241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Even Nazis needed a vacation from time to time. True to the nature of their regime, they met this need with great grandeur. On the island of Rügen, one monstrous project erected for the ordinary man remains: Prora. The walls are covered in graffiti by young Germans practicing their English. Although thousands of its windows have been smashed, it seems that the structure of Nazi vacation fun is indestructible. Prora now resembles a mega jail, where people in bathing suits were herded together.

The resort was the world’s first mega project for affordable mass tourism. Kraft durch Freude (KdF,) the Nazi department for recreation, commissioned the resort to be built between 1936 to 1939.

Between Binz and Sastnitz, five kilometres of grey megalomania is wacked in the face of the visitor. Even the waves of the Baltic Sea are cast in a grey veil by the shadow of Prora. A thin edge of shore is covered by vacant apartment blocks, each half a kilometre in length: the remnants of an event hall, sporting facilities, a docking station for the KdF’s cruise ships. Prora offered 10,000 labourers a room here, each with of view of the sea.

The Nazi department of recreation was strikingly modern, being pioneers in both cheap mass tourism and marketing. Recreation was promoted as a ‘lifestyle’ beneficial to health by advertising scarcely dressed beautiful people to promote the products of the KdF. And they were successful. Just before the war, in its glory days, the KdF provided the vacations and cultural outings for 80 million civilians. Even the ‘Volkswagen’ was a KdF initiative to stimulate daytime recreation.

Vacationing in the healthy sea air was supposed to make the people stronger, for the sake of the economy and the regime. “To run a great political vision, I need a strong nerved people,’ said Hitler, as he lay Prora’s first stone. Thanks to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, little became of vacation plans to Prora, and it became a military hospital instead. Victims of the allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943 were given shelter there. And from 1945 until the fall of the Berlin wall, Prora served as headquarters to the Nationale Volks Armee, or the DDR army.

The local government has been stuck with the ruins of Prora since the German unification. Three of the half kilometre blocks were sold to project developers, to keep themselves from the expenses of upkeep. But these new owners, too, wrestle with Prora. The Nazi retreat is falling steadily into decline, and so the main inhabitants of these buildings are bats and colonies of swallows.

Ironically, its monumental status is partially the reason for its decline. Prora became a nationally protected memorial thanks to the lobbying of artists, historians and architect through Stichting Neue Kultuur. Thus, the Bundesrepublik is extremely critical of any large-scale refurbishments. Many of the developers also misjudged the amount of investment it would take to develop the colossus.

Because no one wants to touch Prora, the Nazi vacation colossus has assumed many temporary functions. Blocks of apartment buildings have been used by artists as studio and presentation spaces for years. In 2000, Neue Kultur founded Documentatiesctrum Prora in Block 3. This centre keeps the history of Prora and the KdF alive through exhibitions and historical research. The NVA-Museum, located next door, relives a bit of DDR-nostalgia in a Goodbye Lenin sort of atmosphere.

Papuans love to smoke. To make your stay among them as smooth as possible, it’s well advised to take with you a considerable amount of tobacco. I’ve never seen smokers make trouble. I offer Barnabas Betakam a pack of Lampion Lilin rolling tobacco for our shared peace pipe. To my surprise, he declines, stating that all he smokes are Surya or Gudang Garan filter cigarettes. I’m amazed at his ability to afford his expensive addiction, but he’s apparently willing to abstain from his favourite stimulant for the sake of pride. In his eyes, smoking filter cigarettes is a sign of upward mobility.

Betakam is witness to a booming economy. Among the Indonesians, who since the takeover in 1962 have been residing in areas traditionally exclusively inhabited by Papuans, the amount of motorboats owned per capita is increasing daily. These units are the best expression of the difference between the transmigrates from the overpopulated Indonesian archipelago and the Asmat, indigenous inhabitants of the tropical rainforest of the delta swamp in the former Dutch New Guinea. Yamaha outboard motors versus oars, generators and electric light versus wood-fuelled fires, half burned candles and darkness; colourful television programmes and song and dance to tunes played on home-made ukuleles and guitars strung with fishing line thread.

Batakam gives the impression that he’s never quite asked himself how the Indonesian immigrants and visitors from the West acquire their covetable wares. It’s widely accepted that the white men use their own magic; church services and the bible are seen as exponents of their magical practice. It’s not uncommon for Westerners to be taken for pastors. Pastors are loved in the Asmat for the good deeds they’ve done there, which is a good reason to not bring up the status of clergymen when visiting the peoples.

The Dutch pastor Gerard Zegward was the first white man to enter the region that was to be pacified in 1953. He arrived all alone and there's no doubt that he made quite an impression. It's probably because he wasn't part of their familiar societal systems of headhunters and tribal wars that the Asmat must assumed him to be invincible. In fact, they initially believed him to be immortal. In his unpublished memoirs, Gerard writes: “While I was in Sawa, I wanted to retreat to do a number two. But I was accompanied by a group of thirty men. They held my hand to keep me from falling into the blubber and shouted in unison: ‘Be careful, don’t slip.’ Sticks were laid out for me to stand on. A few men dug a small hole for me to expel my excrements into. In full view, I did my deed and was promptly offered a handful of leaves as a substitute for toilet paper. I didn’t turn to look back, but I’m quite sure that they studied my faeces profusely’. Having understood Zegwaard to be a reincarnation of their ancestors, the above study must have led to some confusion.

Betakam’s father – a prominent warlord from the Basim village on the Fayit River – most likely contacted Zegwaard during this period. He’d probably have told him, with the air of a man proud of his profession, that he’d scalped five heads during his lifetime. His trophies of war – jawbones or cervical bones decorated with white feathers – were worn by his wife on a necklace during village feasts. The skulls of the unfortunate were hung as Christmas decorations along the doorpost of his hut.
In the crucifix that Zegward left behind, Betakam saw an important ancestor and hero for the white man. This was because there are striking resemblances to the manner in which the Asmat portray important deceased members of the community. But no matter how much discussion ensued, he probably never understood that the crucified victim – unlike within his own culture – was not avenged by his family. On the other hand, the copious amount of glittering items Zegwaard brought with him would likely have been convincing enough to a person with any worldview.
Claude Monet
Jean Baptiste Camille Corot
Claude Monet

We returned from our art trip to the north west of France feeling disappointed. What we had encountered were mainly echoes of Paris. Silently, we drove homewards. We felt let down, it certainly had rained on our parade.

It was in this state that we were confronted by the accident that would prove itself a gift from the gods; the sensation we’d been yearning for all that time.But let’s start from the beginning.

The first museum was in Rennes and it immediately set the tone for the remaining excursions. One or two of the worst works by big names, mainly French of course, were being exhibited. Granted, a bad work can be illuminating in reminding us that even a genius is but human. But after a number of these reminders we began to grow bored.

In Rennes our eagerness was still boundless, and so we dutifully shuffled from one painting to the next. Suddenly we pointed out one that was truly exquisite. Caillebotte, how beautifully he managed to render light in his painting! How he succeeded in creating such a grand effect with something as simple as the construction of a bridge and a man leaning over its railing!

Caillebotte, PontdeL'Europe, Rennes
We became increasingly lyrical and were beginning to exaggerate, and we stopped being able to properly look at the paintings. We no longer trusted our own judgement and decided to ask the invigilator for directions to the museum café.

There was no café at the museum of Rennes.

Musee de Vannes
The same pattern repeated itself in Vannes. In the brochure Corot, Millet, Delacroix and even Goya were featured to lure the visitor. The thirteenth century judicial building transformed into a museum showed work by all these giants, with the exception of the Spaniard. He’d never even been there, they said. Handfuls of regional artists, on the other hand, had apparently frequented often, as the plethora of at times downright clumsy paintings attested to.

The most interesting anecdote was pertained to the painting by Delacroix. The pastor, whose church was to receive the painting, studied the work in his own room for weeks. He came to the conclusion that Maria Magdalena, the central figure in the work, was wearing a robe with an indecent décolleté. Like a ruthless restaurateur, he made his adjustments using thick black wall paint. The painting was then taken to the church tower to cover a drafty hole.


Goldreyer is of all ages we thought, and asked the way to the cafe. Once again, to no success.

The museum in Nantes had a better, albeit equally obligatory collection. After seeing the two deplorable Monets and hearing that the museum cafe would “maybe be built” the following year, we gave up.

Delacroix restorated
In the second building we came finally came across something that made an impression: a cryptic by Bill Viola. The three panels showed, respectively, a woman giving birth, a man under water, and a dying woman. We watched the newborn being brought into the world while the woman perished. We heard moaning and screaming, the bubbling of water, and the pumping of the life support machine.It was just what we needed—confrontational, yet at the same time soothing.

Where could we find more in this vein? Would it be better to simply go out into the world and cast our eyes onto harsh reality? In other words, onto life and death itself? All the to and fro in between only resulted in compromise, fabrications, art.

In the end, we drove home in silence, disgruntled by the inability of our stomachs to automatically communicate their richly filled contents to our brains. Then, on the N25 towards Arras, a two-lane road, we saw the horrific accident.

We trudged onwards. A car lay on its back in the curb, completely crushed. Two military officers strapped a man and a woman, both possibly dead and, in any case heavily bleeding, onto stretchers. The air was filled with shouting, lights were flashing all around. Men and women in white jackets hurried around the ambulance while the fire brigade hose the car. While one police officer filmed the scene, another urged us to keep moving.

At the very last moment we thought we noticed something strange. We saw the male victim laughing. Could it be possible that some people really do leave this world with a smile?

A few kilometres down the road we saw a large billboard on had only the letters ACF (Automobile-Club de France) written over it and the question: “Have you see an artwork recently?” “No,” we said out loud.


We decided to leave the road as soon as we could and to take a back road to return to the site of the accident on the main road. It took us four hours to manoeuvre back, four hours to witness twenty seconds of something that might have been art.

It was an artwork. Everything was unchanged. The white coats were still running around, the victims still hadn’t been loaded into the ambulance, the policeman was still filming. This time we saw that on the side of the ambulance, a large reproduction of Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” was printed. The military officers wore uniforms that corresponded exactly to the flute player on Manet’s famous painting. In the air above the scene, swirls and curls hung, unmistakeably like van Gogh. But we had to drive past straight away.

That day the television broadcasted news of the accident we’d seen.

Motorists were extremely upset. For hours, the roads had been hindered by absolute nonsense. Afterwards, the minister of transportation who had granted permission for the spectacle, claimed the uproar to be self-righteous. At least ninety percent of those passing the accident had no clue that the accident was a fake. A member of the artist collective responsible for the work asked himself why people weren’t relieved now that the victims were, in fact, healthy and well. “You operated under the name ACF,” the reporter said, “now the auto club is outraged.” “There’s nothing we can do about that,” was the answer, “l'Art se Conforme à la Folie. That’s what those letters mean to us. “