Art for human rights

Israeli artist Dani Karavan’s installations have decisively shaped the culture of remembering in Germany.

picture-alliance/dpa - Dani Karavan
picture-alliance/dpa - Dani Karavan picture-alliance/dpa - Dani Karavan

Dani Karavan’s parents were only 18 years old when they left Eastern Europe for Palestine just after the First World War. At a time when, far and wide, there were only cattle and sand, his father settled in a place that has meanwhile become the heart of Tel Aviv, while his son has become an internationally celebrated artist. On the site where the first family home once stood there is now a modern house with large windows. This is where Dani Karavan lives and works – when he is not travelling.

Travelling is essential, he explains, because his works are not generated in his studio, but “always start with an idea and at the respective site”. Karavan has long since made his name as a sculptor and landscape designer. He is one of the 20th century’s first environment artists; many even say he was the first. For environment artists, everything is sculpture: chairs, the ground, plants. In retrospect, says the artist, this can indeed be interpreted as a political attitude. For it means that everything is open and accessible to everyone – the sun, the water, the earth. In this, Karavan is following in the footsteps of his father, who designed the first parks in Tel Aviv. “I never thought I would follow his path one day, but I am quite close today,” says the Israeli, who was born in 1930. Sitting at his work table wearing a denim shirt, he goes on to say that he also never would have imagined 
designing memorials in Germany, of all ­places. Yet the fact is that he has made a 
decisive impact on the culture of remembering in the Federal Republic. Among his works is the Way of Human Rights in Nuremberg and, and in front of the Bundes­tag in Berlin his transparent panels recall the Basic Law of 1949. More recently, in autumn 2012, his memorial for the Sinti and Roma murdered during the Third Reich was opened to the public in Berlin.

For a long time Karavan did not actually want to have anything to do with the country responsible for the annihilation of his father’s whole family. Very little was said about the Holocaust at home. In the 1960s he threatened to drown himself in the Port of Haifa if the Israeli ocean liner Shalom, which contained murals he had specially designed for it, was sold on to Germany. Before the sale, Karavan’s works were painstakingly removed. He used to be a militant kibbutznik, Karavan admits today. The years he spent in the Harel kibbutz also influenced him in another way. Right next to it were the ruins of an Arab village that looked “like a huge sculpture”, formed from the “remnants of mud houses built over millennia in the ancient Jewish tradition and then also by the Arab population”. That landscape left its mark on him; his first political drawings at the 
time were called “Tewa domem natush” 
– nature abandoned and calm. They 
recall the Palestinian tragedy associated with Israeli Independence in 1948.

Karavan has always been preoccupied with the rights of others, human rights as a universal aspiration, initially as a child in the socialist Youth Movement Hashomer HaZair, then under the influence of his Jewish teachers from Germany. The political messages in his art were not always well received. One of his more controversial works was shown a lot in Israel and abroad: an olive tree hung upside down in front of a picture of the disputed settlement Har Homa in Jerusalem.

At that point in time Karavan had long since made his way to Germany. In 1977 he was not inclined to refuse an invitation to the documenta, the large exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, because it meant international recognition. Karavan admits that the step was not easy at first, but his encounters with the “many young people” encouraged him. The ice was broken. After that, he scarcely ever hesitated to work in Germany. Although when he was approached to participate in the exterior design of the Germanische Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg he did perhaps hesitate a little. The idea was conceived in 1988 and five years passed before the installation was complete. The negotiations were not easy, he says, especially regarding the sequence of the languages used for the Way of Human Rights. The universal human rights were to be presented on 
30 pillars in languages that the Nazis once wanted to eradicate and in the languages of the countries that fought against them. Later, Karavan got the idea of “reversing” the baleful reputation of the city of the Nuremberg Laws by inaugurating a Human Rights Award there. That award was first presented on 17 September 1995, almost 60 years to the day after the adoption of the National Socialist Race Laws. Karavan has been a member of the award jury since then.

After Nuremberg came Berlin. The work 
by the name of “Basic Law 49” consists of transparent panels recalling the 19 human rights anchored in the German constitution. Does he ever go there to see how people respond to his art? No, that hasn’t really anything to do with him anymore. His tone of voice changes when talking about the memorial for the murdered Sinti and Roma, which is close to the Reichstag building – the memory of the prolonged struggle with the Berlin city administration is still too fresh in his mind. That was the first time he worked with a lawyer. Things only progressed when the officials responsible were replaced “by 
a team from the Bundestag”. Karavan says that the Sinti and Roma deserve an “adequate and honourable memorial”. As victims, they should be respected like the 
other victims of the Holocaust. “I just wanted a single flower, which was to be protected by deep water, as dark as a hole – a triangular platform in the middle of the pond sinks and resurfaces with a fresh flower every 
day at one in the afternoon. It is a tomb. They have no tombs, only flowers growing over their dead.” This event is always accompan­ied by a violin playing just a single note.

The inaugural celebrations were attended by the Federal Chancellor, whom Karavan has since taken to his heart and whom he recently met again in Berlin. This time the theme was his own country and its future. He wanted to inform Angela Merkel that her vision of a two-state solution has many supporters in Israel. ▪

Gisela Dachs