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Aura Rosenberg: Victory Column Souvenir

Kunst-Werke Berlin Institute for Contemporary Art

This project is a mass production of a souvenir of the well-known Berlin landmark—The Victory Column—to be sold both as an art work and a unique memory of the city and its past for the third Berlin Biennial."Walter Benjamin's childhood memoir, Berlin Childhood around 1900, inspired this project. He wrote this collection of forty-two texts after leaving Germany in 1932. Drawn from vividly remembered places, things, and experiences, together they distill the poignancy of the bourgeois upbringing wrestled away from him by National Socialism. I was introduced to these writings shortly after coming to Berlin with my husband, John Miller and our young daughter, Carmen, in 1991. In the daily routines of raising a child, I found myself moving through the very spaces Benjamin once did. What I found was a city that, although vastly altered, had subtly remained the same. It held an uncanny attraction for me. My family too fled Germany in the 1930s. Tracing Benjamin's childhood thus mingled with reconstructing my own family history. My goal was to compile a group of images for each entry in the book and ultimately publish an illustrated version. The pictures, all shot in or around Berlin, are sometimes as straightforward as documenting a location the book mentions. Other times I may restage a scenario using Carmen or our friends and their children. The texts themselves suggest this approach. In his forward to Berliner Kindheit, Benjamin describes his efforts to: 'seize the pictures in which the experience of the big city in a child of the middle class finds expression.'

Benjamin's memoir opens with this cryptic sentence: 'Oh brown baked Victory Column with winter sugar from the days of childhood.' Completed in 1873, the column commemorates Germany's victory of France in the Battle of Sedan. This battle rallied the German states to unite under the Kaiser, and the Victory Column became the first nationally conceived monument of the new empire. Benjamin's poetic description made me want to produce a real, baked model of the monument...which, eventually, I did. I searched for a souvenir to use as a prototype, but after much hunting realized that none existed. Even at the Victory Column itself, only replicas of the angel at its top are for sale. Stranger still is the exhibition of other souvenirs in the base of the column. This collection seemingly attempts to compensate for the monument's 'souvenir-less' status. I began to consider how the recognition of the Victory Column is repressed and the various reasons for avoiding it.

Now, the Biennial (which takes place this year at Kunst-Werke and the Martin Gropius Bau) would be an ideal venue for popular distribution of this 'souvenir.' The model is a lightweight metal casting, approximately 30cm tall, with a dark, burnished metallic finish and gold detailing. It functions both as a an ordinary souvenir and as a historical frame for the monument as it exists now. We buy souvenirs to remember a place. My Victory Column souvenir has a double meaning: it invokes the memory but only of a place, by of an irretrievable past. "
—Aura Rosenberg

Excerpts from The Painting on the Edge of World Exhibition Catalogue © 2000.

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