conflict. The sharp edges of the two pieces show how the different camps appear threatening to each other and clash, but the two laser-cut blocks also fit perfectly together, which the artist sees as a symbol of hope.

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1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever

Tours can be booked to visit the memorial exhibition "1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever," on show in the German Reichstag building until January 6, 2019. The exhibition will travel to the UN's headquarters in New York in 2019.

The trees show discolorations from the pieces of projectiles they hold. "Such power and history come in the wood," said Australian artist Fiona Hall, who had traveled to Berlin for the opening of the exhibition in the German Reichstag on Wednesday. She created a sculpture that includes a loaf of sawdust bread wrapped in barbed wire, referring to the shortage of flour that led people to actually bake with sawdust during the war. 

Different signatures

The series of works offers different perspectives on the conflict. Some of them only applied minimal alterations to the block and gave the work a title that tells a story of its own. For instance, Portuguese artist Pedro Cabrita Reis added small holes to his block, entitled Ares, the name of the Greek god of war; the Bulgarian Nedko Solakov added dashes of ink to portray his Dead Warriors.

American artist Kiki Smith gave her piece, which features a golden oak leaf and an acorn on a blackened piece of wood, a title that is practically a short story: There was a fire extinguisher business on Broome Street whose sign said 'what burns never returns' but in the case of some seeds it is necessary for there to be fire in order for them to open.

Other artists left their work untitled, allowing trademark elements of their style to take over, whether nails in the case of Günther Uecker (Germany) or non-reflective red pigment for Anish Kapoor (India).

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Anish Kapoor's signature appears through the red paint pigments

Also employing methods typical of her sculptural work combining various media, the Belgian Berlinde de Bruyckere covered her block with wax and animal skins.

Related Subjects

In some cases, the cube of wood was completely transformed. New Zealand artist David McCracken shred it into wood shavings and placed it in a box as protective material for his stylized sculpture of a bomb. The Ukrainian artist Aljoscha burned his block, allowing the particles of the smoke it produced to spread throughout the world; the ashes are integrated into a pink silicon installation representing "how humans are biologically predestined to violence," he said. 

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David McCracken's "Product of Sanctification"

A fragile peace

"The artists all had an immense respect for the material," said curator Visser. Even though he was hoping to get works symbolizing peace, many of them came up with propositions that rather dealt directly with war.

However, Visser added that, no matter how dark the works are, "they all serve as a memento mori," or artistic reminders of mortality, "that make us more aware of the value of life."

Echoing this idea, Wolfgang Schäuble, President of the German Bundestag, said at the opening of the exhibition, "Our remembrance of the year 1918 shows that neither peace or democracy can be taken for granted," referring to the fact that the period of peace following World War I didn't last long.

The name of the project borrows from the title of a book by Truus Menger-Oversteegen, a Dutch woman who was a resistance fighter against the Nazis. "Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever" can be seen as an call to continuously resist war, as deadly conflicts still affect European countries and the world to this day.

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Jean Boghossian and his work, Double World

At the exhibition, artist Jean Boghossian didn't hesitate to touch his work as he discussed its meaning, showing how his sculpture was divided in two pieces that were actually complementary. Double World shows the tension between conflicting parties, the losers and the winners of the world threatening each other with their sharp edges, "yet the two pieces of wood are also designed to fit perfectly well together if they communicate," the sculptor said. "I'm an optimist, and I hope that's what they will do."

"1914/1918 - Not Then, Not Now, Not Ever" can be visited by booking a book a guided tour.  The project will be shown at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York in 2019 and it will later head to Osnabrück, a city renowned for its role in ending the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).