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Sarcophagi for the World of Tomorrow

Since July 21, side by side with cultural treasures from the past, 50 works of art lie buried in Germany's most famous mineshaft in Oberried, near Freiburg. The conceptual artist Adalbert Hoesle invited German colleagues to a Swallowing in which the works of art are placed under UNESCO protection for 1,500 years. Harald Fricke was there for db artmag as the art was getting ready for its journey.

Entrance to the Barbara Shaft in Oberried, Photo: Harald Fricke

Just before you get to Oberried, the exit is blocked. A fireman waves the car over to the side of the road; a little while later, he lets the driver enter the narrow street leading up the hill, after all. Five hundred meters on, however, the route is finally blocked; too many cars - and tourist buses - are crowding the small parking lot not far from the Barbara Shaft.

Over 200 people have arrived at the former silver mine, which extends for miles into the cliffs of the Schauinsland at the edge of the high Black Forest near Freiburg. A German charitable agency, the Arbeiterwohlfahrt, has set up a large garden tent, and there's goulash soup and draft beer at an improvised counter. Two guitarists are checking the microphones of the hi-fi equipment. Oberried is celebrating the Swallowing: the conceptual artist Adalbert Hoesle, who considers himself a "retrogradist," invited 50 German artists, of whom almost half are represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, to participate in the project. Now, people from the surrounding villages and a crowd of journalists and TV teams plus a good dozen participating artists are waiting to see what the ZBO-SdM 052004 - Subductive Measures is all about.

Arrival of the artworks for the "Swallowing. Photo: Harald Fricke

Behind the strange title is an action that's been in the planning for a long time already. On the occasion of the 50-year anniversary of the Hague Convention, which administers the "protection of cultural goods in the case of armed conflict," 50 containers are being interred in the Barbara Shaft. Their contents: contemporary art. During the planning phase Hoesle visited a number of colleagues and invited them to produce a new work or to provide an already existing work to be deposited in the Barbara Shaft for 1,500 years in a sealed stainless steel container as a part of the cultural heritage under UNESCO protection. The act is meant to pay special tribute to art - the most important cultural treasures of German history are stored in the same location on microfilm: Otto the Great's coronation certificate from 936, the blueprint of the Cologne Cathedral, Pope Leo X's papal bull from June 15 1520, threatening Martin Luther with banishment, and the contract text of the Peace of Westphalia from 1648.

Adalbert Hoesle unloading the container.
Photo: Maria Morais

The Barbara Shaft near Oberried is indeed extraordinary. It's the only place in Germany where a central storage area for culturally and historically valuable archival material enjoys special protection; duplicates are stored here to escape potential loss due to natural catastrophe or war. This was the goal of the Hague Convention, which was signed in 1954 following the experiences of the First and Second World Wars and has since been signed by almost 100 countries. Egypt marked the beginning in 1955, The Federal Republic of Germany joined on August 11 1967, and in the past four years, The People's Republic of China, Rwanda, and El Salvador, among others, have entered the protection agreement. In Germany, experts have been working on securing the country's storage since 1961: two stainless steel cylinders 55 yards in length each are kept at an average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 60 percent humidity in two chambers of the shaft at a depth of 445 yards. Each container holds up to 16 large rolls of film material, each of which consists of 1,689 yards of microfilm - amounting to nearly 16 miles of painstakingly photographed documents per container. A glance at the shelves stacked with containers offers an impression as to just how much historical knowledge is present here: following the Reunification in 1990, an additional nine million yards of film with valuable archival material from the GDR alone was added to prevent this history from becoming lost.

At least for the next 500 years. According to scientific research, this is the span of time that microfilm can be used as a storage medium without damage to the information. Whatever happens next is something no one can know: presumably, the celluloid will gradually dissolve, leaving it completely useless for the distant future. But who knows what's going to happen in the next 500 years, anyway - when even the original Luther Bible still hasn't reached this ripe old age?

Still unloading the Container, Photo: Maria Morais

On the other hand, if Hoesle's concept works, then the art might survive well beyond the rest of the information stored. In the end, the wooden log that Christoph Schlingensief stored in his container as a relic of last year's Sitzpfahl performance is far more robust than any strip of film could be. In the case of the Cologne-based artist Rune Mields, her interest in numbers and systems is a well-known fact, and her drawing series The World's Numerical Systems is presumably based on this.

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