There are artworks that get their special significance only by accident. The Venus de Milo for example would be much less interesting with arms and nobody would visit the tower of Pisa if it were not leaning. In Cologne, there is also a work of art that was refined by accident. It is located between the Cologne Cathedral and the river Rhine and is called „Ma’alot“.
Ma’alot is Hebrew, and refers to the Psalms 120 – 134. These psalms are called the „songs of steps“ and are attributed to the kings David and Solomon. The psalms are sung traditionally in Jerusalem when the priests walk up the steps to the temple with water jugs in their hands.
The steps rise from the river Rhine and present the most beautiful sight you can have on the cathedral in Cologne. The sight fits perfect to the architecture of the Museum Ludwig, which roof mimicks the waves of the Rhine.
The artwork was created by Dani Karavan. He is an Israeli artist. He is known for his large and accessible outdoor art. Dani Karavan calls his artwork „Ma’alot“ also „Environment of granite, cast iron, bricks, iron bars, grass and trees.“ He combines the most contradictory materials, thus showing the extremes, in which Jewish life in Germany had to take place: between trees and rails.
Six acacias and nine maple trees are part of the artwork. Both trees are of special significance in Judaism. King Solomon used maple wood for the construction of the temple, and according to Isaiah, acacias are lining the streets of those returning home from exile. (Is. 41, 19)
Contrasted to the trees are two railroad tracks that cut through the artwork. One cannot help but to think of the Jews, who were deported from Cologne. On the 21st of October in 1941 the deportation of the remaining 6377 Jews from Cologne to the extermination camps of the East took place at exactly the same place at which nowadays the artwork „Ma’alot“ stands. The association ist also supported by the fact that the track runs up to a step-like sculpture that can awaken the idea of a chimney.
If you look at the cathedral through a slot in this sculpture, the tower of the Cologne Cathedral suddenly looks like a German guard tower at a concentration camp, especially with the rail track in front of it. A brutal indictment of the silence of a large part of the Christian Church during the Holocaust.
But I have to emphazise: This indictment is only an association of me. Dani Karavan is an artist and smart enough to give no comments. He says:
„The work of art (…) does not have the intention to tell a particular story or to illustrate particular contexts. It can only cause an echo and evoke associations (…) But in the evocation of this echoes the work of art is free. It is free in its associations. It can evoke any fantasy and idea, even ideas that I did not have and even those images I cannot control and for which I am not responsible.“
The second track of the artwork runs up the stairs to the cathedral and cuts a circular plaza in the middle of „Ma’alot“. In other words the rail cuts up a circle and thus cuts up the round, the beauty, the good, the perfect. The circular plaza is located right above the beautiful concert hall of the Cologne Philarmonics.
A design flaw has now led to an expansion of interpretation. This expansion was never planned. The design error makes it necessary that the circular plaza, which is cut by the track, has to be guarded every time the Cologne Philharmonics perform a concert in the concert hall beneath the plaza, because the steps of the pedestrians walking on the plaza are heart in the concert hall. Therefor several guards have to ensure that the plaza with the track cutting up the perfect is not entered every time a concert takes place.
An architectural mishap thus provides a stunning performance: If you want to enjoy music in Germany, You cannot forget Auschwitz! Anyone who tries to forget Auschwitz will never be able to listen to music, because the steps of the past will be heart all around him, destroying the silence which is necessary for the possibilty to enjoy music.
Neither the artist nor the city of Cologne wanted the artwork to develop in this direction. But it did!
With Auschwitz and the rail tracks leading to the death, which is a master from Germany, mankind has lost the innocence to just listen to music. This is the lesson that Dani Karavan’s Ma’alot, the Cologne Philharmonics and a mishap unintentionally teaches.