Interview | ‘Monument’ – Manaf Halbouni
Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni (1984) was born in Damascus, Syria where he spent most of his life and currently – as he says himself – “works and lives everywhere”. He finished his art degree in sculpting at the University of Fine Arts in his hometown in 2008 after which he moved to Dresden where he pursued a degree in Visual Art at the Academy of Art. Halbouni’s work covers a wide range of media, including everyday objects and materials, and is characterised by a socially critical approach to themes related to war, global conflicts, flight, borders, and migration. The artist does not shy away from using public space as a podium for his art, which has certainly caused quite the stir in the past. This article illustrates the initial realisation of one of Halbouni’s most iconic works ‘Monument’ that is now on view at the NDSM.
Transported by five different trucks, Halbouni’s immense memorial piece Monument has made its way from the repository in Berlin to the NDSM site in Amsterdam. This twelve-meter-tall installation consists of three German passenger buses placed next to one another and turned upright with their “noses” facing the sky. Because of its size and composition, Monument certainly does not fade into the background of the sprawling wharf, but rather immediately draws your attention when getting off the ferry. The installation was first on display back in 2017 at the Neumarkt square in Dresden in Germany and will be shown at the NDSM until the end of August.
While exhibiting his work ‘Nowhere is home’ at the Venice Biennale in 2015, Halbouni was reading the news one morning and encountered the widely spread image taken by Syrian photographer Karam Al-Masri in Aleppo’s neighborhood Bustan al-Qasr. The photograph of March 14 shows how three wrecked public buses had been turned upended to form a street barricade that would shelter civilians from snipers as the country’s civil war reached an apex. “I saw the image and thought about how fantastic it is what people do to protect themselves”, Halbouni says. “They blocked the streets from snipers so they could open their stores on the other side of the barricade”, Halbouni continues. “I started playing on paper by cutting out the buses using Photoshop. I [hypothetically] placed them on public squares in Europe and imagined that this is a peace sculpture against the war”.
Two years elapsed between experimenting with the idea to actually realising it for the first time. In between that period, Kunsthaus Dresden reached out to Halbouni to commission and sponsor a work for their cultural festival Am Fluss, zu Kulturen des Ankommens [At the River, on Cultures of Arrival]. Halbouni showed them the images he created with Photoshop and said: “How about we do that?”. His proposal was received with some reservation as – given the scale of it – it was a very ambitious plan. However, the artist already cooked up an idea for the construction of the work so that the buses could stand firmly. After further negotiations with the city, they were granted permission to pursue the project, and with donations from the local community, they were able to do so.
And there is always war, but there is also rebuilding.
In 2017, Monument was installed at the Neumarkt square in Dresden in front of the Frauenkirche; a very symbolic location as the church was demolished in the Second World War and rebuilt after German reunification. “I did historical research about the situation in Dresden in ’45 when it got bombed and Aleppo in 2015 that was almost destroyed very heavily because of the bombing. I wanted to show how war and peace can flip very fast”, Halbouni says. “And there is always war, but there is also rebuilding. Dresden was rebuilt after the war was over. So, there is also hope for people in Aleppo and the Middle East in general. But war must stop first”. Monument – as an “un-wrecked” symbol of hope – was placed at the square days before the annual Memorial Day February 13th on which the victims of the city’s bombardment are remembered.
Even though Halbouni’s Monument is meant to create a connection between the wartime experiences of the Middle East and Europe, the work was not – to put it mildly – received very well among some of its spectators in Dresden. The city is home to the right-wing anti-immigration movement Pegida of which supporters were ready to fiercely disrupt the opening in 2017 and criticise the work. Around 400 people were shouting as Halbouni tried to elaborate on its meaning. “They did not see it as a peace monument, but as a provocation of me insulting the German victims of World War II. That was not the point at all!”, Halbouni explains. “It is a reference to all war victims, inspired by an image from Syria. But the far-right dynamic is always quite interesting as they try to re-adjust stories to fit their narrative. They had altered the meaning of the work to fit a hateful narrative. This had quite an impact”. Halbouni has got to have a thick skin for he also had to deal with a countless number of hate emails and death threats. One may wonder how he handled all of that. Well, Halbouni gave it an artistic spin, to say the least. “I actually did an art piece on it. I printed 15 of those emails – ‘the best of’ – and showed them in an exhibition”.
A lot of people didn’t see it as art. They called it Schrott or junk.
In addition, at that point in time, art in public space was a hot topic for debate in Dresden. The three-part ‘readymade’ installation very much touches upon the ever-lingering question of what art is or what it is not. “A lot of people didn’t see it as art. They called it Schrott or junk”, the artist notes. Similarly, here in Amsterdam some people have taken it to social media to express their scepticism as to why this is considered art, possibly not knowing its backstory. However, Halbouni purposefully uses a lot of readymade in his work which people can recognise from daily life. “You can reach people much more with that and have them interact with your work or think about it than if it would be something complicated”, Halbouni explains. The artist enjoys observing how people engage with his work in public space and he noticed something interesting was happening at the Neumarkt in Dresden in 2017. “The funny fact was that everyone was meeting in front of the buses to have those discussions; both those who were in favour of public art and those who were against it were there all the time, talking. That was great. They weren’t shouting at each other. It was like in a parliament”, the artist explains. The installation was on view in Dresden for two months and it was always crowded during that period. “Normally it’s a place where just tourists go, but during those two months the whole of Dresden was there”.
To Halbouni, installing his work in public space enables him to discourse with people and understand their take on it. “Public space is that innocent place where you can reach anyone. Technically, you are forcing people to look at something as they cannot escape it, unlike indoor galleries where people decide to go to”, the artist mentions. “I show things in a different way than you know them. Most of the time, people get annoyed by my work at first. But then I notice how they start thinking about it and have that ‘Oh, now I understand it’ moment later. That happens with Monument a lot”. Halbouni even took the courage to visit a right-wing demonstration in Dresden in 2015 where he as a Sachse auf der Flught [Saxon on the run] created a refugee scenario at the Theatherplatz and engaged in conversations with demonstrators to understand their opposing point of view. This was his first public art installation and even though there was a demonstration happening, the encounters he had were not aggressive. “A very important point is when you go in discussion with people who do not share your opinion, you need a neutral meeting point. Monument did exactly that in 2017”, Halbouni explains.
With the events in Ukraine and all aggressions everywhere, we need it more than ever. We need peace.
After Dresden, Monument was erected near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin during the Berliner Herbstsalon festival in 2017. Again, the context of this location attributed another layer of symbolism to the work as the gate once epitomised the division of the city into East and West, but also represents reunification since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, five years later, Amsterdam has the honour to house this momentous work and draw attention to and connect the voices of the Middle East to those of Ukraine and other conflict areas. The revelation of the work took place on the 7th of July accompanied by music of the Marmoucha Orchestra. Halbouni’s project is presented at the wharf within the Stichting NDSM-werf program series ‘(Un)Monumenting’. Central to this program is the question: ‘What should, or could a monument be today and for whom?’ on which the artist is asked to reflect. According to Halbouni, a monument should convey a message to the public. “Monument carries the message to reflect on war and peace. I hope we all take a moment and think about our actions and the consequences of that”, the artist says. “With the events in Ukraine and all aggressions everywhere, we need it more than ever. We need peace.”
Where Monument will be displayed next is unknown, but the artist sure has ideas about that. For now, be sure to check it out at the NDSM where it will be on view until the 28th of August.