Martin Gostner

Matrix 1914 (Der Krieg über mir)

Opening: 2014

The Great War, as the First World War (1914–1918) was originally known, was the second industrial war after the American Civil War (1861–1865). On 28 July 1914, a military conflict began between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that within days escalated into a full-blown war waged on several different continents and oceans. The few voices of concern and fear were drowned out by the great euphoria of all sections of the population anticipating a brief intermezzo.


The losses and the suffering were devastating. By the end of 1914, the Imperial and Royal Army numbered a total of 1,268,696 casualties, wounded and missed. All in all, the First World War claimed some seventeen million lives, with around forty nations being involved. This new dimension of suffering, destruction and death is also reflected by the numerous prisoner-of-war camps that quickly sprang up, creating what was the first camp system in the twentieth century.


Alongside Feldbach/Mühldorf, the biggest camp in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was set up in Knittelfeld, with more than 30,000 prisoners in a town of roughly 12,000. Far enough away from the combat zones to prevent escape attempts, but still on the railway network, this camp also served, after the opening of the Italian Front, as a military hospital for the wounded from the Battles of the Isonzo (1915–1918 in the Isonzo valley, most of which is situated today in Slovenia), that culminated in a final devastating poison gas attack. The dead were laid to rest in Knittelfeld cemetery alongside the nameless Russian prisoners. In the area known today as Neustadt there are no traces of this period. What is more, fewer and fewer people are aware of the history of the area.


To commemorate this history, the Institute for Art in Public Space together with the local authorities of Knittelfeld published an artistic competition in which Martin Gostner’s piece Matrix 1914 (Der Krieg über mir) came out the wining project.


In his work, Gostner examines the concept of realms of memory that goes back to the French historian Pierre Nora. Connected with this is the idea that collective memory crystallises in a certain place. The camp is one such place with the aid of which the artist develops his work, situating it in the urn cemetery, against its background of human ashes, as a fitting location.


We see a diorama, a word that derives from the Greek dia (through) and horao (view), allowing us to get up close while still being separated by glass from what is depicted. Dioramas created deliberately by the artist in turn of the century style contain replicas of parts of the real world which are in turn addressed back to reality. No copy, no imagination, no reference can convey the ghastly dimensions of war. Therefore, the diorama presents artificial reality down to the last detail, a reality which, immediately comprehensible, appeals to and touches us directly.


We see the outlines of a figure, a victim laid low. Whether this is an exhausted prisoner of war, a wounded person, one of the fallen or one of the many female civilian war victims remains open.


Matrix (Latin for womb) also means stem, mother, origin and, in biological parlance, germinative tissue, and thus refers to the recurring consequence inherent in all wars of destroying human beings by violence. Covered by a layer of white cotton wool, the figure remains without identity, omnipresent and universal. As such, it pans out new intellectual spaces of memory, attentiveness and foresight. We immediately associate cotton wool with healing, protection and warmth, and it thus addresses the attempt to heal wounds, as was performed here in the military hospital. In connection with war, the meaning immediately switches to cold and deserts of snow. Its effect remains vague, fleeting and incomprehensible.


The shapelessness of its form reveals the work to be a site of commemoration of the victims of the First World War as much as a warning of the silent latent danger of future horrors. It presents itself as a vigilant, contemporary awareness of history that points to the past, the present and the future in equal measure, and which is thus timeless.


 - Elisabeth Fiedler

Art in Public Space

Marienplatz 1/1
8020 Graz, Österreich
T +43-316/8017-9265



Cemetery, 8720 Knittelfeld
47°12'44.6"N 14°49'06.5"E