Silent witnesses – 135 silent witnesses of the flood disaster in the Ahrtal/ Germany


On 16 February 2024, the Rhineland-Palatinate state parliament in Mainz held a further hearing of evidence from 9 a.m. onwards by the “Flood Disaster” committee of enquiry into allegations of significant deficiencies in disaster control during the flood of the century in the Ahr valley.

An hour earlier, at 8.00 a.m., survivors from the Ahr valley had already gathered in front of the state parliament for a silent vigil, accompanied by artist Dennis Josef Meseg and his new installation “Silent Witnesses”.

Dokumentation zur Installation "Stumme Zeugen" von Dennis Josef Meseg | Kamera & Schnitt: Max Shamin

What these people must have suffered when the floods hit! Having to watch helplessly as everything was washed away, all their belongings. The fear of death from the constantly rising, raging floodwaters. The panicked search for relatives. Screams in the darkness. And their silence.

135 people lost their lives in the Ahr Valley on 14 and 15 July 2020. Some of them might have been saved if the emergency services had acted quickly and, above all, effectively. But apparently they didn’t, even though there were early warnings.

Of course, expert opinions had to be obtained and verifiable facts carefully scrutinised. After all, no one should be falsely accused. But no one should get away unpunished if they could be proven to have made mistakes that led to the loss of human life.

Destroyed livelihoods could be rebuilt. The authorities had also promised quick and unbureaucratic help. As always. As always, numerous politicians also travelled to the disaster area for a photo opportunity. Some were concerned, others put on affected expressions, one laughed.

And they all left again quickly. Without waiting for the question of who was responsible for so many people dying. To this day, this issue has been pushed back and forth, talked down and even blamed on fate as the only culprit with the false claim that the flood was unforeseeable.

They have come to Mainz, the survivors from the Ahr valley, for a final silent vigil. The installation artist Dennis Josef Meseg was at their side and symbolically brought along all those who can no longer speak.

135 white-wrapped mannequins, including a teenager and three children. People big and small who might still be with us if the responsible authorities had acted quickly and correctly.

So they were once again with their relatives, the innocent victims of the flood disaster, to say to the living in the state parliament: “We wish we were still here!”

📝 Text Ricarda Reich

Photo series 1 | 📸 Photos Dennis Josef Meseg

Photo series 2 | 📸 Photos Dennis Josef Meseg

Photo series 3 | 📸 Photos Dennis Josef Meseg

About the background:

At the end of January, Inka Orth contacted me via my website. She briefly described her very tragic fate to me. She and her husband Ralph Orth lost their 22-year-old daughter Johanna Orth in the flood disaster in the Ahr valley in 2021.

Mrs Orth asked me if I could support her planned vigil in Mainz on 16 February 2024 with some of my figures. After brief consideration, it was clear that I couldn’t use any figures from the existing installation, which was already heavily laden with other messages. Without further ado, I developed a new installation with the team within a few days that would get under your skin even more than all the previous installations with figures wrapped in fluttering tape.

It quickly became clear that the installation would consist of 135 different mannequins wrapped tightly in white flutter tape to convey their silent message. Among them were two children and a teenager.

This time I chose “Silent witnesses – 135 silent witnesses of the flood disaster from the Ahr valley” as the meaningful title for the installation.

A few hours later, the first helpers were already in the studio to once again invest valuable hours of their lives in my installation. My gratitude to the entire team can hardly be expressed with the hourly wage paid.

One week and again at peak times, 20 helping hands later, the last figure was completed one day before the vigil.

Another journey into an enraptured and emotional world of human abysses could begin. And it will be a long journey.

For the first time, my figures will not stand in public as a representative mass, but in this installation each figure will stand for exactly one death victim from the Ahr Valley in 2021.

Photo series 4 | 📸 Photos Heiko Heinen

Photo series 5 | 📸 Photos Petra Nottebaum

Silent witnesses on a great journey…


On 27 April 2024, a special kind of ship set sail from Remagen. On board were 135 silent witnesses to the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley in 2021. The ship set off from Remagen at 6.00 am and arrived in Mainz harbour almost punctually at 6.00 pm. On the way, the ship passed the Deutsches Eck in Koblenz and a city festival near Wiesbaden, among other places.

There were calls on social media for people to show their solidarity and wave to the passing Silent Witness, the survivors of the flood disaster and the team of artist Dennis Josef Meseg from the shore with white cloths, sheets or T-shirts.

Dozens of people then stood along the riverbank between Remagen and Mainz to show their solidarity with the bereaved and their fight for a complete investigation.

Also on board were Inka and Ralph Orth, who lost their daughter in the floods on 14 June 2021 and are doing everything they can to ensure that the case comes to a fair and informative trial.

After a 12-hour journey, the time had finally come and the fully occupied ship sailed into Mainz to the sounds of Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was an indescribable feeling, as all the incredulous gazes of the visitors strolling along the banks of the Rhine were glued to the ship and the 135 white figures.

Photo series 1 | 📸 Photos Heiko

Photo series 2 | 📸 Photos Christopher Goebel

They glide along on a gentle river, the silent witnesses of life and time. There are 135 figures on the deck of the chartered passenger ship, each a silent memorial, each an echo of past stories. They were once firmly anchored in front of the state parliament in Mainz, and now they rise up on the waves of the Rhine, travelling from Remagen to Mainz as a floating vigil.

Inka and Ralph Orth, together with performance artist Dennis Josef Meseg, have managed to set the silence in motion. The figures, each a silent witness to the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley in 2021, rise above the water as if to carry on the memories and significance of their presence. Their silent presence reminds us of the transience of life and the responsibility we bear towards history and those who shaped it.

As the ship glides along the river, the thoughts of the passengers and those watching from the banks may become philosophical reflections on life, time and the meaning of memories. The silent witnesses are more than just figures on a ship – they are symbols of the unspoken, of the stories that have never been told, and of the hope that we can learn from the past and create a better future.

May her journey on the river of life inspire us all to pause and reflect on how we can shape our own history and how we can honour the silent witnesses who accompany us on our journey.

Departure: Saturday, 27 April 2024 at 6:00 am at the Bonn Schifffahrtsgesellschaft jetty. Arrival: On the same day at approx. 18:00 at the “Fischtor” jetty in Mainz.

#MuteWitnesses #JusticeScandalFloodCatastrophe2021

Stadtarchiv Mainz

Photographs of the installation deposited in the Mainz City Archive

Under the file number 471210, Tgb. No. 32673/24, some photos were deposited for posterity.

Logo Leichtsinn

With friendly support in the form of a 10% discount on the 135 mannequins from MOCH Figuren/ Köln

Logo Leichtsinn

The action, like all other art actions, was financially supported by the artist himself.

    If you are interested in this installation for your city, municipality, association, gallery, museum or other organisation, you can find out about availability and the rental price here.

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