Judith Siegmund :: Visual Art, Conceptual Art, Philosophy

To Remember Is to Forget. To Forget Is to Remember.

"The Photograph is a Witness, But a Witness of Something that is No More"*

In many of the pictures, clean streets or paths are to be seen, paved with smooth stones and edged with growing, lush green grass, lovingly tended by people. Some of the paths seem to lead to romantic places, for example to a medieval castle, while others present neighborhood infrastructures. And although virtually no people are to be found in any of the photographs, the vestiges of a human presence remain obvious in the captured images of bicycles, brightly-colored garbage cans, or parked cars. The picturesque house façades and the stonework of a church, as well as scaffolding, infer a careful restoration and maintenance of existing structures. Nevertheless, what becomes apparent at first glance of the photographs is the lack of any distinctive architectural or scenic features that offer a city an identity, that make it differentiable, and that can be seen as part of its identity.

The reference is to a multi-part series of photographs by Judith Siegmund, To Remember Is To Forget, To Forget Is To Remember. The series was created between September and October 2010, while the artist was staying in her hometown of Rostock on an art studio scholarship. By coincidence, the studio was located in the eastern "Old Town," where she had lived as a child from 1972-79. And later, in 1983 at the age of seventeen, she moved into one of the many illegally inhabited houses in the same section of town. The unexpected combination of circumstances led the artist to revisit and document the streets, houses and playgrounds of her childhood and youth. The result is an art project that is rather uncharacteristic of Judith Siegmund's work. Her work is generally participatory in nature, the characters and protagonists of her projects are frequently people living on the margins of society, who give account of their fates, lives, dreams, hopes and fears. This time the artist "gives account" of her own past and history, simultaneously confronting the culture and politics of memory.

Of the series of images of an apparently idyllic community, two photographs immediately catch the eye. In the midst of what looks to be an industrial area, there is a vacant lot. The plot of land looks as if it has long stood fallow, for it has been taken over by grass and brush. All around it, life booms and buildings rise – this plot alone remains untouched by these activities. The second image is of an unrestored façade upon which Internationaler Klub der Seeleuten ("International Club of Seafarers") can be read. The lighted letters, which have probably not been lit up for a very long time and are in a typeface from the 1970s, are currently a rare object of interest for antique dealers and collectors of vintage socialist items. These "unexpected" photographs instigate an element of irritation in the otherwise somewhat meditative atmosphere of the photograph series, for they position the artist and her project within a specific context: the context of a former East German city (Rostock) twenty years after the transition.**

The latter assertion could be contested – after all, one runs into dilapidated locations and abandoned buildings all over the world – were it not for the accompanying texts. Judith Siegmund has added her personal recollections to each photograph and not as captions, but as an equivalent aspect of the work. The text beneath the image of the fallow lot reads: "Below the hill slope on which the town wall stood there was a factory that manufactured doors and window frames. From the window of our living room we looked onto the factory complex. Because production ran day and night, the factory made a lot of noise, as well as a lot of filth." And under the so-called "International Club of Seafarers," it says: "We saw a lot of foreign men enter and exit the 'International Club of Seafarers,' but we never spoke to any of them. The other kids said that the club was actually a bordello. I tried to imagine the club from the interior and the women working in it. Prostitution was illegal in the GDR. Later, when I moved back into the area again, someone pointed out a beautiful woman to me who lived in the old section of town and commented that she was a prostitute." In this manner, the photographs disentangle themselves from their apparent banality and bring to light an incisive observation of the social processes that are closely linked to the political, economic and social transformations of what, in the interim, has become 23 years.

One characteristic of the rapid transformations, particularly within the urban environment of the post-socialist cities of Eastern Europe, is the lavish restoration of the existing historic fabric even as the traces of the socialist past are simultaneously and systematically pushed to the background of, or even erased from, the cityscape. Paradoxically, the periods in time chosen as the identifying ages of the cities – for example, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or the Baroque – all lie far in the past. They are considered to be "ideologically free."*** In the case of the eastern section of Rostock’s old city center, the remnants of the Middle Ages are being meticulously restored and, in this way, the district is being given a new luster. Visitors stroll along the old town wall, now equipped with a modern lighting system and well-kept walkways. Formerly, in the 1970s, Judith Siegmund reveals, "The area behind the town walls was also our play area. The narrow sand path snaked through wild plants and weeds. We used the flowering thistles to make colorful rugs and we sucked the honey from the dead nettles." When one looks at the photo of the restored town wall, it becomes obvious that the young residents of the already gentrified section of town will be deprived of such experiences.

Judith Siegmund's project is nevertheless not a nostalgic project, despite the aura of nostalgia that may emerge from childhood memories. The artist’s concern is not to glorify the times of human repression and humiliation or to criticize the pursuit of a better quality of life. Instead, she draws attention to a process that has less to do with remembering than with the blanking out of specific historical events. What becomes evident is that political and economic interests have always played a role in the interpretation and presentation of history, both during the socialist regime as well as in capitalist society. Each age brings and also tries to enforce its own ideals and values. In the process, historical facts that contribute to the legitimization of the respective social ideals are pushed to the foreground while the others are shoved to the back and eventually forgotten.

A look at the city's current, official Internet portal shows a selection of information and/or pictorial images that, historically speaking, come across as somewhat discontinuous. The attention of the potential visitor is steered – particularly by the pictorial representations, which reflect only a specific view of the city – to places of interest from the eras of yesterday, or to state-of-the-art building complexes and amusement areas. For the purpose of increased attractiveness, an (ideological and marketing-related) paradox of timelessness and time-relatedness is created. On the one hand, you are meant to believe that it has always been this way, but on the other, this very approach is due to a specific time and social perspective. A stroll through the streets and neighborhoods reveals that highly diverse "zeitgeists" and socio-political conditions have left their traces behind, both in the urban structure and substance, as well as in the lives of the people.

In the construction her series of photographs, Judith Siegmund uses this same strategy of choosing what to picture, namely the focalization on a specific city scene – only with a different conceptual background. Her apparently random and unspectacular shots, reminiscent of snapshots, are precisely considered and are taken from a consciously chosen point of view. They stand in contrast to the bird's eye view of the official representations and show a view from "within," from the perspective of an observer who has witnessed the change in attitudes and ideologies. The camera positioning corresponds to a very specific memory from childhood. Exactly at this corner, at which a bush is now growing, there was once a fire alarm; between two parked cars on the street, there was a "small, boring playground." Instead of the properly restored memorial to Joachim Slüter, there were its war-damaged ruins, which were wonderfully suited for climbing – and so on and so forth. Photography, the medium chosen by the artist for this project of remembrance, plays a decisive role. Changes in the city are being recorded for generations of the future. Siegmund, however, isn't doing it from the perspective of a consumer-oriented marketing strategy, but rather from a very subjective perspective. The fragmentation of the photographic images points to the impossibility of creating an authentic image of the past or even the present. Judith Siegmund does not proffer an aloof, all-encompassing view. It is also the motivation for the form she chooses to express her project, in which a combination of text and pictorial details strikes a strong link between "back then" and "today."

Judith Siegmund disengages the photographic medium from its long-contested function of reflecting an "objective" or "neutral" reality and transmutes it into an ally of the subjective artistic perspective. This gesture situates the project within a whole range of artistic works which, since the 1970s, and by means of a precise and calculated visual aesthetic, put forward alternatives within topographic photography. The photographs deliberately circumvent the comprehensive panoramic view; they are taken in such a manner as to emphasize the unspectacular banality of the depicted object. Since an apparently minute, insignificant detail can sometimes conjure a specific story in the human consciousness, the focal point of many of Siegmund's photographs consists of a window, a brick façade, or a fence. This enables an amplified focus on one story that the artist has to tell. This story makes photography itself a witness of the times.

Ilina Koralova, 2012 (Translation by Bryin Abraham)


* Quoted from Roland Barthes, in "Über Fotografie. Interview mit Angelo Schwarz," 1977. In Paradigma Fotografie – Fotokritik am Ende des fotografischen Zeitalters. Written by Herta Wolf. suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 1598. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2002.

** The point in time of the project's execution.

*** And in some places in Eastern Europe, in which no significant architectural monuments from those epochs remain or are to be found due to historical events, they are simply being reconstructed.




Catalogue "To Remember Is to Forget. To Forget Is to Remember." (German/English) 2012