In Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni, the statue of a man murdered by the titular character responds to his fatal, scoffing invitation to join him for dinner. This rather ominous tableaux inspired the title for theatre-maker and actor Oliver Zahn’s essay performance on the afterlife of statues. With news flooding the media of the toppling of statues by angry mobs, Zahn was transfixed by what happens when they’re
gone, where they go, and what their changed status says about the societies that remove, relocate or destroy them.
Their absence, he has discovered, is more eloquent than their presence: on the empty plinth sits a pointed judgment on the past and present. In his performance lecture, Zahn tells us in his monologue the story of those statues deposed when history moves on. Using projections and role play, he describes and brings to life the statues that physically disappear but whose legacy will not be forgotten.
How did you come to make a piece about missing or disappeared statues?
I generally focus on the way history is written, on inheritance and the politics of change – those are the areas that draw my attention. My first piece of this kind was Situation mit ausgestrecktem Arm (Situation with Outstretched Arm) in 2014 about the Hitlergruß, or Nazi salute. I was looking at how we dealt with the architectural leftovers of the Nazi dictatorship and how this translated into performance.
Recently, the discussion about how we deal with statues of, let’s say, ‘controversial personalities’, usually fascists and racists, has entered the public domain, which converged with the interest I’ve always had in it. But I’m more fascinated by the kind of undead afterlife of these statues than what the media report about the protests. In doing research, it quickly became clear that this afterlife is much more interesting. This gave rise to a performative solo lecture that visits secret factory buildings, remote graveyards, forgotten battlefields and dark forests. The piece doesn’t focus on the question of whether it’s good or appropriate to be toppling these statues. Instead, it shows that it’s normal, perhaps even inevitable.
The statue of Edward Colston that was torn down in Bristol, for example, is now in a museum. You might think that statues are destroyed when they are taken down, but that’s not always the case…
There are lots of different ways of dealing with them, and I think it says a lot about the societies in which they happen. Of course there are statues that are destroyed, but there are statue parks all over the world where they collect statues that have been removed from their original context, that are no longer wanted. You’ll find them in the post-Soviet states, Estonia and Lithuania, in Budapest and in Moscow. There’s also Coronation Park in New Delhi, India, where a lot of statues from the colonial period have been gathered, because right after independence there was the question about what to do with all the statues.
In Buffalo, New York, a Frederick Douglass statue was torn down by vandals, not in a large protest. And in Saratoga Springs, also in New York state, a memorial for a Union regiment was taken down. Both of these statues were eventually resurrected, because it was decided that toppling them was wrong. This kind of thing also happens in the southern states: statues are torn down, then put back up again.
What about in Germany?
I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the Nazis were big builders. There were a lot of swastikas, and there are naturally statues, but when you compare that with the Hindenburg and Bismarck statues from the Kaiserreich (German Empire), there were many more statues from that era than during the Nazi period. There are astonishingly few statues of Hitler. Instead, they built. And, in hindsight, that was much cleverer. Because you can tear down a statue. It’s a lot harder to do that with a building because it’s being used.
There’s an exhibition of fallen statues called Unveiled. Berlin and its Monuments, in the Zitadelle in Spandau. There are quite a lot of statues from the DDR. But you can see that there are not a lot of statues from the Nazi period. But Lenin’s head is there from the film Goodbye Lenin. And a lot of statues from before that. So you can see that tearing down statues isn’t a new phenomenon. Putting statues up and taking them down is a normal part of historical change.
So things go back and forth, statues get put up, torn down, put back up…
It’s also interesting when we look at the architecture, for example, at the old Tempelhof airport. During the Nazi period there was an enormous Reichsadler (imperial eagle) with a swastika in its claws hanging over the entrance. When the Americans took over the airport, they got rid of the swastika and painted the eagle’s head white, and said it was now a bald eagle.
I found their pragmatism totally fascinating, it’s really just about the statue. Another thing that the Americans did in the course of denazification was to lower the ceiling so that you didn’t feel as small when you entered. That doesn’t have anything to do with glorifying an individual or symbols, but with the feeling that you had when you went in, the feeling transmitted by the architecture.
Were there any surprises while you were doing the research for the piece?
Definitely. There were statues that were hidden. With some of them, they wouldn’t tell me where they were now for security reasons. And there were a few examples of what happened to toppled statues that were almost ridiculously metaphorical.
The statue in Don Giovanni was very threatening. Are these remaindered statues also threatening in some way?
Yes and no. The piece is called Steinerne Gäste, the name is based on the opera Don Giovanni [in which the statue of someone murdered by Don Giovanni is invited to dinner by him as an act of hubris – and then, terrifyingly, turns up]. The interesting thing about Don Giovanni is that the statue comes back to judge him.
So we’re not only passing judgment on the statues, but they’re also passing judgment on us?
Exactly. As a white man, I don’t actively feel threatened by the statue of a slave owner, but I’m also in a very privileged position. And that’s the way with all these statues: they’re not torn down for no reason. It’s about a kind of horror. We’re approaching the undead, ghost stories – somehow, they’re all monsters.