Dan Elborne, colour mixing fired pieces, Death Gate, work in progress 2017, photography by James Green 2

DEATHGATE: City artist completes 1.3m piece project

3rd May 2019 9:41 AM
UPDATED 4th May 9:14 AM
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THE wrought iron gates of the notorious concentration camp in Europe, Auschwitz, have come to represent one of the most horrific periods of human history.

So when Toowoomba artist Dan Elborne entered Auschwitz in January 2016, as an estimated 1.3 million souls did during the camp's operation, he struggled to comprehend all that had occurred within those walls.

Auschwitz was death on an industrial scale. At least 1.1 million people, mainly Jewish, died at the camp. Just 200,000 survived their time there.

Three years on, he has completed Deathgate, an ambitious 1.3 million piece ceramic art project he hopes will give people the opportunity to contemplate exactly what humanity is capable of.

Elborne's work, the first to be displayed at the newly opened Goods Shed from next Saturday, will be laid out in two parallel lines of ceramic hand-made "stone" - designed by Elborne to be comparable to the stones that cover and surround the railway to Auschwitz, the main mode of prisoner transportation used by the Nazis.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the actual stones of the rail line, 2016, photography by Dan Elborne
Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the actual stones of the rail line, 2016, photography by Dan Elborne Dan Elborne

There will be one line comprised of 1.1 million "stones" for those who perished, stretching the length of the Goods Shed's internal rail line - 110m - and another for those who survived.

"I think the work is trying to comprehend what happened, even though I know I will never comprehend it. But I feel the exercise of attempting is worthwhile," Elborne said.

"The numbers, the statistics, were just terrifying and hard to picture, impossible to picture, I think. So making rocks turned into this exercise - what does 1.3 million look like, and I guess feel like to an extent?"

Dan Elborne, fired pieces, Death Gate, 2018, photography by Dan Elborne 1
Dan Elborne, fired pieces, Death Gate, 2018, photography by Dan Elborne 1 Robert Gray

Deathgate will not be Elborne's first work concerning the Holocaust.

Responding to a visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he recreated an autopsy table from the pathology lab of the camp in 2014.

His visit and his work put him in touch with Holocaust survivors, and their conversations "were unlike any that I'd ever had before".

"I feel it shifted my perspective on a lot of things in terms of what I hold close and what I gauge as a bad experience in life. It's always relative, and relative to what those people went through, everything (in my life) is pretty amazing," he explained.

"It blows my mind. I spend too much time thinking about it, of what these people went through. Not just because my work is concerned with what we're capable of and the human condition… but seeing what we're capable of in the context of that event is like, the absolute worst, as well as these incredible survival stories and people who just kind of let love drive their survival.

The infamous German inscription that means “work sets you free” at the main gate of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
The infamous German inscription that means “work sets you free” at the main gate of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty

"I find it super inspirational and talking to them as well there's a pretty big concern about what happens to that history beyond its lived experience. They're mostly fairly old now, there's pretty few survivors left so I felt charged, I guess, to continue working in that historic context. That event has gripped me for a while."

It was a cold day in the dead of a Germanic winter when Elborne first visited Sachsenhausen in 2012 and the experience weighed heavily upon him. 

"I'm very concerned with the things that more or less, I dream about, I guess. The things that imprint in my mind and don't go away. It was a similar thing at Auschwitz but I guess it was more expected, having visited Sachsenhausen a few years earlier and gotten much more knowledgeable about the history through researching the projects.

"It was the same feeling that there's just this presence, I guess. Bad, bad things happened there and you'll never change that. It's just horrible.

"It's like a weight. I think that's really interesting that we can feel that, whether it's just by association, whether it's a psychological effect, you know what happened and then when you're there you can just feel it more so than you can in any other context."

Toowoomba artist Dan Elborne.
Toowoomba artist Dan Elborne. Matthew Newton

After completing Deathgate in November last year, Elborne returned to Auschwitz to see whether the process of creating the work had changed his feelings toward the place.

"The initial visit… I felt angry more than anything. It p*****s me off and it just makes me feel a weird distrust for humanity and it makes me feel scared of what we're capable of and seeing some parallels today of just mistreatment and prejudice and things like that," he said.

"I think the work wasn't entirely fuelled by anger and fear… but it was a huge part of it, of that initial visit just really charging me with those things.

"But going back more so for myself was an exercise in: Has the project affected how I feel in that place? Does it feel like I've done anything about it or is my response even close to worthy? And it's not in any sense. I feel like I haven't done anything and I've spent three and a half years making this thing. It's completely inconsequential to what actually happened, which I think is a given. I understood that from the beginning. But I did feel different the second time, and whether it's because I'd already been there because it was a repeat visit, I just felt overwhelming sadness. A really quiet sadness this time, rather than the noise of overwhelming shock and fear and anger.

"On the second time around… I spent three days there and just moved around real slow. It felt sombre. I don't know if that's because I've made work that I won't make again, so I've done my thing in response to it. But I found that interesting. I also cried the second time and didn't the first time, which I thought was interesting, I felt like I could… I could sit in it, and the feel the weight more effectively."

Dan Elborne, making process, Death Gate, work in progress 2016, photography by Hannah Roche 4
Dan Elborne, making process, Death Gate, work in progress 2016, photography by Hannah Roche 4 Hannah Roche

Elborne is curious as to how people will react to Deathgate and he wants to get some honest feedback on "how it feels".

"Because that's what I want to do - make people feel stuff. Whatever those feelings are, I don't know," he said.

"A stone for each person, it's such a tiny representation of a human being and really reductive but I think that kind of speaks to the scale… and knowing that one (stone) represents a person who has an entire story, a family that was most probably lost as well, friends, and the recurring effects on these millions of people, it just blows my mind.

"I have no concept of the scale still, even through having them all pass through my hands. I can't see it. I can't picture it."

There is a sense of trepidation from Elborne about how the project will look, and how it will be received.

The project, despite it being completed in November last year and taking three years and four months to make, has never been installed.

Possible title image of Dan Elbornes hand with a single ceramic stone, photography by James Green
Possible title image of Dan Elbornes hand with a single ceramic stone, photography by James Green James Green

"It's a weird one, because I haven't seen it before myself," he said.

So what happens if he doesn't like it?

"Yeah, I'll just cry probably. Be like, oh s***, three years. Yeah. I don't know what that will do. I think it'll be something, but I guess it's like any show or performance or something like that, where there's a lot left up in the air," he said.

"And because it's so precious to me, I'm super nervous about releasing it for the first time, seeing it for the first time essentially."

Nevertheless, he hopes the installation gives people the opportunity to contemplate.

"Not just to consider the Auschwitz camps, but have it as kind of a flag for the Holocaust, this supremo camp, the concentrated place of death," he said.

"But also branch beyond that of just being an exercise in empathy, for one, but also in considering how we treat each other now. I think there's a lot of lessons that have been taught by that history that aren't necessarily being implemented as much as they should be in terms of being compassionate or having empathy for displaced or marginalised people.

"I think that event, especially being in recent history, with people who lived through it still being alive now… this happened not that long ago, and it can repeat itself."

Toowoomba Railways Goods Shed. Wednesday, 24th Apr, 2019.
Toowoomba Railways Goods Shed. Wednesday, 24th Apr, 2019. Nev Madsen

Deathgate will open at The Goods Shed on Victoria St from 5.30pm on Saturday, May 11. Entry is free and all are welcome.

The exhibition will run from Saturday, May 11 until June 8, from Wednesdays to Sunday, 11am-6pm.