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"What is meant by the working through the past?" asked 20th century German critical theorist Theodor Adorno. Particularly following World War II, Germans like Adorno placed great and grave importance around this question. Indeed, throughout much of his writing Adorno encircles it; he probes notions of reconciliation, acceptance, and memory after the Holocaust that each sprouted from this seemingly innocuous interrogation. Many of his contemporaries too, particularly those involved with him at the Frankfurt School as well as artists of the time, also turned backwards to reflect on their recent past and in fact promoted the use of the now more common, composite word "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" to refer specifically to Germany's confrontation of its fascist past.
Yet it seems almost too predictable, too stereotypical that only Germany - "Das Land der Dichter und Denker" (the land of poets and thinkers), with its famed emphasis on logic and intellect - would coin a term for this systematic self-reflexion. Though incomparable to the Holocaust for innumerable reasons, genocides, mass murders, public executions, killing sprees, disappearances and the like have continually marred the globe throughout the century. How have nations addressed (or avoided) mentioning these disasters to the public? How have they dealt with feelings of guilt as they arise through working through the past? For this exhibition's purposes, the question looms: how have artists responded? In many cases, they seem to have advocated for the intense process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, although perhaps not using the specific, German word.
And so, Mea Culpa aims to apply a uniquely German term more broadly by looking at an international type of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, compiling efforts of artists to understand complicated and often shaming histories. The exhibition takes its title from a perhaps more widely known theme originating from the Catholic Church: "mea culpa," literally, "my fault."
With the work of renowned German postwar artist Anselm Kiefer as a relatively traditional starting point for this theme, Mea Culpa goes on to present works which address issues of genocide, racism, political corruption. The themes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung and Mea Culpa run through each work. Kiefer's 1981 painting "Dein goldenes Haar, Margarete" ("Your Golden Hair, Margaret") is perhaps the most clear example in the exhibition, yet its dynamism and layers of intellectual as well as aesthetic meaning set the standards high for other artists broaching their pasts.
The exhibition's works move between media, foregrounding works' content to better explore the tremendous weight of history each artist handles. The exhibition draws examples from South Africa, Columbia, and Rwanda, again accounting for an internationalization of originally German and Latin terms.
Rather than assess the "success" of artists addressing these locales' histories, this exhibition juxtaposes the works to reveal the many facades of reworking and modelling memory. It prompts dialogues between nation and citizen, between present and past, and between art and reconciliation. What exactly is art's capacity, if any, to undo or repair damage? The discourse that follows Mea Culpa will hopefully continue in this theme of reflection on the past, balancing the guilt of one nation with the crimes of others
Note about Navigation: to properly view the works and their accompanying text simply click on the word "notes" in the bottom-righthand corner of each image. You will then be taken to a separate page where the work can be seen, and able to return to the main gallery space by clicking on the exhibition title Mea Culpa at the top of the page or by using the back key on your web browser. Unable to render embedded object: File (Picture 4.png) not found.