I’m sitting on a bench in the back garden of Schloss Almoshof. It feels good to be in Germany for the first time ever, other than when I’ve been on the way to somewhere else.
But am I really in Germany? Yesterday evening, I landed at a modern international airport, a place that one could imagine finding close to any western city. Then, in mid-July heat I associate only with the likes of Athens, I was given a straw hat and a bicycle with which to make the journey of less than a mile to the 16th century castle in which I’ll be staying for the week. If this really is Germany, it would seem to be a toyland version that’s been dreamed up by a child.
Nicola Atkinson-Davidson appears with our coffee. No child, she, but the woman who’s responsible for the Nürnberg I’ve so far been presented with. She’s here as artist-in-residence. The residency will lead to a show in the schloss towards the end of her stay. Green Dot will have a recycling theme. But the residency is also allowing her to get on with an ambitious project that she’s been in the process of developing for some time already.
On one level this project is simple. She wants local people to contribute to shows of mirrors: in Scotland and in Germany. But that is a deceptive and misleading way to describe a project that is being put together so painstakingly. Atkinson-Davidson met Andrea Kusel, a curator at Paisley Museum and Art Gallery, who was and remains keen to add challenging contemporary exhibitions to the fairly traditional programme that exists at Paisley, the museum’s most popular attraction being a permanent display of Paisley pattern shawls. Kusel is supported in this ambition by her colleague there, Susan Jeffrey, and through these two Atkinson-Davidson learned that Paisley was officially twinned with the German town of Fürth. An introduction to Drew Gibson, Renfrewshire’s twinning officer, led to communications being established with Hildegard Langfeld in Fürth, who agreed in principle to lend her support to the idea of some kind of Paisley-Fürth show.
Meanwhile, Marjukka Fryer in the Glasgow International office pointed out to the artist that Glasgow itself was twinned with Nürnberg, of which Fürth is a suburb. So would it not be possible to take advantage of this double-twinning relationship in the putting together of some kind of art event or series of events?
I sip my coffee, trying to keep up with the developing network, knowing that it’s this that is responsible for my presence here, as much as any aeroplane. Indeed, I recall that it was at the launch of MAP issue two, to which Atkinson-Davidson contributed the Diary, that I first met the artist and she talked about her way of working. From that day I’ve known her as ‘Nicola’, so I will revert to that name from now on.
Nicola put together a pre-proposal. She pointed out that Glasgow and Nürnberg were trying to find their 21st century identities, and in doing so had to come to terms with legacies from the first half of the previous century. In the case of Glasgow and its hinterland, the shadow of heavy industry was the problem. In the case of Nürnberg, the Nazi era has left the city’s name linked with infamous laws, rallies and trials. Nicola proposed to explore these identity problems. The British Council in Germany was persuaded to pay for a flight from Glasgow to Nürnberg. The city of Nürnberg’s Internationale office was also persuaded to make a flat available to her for a week in December 2005. Christina Plewinski, who deals with all aspects of Nürnberg’s twinning relationship with Glasgow, ensured that the visiting artist made the contacts she would need in the area. It was during this week of intense research that the project took off, in terms of enthusiasm and commitment on both sides: artist and host organisations. By the end of it, not only was the summer residency in place (thanks in part to a rapport with the director of Nürnberg’s Kunsthaus) but Nicola had found sites in both Fürth and Nürnberg and was excited about the prospect of working in them.
I’ll be seeing both sites this week, as she tries to get the managers fully on board with the project. But I feel it’s important that I get an overall impression of this part of the world first. This afternoon I’m going along to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, and will visit the Documentation Centre that details the full horrors of what happened here between 1930 and 1945. Then I’ll stand on the very platform where Hitler once stood, addressing his followers, to see if I can bear the weight of guilt for more than a few seconds.
It’s near the end of the week before Nicola secures an appointment to meet the official responsible for the Hangman’s Bunker, (or ‘Hangman’s Tower’ as we now know it’s called). This is a picturesque medieval bridge, punctuated by towers, one of many bridges that stretch over the Nürnberg River, which flows through the middle of the city. Nicola wants to hang the mirrors donated to her exhibition in a closed-off, normally empty corridor that crosses the river. The place has not been used in an art context before, and the negotiation with the keeper of the listed building will have to be conducted with care. Which is why Johanna Urdaneta, from the Internationale office, is with us as a translator. The building’s keeper also has a colleague with him, someone who can give advice on technical matters, so the multi-party discussion gets under way. Rather tensely, but with goodwill on all sides.
Nicola met and briefed Johanna independently a few days ago, asking her to come up with a summary page in German that could be handed to the official, detailing both the artist’s requirements and those aspects of the project for which she would take responsibility. When we met Johanna first thing this morning, Nicola asked her to verbally translate the document back into English, so that she knew exactly what would be communicated when we got to where we are now. Nothing important or diplomatic must get lost in translation. It’s this attention to detail regarding meetings—together with the ability to get on with people in positions of responsibility—which has taken the artist this far towards the realisation of her multistranded project.
I listen to Nicola explaining to the grey-bearded Germans why she doesn’t want to use the interior of the bridge until May 2007. The Bank Sparkasse in Fürth is hosting an event involving all Fürth’s partner twin towns, and has invited them to participate in an exhibition in the Bank. Paisley will promote itself from 14 April to 11 May 2007—that is when Nicola wants to make an installation in the pavement display case of the Saumweber family’s long-established wallpaper shop, right across the street from Bank Sparkasse. And while Nicola is over in Germany installing this, she would like to install a fun house in this bridge cum-corridor.
Johanna translates, listens to a question and puts the question to the artist in English. ‘What is a fun house?’ Nicola lightens up as she talks about all the fun of the fair. ‘Convex’ and ‘concave’ are words that Johanna is unsure about. So Nicola describes the experience of walking through a space full of mirrors where you see yourself made tall, thin, fat, small, pin- and pumpkin-headed. Her own fun houses will be variations on this theme. The one to be installed in Paisley will consist of mirrors lent by the local population, sound pieces produced in collaboration with Hanna Tuulikki—which will reference the innocence of childhood—and something nightmarish, which she has yet to make up her mind about.
When the conversation turns technical, I move off. The windows are curtained on one side—downstream—to keep out the sun. They’re wide open on the other—upstream—to let out the hot air. And wherever there is space between windows, mirrors will be hung. How was it Nicola put it in the full proposal she worked out between her winter week in Nürnberg and this summer residency? ‘Fears and fantasies reflecting back on oneself’ . For a moment I’m back in the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, feeling like the lowest of the low. No-one of my generation in Scotland is to blame for The Holocaust, but if we’re all to feel like part of a single human tribe then we must collectively take responsibility for what we have done to each other. What we keep doing to each other…
I pace up and down. I can imagine what the exhibition here will look like. It will look fantastic! First, people of Nürnberg will donate mirrors. Second, the people of this city will see themselves in those mirrors, and, overwhelmingly, they will take pride in what they see.
This week has been a real eye-opener for me. The people we’ve met in the culture sector have been friendly and knowledgeable. But so has everyone else. School children are taught history in a meaningful way here. People are taught a sense of responsibility and a respect for life. As soon as World War II ended, the citizens of Nürnberg had to decide what to do about their town, which had been flattened by Allied bombing raids. They resolved to rebuild the medieval centre, and one of the first houses to be pieced together again was that of Albrecht Dürer.
A superb draughtsman, realist and religious visionary, Dürer absorbed the Renaissance values of Italy at the start of the 16th century, and moved the centre of European civilisation north a bit. Indeed, Nürnberg has been part of a more-or-less continuous civilisation for a couple of thousand years. And it seems to me that what happened here, and throughout Germany in the 1930s, must have been aberrant behaviour brought on by extreme poverty in the aftermath of World War I. In any case, it couldn’t happen again here in the near future. Why not? Because in every face you come across in Nürnberg you see liberal values and self-awareness.
The show at Fürth in 2007 should succeed too. I only spent a single afternoon in that suburb of the city—a Jewish neighbourhood before Hitler worked his evil; now inhabited by Turks and other immigrant groups. But I enjoyed wandering around, being taken from place to place by Nicola, who’d already identified points of interest and formed bonds of mutual respect with locals.
My fear is for the Paisley show, which opens in just eight weeks. Nicola will be in the Renfrewshire town for a week or so in order to collect mirrors—a process that is already underway, thanks to gallery staff and the local press—but I don’t think it will be easy to get the local population to donate mirrors. Why not? In a nutshell—and I hate to say this—the mirrors of Paisley and Glasgow may have seen too much ugliness over the years. A deeply embedded anti-social attitude—in part caused by a century or so of brutalisation by heavy industry—means that a proportion of the people are beyond the pale. What do I mean? Too many faces reddened by heavy drinking and shame. (I would feel uneasy about donating a mirror to the project for that same reason: I’m not excluding myself from this analysis.) Too many faces bruised by socio-economic violence.
‘But hang on a minute,’ some will point out. ‘The mirror wipes itself clean at every opportunity.’ True enough, but what happens in the mirror-owner’s mind is what matters. And that delicate object retains the pared-down memory of every selfish pose and each despairing glance.
The meeting in the corridor of the covered bridge is over, I realise. It went well (though nothing is absolutely settled, I gather). With all tension gone, Johanna poses happily for Nicola’s camera. And, outside, the artist poses happily for her own camera, marking out her territory in a scintillating way. That’s good: I am all for the success of this project. It will reveal significant differences. And where such differences are revealed, minds can get to work on personal and social solutions. There is far too much energy and humour and capacity for joy in the Glasgow psyche for the people of that city to lag behind their continental cousins in the maturity stakes indefinitely.
It’ll take time but not that long. I have no fears for the Glasgow-Paisley side of a similar show staged in another generation. It’s important for my morale to think so, anyway. And I imagine the scene in the fun house in the following way:
VIEWER (looking into the mirror in either Scotland or Germany ) : Mirror, mirror on the wall, whose is the fairest face of all?
MIRROR (to the equally fair-minded Scottish or German or Jewish or Turkish or Palestinian viewer of the near future ) : Yours is.
But I’m getting ahead of things. Over the next year the development of Nicola’s Nürnberg-Glasgow-Paisley-Fürth project should provide lots to reflect on.
Duncan McLaren is an arts writer