The third solo exhibition of photographs by Belgian artist Bart Michiels is currently on view at Foley Gallery in New York. Götterdämmerung is the final installment of Michiels’ The Course of History series, and explores the Eastern European battlefields of Germany and Russia.
At the start of 2000, Michiels had lived in the United States for more than a decade and was feeling a desire to reconnect with his European roots. Europe has been a major battleground for centuries, and Michiels chose this distinct cultural history as a starting point from which to rediscover his homeland and compare it to his adopted country. He began photographing sites where historic battles have taken place, starting with the pastoral landscapes of France.
The photographs in this show focus on the battlefields of Germany and Russia, and the title of the exhibition, Götterdämmerung (taken from Richard Wagner’s final opera), is intended to refer to the notion of a “violent end” or “destruction.” Many of the battles that took place in these locations directly contributed to the collapse of the Third Reich – including the Battle of Kursk, a decisive success for the Soviets and the first time a German offensive had been stopped, and the Battle of Stalingrad, in which after a five-month siege the Soviets surrounded and overtook the Nazi enemy. These are some of the worst cases of destruction and carnage in history, and over half a century later Michiels’ photographs show landscapes that though physically recovered still retain an air of devastation.“The physical scars of these sites have long gone,” Michiels says in his artist statement. “And what seems to be an idyllic or an unremarkable pastoral scene turns more poignant once we know it’s traumatic history, challenging our notion of understanding place. With no direct evidence of battle left, subtle happenstance features in the land become symbolic references to what happened so many years and centuries ago.”
There is a disquieting stillness to the photographs that is characteristic of a war’s end, when silence settles in and destruction can be comprehended. Unlike earlier works from The Course of History, these photographs are marked by their dark tones and harsh textures. In some cases the sites almost appear to have preserved the war’s havoc – the blackened ground and scattered stones calling to mind the scorched earth tactics employed by both the Soviets and Germans.
Though in the shadow of destruction, these photographs are beautiful. Michiels’ compositional choices make for striking, mysterious images that at times resemble landscape painting. As a viewer there is a strange line to ride between visual satisfaction and what feels like mourning, but this contradictory experience speaks to Michiels’ ability to capture the true dynamic of these locations.
Several quotes accompany the exhibition and are positioned in different locations. One, from Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones (a book that Michiels recently read), is well chosen and well placed – displayed on a wall near where the visitor might make his exit:
“I wept for my childhood, for a time when snow was a pleasure that knew no end, when a city was a wonderful space to live in, and when a forest was not yet a convenient place to kill people.”
The Course of History: Götterdämmerung
Foley Gallery, New York
October 28, 2010 – January 8, 2011