KASSEL, Germany — Early this morning, Olu Oguibe’s controversial obelisk made for Documenta 14 was dismantled.
According to reports in a local Kassel newspaper, at about 4:30 am CET, workers from a local construction company began dismantling the obelisk, titled “Monument to Strangers and Refugees,” with two heavy cranes. By 9:30 am, the report states, the obelisk was entirely gone, strapped to a flatbed truck and sent to a construction site on the outskirts of the city (where it now remains).
The dismantling of the work comes after a majority vote in the Kassel city council on September 24 to have the work removed, and after the initial loan agreement between Oguibe and the city expired on September 30.
Designed as a site-specific work for Königsplatz (King’s Square), a pedestrian zone in the city center, the 16-meter concrete obelisk reads: “I was a stranger and you took me in,” a verse from Matthew 25:35, inscribed in gold letters in German, English, Arabic, and Turkish.
Last August, a crowdfunding campaign was launched by the city to acquire the work permanently for the Königsplatz, raising about $150,000 out of a $700,000 goal, funds which donors will now receive back if the plan does not go forward.
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, Oguibe said the city had failed to negotiate in good faith:
Once I indicated my willingness to accept the funds raised, the city leaders instantly moved the goal posts and threw in a new obstacle. Their stated problem was no longer the asking prices or money, for that matter, but the very location of the work. They demanded that it was no longer enough for me to accept the amount raised through the public fundraising, but that the work must be removed from their central square, no matter what.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to admit more than a million migrants and asylum seekers, mainly Muslims fleeing conflicts in Syria and North Africa, has deeply divided Germans, provoking anti-immigrant sentiment across the country, leading to what some have speculated as the real reason behind the obelisk’s removal.
In the ensuing controversy that erupted soon after plans were announced to relocate the sculpture, murmurs began circulating that the change in tone was motivated by the rise of right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiment in Kassel’s city council.
In August 2017, Deutsche Welle reported that Kassel city council member Thomas Materner, who is an AfD member, called the work “disfiguring.”
The city’s decision to dismantle the work today — on Unity Day, a national holiday celebrating Germany’s reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall — bore unwanted symbolism. The irony of removing the work, which is dedicated to refugees, on the very day celebrating the reunification of Germany, adds insult to injury.
According to Alexander Koch, the artist’s representative from KOW gallery in Berlin, there is reason to believe the work is being dismantled in a coup-like action:
At a time when Germany faces severe inner conflicts and the pressure from hands-on right-wing populism, this day is about unity, not about division. In a democracy, we may disagree, but we shall still collaborate. It’s sad to feel as if we’re in a war. Now we’ll have to move forward in a different and productive way.
It is now up to Oguibe to decide on the future of his work. He expects it to be delivered to a place of his choice, as has been the case for all other Documenta works after the end of the exhibition.
Koch went on to state that Oguibe remains open to negotiating with the city in the hopes the work will find a permanent home on the Königsplatz. Ultimately, however, the city’s mayor, Christian Geselle (SPD), is accountable for relocating the work.
Koch and Oguibe are hoping city representatives will reconsider and keep the work on loan until they resolve their disagreements, though after today’s developments it looks increasingly unlikely the work will ever return to the site for which it was designed.
Throughout the months of negotiations, Oguibe steadfastly maintained the work is site-specific, rejecting earlier proposals by the city to dismantle and relocate the work to a less central location in the city.
This is not the first time a controversial public work has been dismantled in Königsplatz. In August 2000, the city illegally removed a controversial staircase made in 1992 by the landscape planner Gustav Lange, which was intended by its creator as a memorial to democracy.
This time, the removal of Oguibe’s obelisk, while legal, seems to be indicative of what is arguably a wider culture of ambivalence towards contemporary art in a city that bills itself as a gatekeeper of it.
Accordingly, Oguibe said he believes the city of Kassel should have a policy in place when it comes to acquiring public works commissioned for Documenta:
I believe that it would be useful now for the city of Kassel to also consider putting in place a proper policy regarding acquisition or otherwise of site-specific public art works. Whatever such a policy might involve, it would, at least, go a long way toward helping artists and the city anticipate and resolve issues such as the ones’s that we’ve all had to contend with over the past several months.
Not even 12 hours after the obelisk had been removed, about 500 far-right protesters gathered in front of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof station, waving flags, shouting anti-immigration slogans, and calling for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s resignation, a potent reminder that Germany is quickly becoming increasingly polarized by the day, to which the obelisk now stands as a symbol for a deeply divided country.
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