Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Juxtaposing Time and Place

Collective memory is a ripe topic for artists. In a recent workshop, we examined artistic responses to the Holocaust. The focus was on conceptual art which I often find inaccessible, but in this instance, I felt that the work was well-grounded and thought-provoking. The discussion was led by Leslie Morris, associate professor of Germanic Studies and former director of The Center for Jewish Studies (University of Minnesota) , together with graduate student Juliette Brungs.

Much of the work focused on layers of memory, viewing past and present within the context of place. For example Hoheisel projects images on structures, synthesizing new meaning. One such juxtaposition was the well-known gate of Auschwitz against the Brandenberg Gate, a party symbol during the time of the Nazis. In 1997 Hoheisel made a rather audacious proposal to demolish the Brandenburg Gate, grind it up, and spread its remains over the site for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, co-mingling German and Jewish memory. Needless to say, it was rejected although it is a most intriguing concept. There is a certain appeal to the idea of taking a symbol associated with Nazi sovereignty and reducing it to a form comparable to that of the ashes of the Jews murdered under that sovereignty.

Another artist who made use of projections was Shimon Attie who projected images of Jews from the 1920s on the walls of the former Jewish quarter of Berlin. One could easily imagine the life that once existed in that quarter, again a layering of space and time.

Susan Hiller created the J Street project (before the pro-Israel peace group of similar name), an exploration of street names such as Judenstrasse which means Jew Street. While these names were changed during the Nazi era, most have been changed back, in one instance with a mark through the Nazi era street name. The names represent both the lost Jewish community, but also the segregation of many of those communities within German history.

Another juxtaposition of past and present through signage was done by Stie & Schnock. In what was once a thriving Jewish Berlin neighborhood they posted 80 signs with the original language of Nazi ordinances, creating a sense of the growing restrictions on the rights and ultimately existence of the Jews. Beginning with expulsion from choral groups in 1933 to phones being cut off in 1941. By 1942 they were to give up house pets and in 1945 the interesting edict to destroy all files having to do with anti-Semitic activity. Hmm, was that to assure no one would later be held accountable?

We shifted our attention to the work of an Israeli artist Yale Bartana who with film created a fictitious movement to bring Israeli Jews to Poland, a kind of reverse Zionism. Titled And Europe Will Be Stunned, she plays with the concept of the right of return and identity. The line between fact and fiction is thin for when she organized a conference in Berlin, it drew 1000 young people. I found the premise an interesting one as the Poles are very intrigued with their Jewish history even as many are fearful of Jewish descendents reclaiming their lost real estate now held by Poles. Europe would indeed be stunned.

In Trembling Time Bartana looks at the ritual on Remembrance Day for Israeli soldiers when at 10am on the designated day, all stop in commemoration. Traffic comes to a standstill and all get out of their vehicles, they then resume after a moment of silence and reflection.

We closed our discussion with a topic that proved to be one of those small world experiences that seem to occur with great frequency in my life. The topic was an exhibition of sorts in the Jewish Museum in Berlin called Jew in a Box. Many Germans have little exposure to Jews so a rotating cast of Jews are chosen to sit in a glass box like a museum display and respond to questions about Judaism. Now here's the small world part. Last year I had been contacted by a rabbi in Connecticut to learn about my experience in Lithuania at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. He found me because of this blog. We had spoken and emailed and he and his wife did go to Lithuania. Recently I contacted him to hear how it went and he advised me that he was leaving the next day for Berlin where he would do a stint as the Jew in a box. I shared that information with Juliette, who had mentioned the project. Turns out she was going to Berlin later that week where she happily offered my regards to the rabbi. He later told me that some of the people who asked him questions had never spoken to a Jew. In addition to questions of what he thought of the exhibit and how he got to sit in the box he got questions on belief, circumcision, conversion and keeping kosher. It was a diverse crowd so his ability to speak German, Hebrew and Russian was put to the test. Despite the controversy around putting a Jew on exhibit it sounds as if it is furthering both interaction and education.

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