by Habitus · 01/13/11
During the contentious debate over what form Berlin’s planned Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe would take, Horst Hoheisel became infamous as the man who proposed blowing up the Brandenburg Gate. He first came to prominence as a designer of monuments with the construction of his “negative fountain” in his hometown of Kassel. The project was conceived as a mirror image of a fountain that was destroyed during World War II; a phantom monument, surrounding the empty space left behind with a reflecting pool. “For Hoheisel,” James E. Young explains, “even the fragment was a decorative lie, suggesting itself as a remnant of a destruction no one knew much about.”
In Germany and throughout the world, Hoheisel has proposed memory works designed to provoke anger and stimulate debate by upending the conventions of the memorial form. The artist writes, “I don’t need the memorial as an object itself, the idea of thinking creatively is a monument and memorial on its own because particular monuments tell much more about our time, about ourselves and less about those victims.”
Habitus: Your personal history overlaps so closely with the history of Germany after the war. When you were young, what did you know about the war?
Hoheisel: I was born in December 1944, in the last month of the war. My parents were from Latvia, from Riga. Now I live in Kassel, Germany.
When I was working on the Aschrottbrunnen memorial fountain in Kassel, I found out from my research that the Jewish people of Kassel had been deported to Riga. So the story suddenly became very personal, very near to my own family biography.
In my school days, the history lessons finished with World War I. Not the Weimar Republic, not the Nazis. I grew up with this silence about that time. My father, at the time of the German occupation, was a forester. At first I studied forestry science in Munich, where my father had studied in the Twenties. In ’68 I got involved in the student movement. This was the moment when we started to ask our parents about what they had done during the war. This was a big conflict in my family, with my father.
He said he couldn’t speak about that. At the same time, he got very angry during the trials against the Nazis, when the defendants claimed they couldn’t remember what happened thirty or forty years ago. My father told me, “No, things this ugly and terrible, you never forget.”
He administrated the forests around Riga. Of course, you can’t murder so many people in the forests without the administrator knowing about it.
After he retired, he became an expert in German-Baltic history. He published a lot about the German history in Latvia. At this time, because of my work, he began to open up a bit. He told me, “There is new information about the murder of the Jews in Latvia that might be interesting to you.” He worked closely with the records of the population, which included the Jews. So at the end, he started to speak a bit about the Holocaust.
Do you remember when you first became aware of the Shoah?
My parents taught me that there was no Shoah in Latvia. It was in Auschwitz, it was in the West. I grew up with this lie. Ultimately I learned that it had begun near Riga. As a student, I started to look for information about this time and my parents’ life during this period.
How did your life as an artist begin?
All my life, I made art. As a child I made drawings and sculptures. But at first I followed my father’s profession, I went to the university and got a doctorate in forest science. I became an expert in the ecosystems of the rainforests, and I went to work in Venezuela. I wanted to move as far from my family as possible, from that conservative background. After South America, I turned to art and wanted to start a new life. But my artwork led me to examine memory and the Holocaust. I travel often to Riga and I am working as an artist in the same place my father had worked during the occupation.
You cannot escape your family. I know this now, but I didn’t know it before. Through art, I got much closer to the story and history of my father and my family than I had by following him into forestry.