Raven and Roses
Schrat deals in his work with the resurrection myth of Barbarossa and the nearby rosarium in Sangerhausen, Europe’s biggest rose garden, in a city with the highest unemployment rate in the whole of Germany. Schrat attempts, in an imploring ritual, to vanquish the curse on the region of Sangerhausen and dispossess people of their fear of poverty and loss of employment.
Ravens & Roses is a project that uses simple forms to evoke complex relationships. Ink-black Rorschach tests, pressed rose petals in best folkloristic tradition, and a burning raven are created in Sangerhausen, a small town at the foot of Kyffhäuser Mountain. The splash of black ink and similarly, the black raven stand for fear – decorative rose petals on the other hand stand for hope. Together they conceal a certain lucidity that it proves possible to easily and comprehensibly deploy in situ, in a participatory process.
As in previous work, so in this project: Henrik Schrat’s nose for context-specific metaphors pertains to local history, from which he sources his imagery. The visual idiom of the complex, narrative murals and comics that have made Schrat well known are here condensed in simple images and plots. The project is a direct sequel to numerous earlier projects by Schrat such as Manager in Residence (London, 2000/2001), Product & Vision (Berlin 2005) or his collaboratively produced One-Day-Comics (Birmingham/Berlin 2009). The participatory character of his projects – and hence, their social dimension – pursues the new genre public art tradition of the 1980s and 90s as well as the conscious construction of situations as defined in Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics.
Yet, when enriched by cultural-historical knowledge, what begins as something simple soon branches out into something altogether more complex. Every project ultimately gives rise to individual products that can stand alone as independent artworks. This renders their original function problematic and vice versa. With Ravens & Roses Schrat manages to fuse both aspects: art’s project character and its product character. When questioned about this dual significance he draws on French philosopher Jacques Rancière, who, under the term “aesthetic regime” has assigned art the role of hinge between autonomy and social function, indeed, even considered this role a prerequisite of art. Mutual exclusion of these two aspects, such as the Modernists propagated, is dismissed with reference to Friedrich Schiller and his ludic drive.
In the framework of a workshop for young people organised at the Sangerhausen Christian Youth Village, ink-black, butterfly-like pictures – called “ravens” in this project – are created by painting on A3-sized sheets of white paper then folding these vertically at mid-width and pressing their two halves together – a process that has also become known as the Rorschach test. For the so-called “roses”, petals are obtained from the Rosarium then pressed flat and finally glued decoratively on A-3-sized sheets of black paper, in the folkloristic tradition.
The performative focus and finale of the workshop is the “raven-burning” on Kyffhäuser Mountain: a cardboard, timber and paper effigy of a raven is burned. This is accomplished with the aid of a third project partner, the Einar-Schleef-Arbeitskreis e. V. Sangerhausen (non-profit Einar Schleef Working Group, Sangerhausen). The action is related to rituals such as the May Day or harvest festival bonfire, or the burning of a straw doll as a means to “sweep a new broom” and drive out the winter. A complex symbolism pervades the public burning of a raven, for it serves to destroy frightening personal and historical deformations such as menacingly recur – particularly in legends like that surrounding the Barbarossa Monument on Kyffhäuser Mountain.
The town of Sangerhausen, the setting for Ravens & Roses, has 25,000 residents and has for many years occupied the bleak peak of Germany’s unemployment statistics. The mines that had long been the sole livelihood of Sangerhausen were closed following German reunification. Yet the location of this town, first mentioned in 899, is charming and pretty, and its historic core freshly restored. Its most prominent attraction is the rose garden known as the Rosarium. Founded in 1903 and now maintained by enthusiastic amateurs it has grown over the last one hundred years to become Europe’s largest collection of roses. In an area that appears to have no future and tends to seem depressive, the Rosarium conjures its own special magic.
The Barbarossa Monument depicts Friedrich I, the famous emperor Barbarossa (1122-1190), who has been dozing here for so long already that his beard has grown through the marble slab on which his chin rests. The medieval history of Germany is well known in this region; indeed, it saturates it and shapes its identity.
The legend tells that the Emperor Rotbart (Redbeard), who sleeps in a cave beneath the monument, awakes once every hundred years and sends a dwarf outside. And this is where the raven comes into play. As long as ravens circle the mountain, the emperor must sleep for one hundred years more. When he awakens he will restore order in the world above him.
Whatever form order must take – this type of secularized story of Christian salvation inspires great hope. The story had its progressive phase in the Romantic era before the German Empire had it swell to one of those tacky myths that the Third Reich so welcomed. Ever since, we’ve been struggling to gain a more balanced image of it. The mainspring of the location and of the myth is the hovering raven. This ink-black bird with its menacingly hard, long beak presents a complex, symbolic character. Ravens evoke a strong feeling of menace, which evaporates the moment the birds fly off again. Then a feeling of hope arises.