“Tell me about yesterday tomorrow” at the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism

Nicolaus Schafhausen and Teresa Retzer in conversation


Nicolaus Schafhausen worked as an artist and a dealer before he began his career as a curator and a director of renowned contemporary art institutions. He has led the Frankfurter Kunstverein and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam, among others, and last year he resigned from his position as director of the Kunsthalle Wien for political and personal reasons. In 2019 he was invited to conceive an exhibition at the NS-Dokumentationszentrum (the Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism) and at associated locations in the city. The outcome is Tell me about yesterday tomorrow, a show that creates a connection to current approaches toward institutional remembrance.


TERESA RETZER: When you stepped down as director of the Kunsthalle Wien, you announced that you would not work for conventional art institutions anymore. Now, you have conceptualized contemporary art shows at a research center and memorial site. Historian Mirjam Zadoff—director of NS-Dokumentationszentrum since 2018—wants to make the institution become more contemporary, international, and political “in times of a political shift to the right in Europe and the US.” Your exhibition Tell me about yesterday tomorrow is part of this institution’s reorientation. What are the new possibilities that you see for your work as a curator of international contemporary art in a place that investigates and memorializes the history of National Socialism?

NICOLAUS SCHAFHAUSEN: To me, art is a public medium, and as such, it cannot be separated from the political. Today, we find ourselves in uncertain times in which resentment is once again stirred up, freedoms are threatened, and trust in public institutions is diminishing. This situation is also changing our working conditions. We are forced to question ourselves and the conventional institutions which have become safe spaces we need to leave. In my opinion, staying in one’s own safe space only confirms the existing and cannot lead to a shift of boundaries. The exhibition Tell me about yesterday tomorrow generates material for debates. The works of more than forty artists investigate the friction between contemporary art, historiography, and politics.

TR: To what extent would you describe conventional art institutions as safe spaces? Does the Munich Documentation Centre leave this safe space, and if so, how?

NS: I don’t think we have institutional models that are able to represent current problems. Art operates too much within self-referential boundaries. Therefore, we have to negotiate social issues outside the established fields on an artistic, curatorial, and thinking level. For me, the exhibition and the numerous associated projects and productions in the show are an attempt to find a new solution, to include other aesthetic moments in the curatorial process. Establishing a greater connection between art, science, and other disciplines is always complicated. I have always appreciated the close cooperation between historians, curators, and artists combined with the precise, sensitive approach at the Munich Documentation Centre. I am extremely happy to work here as I have never experienced this form of work at any other institution before.

TR: How exactly is the show structured? And how do the exhibited works enter the public sphere?

NS: We have invited a number of artists to create new works that deal specifically with the NS-Dokumentationszentrum and the historical sites in the neighborhood. Annette Kelm made portraits of books that were burned in 1933 on Königsplatz, the neighboring square. A wide variety of works have been produced, some of them in collaboration with the institution’s academic research team, and often in cooperation with other memorial sites. Willem de Rooij’s and Andrea Büttner’s works deal with the concentration camp in Dachau, which is also a memorial site today. The works of Kent Monkman, Brian Jungen, or Brenda Draney confront how collective memories are produced in different cultures. These works also create a discourse reflecting on the political positioning of the Munich Documentation Centre, which has an effect on other spaces in Munich and abroad that continues to exist after the exhibition. The show presents a diverse, international, and cross-epochal picture taking into account the complexity of everyday life.

TR: So, you are not interested in simply promoting the work of international artists, but in creating public discourses that comment on current events and at the same time exist outside of the context of art and culture. These are all opportunities that you missed at the Kunsthalle Wien. Do you have more possibilities in Munich?

NS: At the Munich Documentation Centre the collaborations between artists and academics are as important as the cooperation with other interesting institutions in Munich. Among those are the Lenbachhaus, the Benedictine Abbey of St. Bonifaz (where German-born Canadian artist-curator and philanthropist Ydessa Hendeles shows a large-scale installation), the Ludwig Maximilians University, and the Kunstverein München. These collaborations contribute to the scale of the show and extend the discourse. It is a matter of mutual exchange and a question of how the preoccupation with history and politics can also be effective in other areas.

TR: In your exhibition, the works of more than forty artists deal with the interpretation of the Nazi past, and at the same time, they link history to the sociopolitical problems of the present. Not all of the positions presented can automatically be associated with the remembrance of National Socialism, perhaps due to the fact that not all of them are German artists. In 2009 you presented the British artist Liam Gillick at the German Pavilion in Venice. Your choice challenged the principle of the national pavilion, adding an outsider’s perspective to the complex architecture of the building once made following the stylistic codes of the Third Reich. To what degree does your exhibition broaden the view of the German past? And how do the non-German—and especially the young artists among them—comment on German history?

NS: In a society characterized by mobility and networking, social and political issues are always globally interlinked. Separatism and clinging to national myths promote separation and exclusion. The international view was central to the project from the very beginning. The show is about learning from history in order to understand the present and form the future, to recognize similarities and examine where we have to intervene in the political and public sphere. American writer, humorist, and journalist Mark Twain coined a very fitting quote: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” If the events in German history are being treated as singular and isolated phenomena, it is difficult to relate them to the present day. In history, there is always a before and after, which prepares the way or favors certain tendencies. There will always be gray areas between clear oppositions, between black and white, good and bad, and these gray zones should be investigated.

The international perspective also highlights variants of coexistence—in history, present, and future—less as fictions but as different perspectives on suppressed, marginalized, and forgotten histories. Some of the works question what is being recognized and who is able (and in what way) to participate in society.

TR: How much has the image of society changed in the last twenty years? Politics, society, and art have become increasingly global. What does that mean for your work? Are there new risks? Have the audiences changed?

NS: In recent years, one has seen the tendency that achievements from the past in terms of freedom, democracy, and equality can no longer be taken for granted. Also, in regard to the German past, we see attempts by extreme right-wing populist politicians to resurrect hatred and exclusion through the glorification of the German past and the denial of the Holocaust. The rise of right-wing populist parties is a matter of great concern to me. Radical opinions that have been unthinkable for a long time are becoming acceptable, and the pressure on liberal culture is increasing. Through attempts by right-wing movements, culture has become a battlefield to polarize society. For example, in August of this year, the Süddeutsche Zeitung once wrote about how museums and theaters in Germany are threatened by the “New Right.” These developments make many artists and cultural workers more cautious and often lead to self-censorship and resignation. The remembrance culture in Germany and the reflection on the past plays an indispensable role for the future of liberal democracy; neither art nor culture can be isolated from our history.

TR: In the last few years, I have noticed in the behavior of many Germans that the denazification process—which is present in the educational system, in the collective memory, and in war and Holocaust memorials in Germany—a sort of arrogance toward other “guilty European nations.” New right-wing movements increasingly demand that “German guilt” be abolished. How did the German artists involved in the show participate in this debate?

NS: With their works, many German artists seek to address a wider discourse, partly based on their own biography, partly as a criticism of political systems and economic interests and partly through intensive research with different groups. The artists born or living in Germany come from different generations, which also affects their views of history. Sebastian Jung, for example, repeatedly deals with his place of origin, Jena. He investigates right-wing spaces, such as the Winzerla settlement in Jena, a right-wing space where the supporters of the neo-Nazi terror group NSU (that has committed twelve political murders) met. He engages with the people from the far right—for example, at large demonstrations in Chemnitz. Jung is concerned with the question of how right-wing extremist groups are mobilizing so many people, especially in Eastern Germany. For the exhibition, he also dealt with the internet video of the recent right-wing extremist attack on a synagogue in Halle. The distribution of such videos produces fear in the public and sometimes attracts imitators. The current bloody right-wing violence in Germany, a country that once made “Never Ever Again” a pillar of its postwar identity, brings up questions of whether the state has done enough to prevent the resurgence of National Socialist ideologies. In this respect, Jung was also interested in memorial sites and observed how these places are cultivated. Leon Kahane also deals with the conditions and dangers of identity narratives and nationalist movements in relation to dealing with the German past. The starting point for his work in the exhibition was the story of his Jewish grandmother, who fled to France and was imprisoned in the Drancy internment camp.

TR: How do German artists whose biographies are closer to the Nazi era deal with the German heritage in the exhibition?

NS: Marcel Odenbach and Rosemarie Trockel see a connection between coming to terms with history on a personal and a collective level at the same time. Hito Steyerl draws attention to further entanglements between capitalism and politics in the postwar period. The different artistic positions make clear, however, that people today are longing again for a strong national identity. The old recipe of consciously binding them to humility—being proud of not being proud (at least in Germany)—no longer works today.

TR: How do the approaches of international positions differ from German views in the show?

NS: The international positions deal with various suppressed or forgotten narratives, which mostly concern marginalized population groups that are not part of a national myth. This year, the American philosopher Susan Neiman has published a book entitled Learning from the Germans, in which she appeals to Germany’s commemorative approach. We should be coming to terms with the past in the form of a model that is accessible to all of us, a model that deals with unresolved stories of oppression, exclusion, and destruction. Even though her book deals with the American context, this could become a global goal.

The knowledge and images we have of history must be questioned critically again and again—and in doing so, the history must be seen in the context of the present, politicial power, and global politics. Central to the exhibition was, therefore, the question of how we can keep alive the memory of dictatorship and unjust regimes that show that the liberal democracy we have today is not simply self-evident.


NS-Dokumentationszentrum, Munich
until 30 August 2020

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