Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stumbling blocks

When you talk about public sculpture (and we do a lot) it would be hard to find a better example than a series of brass sculptures here in Berlin. Unlike most public sculptures that hog the skyline or pompously memorialise experiences or people, these works are small, discreet and deeply emotional. In fact we walked straight past three of them for a week without noticing, making our discovery all the more powerful for it. They are called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and are a public art project by Cologne artist Gunter Demnig. Since 1996 he has been embedding 10.2 cm (four inch) square brass blocks outside the last known residence of victims of the Nazis. The blocks are stamped with the victim’s name, date of birth, when they were taken, where they were taken to and what happened to them. There are around 1,500 in Berlin and more than 12,000 throughout Germany. The first one was located outside a residence in Kreuzberg, the district of Berlin we are staying in. These small sculptures are insistently personal and their intensely local focus offers no escape from the reality they commemorate. The idea now has its own momentum and today relatives are commissioning Stolpersteine for members of their families. Berlin has other more famous, and grander, memorials to the holocaust, but for us none of them come close to the provocation and emotional power of a single Stolpersteine.