The row of three upended buses facing the Frauenkirche in central Dresden appears at odds with the elaborate stone building. What could these dirty, disused vehicles have in common with a marvel of 18th-century architecture? But nothing is quite as it seems and, in many ways, these objects hold a mirror to one another, across time and distance.
On the morning of 15 February 1945, seventy-two years ago today, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) collapsed into charred ruins, following two days of aggressive bombardment of Dresden by allied forces at the end of World War II. The devastation wrought on the German city is still the subject of controversy, and resonates through contemporary debates about the targeting of civilian infrastructure in current Middle Eastern conflicts. For over half a century, while Dresden was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the beloved church was designated a war memorial and lay in ruins. Only after the reunification of Germany were plans unveiled for the reconstruction of the building, and between 1994 and 2005 the Frauenkirche was meticulously pieced back together according to its original design. Today it is considered a symbol of peace and forgiveness after war.
The three buses that now stand across the square from the church comprise an art installation by Manaf Halbouni, entitled Monument. Raised in Damascus by a German mother and Syrian father, Halbouni relocated to Dresden in 2009 to study sculpture at the city’s Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later, he watched from afar as his former home descended into a vicious civil war. An image of the conflict that stands out in his mind is a street scene of 2015 in the ravaged northern Syrian city of Aleppo, showing a young boy walking past three upended buses. This makeshift barricade had been erected by rebel militiamen to shield Aleppo’s citizens from sniper fire.
In conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Halbouni recalled: “I was fascinated by the images and the energy that went behind the efforts to stand the buses upright like that. I was fascinated too by the ordinary street life taking place in the city behind the protection of the buses. Children playing on the streets and people riding bikes. It was surreal.” Halbouni reproduced the scene with three buses discarded by the Nuremberg transport network, each weighing 12 tonnes and standing 40 feet high. The artist intentionally used these ordinary public vehicles to symbolise the peace that exists in Germany, in contrast to contemporary life in Syria.
Funded by the city and installed as part of a cultural festival, Halbouni’s Monument has divided opinion in Germany. The installation has been warmly received by the Frauenkirche Dresden Foundation, which praises it for both memorialising the experiences of the city’s residents under bombardment, and highlighting the ongoing plight of people in war-torn locations around the world. The Kunsthaus Dresden, which sponsored the project, has hailed Monument for symbolising “a connection between the people of the Middle East and Europe and our shared destinies”.
Yet despite the work advocating peace and reconstruction, its inauguration on 7 February 2017 was disrupted by violent protests and clashes between the police and members of far-right activist groups. These groups have recently grown in strength, as high levels of immigration into Germany by people fleeing conflict have given rise to xenophobia and Islamophobia. They have since attempted to bring a lawsuit against Halbouni for “glorifying terrorism”. Dresden’s mayor, Dirk Hilbert, who has received death threats for allowing the installation to go ahead, has argued that these actions only prove the importance of Monument, since “the right-wing populists, not only in our city but also across Europe, are building themselves up by forgetting”. By bringing Dresden face-to-face with Aleppo, Manaf Halbouni’s work warns us against letting history be repeated and advises us to learn the lessons of the past.
Monument will remain in the Dresden Neumarkt until 3 April 2017. You can watch a short film about the planning and construction of the installation here:
Images: The Frauenkirche and Monument by Manaf Halbouni, February 2017. Photo © dpa/Sebastian Kahnert – Dresden; Young boy walking past a barricade of buses in Aleppo on 14 March 2015. Photo Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty Images.