Saturday, January 29, 2011

Across the Pond: London Opening

Earlier this week I gave a talk at an opening of my Lithuanian based artwork at the London gallery of Woolfson and Tay.  The opening was coordinated with national Holocaust day.  My comments related to the experience I had in Lithuania that underlies this body of work and I thought it would be appropriate to share an excerpt of those comments here.

I was especially pleased to show this artwork at this particular gallery because the context was very appropriate to the nature of this work.  The owners of this gallery also run a nonprofit called Living Imprint through which they produced a film titled Surviving History.  The film is composed of interviews with survivors of the Vilnius area and is truly poignant as it examines the experience of these survivors in the latter stage of their life.  Two of the survivors were our guides in Lithuania.

I wanted to share with you the back story of what brought me to London.  A few years ago I decided I wanted to learn Yiddish.  Now the reason I wanted to learn Yiddish was to include it in my artwork.  Several years ago I did a series of artwork on family history.  In the series I frequently used language and especially liked the use of non-Latin languages such as Russian, Yiddish or Hebrew because one first experiences them on a graphic level.  If one knows a bit of the language you might then decipher the literal level.  Since my work was focused on family and cultural history, I decided to learn Yiddish to better incorporate it into my artwork.  As there are few opportunities to learn Yiddish in my community I signed up to attend the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Vilnius, Lithuania.

There I participated in an intense language program of several hours of class a day and several hours of homework each evening.  In addition to the language program, I also participated in a cultural program led largely by two guides who were both survivors.  They took us through the former Jewish areas of Vilnius and the ghetto.  Fania, a former partisan, took us to Ponar, the forest where most of the Jews of Vilnius were murdered.  They talked of their experiences during those times and the community as it once was.  When we were in the forest of Ponar, one of our group asked Fania how she could come and tell the story of what occurred when her family lied buried in the pits.  She replied, “I speak for them because they cannot stand up and speak for themselves”.

When I returned home I developed this body of work, my attempt to tell the stories that we learned from our guides and from living in Vilnius.  I wondered how I could create the sense of intensity that we experienced because of these amazing women in their 80s who were our guides and I remembered the film Surviving History that I saw while in Vilnius.   I contacted Living Imprint to see if I could get a copy to show in conjunction with my artwork and included a link to my artwork. They liked what they saw and here I am.

I call this series The Silence Speaks Loudly because I was very aware of silence in Lithuania about the former Jewish community and the Holocaust.  There were few traces of the former Jewish community and frequently silence about what had occurred.  For me the silence only made me more conscious of the missing communities.  I often use the metaphor of negative space to describe it.  When I say “negative space”, I mean in the artistic sense.  You have probably seen the image of two faces in profile facing each other.  When you focus on the space between the faces, the negative space, you see the form of a goblet created by the outlines of their profiles. For me the Jewish communities existed in that negative space and were formed out of the silence and the edges of the community that remained. 

 The silence, the negative space, is manifest in a number of ways.  There is a lack of physical traces of the former Jewish community.  In Vilnius, a community which was 45% Jewish ,there are few buildings with Yiddish writing on them that remain.  In a city that once had over 100 synagogues only one remains in active use supporting the small Jewish community that is left. The traces of other former synagogues were not evident. So physical traces are largely absent.

The memory is also often silent.  While we were in Vilnius there was a young woman in the Vilnius Yiddish Institute program who grew up in Kaunas.  She told us that she didn’t know that Jews had made up 45% of her city until she was in college and accidentally ran across a book by a Lithuanian Jew.  Now that in itself is an oxymoron in that one is either considered to be Lithuanian or Jewish, but not both.  In any case until she was 13 the Soviets were in control and they did not talk of Jews dying in the Holocaust, only Soviet citizens or people.  So the exposure didn’t occur then, but even after that it was only by accident that she learned this.  Now she was interested in learning more and sought information, but that is far more the exception than the rule.

There is a silence that is perpetuated today through such institutions as the Genocide Museum.  The term genocide was coined by a Polish Jew after the Holocaust.  It literally means “race killing”.  In a city where 45% of the population was murdered there is no mention of the Holocaust in the Genocide Museum, a building that was once Gestapo headquarters. The story that is told is that of the Soviet occupation.  The only allusion to the Holocaust was in reference to the Lithuanian partisans where it says “some violence against the civilian population occurs as happens in any war”.

So where does this silence come from?  During the war, Lithuania was very complicit with the Nazis.  Now that is not to say that there were not some Lithuanians who reached out to their Jewish neighbors, but for the most part Lithuania cooperated with the Nazis and performed many of the murders.  Many of the people who fought with the Nazis and actively murdered Jews during the war subsequently became partisans fighting the Soviets.  They are viewed as national heroes.  It is hard to have a dialogue about the Holocaust when it implicates your national heroes.

I also think the division between being Lithuanian or Jewish creates a sense of otherness, allowing a distancing from the Holocaust and a separation of histories, the Holocaust as  the history of the Jews, the Soviet Occupation as that of Lithuanians.

I found these issues very disturbing and my artwork was my response to them.  I felt that in my small way I needed to share my observations and my artwork is the vehicle by which I do that.

I then shared a number of paintings with their accompanying stories.  You can find the stories at Studio 409 Art.  Two of them are included below:

The painting Gedenken is really the signature piece of this series.  It is of the forest of Ponar where the Jews of Vilnius were murdered.  I started sketching it on the plane returning home.  When one stands in a forest that was a killing site, it is natural to look up at the trees and think about them witnessing what occurred.  Or conversely to look at them and think they were the last vision of those who perished. I wanted a painting that was tall and this one is six feet high.  The one I did for London is actually a second iteration on two hinged canvases so I could more easily ship it.  Below the trees I wanted to represent the pits in which people were murdered, but not get too macabre.  I decided to use Yiddish letters turned on their side as figurative elements.  In many ways the language also faced near extinction along with its speakers. Upright bands of the word "Gedenken" run between the random letters getting larger at the bottom as if they were being viewed from that vantage point.  "Gedenken" means "remember".

The companion piece to this painting is one called Buried Truths which is based on a true story.  During WWII a Polish journalist lived in the forest near Ponar.  He witnessed the murders of Jews by Lithuanians.  He saw them brought to the forest, their
clothing confiscated as the murderers learned that clothing with bullet holes didn’t sell as well on the secondary market.  From the Lithuanians he heard the stories of escapees and attempts to hide children in piles of clothing. Each day he wrote about what he witnessed and buried what he wrote in jars in the forest.  After the war what he had written began to surface in archives.  A woman named Rachel Margolis pieced it together and published the book the Ponary Diary.  Needless to say, it was quite controversial as it named names. I liked the idea of bottles buried underground, representing truths that were too dangerous to reveal at that time. I wanted some sprouting pages like leaves as truth will eventually emerge.

 The show will run through February 20th in London at Woolfson and Tay.

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