Transient Witness(es)

Assaf Gruber

Video still from Transient Witness (2021), © Assaf Gruber, 2021

Assaf Gruber’s work, developed in the context of The Whole Life. An Archive Project, is a result of his ongoing investigation of how politics intersect with art and its institutions. It reveals the human stories and shifting ideological values at the “back-end” of cultural institutions.

The film Transient Witness simultaneously merges and obscures the intimate from the public in a story where the actions of collecting and appropriation function as synonyms and where inheritance and loss engage. It unfolds a complex fictional story, navigating between historical facts about the Baroque and the avant-garde; art and its politics. It is an imagined plot about the transfer of the objects from the private house of avant-garde collector Egidio Marzona in Berlin to their new domicile – the Japanisches Palais, a Rococo building that belongs to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD). The transfer actually occurred when Egidio Marzona donated his vast collection to the SKD in 2016, where it is now known as the Archiv der Avantgarden (AdA). The narrative is told through the eyes of three main characters: Christina, the manager of the collection; Maurizio, the art mover; and Präsens, the collector’s dog. The film takes place on November 25, 2019. On that day, priceless jewelry of immense cultural value was stolen from the Green Vault in Dresden in one of the biggest art heists in history, causing shockwaves to ripple through Germany.

The sculpture Präsens abstractly unites the common features and inevitable distinctions of Baroque and avant-garde that coexist within the collections of SKD. Its preliminary inspiration is the prominent appearance of rare red corals in the collection of the Green Vault. The most famous red coral object is the statue of the Greek nymph Daphne, crafted by silversmith Abraham Jamnitzer in the late 1580s. Today, the central digital database of the SKD bears her name. The lower part of Gruber’s sculpture, silver-plated bronze, echoes with the corals – living creatures that have been hunted for centuries only to become valuable luxury objects and to represent economic and political power. The upper part of Präsens, painted wood, is shaped in the form of the famous Russian sickle, which was the symbol of the Bolsheviks and the state symbol of the Soviet Union and was used in many early twentieth century avant-garde artworks by artists such as El Lissitzky.

The photo series Movement, shot inside the Green Vault with a selection of photographs from the Archiv der Avantgarden (AdA), combines images of leftist demonstrations and protests with true corals from the Green Vault. The photos, taken in West Germany during the time of the Berlin wall, document solidarity with the East and resistance towards the Western world. In Gruber’s artwork, photos and corals change their places, sometimes being the main focus and sometimes moving to the background, but always in dialogue with one another; a movement that embodies the paradoxical meanings, shadows and scars that exist in- and outside archives and collections.

Transient Witness, Video, German and Italian, 47 min, 2021
Präsens, Sculpture, silver-plated bronze, wood and paint, 74cm x 44cm x 16cm, 2022
Movement, Photo series, varying dimensions, 2022


Transient Witness was developed in cooperation with Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) as part of The Whole Life. An Archive Project and co-produced with Krieg (PXL-MAD School of Arts, Hasselt) and the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) Tel Aviv and supported by Foundatión Botín, Outset and Artis. The script was developed during the research fellowship of Assaf Gruber at Archiv der Avantgarden (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden).

Actors: Anne Ratte-Polle, Michele Andrei and Sabine Wackernagel
Producers: Caroline Kirberg and Assaf Gruber
Director of Photography: Frank Meyer
Gaffer: Theo Lustig
Sound Recording: Frank Bubenzer
Sound Design & Mix: Jochen Jezussek
Set & Costume Design: Sara Wendt
Make-up Artist: Rama Al Rached
Editors: Assaf Gruber and Dane Komljen
1st Assistant Director: Moriya Matityahu
Written and directed by Assaf Gruber