Texts on the exhibition

Laudatio on January 26 2024

How to remember violence?

Dr. Steffi Hobuß
Academic Director of Liberal Education and Scientific Program Management Studium Individuale at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg

The artistic works of Eva Beth and Torsten Oelscher address precisely those questions that have long preoccupied me as a philosopher and cultural scientist in the academic field: How can we deal with experiences of violence, be it linguistic violence, physical violence, violence perpetrated individually or collectively? And how can we deal with the memories of experiences of violence, which are often traumatic in nature, so that the memory always evokes the trauma?
International research on memory and questions of collective memory shows that memory is not private. This means that even our individual, personal memories are dependent on social frameworks, without which they could not come about and remain. Individual and collective memories are therefore always the result of social negotiation processes, and no one can simply decide arbitrarily which content should be remembered or forgotten when and where.
Jan and Aleida Assmann drew attention to the fact that demands for certain contents or ways of remembering or forgetting cannot escape the respective historical lines of tradition with the sentence “Nobody lives in the moment”. This was already the case in 1998 – the background was the public debate surrounding Martin Walser’s speech in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche at the award ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, in which he had said that Auschwitz had become a “moral club” and that the memory of the Shoah should be left to individual conscience.
Language and memory can be thought of as being mutually dependent on each other: people can only remember if they have some kind of language, which means belonging to a group that uses a common language, and they can only speak if they have learned a language, for which they need the ability to remember. Maurice Halbwachs has explicitly investigated this reciprocal relationship. His theory of the social conditionality of memory sees the decisive prerequisites for memory in the fact that individual people, as bearers of individual memory, are fundamentally social beings who are always integrated into a community. Only a group of people can “guarantee the fidelity of our memory” (according to Halbwachs and Ludwig Wittgenstein in his philosophy of language), because the practices of thinking and comparing are only possible in a group.
This means that memory always has a constructivist aspect: memory is not a simple mirror of the past, but an operation of re-membering available data that takes place in the present.2 This means that memory is always caught between performativity and representation. In what way, we might ask, does memory refer to the past? Here we could speak of a “double character” of memory: In addition to the performative, non-representational side of memory, a quasi “materialistic” side could be asserted, asking where appeals to the truth of memories derive their right from. This is still and again an important question, especially in the context of remembering the Shoah, because the last contemporary witnesses are currently dying and new right-wing aspirations are making claims to define the future culture of remembrance.
The photographic works of Eva Beth and Torsten Oelscher depict a reality that cannot be grasped; they therefore do not provide realistic images of the acts of violence that took place. On the one hand, this is about historical violence and past injustice, which as such is past, even if it still has massive effects today. On the other hand, the former idea that photography per se documents the past or bears witness to the past has long since become questionable in research. Questions of the photographic representability of history are therefore also being raised.
The works on display here can be placed in the context of contemporary artistic photography, in which historical places and historical experiences of violence are addressed, but the places remain “empty stages” without depicting injured or dead people, weapons or acts of war. There only appears to be a discrepancy between the aesthetics of the photographs on the one hand and the extent of the brute violence perpetrated and the resulting suffering on the other. This is because they resist quick consumption or quick categorization as well as the danger of passive affirmation, but rather challenge the viewer to take a position themselves, also emotionally.
The photographic works enable an (approach to) confrontation with the violence that took place, without provoking the all too often reflexive reactions, be it clichéd pseudo-concern, overconventionalization, or the equally terrible denial and repression. They are an example of the fact that memory never simply consists of a simple depiction of a past. And they resist the repetition of trauma. How can experiences of violence be addressed without re-traumatization on the one hand or repression on the other? Can there even be such a thing as “healing” (Kader Attia)? The photographic works show a deeply moving, painful but possible path.
Memory and remembrance are not arbitrarily and sovereignly controllable, but are always implicitly or explicitly negotiated, sometimes violently or even in the form of war. This does not weaken the category of individual responsibility; on the contrary, it actually strengthens it, because a great deal of weight is placed on the role that each individual takes on in the process of this negotiation. Speaking means acting, remembering means acting, and remembering also means fighting, namely when it comes to clearly remembering certain things, thus giving visibility to the victims and standing up for the fact that right-wing and sexist violence should have no place in our society.

¹ DIE ZEIT 3.12.1998.
² Astrid Erll, Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen, 2005, S. 7.
³ Sonja Feßel: Leere Bühnen. Historische Orte in der zeitgenössischen Fotografie.- Kromsdorf 2018.

All we’ve got are memories

Anna Maria Katz
Head of Department & Museum at the Lichtenberg District Office of Berlin

Since the artist couple Eva Beth and Torsten Oelscher discovered their shared passion for photography in 1985, they have been working together on various themes in the form of commissioned work as well as free artistic works.
Working for internationally renowned fashion and advertising companies, such as Universal Music, Vogue Italy and Louis Vuitton, not only provided them with the financial basis for their artistic work. Universal Music, Vogue Italy oder Louis Vuitton, ermöglichten ihnen nicht nur die finanzielle Grundlage für ihr künstlerisches Schaffen. They also gave them an insight into a world of beauty and aesthetics, but also a world of superficial appearances and structural abuse.
In this way, the complex and sensitive topic of violence found its way into the artistic work of the artist couple. On a social, structural and political level, they explore traces of violence that shape history and the present, for example in the form of exclusion, resistance or exploitation.
A key moment was their encounter with French film director Claude Lanzmann in 2008. This encounter reinforced the artists’ belief that everyone must not only deal with their own individual memories, but also with collective memory and the cultural past. After all, memories are all we have.
But how can or should photography depict personal memory or collective memory? What can or should photography achieve in this context in an age of technical reproducibility, medialization and digitalization?
Photography is more than capturing fleeting moments, more than the technical reproduction or pure depiction of reality. Photography is able to depict several realities, places and times simultaneously. And it can capture the immaterial or make the distorted visible, such as emotions, feelings, but also traces of history and memories.
The works of Beth and Oelscher make this clear and, in addition to their technical skills and artistic finesse, demonstrate a direct and unobstructed view. Their examination of memory in the form of the depiction of places or people, for example, initially appears factual and objective. It is a sensitive and unobtrusive perception that is characteristic of both of them. However, this is precisely where the strength of their works lies. They do not impose themselves on the viewer, but give them the opportunity to remain on the surface at first and then to venture into the depths of what is depicted on their own initiative in order to continue to deal with the traces of fragmented reality and violence contained therein.
Beth and Oelscher are able to show that the greatest strength lies in people’s greatest vulnerability and their worst memories. They also make it clear that every form of violence and anti-Semitism is rejected by recognizing, naming and addressing the phenomenon.
Looking at the world in a new way, pointing out the obvious, uncovering the hidden.
The artist couple have set themselves this task.
After all, memories are all we have.

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