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dead people

+ him

Barbara Cousin           Florence Freitag

  In a box full of old pictures of my family, I found one with two young men in military uniform. Without the help of my mother, I could not have recognized my great-grandfather and his brother during World War I. Still without her help, I would not have known that while my great-grandfather returned from the front, his brother did not.

Looking at this picture, a figure I read shortly before came back to me: 306.000; the number of French and German soldiers who were killed or have disappeared during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. I asked my mother if my great-granduncle was killed in Verdun. She doesn’t know… not precisely… she only knows he died at war… between 1914 and 1918…


What strikes me when I think about it, is the huge amount, the indistinctive, almost uncountable mass of people it represents. Those dead people who could very well be my great-granduncle, maybe yours, or someone that still appears on our old family photographs.


306.000… nowadays this number just represents historical data, but yet, is it still possible to think of each of those particular lives, even a hundred years later? Can we place the individual before the historical fact, and if so, should we? What place is there for the individual in the collective memory? A hundred years later, what is our role in the transmission of memory?


Those questions are at the base of the two installations, 306.000 crosses [1] and Burned matches [2], which have both received the 'Label of the First World War Centenary Partnership' [3].

Exhibited last May at the French-German Youth Office in Berlin, 306.000 crosses is made of hand-drawn crosses with charcoal on nearly 240 sheets of paper. Burned matches consists of 306.000 burned matches scattered across the floor in hundreds of piles among which the visitor evolves freely.


































:: The individual and the historical fact ::


The first impression when discovering the two installations is about their dimensions, the space they require. 240 sheets of paper, full of crosses, on over 11 meters by 3 meters… thousands of handwritten lines of crosses for 306.000 crosses; or, in Burned matches this imposing black mass, stretching off into the distance [4] and which reminds us of military cemeteries, the fields of ruins and ashes. A "shapeless mass”, as Christian Boltanski would call it [5]. Getting closer to it, lines of crosses become single crosses, stacks of burned matches become single matches, allowing for the transformation of this mass into “‘people’ and at the same time into ‘nobodies’” [6]. The many perspectives offered by the works depending on the distance at which we observe them, resonate with the perception of historical data through time as a fundamental feature of the installations.


:: Of time and the alteration of the works ::


The effect of time is another fundamental feature of these installations.


In 306.000 crosses, the fragility of paper and of charcoal make the installations evolve as it is exposed, seen, moved. Charcoal - which can’t be totally fastened to the paper - is going to vanish gradually, letting the crosses fade, and finally be indiscernible from the greyed out, enveloping and soothing mass of paper that it will become.


Invited to move within the installation Burned matches, the visitors will transform it: stacks of matches will flatten out, matches will be reduced to ashes. At the end of the exhibition, the installation as such disappears and only some fragments are preserved, considered relics of a collectively built memory, smoother, less accurate yet maybe more acceptable.


:: Physical commitment and duty of memory ::


Walking through the installation Burned matches requires a tiresome physical commitment of not stepping over the stacks of matches. But this tiresome process is desperate, as by walking through it they generate and gather some ash - on their shoes, clothes and skin. As such, the visitors take part in the alteration of the installation but also in its transmission. Because “Ruins are the restarting point, they are even the starting point” [7], by unwillingly taking away fragments of the installation, they carry an unwanted, necessary burden of responsibility of conserving and transmitting the memory.


In the same way, when drawing the crosses of 306.000 crosses, all of my body is at work. Reminding us to some extent to the works of Roman Opalka [8], the creative process of hand-drawing forces me to stop regularly to avoid injuries, aches, and cramps. Taking time and requiring many breaks. As the same movement is repeated over and over again, I enter a trance. It’s just as if the creative process helps me dedicate myself to the crosses, to think of them and only of them. This systematization is very well shown in Florence Freitag’s video, where the almost mechanic sound reminds us of how World War I has dehumanized those who contributed to it.


Jorge Semprun said: “The memory, and the knowledge of dates, are not the same”[9]. The two installations Burned matches and 306.000 crosses are an effort to transcend historical data, to give it a shape, to show it into space, palpable, sensible, alive again in some sort. Paul Ricoeur wrote, “Under history, memory and forgetting. Under memory and forgetting, life”[10]. The two installations for the First World War Centenary call us and engage us emotionally and physically, as a means to look at what has been, in order to remember what could be.


.Barbara Cousin



Barbara Cousin (b. 1985) lives and works in Berlin.

Her work deals with individual and collective memory and, through it, with our relationship with time, history and oblivion. In her drawings and installations, she often works with archives but also with fragments or remains and she questions the role of narrative reconstruction in our memories, the status of memory objects and the place of individual memories in the collective memory.



:: On the video-sculpture ::


What struck me first in Barbara’s work was her relation with history and her play with memory and past: past images, past memories and past identities. She has build up her own visual archive to get inspired from. The archive is, or can be, the beginning of a new story. Memories do not stay fixed in the past. They are living things and, as Jacques Derrida says, they are inscribed in the future, while being informed by the present and its traces [11]. The present is where your research starts, where the question arises, the moment that will make the memory live again.


Barbara asked me to join her on a project dealing with the Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of Verdun. Like Barbara, I am inspired by time, by things I find, by my own memories or by those of others. The subject here was the violent memory of war, the idea of a battlefield with 306.000 dead soldiers. 306.000: this is not only a number. It is the starting point of a particular commemoration, like Barbara’s photography. She was restaging the soldiers' deaths like a visual chronicler, documenting every single one of them with a cross, made of charcoal on a blank page.


My video-sculpture focuses on the drawing gesture, the one that creates the same cross over and over, but each time forms a different one. Here the act of drawing is, to me, the production of meaning itself. A reflection of André Leroi-Gourhan comes to mind, taken from his research on the relationship between image, gesture and hand: “[A]t the very beginning of pictorial figuration lies the abstract gesture of the homo pictor.” [12] These movements, the gesture of Barbara’s hand and the repetitive process that was to be captured in the video, reveal the artist’s body in the act of drawing. Gestures reveal the body to the spectator without necessarily presenting any narrative connection [13], in such a way to leave space to the spectator’s interpretation. By using the absent and present sound of the charcoal on paper, the spectator is drawn into the image, suddenly changing his/her focus from the visual sound to the silence and pure action of the gesture itself. He/She is drawn into a here-and-now [14] in the same time as into a constant becoming of something else, a memory that Barbara wants to access through her own visceral embodiment.


.Florence Freitag



Florence Freitag (b. 1987) works with moving images and moving bodies as director and videodance artist, performer and curator. Inspired by life’s shifting continuity, haptic kinesthetics, and everyday gestures, she is drawn to and involved in diverse multidisciplinary collaborations, alongside working as video-editor, as researcher/lecturer and as curator for the dance-performance platform LUCKY TRIMMER. Her videodance-work has been shown internationally.



[1]  306.000 crosses, charcoal on paper, ca. 3m * 11m (238 A3 size sheets), 2016

[2]  Burned matches, 306.000 burned matches, varying sizes, 2016

[3] First World War Centenary Partnership Program is a public interest group established by the French Government for the preparation and implementation of the commemorative program for the First World War centenary.

[4] The size of the installation is variable and can be defined in accordance with the space. 300 piles with 1.000 burned matches each and each pile placed 70 cm away from the other would be 20.3 meter * 6.3 meter.

[5] “There are 20.000 or 30.000 clothes in this work but at the same time it’s a shapeless mass. […] there are tens of thousands of ‘people’ and at the same time ‘nobodies’”. Christian Boltanski, about his work Personnes, in La vie possible de Christian Boltanski, with Catherine Grenier (Edition Le Seuil, 2010). Freely translated by the author.

[6] Ibid.

[7] L’artiste Anselm Kiefer au Centre Pompidou, Entrée libre, France 5, 21 janvier 2016. Freely translated by the author.

[8] “The fundamental basis of my work, to which I have dedicated my life, manifests itself in a process of recording a progression that both documents and time defines. (…) I inscribe the progression of numbers beginning with one, proceeding to infinity, on canvases of the same size (…). After each work session in my studio, I take a photograph of my face in front of the "Detail" that I have been working on. Each "Detail" is accompanied by a tape recording of my voice saying the numbers out loud as I write them.” Roman Opalka, statement,

[9] Jorge Semprun, L’Ecriture ou la vie (Edition Gallimard : Folio, 1996). Freely translated by the author.

[10] Paul Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting (The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2004, translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer).

[11] See Jacques Derrida, Aufzeichnungen eines Blinden. Das Selbstportrait und andere Ruinen (Munich: Fink, 1997): 49.

[12] Toni Hildebrandt, 'Bild, Geste und Hand. Leroi-Gourhans paläontologische Bildtheorie', review on Le Geste et la Parole, by André Leroi-Gourhan. In IMAGE 14, July 2011.

[13] Reinhold Görling, Geste, Introduction to Geste-Bewegungen zwischen Film und Tanz. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2009.

[14] Thinking of Walter Benjamins concept of the aura of the artwork inscribed in the here-and-now (Jetztzeit).

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