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Culture

Chemnitz Art Installation Allows New Perspective on History

With their "Temporary Museum of Modern Marx" project, a group of Chemnitz art students is breathing new life into a sculpture that has become the city's hallmark.

Statue head of Karl Marx, by Ukrainian sculptor Leve Kerbel

Visitors can look straight into the philosopher's stony gaze

The philosopher Karl Marx and the city of Chemnitz go way back.

Slated to become a model socialist industrial town under the East German regime, Chemnitz was renamed Karl-Marx-Stadt in 1953. The city has since made the transition to a full-fledged market economy, and in 1990 it took back its original name.

Monument of Karl Marx before the New Saxon Gallery

The statue is Chemnitz's most-visited tourist monument

Still, an 11-meter-high (36-foot) bust of the famous economist and philosopher, designed by Ukrainian sculptor Lev Kerbel and installed in 1971, remains the best-known landmark in Saxony's third-largest city.

Scaffolding, sound scape

Now, in celebration of the philosopher's 190th birthday, a group of art students from nearby Schneeberg is taking a new look at the bust -- and hoping to give visitors a new perspective, too.

In an installation reminiscent of the works of Christo and Jean Claude, the artists have put scaffolding around the bust and its pedestal, and then surrounded this construction with white cloth. Visitors can climb steps to the top of the statue, while Marx's best-known philosophical treatise, "Das Kapital," plays on an ongoing tape loop in the background.

Book cover, first edition of Karl Marx's Das Kapital

"Das Kapital" will run on a never-ending sound loop

"We don't want to just cover him, we want people to go up and look him straight in the eyes," says Friederike Hofman, one of the students involved in the project. "If you go up to six and a half meters you can look him in the eyes. If you go above the building, you can see Chemnitz like he sees it."

Chemnitz "not a GDR museum"

The statue is located in front of the New Saxon Gallery, near the city center, along a busy road of drab, prefabricated post-war apartment blocks. It is an area in need of re-urbanization, explains New Saxon Gallery Director Mathias Lindner.

"We have to think about what to do with this area. It can't stay like a GDR museum," Lindner said.

The "Temporary Museum of Modern Marx" is set to open on Friday, June 6, at a cost of 120,000 euros ($18,500). The city will pay 10,000 of that, and the rest is expected to come from entrance fees.

So far, the Chemnitz art project is drawing a mixed response. Some -- mainly young people -- love it because it breathes new life into a decades-old sculpture. Others again hate it, because they consider it to be a mockery of Karl Marx.

Color drawing of Karl Marx

Marx looks less threatening on paper than in stone

"I think it's still a problem for many of the people from Chemnitz," Hoffmann said. "They have a different relationship than my generation. They didn't grow up with the system in the GDR. So for us we were very open to this project."

A giant tool of capitalism?

The artists involved in the project aren't the first to play with the concept of the Marx bust as a symbol of Chemnitz. Indeed, the statue of the world-famous communist has been increasingly used by capitalists; resourceful Chemnitz entrepreneurs have taken to putting his imprint on almost anything that can be boxed and sold.

Among these is Chemnitz's Evelin Doell family. They sell boxes of pralines with Karl Marx's head imprinted on the glaze.

"My boxes of chocolate sweets have pictures of well-known places in Chemnitz that people here can identify with," said Evelin Doell's Grit Baumgarten. "Some of them have the image of Karl Marx on them. I was never afraid this business idea would fail."

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