Against colonial injustice

8 min read

from Andrea Brandis

Kang Sunkoo had already made plans to travel to Berlin to personally accompany the installation of his bronze sculpture ‘Statue of Limitation’ at the Humboldt Forum. But then the COVID-19 pandemic broke out. This meant that the artist ultimately had to oversee the work’s completion from his workspace at home in Basel, mainly by phone and video link, photos also documented the assembly of the approximately 11-metre-high work. Now the statue is permanently installed in the Forum’s west wing, in the central stair hall, which leads to the Ethnological Museum’s and the Museum of Asian Art’s collections on the second and third floors.

 

The ‘Statue of Limitations’, a black patinated bronze sculpture in the form of a flag at half-mast, is the result of Kang’s artistic examination with the Humboldt Forum and its relation to colonial history. Its title is a play on the legal term “Statute of Limitations”. Speaking about the Humboldt Forum project, housed in the reconstructed imperial palace in Berlin, Kang said: “My central starting point was the debate about how the Humboldt Forum deals with colonial heritage and the apparent contradiction of its own objectives: its desire to become a cosmopolitan place while the building’s outer shell, its contents and the project’s name are reminiscent of a Eurocentric view of the world.”

Kang Sunkoo about his ‘Statue of Limitations’
Statue of Limitations at the Humboldt Forum
© Kang Sunkoo, Statue of Limitations / SHF, Photo: David von Becker

The debate around how to deal with colonial heritage is complex: It is about reappraising Germany’s colonial past, and about the Federal Republic of Germany legally recognising the genocides carried out. At the same time, there are also many other layers to the debate. What can academia and museums do with regard to this history? And how should institutions reflect on their own history? These questions also have great significance for the Humboldt Forum. It is a place for scholarship and for global cultures, a place with a very special history. This was where Kang started out when he submitted his entry for the Art in Architecture competition for Humboldt Forum’s central stair hall in 2017.

I wanted to submit a proposal which recognizes the common history and can transcend obsolete boundaries of cultural identity

Split in the middle, the work connects two symbolically charged locations in Berlin and their history: the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace and Nachtigalplatz in the north-west of the city, in the so-called African Quarter in the district of Wedding. Both the history of this district’s buildings and its street names recount an important aspect in Germany’s colonial history. The structural context of both the palace square and Nachtigalplatz is characterized by their symmetrical layouts, Kang explains. And so the lower half of the work stands directly on the central axis of the Humboldt Forum, between the two flights of stairs connecting the second floor to the third. At Nachtigalplatz, in turn, the top half of the flagpole will mark the axis of symmetry of the urban space. Kang says: “By dividing the work, it exists simultaneously in two different places. In the local perception, only one half is ever visible to the viewer. The image of the flagpole in its entirety can only be completed in the imagination.”

When he received the news in 2018 that his entry had won first prize, Kang said that there were still concerns about possible interpretations and the realization of this work. But now the first part of the ‘Statue of Limitations’ has been successfully completed. The Humboldt Forum’s General Director Hartmut Dorgerloh says: “The Statue of Limitations is an emblem which illustrates the different positions and perspectives in dealing with colonial history. We have no authority to interpret the collections here – no interpretational sovereignty. Our aim is rather to work together to present their many voices in various forms and from these different perspectives. That is why cooperating with our partners in Germany and abroad, especially with source communities in the United States, Brazil, Tanzania or Australia, is essential for the Humboldt Forum.”

It is expected that visitors will be able to see the ‘Statue of Limitations’ at the Humboldt Forum from spring 2021. From then on, the other half of the work will be temporarily erected on Nachtigalplatz for a period of around six months.

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Kang Sunkoo studied architecture at the RWTH Aachen. After working for the architectural firms Herzog & de Meuron, Schmachtenberg Kang Architects and Silvia Gmür Reto Gmür Architects, his last work as an architect was the conversion of Ai Weiwei’s studio in Berlin. Kang Sunkoo then worked on several art projects for the artist Ai Weiwei and taught the class as teaching assistant during Ai’s Einstein guest professorship at the UdK Berlin. In 2018, Kang’s entry Statue of Limitations was awarded the first prize of the art in architecture competition for the stair hall of the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace. In 2019, his entry Heimat Heimat won first prize for the art in architecture competition for the extension of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community (Bundesministerium des Innern, Bau und Heimat) in Berlin.