Work Will Make You Free
This is a phrase I first learned of when I was 15 years old and took a history course on World War I and World War II, and so it stopped me dead in my tracks yesterday when I went down to the Ponte del Pigneto to photograph a newly installed artwork and saw what has now been all over the news here for the past 24 hours. A metal archway had been perfectly erected over the center of the bridge with the writing “Work Will Make You Free.” I snapped some photos, but already at around 11 am a crowd was gathering and the police had arrived. I certainly knew that some controversy would be involved, but I was astonished by the speed with which the news traveled and the perpetrator was quickly labeled a Neo-Nazi, with people also sighting a political banner nearby that I didn’t see at all when I was taking photos.
As someone who has been actively photographing the street art scene here in Rome, I’ve come across all sorts of installations and am fairly acquainted with everyone’s persona. In writing this entry, I hope to build a bit of a bridge in understanding what the intent behind the art piece was and to be clear that it should be labeled as such – a piece of art, not a piece of Neo-Nazi propaganda, as has been painted in the press and as I’m sure the city will run with. The author of the piece, Rub Kandy, conducted an interview in Italian to explain his perspective on the matter and the clear up the misperception. Before we start, let’s be clear. Was it naive of the artist to think that such a phrase wouldn’t provoke a strong reaction? Yes, perhaps. But one of the fundamental principles of street art, especially artists who put out street art with political messages is to make people think. Another big mistake – putting the installation up on April 25, which is Liberation Day in Italy (celebrating the day that Italy was freed from Nazi occupation). In the interview he explains that this was just a coincidence, as he’d want to put it up last week, but there was a mistake with the measurements and so he did it on the 25th. I’m sure he’ll never forget that day again, as correlating it with that holiday reinforced the negative thinking. As many people on the YouTube video commented, perhaps if he’d instead installed it on May 1 (Labor Day), his vision would have been clearer. Moving again, now that we know this is an art piece, we must first ask ourselves, what is this person trying to tell us? What message does he want us to reflect upon? Let’s take Blu, for instance, an Italian himself, and his controversial work in Puglia calling out crooked politicians for creating illegal waste dumps or JR’s mammoth installation on the Tate Modern that helped subvert our own thoughts and racial prejudgements.
But, back to the situation at hand. So here we have this installation on the bridge that is taken down and immediately newspapers begin speculating about the political implications behind it. The artist had hoped that people would understand the irony of the words, regardless of the historic implications behind them, and think about their own work conditions. Funny enough, the moment I showed the images to an Italian friend, she immediately said “Well, probably the artist is talking about the horrible working conditions here in Italy, both for Italians, and especially for immigrants.” In fact, in the interview below, the artist says as much and states that the lettering in English was also meant to reach the immigrants who normally have the worst working conditions of all and that, in some ways, this country can be seen as turning into a concentration camp of its own. In the interview the artist goes on to explain that he works as a graphic design teacher for adults and makes €1000 a month. He receives no aid from his parents, who are retired, and rents a small room for €350 a month. Though it’s not something I speak about very much on this blog, because to be honest it’s depressing, work prospects and work conditions in this country are rather appalling. This article from 2008 has quite good statistics on the median wage here in Italy and when you image that several weeks ago I went to an office about workers rights to ask about contract issues and was told that most employees just do whatever they like because labor laws are very rarely enforced or checked, the situation is quite bleak. Italy falls well below every Western European, and some Eastern European, country in terms of salary and when you are told that €2000 a month (about $34,800 a year) is a pretty good wage when food and housing keeps rising, it’s no wonder there are constant reports of malaise for Italian youth. The situation for immigrants, illegal or otherwise, is even more appalling, with employees often having little recourse to take action against exploitation by their employers.
I’m sure the reactions against his decision to use the phrase from Auschwitz will be strong and those of you looking to punish him, don’t worry, I’m sure the city will take care of that. However, the message to look within ourselves and understand our own conditions is valid and the use of the street as a mode of public expression for those who feel they have no other place to express themselves it something that has been part of Rome historically and is now part of a worldwide phenomenon that won’t be going away anytime soon. My intention here is simply to translate some of the motives behind the work as expressed by the artist in the below interview and to give a bit of context in what may have been the thinking given the history of street art internationally. Contemporary art is often about provoking people and causing discussion, so in that sense, the artist has certainly won. Do I think he was playing with fire? Absolutely. Do I think it’s fair that people understand that this was not done with the intention of being a hate crime? Absolutely.