Proposal to create a digital survey of the Walbrzych Mausoleum or Waldenburg Totenburg (Death Castle) in painting for the project “Considering Silesia”
Those of us who are second generation migrants, born assimilated into British society yet looking inevitably for our identity and heritage from foreign lands, can be surprised by what we find – especially if that migration involves traumas resulting from conflict, unearthing many ambivalences – indeed desperate horrors – in what previous generations tried to forget. Like many, I have used the internet to research my mothers family background; begun when I got my first computer in 2003: where she was from, her Heimat, its history – responding to both my findings and this digital way of seeing through the very analogue practice of drawing and painting. The resulting Über-project “Considering Silesia” has dominated my practice ever since.
My mothers homeland is the once German, now Polish region of Lower Silesia in the Sudetenland, from which the German civilian population were forcibly removed after the war. The region was then settled by Polish people displaced from further east by the Soviet land grab. Fortunate to be evacuated just ahead of the Soviet forces in 1945 my mother’s family witnessed the Dresden Firestorm, intended by Churchill and Arthur “Bomber” Harris to disrupt civilian refugees movements from the east and troop reinforcements from the west.
A key element to my engagement with “Considering Silesia” from the start has been an emotive response to my investigative journeys through the internet – a strange feeling of “knowing” without ever having been to Lower Silesia – something like “déjà-vu”, as if there is some kind of genetic pull of the geography, a yearning to “go East” where I might belong.
Recently through Facebook, a Polish Silesian heritage enthusiast, suggested I look at a battered and graffiti-ed architectural relic of the Nazi regime that I had not come across before, despite my extensive online searches amongst those very mountains. His conservation concerns are that this relic should be preserved, but I felt that the gradual destruction was an important part of its history, and that it ought to be documented in its present state. A key element of my work since 2003 has examined notions of the artist as researcher, investigator, witness and interpretor, the art-work (in my case drawing and painting) being a document of this process.
The Waldenburg Totenburg was built between 1936 and 1938 to honor the 160,000 Silesian war dead from WW1, and – bizarrely – twenty three Nazis, the mausoleum reputed to hold a token 100 bodies in the catacombs below. There are stories that the SS used it as a temple for initiation rites, throwing recruits into the catacombs for days at a time. This is one of a dozen Cenotaph ‘equivalents’ that the German War Graves Commission (der Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge) built between 1920 and 1958 – but unlike other countries where these edifices were built, from Belgium to Egypt, Poland has never allowed the German authorities to look after its fabric.
Looking through iMac and iPad at this mausoleum in the coal-mining town of Walbrzych (Waldenburg in German) significantly helps to examine some of the awkward questions of my mixed heritage, questions of the history of that time (seen from the perspective of having grown up in the coalfields of Yorkshire) but also acts as a strong metaphor. As a near-destroyed memorial in a now foreign land, a memorial to an earlier war between the two cultures that formed me. Built as propaganda for an ideology that still threatens freedom today, the process of its attrition and decay is a metaphor to the active forgetting of wartime trauma. And its daubing of recent graffiti, links with an attack on one of my own paintings in the French Château de Coat an Noz when it was daubed by a dripping red gloss swastika and the slogan “Art Dégénéré”. An act which prompted my (so far) nine year odyssey to uncover a previously hidden heritage.
I am convinced that the mausoleum’s location is as important as its classicized Romanesque architecture – but the cultural significance of why this Death Castle was sited there is not now clear, as that society was dispersed.
It is this documented visual search – as the writer François Matarasso has said about my work “another way of knowing” – through a cumulative body of work that is the outcome I am proposing. Selected examples telling the story of this journey.
The Walbrzych Totenburg work is a new live evolving project, but I have already amassed over 50 small exhibition quality watercolour sketches of internet derived fragments of the mausoleum and its surrounding landscape, and am beginning some larger scale paintings. This new material builds on the work of Der Riese bunker paintings and landscapes from 2005-7 published in Staple magazine and exhibited with the Museum of Modern Art, Zagreb, a solo show at BendInTheRiver, Gainsborough, the Bonington & Angel Row Galleries, Nottingam, and the Nettie Horne Gallery, London.
Interestingly several of the images of my Facebook ‘running commentary’ on these sketches have generated quite a lot of discussion and have also been “shared” and “liked” by people across Poland, North America, Australia and New Zealand: –
The drips give it more depth…like tears…
2 May at 14:15
I am not sure exactly what you are trying to do here Mik, all I know (because I am following your process on facebook) is that they are become very much darker and more foreboding, like the film Hostel which was on tele last night
1 June at 21:06
I’m loving these. And you’re reminding me how long it is since I did any painting myself!
10 June at 18:26
You really have captured the feeling of light and depth – its a great viewing point makes me feel like I’m falling into the picture.
15 June at 16:23
Selected Critical Reviews
Enigmatic landscapes charged with psychological resonance…. An impressive combination of methodical observation and technical draughtsmanship matched by a mature understanding of the medium and just the right amount of spontaneity and freedom give these studies a real sense of urgency, energy and vitality.
Matt Price, critic (Flash Art, Art Review), saatchi.gallery.co.uk
February 7, 2007
Review of “Parade: Terra Incognita”, Angel Row Gallery
Mik Godley’s series of paintings entitled 30 Silesian Landscapes, awash with ashen greys and fiery reds, bellow with anxious energy. These apocalyptic scenes have undeniable magnetism; the canvases strewn with restless, lucid gestures and tinted trickles that communicate a real sense of urgency. The experimental aesthetic of the paintings flatters to deceive, for whilst celebrating paint, these images also appear to be prophecies. Deconstructing rural idylls, they present the viewer with beautiful images of a contaminated and corrupted Earth; the legacy of the dying struggles of the human race.
Hugh Dichmont, a-n Magazine March 2007
Review of “The Redemptive Beauty of Life After Death”, Bonington Gallery
The building up of the image through thousands of small squares and dashes of acrylic paint gives these works a vibrancy of surface that is both intriguing and unnerving. There is a ghostliness about these paintings that both attracts and yet is candidly uncanny, cold and crisp like a detail in a story by M R James, apparently trivial but in fact exactly to the point.
Peter Suchin, critic (Art Review, Frieze, Art Monthly)
Untitled, June 2007
Review of “Greetings from Silesia”, Bend in the River
Mik Godley suggest[s] that pixelation is the pointillism of the twenty-first century. … Today’s most famous photographic pixelator, Thomas Ruff, similarly attempts to touch the mysterious in his porn photos (though with more cynical subject matter), but to really make the leap into the uncanny you have to change medium as well. Godley’s seductive and slightly sickly painting Ana takes us into this uncomfortable realm.
James Westcott, critic (The Guardian, Art Review) artreview.com, February 2008
Please describe how your piece relates to the theme(s) you have highlighted
National Socialist art and architectural propaganda, like today’s Cultural Olympiad, was key to creating a political transition in the population – rousing ideological values required by the Nazi elite. A prime example, the Waldenburg Totenburg instilled notions of admiration for national sacrifice and ethnic superiority to the point of creating the “cult of death” necessary for the expansionist plans of the Third Reich.
My enquiries form a journey to probe these questions through a digital survey: using internet applications like YouTube and Google Earth to examine the mausoleums surrounding landscape and the mountains that frame the structure. It is this journey, this process of looking, learning, and interpreting, that is documented by every analogue brush-mark, every study, every painting marking an evolving transition towards understanding the complexities of conflicting identities and heritage.
All images documented in the studio with an iPad2