Monument of an Unknown Man

Under the title Thresholds, the German Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale 2024 narrates history and the future from various artistic positions. The Exhibition runs until November 24th. Performances are each Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 12:30-5:30 PM until 23rd June.

Ersan Mondtag counters the pavilion’s fascist architecture oriented towards eternity with a “monument” whose intellectual center is the question of collective memory. What do we take with us, what do we leave behind?

In a droplet-shaped structure with three levels to explore, Mondtag gathers the fragments of a life: the world of work, housing, and public space. In this world, figures move like quotations of an everyday life that is past and cannot be reconstructed clearly. It is a search through the dust of unwritten history, its starting point is the biography of Mondtag’s grandfather, Hasan Aygün.

Originally from a poor, rural region east of Ankara, Aygün moved to West Berlin in the mid1960s and worked for more than 30 years at the Eternit company, which manufactured building materials from asbestos. Leaving for a future in Berlin, 3000 kilometers away, was the only opportunity for him to escape a life in abject poverty with no prospects. But for him, it also turned into a deadly trap. In 1993, asbestos processing was finally banned in Germany. Shortly after his retirement, Aygün died from a severe lung condition that was clearly caused by inhaling the toxic fibers. In the entrance area of the monument, things and documents from Hasan Aygün’s estate are displayed in a kind of showroom next to Eternit flowerpots (one of the company's best sellers and a symbol of the “economic miracle” associated with objects like them).

From here, life unfurls as walkable architecture through which performers and visitors can move freely. Throughout the work, realistic details are mixed with invented elements and stories from other biographies. The result is a space of remembrance that is not museum-like, but tangibly alive instead. The earth, as a contested site of territorial conflicts, becomes a migrant itself in Mondtag’s design.

Even before the exhibition was built, Montag brought soil from the birthplace of Hasan Aygün into the pits opened in the pavilion’s foundation by Maria Eichhorn in 2022 a gesture of empowerment directed against the ideology of purity enshrined in its fascist architecture.

Even outside the building, the earth blocks any access to a single-point perspective, appearing again and again as an element in the symbolic excavation site. Here Mondtag mixes soil from Anatolia with overburden from the Giardini. On the other end, there is the parquet flooring covering the floor in the interior. It comes from an abandoned cultural center in Kirchmöser, Brandenburg, and represents the workers' society of the GDR. Here, as throughout the entire work, a bridge is built between the guest workers in the West and the workers in East Germany. Both groups experience the following: In the West German-shaped historical discourse, their fates are only mentioned, if at all, as “the other lives.”

By placing motifs from East German and migrant workers' biographies at the center of the pavilion, Montag poses, in a radical way, the questions of representation and narrative on the threshold of a post-industrial landscape. The title of the work refers to “Guidance for the People on Top,” a poem by Bertolt Brecht, in which he confronts the practice of honoring an unknown soldier with a call for, in the age of industrial work, “a ceremony to finally honor/ the Unknown Worker / from the great cities on the populated continents,” whose traces are lost in the anonymity of cities.

One hundred years after Brecht's poem, Mondtag's work is a staged archaeology examining the promises of this technological age and its consequences. At the same time, it is also the recording of a memory: of a life on the threshold between departure and arrival, a life that remains unknown to us. The last floor of the monument reveals scenic views – looking out towards the gardens and towards the lagoon worlds that are present and, at the same time, inaccessible.

Photo credits: Andrea Rossetti


17. April 2024 – 24. November 2024

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