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A tale of two cities: Freaks of Kars and Berlin

Friday 18 February 2011, by TuĞba Tanyeri - Erdemir

If you pass through Berlin anytime soon, you can visit Die Tanzerin (the Dancer) in the sculpture hall of the Neues Museum. Die Tanzerin holds her dancing stance as gracefully as the day she was created by Marg Moll in 1930, although she shows clear signs of aging and is scarred significantly due to the 70 years she spent buried under ground. She is one of 11 sculptures accidentally uncovered during the excavation of a government building in Berlin in 2010.

Die Tanzerin is one of the many works of art that were considered to be degenerate, distasteful and freakish by the Nazis. In 1937, thousands of artworks were collected from museums all over Germany by Nazi officials, and were banned because they were considered to be “un-German,” “Jewish-Bolshevist in nature” or simply deemed unfit for the “high-German-culture.” Some 650 of these pieces were picked for a special exhibition, entitled “Entartate Kunst” (Degenerate Art), which was designed to publicly disgrace, even mock, these art-works and their creators. The works were displayed in a chaotic manner and were accompanied by disturbing slogans. The idea was to create a negative public opinion of modern art and artists. Indeed, most of these artists were designated as enemies of the state, and their art a threat to German culture.

Die Tanzerin and 10 other sculptures have miraculously survived to today, though many works by artists now considered to be masters of modern art such as Wassily Kandinsky are lost forever due to the artistic policies of the Nazi regime.

If you pass through Kars anytime soon, you will see the unfinished İnsanlık Anıtı (Monument to Humanity) silently watching over the town. This monumental sculpture, 35 meters tall, depicts two standing figures, facing each other, with a teary-eye between them. The sculptor, Mehmet Aksoy, explains that he tried to show the incompleteness in each and every one of us and that one is only complete with another. The eye, he says, symbolizes the pain and suffering that people endured. The monument is strategically placed on a high hill and is intended to be seen from afar, even from across the Turkish-Armenian border. All aesthetic discussions aside, it is perhaps one of the strongest messages of peace that has been formulated in that particular geography of pain.

The recent discourse that revolves around the Monument to Humanity and its creator bears uncanny resemblance to the utterances around the works included in the Entartate Kunst/Degenerate Arts in Germany in the 1940s. The Turkish prime minister, for instance, said the following during his visit to Kars a few weeks ago: “Here, right next to his highness Hasan Harakani, they have placed a freak, something hideous. One cannot think of placing something right next to these works of art of the pious foundations, these artful monuments.” In other words, Mehmet Aksoy’s sculpture was deemed “unfit” to be presented next to a higher, that is Islamic, art. The prime minister continued his speech with a promise that he will have this “freak” (ucube) demolished. And he stood by his offensive words during the past weeks, despite significant public opposition. He even thwarted an apologetic attempt by Ertuğrul Günay, the Turkish minister of culture, who tried to save the prime minister from public embarrassment. Mr. Günay had said, “The prime minister did not call that sculpture a freak … he was referring to the squatter houses.” Mr. Erdoğan, however, corrected his minister, and made a public statement the next day, underlining that he did “call that sculpture a freak” and that he would do what was necessary to remove it.

Another abstract sculpture by the same artist, “Periler Ülkesinde” (In the Land of Fairies), also came under attack a few years ago. Addressing this piece of abstract sculpture, Melih Gökçek, the metropolitan mayor of Ankara, said he would “spit on this art, what they call art is promiscuity.” His words remind me one of the slogans written next to an abstract sculpture in the Entartate Kunst Exhibit in 1937: “Nature as seen by sick minds.”

What then unites the tiny image of Die Tanzerin and the monumental shadow of the İnsanlık Anıtı, works of art created in different countries and almost a century apart?

In both cases we are reminded that art is eternal. In both cases, we are reminded that art, like life, is fragile and can suffer imminent destruction if not protected and cared for.

And in both cases, I wonder if any one of us is safe when art is so blatantly under threat?

* Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir is director of the Science and Technology Museum and a lecturer in the Graduate Program in Architectural History at the Middle East Technical University.

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Source : TdZ, February 16, 2011

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