It’s a hit – the inclusive art performance Odyssey

At the steel-construction company on the Hofgut Habitzheim estate in Hesse, every morning starts with hammering. The rhythmic strike of iron on iron has been resounding through the old walls of the workshop for several years now, but in recent weeks you can hear different voices between the beats: Arabic, Urdu und Dari is mixed with the usual German language spoken here.

von Miriam Zlobinski

Bustling in the workshop Georg Friedrich Wolf in June 2016. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
Bustling in the workshop Georg Friedrich Wolf in June 2016. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein

“If we find ourselves powerless in a situation, we have to do something seemingly pointless to stay moving, to avoid stagnation and to affirm our existence as humans.” Georg Friedrich Wolf, steel sculptor

The forge where masters and apprentices carry out commissioned work has been witnessing something different over the past four months: since May, the steel sculptor Georg Friedrich Wolf has been working with refugees and anyone else who’s interested to create a massive work of art from wood and steel. Nails produced by participants form the core of the piece.

“Our aim is to make a start, to create a platform on which both sides, newcomers and locals, can open up to co-operation and co-existence,” says Wolf. He abstracts this platform in the sculpture of a raft. For people who have saved themselves on a raft after a shipwreck, the fight is not yet over. A raft has no engine or rudder – it floats – and the destination and starting point of the journey are completely open. It’s a description that also applies to the situation experienced by many people who have fled their homeland.

In Odyssey, comprehension during the forging work is achieved via the universal method of different hammer strikes, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. Apprentices explain steps in German and at the same time demonstrate procedures, for example heating the iron rods. They heat the rods to more than 1,000 degrees, sharpen the ends using an anvil and hammer and then, in pairs, form a nail head with alternating strikes.

Wolf explains that his art action is aimed at breaking through the heavy social isolation felt by many people who have escaped their homeland by inviting them to take part in the project and offering them simple opportunities to make a tangible contribution. “Our joint work is primarily aimed to show that manual work mainly requires interest, observation skills and attention rather than verbal comprehension,” he says.

Everyone forging nails in the four months of the project is allowed to put his or her name on one. An apprentice at an anvil in the corner notes the names: Basir, Ahmed, Karl, Layla, Johanna. People introduce themselves as they work and start talking – with hands, feet and some German. The workers talk about their former jobs, for example teacher, hairdresser, locksmith and petrol pump attendant. Tamim, who used to be a journalist in Afghanistan, acts as translator.

Sher Ahmad with a finished nail. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
Sher Ahmad with a finished nail. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
The steel sculptor Wolf explains one operation. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
The steel sculptor Wolf explains one operation. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
Faizah punches her name on a nailhead, assistanced by the apprentice Falk. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
Faizah punches her name on a nailhead, assistanced by the apprentice Falk. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein

The art performance will reach its highpoint in the first two weeks of September, which is when the thousands of forged nails will be put to use, helping iron strips to hold heavy beams of wood together. Everyone will be assembling the raft in a field bit by bit, and the construction will also house a time capsule in which every participant can leave an anonymous note. The capsule and its notes will only be accessible again in 30 years’ time when the wood has rotten.

Wolf says that the intensive four-month project will result in an enduring piece of work and that the efforts made to produce it constitute the performance. Assembling the raft and the months of forging leading up to it form the core of the artwork. Every newcomer who takes part in the project will receive a certificate at the end, which is intended to help him or her gain a foothold in the German job market. Wolf is certain that the experience of working in a local business, the contacts being made and the positive energy will empower everyone involved.

“On no account must we treat refugees as guests who can be sent back home at any time,” says Wolf. “Germany is an immigration country. Good integration occurs when a cultural network accommodates new arrivals and helps them up the social ladder.”

The gloves after a day in the forge. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein
The gloves after a day in the forge. Photo: Louisa Löwenstein

The results so far:

More than 70 participants
More than 2,500 mails forged
4 packets of plasters for blisters
15 large crates of water, despite Ramadan
No injuries
No broken tools
All participants share around 12 pairs of security shoes
Professional groups: teacher, journalist, barber, car mechanic, financial adviser, petrol station attendant, hairdresser, agricultural administrator, grocer, beverage retailer, builder, locksmith, student and school pupil
Two referrals for possible internships and work places
1 new-born baby