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Memory Stones: Monuments to Revolution

Contemporary Glimpses of a Changing Era

Just two months before the Iron Curtain came down, was when I began my studies in photography in West Berlin. Twenty-five years ago I witnessed, firsthand, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. I had a front-row seat as the former German Democratic Republic  (which had been anything but democratic) crumbled and moved towards the liberal democracy of West Germany and its Western allies. The changes were monumental, quite literally. Almost daily, I watched as monuments to the defunct regime came down in East Berlin. It was a time of great emotional and political turmoil as well as artistic upheaval. Some people celebrated the destruction of these monuments to a revolution gone badly, while others condemned the loss of these “memory stones.”

It is said that revolutions devour their children. But revolutions also usually end with the destruction of the monuments and statues, the public art forms, which are often used to glorify the past and their leaders, deserved or not. This has happened throughout history. It is what I observed then in Germany.

By the time the two German states reunited in 1990, almost nothing remained of “socialist” realism in the public art that had been so dominant in East Germany. It was as if, by removing all the monuments dedicated to the history, heroes and constructs of the so-called “Workers and Peasant State”, an entire age could be neatly exorcised from public memory.

However, as an art form, these monuments carried meaning well beyond their immediate and often crass political intent. They were rooted in the years between the two World Wars and expressions of what transpired during that time. Their removal was a deliberate attempt to remove the guilt and bad memories associated with them: memories of lack of freedom, austerity, shortages of goods and also reminders of who bore responsibility for the injustices.

While art inspired by revolution has all but disappeared in Europe, it is still to be found in Cuba. The many monuments still standing mark a last refuge of the ostentatious and larger-than-life monuments that were so prominent, and meaningful, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In the winter of 2012-13, I had occasion to visit Cuba and the opportunity to examine some of the outdoor monumental art, dedicated to utopian ideologies. I marvelled at these fossils from an age I had believed was long since over. They evoked for me that time in Berlin I witnessed before the Wall fell, and they also raised questions.

Will these monuments, this art form, these memories of stone, disappear when Cuba opens up to the world? Will they be overrun by the push for a more capitalistic and Western liberal way of life? Or, will they last as reminders?

There is no way to know. But if the march of the history of Western influences in Europe and elsewhere in the world is anything to go by, it seems likely that they too will be dismantled and disappear without much of a trace.

With that possibility in mind, my project is to document these existing monumental relics of revolutionary art, before it is too late. I would focus on the monument works of each of fifteen provinces and the nation’s capital, La Havana, as well as the smaller ones, constructed by peasant farmers themselves in their local communities, (in their efforts to conserve their own dreams and memories).

This project deals with the past, with an era that calls for the kind of photography and a technique that is not common in our digital age. For this reason, I will work with a classic large format camera, a Sinar F1 on 4 x 5-inch b/w negative film, which affords me all the possibilities to express my personal view of the individual objects and images. Afterwards I would plan to scan the negatives for use in a book and for exhibition ink prints.

This project demands a slow speed to absorb the uniqueness of each region, their culture and artistic expressions, personalities and the character of each province and area.

These photographs were taken during my latest visit to Cuba in 2015-16. They were taken with my Sinar F1, I used a 90mm wide angle for 4x5 inch Kodak TMax 100 ISO B/W film. These typify the vision I have for the entire series of approximately 300 photographs of Cuba’s existing monuments.

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