Vision of life unfrozen: ice skaters by the Dutch painter Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634). Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty
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Christmas cards were my window to another world

The child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world.

Growing up, I lived in a house without art: no picture books on the shelves, no visits to museums, no posters on the bedroom wall. That this was as much a blessing as a lack did not become clear until later: the child of a grey coal town in Calvinist Scotland, I was hungry for imagery, wild about colour and, even though I accepted that I would never live there, desperate for proof of some other world. There was no art gallery in Cowdenbeath, however, and our occasional visits to Edinburgh were spent walking round the shops, staring at things we couldn’t afford, before unpacking a picnic lunch in Princes Street Gardens, sometimes in sunshine, though more often in a fine, rather greasy drizzle.

The one exception to this monotony was Christmas. Everyone sent out cards in those days and, although the majority were of badly photographed robins and religious scenes, every now and then something came through the mail that startled me with its vibrancy and beauty. Though I didn’t think of it then as art (or, worse, as “culture”), that fortnight’s span leading up to Christmas introduced me to Brueghel and Hendrick Avercamp, to Joseph Farquharson and the Limbourg brothers – and every Twelfth Night, when the decorations came down and the cards on mantelpiece were about to be consigned to the fire, I would rescue a handful of the best pictures and hide them away in my room. Later, I added Japanese bridges in deep snow and, during a half-hearted correspondence with an American “pen pal”, a precious snow scene by Walter Launt Palmer.

Hardly anyone sends Christmas cards these days. Though I accept the environmental and financial logic of this, it doesn’t stop me feeling slightly cheated when the mail comes around. Clearly my childhood self was drawn to colour and to the delicacy of light reflected on snow but I think he also recognised that something else was going on, something that wasn’t obvious on the surface. That something is not easy to name or describe. Yes, it has to do with an acceptance of what, when many of the paintings were made, was a hard, even fatal season, a time of abstinence and bone-deep cold and, when the snow set in hard, dangerous isolation. But it also reveals a recognition of the magical process that happens invisibly at the turn of the year, a miraculous closing down of almost everything under the cover of ice and snow so that the earth can be renewed.

Snow isn’t just pretty. It also cleanses our world and our senses, not just of the soot and grime of a Fife mining town but also of a kind of weary familiarity, a taken-for-granted quality to which our eyes are all too susceptible. When the thaw comes, we are surprised again (if we are lucky) by forms and colours that we had almost forgotten. The first seedlings to uncurl from chill spring loam remind us that this rare planet’s abundant life, against which all the odds were heaped, is (to paraphrase the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén) a matter of law, rather than mere accident.

This year, I am collecting new images, mostly by the German expressionists whose work I first found at the Brücke Museum in Dahlem: artists such as Fritz Bleyl and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff who were active in the early years of the 20th century. Influenced partly by the Japanese woodcut tradition, they made winter scenes that are highly economical and, at the same time, immensely powerful. It is work that seems almost to pause time, while the year turns and that stillest of days, the winter solstice, renews our ties to the earth – ties that are both as binding as gravity and as mysteriously liberating as the intuition that Wallace Stevens had, gazing into the white origin of the snowy world, of “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014

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The “Yolocaust” project conflates hate with foolish but innocent acts of joy

A montage of selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial layered above images of concentration camps risks shutting visitors out of respectful commemoration.

Ten years ago I visited Berlin for the first time. It was a cold and overcast day – the kind of grey that encourages melancholy. When my friends and I came across the city’s Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of over 2,000 concrete slabs, we refrained from taking photos of each other exploring the site. “Might it be disrespectful?” asked one of my non-Jewish (and usually outrageously extroverted) friends. Yes, probably, a bit, we concluded, and moved softly and slowly on through the Memorial’s narrow alleys.

But not all days are gloomy, even in Berlin. And not all visitors to the Memorial had the same reaction as us.

A photo project called “Yolocaust” has collected together images of the Memorial and selfies taken there that young people from around the world have posted to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. In the 12 photos featured on the website, one man juggles pink balls, a girl does yoga atop a pillar, another practises a handstand against a slab’s base. The last of these is tagged “#flexiblegirl #circus #summer”.

Most of the images seem more brainless than abusive. But the implication seems to be that such behaviour risks sliding into insult – a fear all too painfully embodied in the first image of the series: a shot of two guys leaping between pillars with the tag-line: “Jumping on dead Jews @ Holocaust Memorial.”

Grim doesn’t begin to cover it, but the artist who collated the photos has thought up a clever device for retribution. As your cursor scrolls or hovers over each photo, a second image is then revealed beneath. These hidden black-and-white photographs of the Holocaust show countless emaciated bodies laid out in mass graves, or piled up against walls.

Even though they are familiar for those who learned about the Nazi concentration camps at school, these historic scenes are still too terrible and I cannot look at them for more than a few seconds before something in my chest seizes up. In fact, it’s only on second glance that I see the artist has also super-imposed the jumping men into the dead bodies – so that their sickening metaphor “jumping on dead Jews” is now made to appear actual.

The result is a powerful montage, and its message is an important one: that goofy, ill-considered behaviour at such sites is disrespectful, if not worse. Just take the woman who urinated on a British war memorial, or the attack on a Holocaust memorial in Hungary.

But while desecration and hate should not be tolerated anywhere, especially not at memorials, does juggling fall into the same category?

I can’t help but feel that the Yolocaust project is unfair to many of the contemporary subjects featured. After all, this is not Auschwitz but the centre of a modern city. If public-space memorials are intended to be inhabited, then surely they invite use not just as places for contemplation, grieving and reflection but also for being thankful for your life and your city on a sunny day?

The Memorial in Berlin is clearly designed to be walked in and around.  Even the architect, Peter Eisenman, has been reported saying he wants visitors to behave freely at the site – with children playing between the pillars and families picnicking on its fringes.

So how do we determine what is offensive behaviour and what is not?

A section at the bottom of the Yolocaust website also suggests (in rather sarcastic tones) that there are no prescriptions on how visitors should behave, “at a site that marks the death of 6 million people”. Though in fact a code of conduct on the memorial’s website lists the following as not permitted: loud noise, jumping from slab to slab, dogs or pets, bicycles, smoking and alcohol.

Only one of Yolocaust’s 12 photos breaks this code: the first and only explicitly insulting image of the jumping men. Another six show people climbing or sitting atop the pillars but most of these are a world away in tone from the jumpers.

The blurb at the bottom of the webpage says that the project intends to explore “our commemorative culture”. But by treating the image of the yoga performer – with an accompanying montage of her balancing amid dead bodies – in the same way as the jumping men, the artist seems to conflate the two.

In fact, the girl practising a yoga balance could be seen as a hopeful – if overtly cutesy and hipster – act of reverence. “Yoga is connection with everything around us,” says her tag beneath. And even if climbing the slabs is frowned upon by some, it could also be read as an act of joy, something to cherish when faced with such a dark history.

In an era when populist German politicians are using the past – and sentiment towards Holocaust memorials themselves – to rev up anti-immigrant, nationalist feeling, the need for careful and inclusive readings of the role of memorials in our society has never been greater.

Yolocaust may have intended to provide a space for reflection on our commemorative behaviour but the result feels worryingly sensationalist, if not censorious. Instead of inviting others in to the act of respectful commemoration, has it risked shutting people out?

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.