I recently participated in the latest iteration of ‘The Other Art Fair’ in Melbourne (May 2019). It was a good opportunity for me to focus on creating new works with a central theme all of my own. Many times, over the years, I’ve hesitated creating personal pieces – mainly because I feared I lacked the discipline and / or confidence to: a) choose a credible theme and b) do it justice. There really are too many ideas on my ‘to do’ list, so I thought I’d start at ‘ground zero’ – family.
My parents emigrated to Australia from Germany in the 1950s, and I was born here, in Melbourne. Whilst my father retained contact with his relatives, my mother had a somewhat strained relationship with her siblings – an elder brother, Werner and an elder sister, Ilse. She made only one trip “back home”, when I was around a year old. It was to be the only time I met my maternal grandmother (to my knowledge, I never met my maternal grandfather or my paternal grandparents). I have no memory of the trip.
My parents were children of the Second World War, which formed the catalyst to escape to the other side of the world. Unfortunately part of this escape meant that decided I didn’t need to learn German, which is something I have struggled with ever since. This meant that I could never understand the Sütterlinschrift handwriting that my Grandmother would write on the back of postcards, adorned with Steiff Bears having tea parties – cards reaching out, desperate for a reply that I could never give.
Around the time that I was 12, my Grandmother passed away. It was only as an adult, many years later, that I found out that my aunt Ilse passed away shortly beforehand as well, and it is the circumstances of Ilse’s death which form the basis of this series of works.
My mother’s family roots lay deep in a village called Altenwerder, which lies just across the Elbe from the centre of Hamburg. For generations it was a fishing village, seemingly abundant in nature and community spirit. The post-war reconstruction of Hamburg, however, created a new war of its own – a war waged by commerce, internationalism and streamlining, and Altenwerder was the casualty. In the 1960s, it was decided that Hamburg harbour needed to expand to make way for the new demands of global transportation and warehousing.
Most of the community sold up and moved on, but a few stubborn residents remained, displaying black flags on their houses as protest – my aunt Ilse being one of them. Four days after her 55th birthday in 1979, she decided that she couldn’t bear protesting any longer.
I’ve visited Altenwerder twice – once in 1994, when it was still open fields and abandoned houses, and again in 2015. The experience is alienating and surreal – in a ghostly area of freeways, train shunting yards, endless warehouses and massive wind turbines, you can see a church spire, but you can’t quite get there, if you don’t know the way, or have got off at the wrong bus stop on the other side of the tracks. But with persistence, you can get to St. Gertrud’s, on its little patch of grass and apple trees. And in the churchyard you will find Ilse’s gravestone, forever at rest in the remains of the village that she loved.