The exhibition "Presence/Absence/Traces. Contemporary Artists on Jewish Warsaw" comprises of works by artists participating in thirteen artistic residencies at POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Coming from Poland, Israel, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Turkey, North and South America as well as other places, they adopted various approaches to Jewish heritage and cultural diversity of the Polish capital, offering a polyphonic reflection of the city's past and present.
The exposition centers around three concepts: 'presence', 'absence', and 'traces'. "Jewish Warsaw" is the starting point but, in some texts, it triggers universal questions which reach far beyond the local context. Produced by individual artists or artistic groups, the works utilize metaphors, oral history, or documentary techniques, thus combining creative practices and research strategies. They constitute an interesting set of forms as well, involving a wide range of aesthetic modes of expression, from conventional photographic portraits to new media.
Works of Eliane Esther Bots, Jasmine Bakalarz, Itay Ziv and Maya Schweizer focus on the search for traces and decoding possible contexts for Jewish presence in today's Warsaw. What matters for these artists are physical and symbolic aspects of that presence.
Eliane Esther Bots is a Dutch film-maker who produced a short movie entitled "We Can't Come from Nothing". During her stay in Warsaw, the artist held a number of interviews with local people who told her their family stories, thus revealing bits and pieces of the Jewish facet of the city's history. Who were the interlocutors who agreed to take part in her project? They were mostly members of Jewish families (e.g. Kazimierz--a demographer striving to break the Holocaust down into scientific facts, or Dorota--an actress who plays Jewish women in movies about the Holocaust in an attempt to come to terms with a family tragedy), people whose family members had helped Jews or signed the Volksliste, as well as refugees (a Muslim family of fugitives from the Chechen War) living in an apartment which used to belong to a Jewish family. Bots asked them to bring objects bearing traces of the past to the filming location.
Similarly to other artists-in-residence at POLIN Museum, Eliane Esther Bots likes to make use of oral storytelling and accounts of peopel who have witnessed historical events. Consequently, members of contemporary communities found in Warsaw, including Jewish ones, are physically present in her work.
Jasmine Bakalarz also based her work on the Jewish people of Warsaw, deciding to construct a portrait of the local community which would be both colletive and individual. She took a number of photographs of Jewish people living in Warsaw nowadays with the intention of demonstrating the uniqueness of their community and the values they hold. The artist and POLIN Museum encouraged everyone to take part but it was mostly women who attended. Bakalarz used a medium format analogue camera and took most of the photos at her models' homes as well as at the Lauder-Morasha School Complex, where she photographed the youngest participants in the project. The cycle entitled "Warsaw Projects" was displayed in a public space--on hoardings in the districts of Wola and Śródmieście.
Bakalarz, an artist from Buenos Aires whose grandparents used to live in the south of Poland, also traveled to where her family had once lived (in the towns of Pacanów and Klimontów). She took a series of photographs there which constitute a private, and somewhat autobiographical, addition to her Warsaw cycle.
Bots and Bakalarz belong to the so-called third generation, and so do Itay Ziv, an Israel artist, and Maya Schweizer from France. Allusions to heritage are particularly distinct in Ziv's film entitled "Come to Mama", made by the artist during his stay in Warsaw. Like in his previous works, he addresses the question of identity--both his own and collective. During his residency, the artist, who had once tried to obtain a Polish passport, managed to reach people directly involved in carrying out procedures related to confirming Polish citizenship. Representatives of state administration, employees of the Genealogy Department at the Jewish Historical Institute, and employees of legal officies agreed to meet him.
This is another work by the artist in which he himself appears in front of the camera to fill in the blanks in narration. His personal monologue links what the other peopel in the film say but it seems to be insufficient to answer the questions Ziv poses in search of his own social and national identity.
Maya Schweizer's "Texture of Oblivion" takes as its subject forms of commemoration--representation and structures of Jewish presence and absence. The artist takes up the problem of memory culture by means of analyzing monuments located where the ghetto used to be. Erected in the period from right after the war until now, those monuments testify to the changing nature of Jewish presence and memory of the Holocaust in public debate in Poland.
Absence can be considered as the antithesis of presence, and its absence then became the focus of several artists' works. Two strategies for discussing absence can be observed: on the one hand, it is possible to reveal physical tracces of the past and, on the other land, the past can be performatively omitted. A number of works pertaining to Jews remaining unseen in Warsaw can also be interpreted in a broader context of artistic activity in public space in Warsaw.
Małgorzata Kuciewicz, Simone De Iacobis (Centrala) and Aslı Çavuşoğlu carried out a one-week archaeological excavation at 2B Karmelicka Street in Warsaw. The residential district--a landmark of the story about Warsaw rising back from its ashes--was built where an evangelical hospital once stood (1769-1944).
Performing a most evanescent intervention--opening a post-war hill for several days and exposing remnants of the past it hid (including pieces of broken bricks, stove tiles, and fragments of household porcelain) to the general public--the artists tried to address matters related to creation of national narrations and the ownership of the (urban) heritage of Warsaw.
Luísa Nóbrega, an artist from Brasil, carried out twelve performative actions during her stay in Warsaw. Their fragmentary, incomplete traces formed a collection entitled "It's Not Good to Have a Past, Even Someone Else's". By recording inconspicuous actions performed in public space, in front of random people who are not aware of what is happening, the artist expresses her view of history as fragmentary collective imagination, full of missing elements and contradictions.
The scarce documentation of her actions result from the fact that the point of departure for the artist's work was memory of events she only knew about from cultural texts (she is not Jewish in origin). On the other hand, Nóbrega succeeds in defining trauma as a state that defies any discussion.
The last set of works refers to both material and immaterial components of Jewish heritage. It comprises of pieces by artists who make use of the canon of Jewish literature in their artistic work. A sub-category is formed by those works which scrutinize contemporary traces of Jewish tradition via the clichés and stereotypes associated with them.
Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay--a Canadian living in Berlin--adapted a short story called "Two", written by the Nobel-winning writer Issac Bashevis Singer in the 1970s, about a boy who wanted to be a girl. That story is one of Singer's few works dealing with queer issues. He wrote it when LGBT movements were developing in the United States, where he lived and worked, but he chose a Polish shtetl as the setting for his story.
Nemerofsky's adaptation in the form of an audio walk, entitled "The Muranów Lily", draws our attention to the problem of representation of non-heteronormative identites in the past, referring to the world created by Singer and his desscription of the Jewish community a century ago. In addition, Nemerofsky poses a universa question about the visibility of motifs related to gender identity and restores them to their rightful symbolic place by means of creating a new urban legend of Muranów.
Sharon Lockhart from the U.S. also makes use of written material by Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician and educator. Her attitute towards children and youth--treating them as equals--is also derived from Korczak. She refers particularly to "Mały Przegląd", a weekly supplement to a Jewish minority daily published in Poland and prepared entirely by children and teenagers.
It could be that her interest in that particular paper and the workshop she tries to organize annually for the girls from the Social Therapy Center frot eh Youth in Rudzienko are aimed at letting them have their say and providing them with a platform for expression parallel to that which Lockhart operates as an artist.
Lukas Ligeti based his work "That Which Has Remained...That Which Will Return" on quotes derived directly from Jewish heritage. During his stay in Warsaw, he met people willing to share Jewish melodies and songs with him. A subjective collection of works was thus created, which served the composer as a basis for a score for musicians he invited to collaborate. The musicians included: Paweł Szamburski (clarinet), Patryk Zakrocki (violin, viola, mbira), Mikołaj Pałosz (cello), Wojciech Kurek (electronic instruments), and Barbara Kinga Majewska (vocals).
While performing the composition the musicians could hear through wireless headphones fragments of Jewish melodies and conversations about their origins, recorded by the artist, to which they were to react by improvising as though they had been shreds of their own memory.
References to cultural texts were also made by Tamara Moyzes and Shlomi Yaffe. Their project is founded on the tradition of pre-war Yiddish theatres in Warsaw and certain features of an Israel movie genre known as 'bourekas', which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s. The artists created three short films that were based on biographies of contemporary Israeli figures, the figures behind social and national conflicts. The films by this duo tell us the stories of life of contemporary Israeli figures, shown with the help of animated scenes. The protagonists of the films are: Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Amir (reference to the assassination attempt against the Prime Minister of Israel made by a religious extremist), Mordechai Vanunu (an Israeli whistleblower), and Tali Fahima (an Israeli pro-Palestinian activist).
These figures are played by the actors connected with the Ester Rachel Kamińska and Ida Kamińska State Jewish Theatre – Sylwia Nahaj, Henryk Rajfer, and Kobi Wietzner.
An entirely different approach to the concept of traces can be seen in a film by Florencia Levy entitled "Translate, Repeat, Retrace". Before arriving in Warsaw, she conducted a series of interviews with members of the Jewish community in her native Buenos Aires. She talked to Polish immigrants, their children and grandchildren. She then attempted to "update" the memories of the three generations of Polish Jews in South America against the landscape of contemporary Warsaw.
Levy also created a small interactive publication entitled "A Walk, a Monument, and Something Invisible", comprising of seven stories about the city, Judaism, and the origins of Warsaw Jews, illustrated with photographs by the author and films which depict Warsaw through the eyes of her interlocutors.
For Noa Shadur and Konrad Smoleński, archival or restaged photographs of historical crime scenes and places of strugges, whose traces were found by the artists in the urban tissue, inspired the choreography of their film.
Strange spaces and hardly accessible areas provided background for movements, making history universal on the one hand (locations were often underground and lacked characteristic features) and, on the other hand, reminiscent of the underground armed resistance movement in Warsaw.
Traces of symbolic aggression towards minorities in Poland were examined by Hubert Czerepok, who created an installation in public space. It is a steel fence whose usual rungs and decorative elements were replaced with slogans full of hatred, forged in metal, copied by the artist from Polish walls. The artist wished to annihilate the message conveyed by anti-social graffiti by means of re-forging it like a craftsman, obliterating the legibility of its overalapping layers.
On the other hand, Czerepok emphasizes the power of the phenomenon he strives to combat and stigmatizes it with the stark materiality of the employed technique. In such form, these words are much more difficult to ignore than anti-Semitic slogans on walls to which we seem to have gotten accustomed.
"Presence/Abscence/Traces. Contemporary Artists on Jewish Warsaw"
11 March - 25 April 2016
Curators: Ewa Chomicka and Agnieszka Pindera
Artists: Luísa Nóbrega, Eliane Esther Bots, Konrad Smoleński & Noa Shadur, Tamara Moyzes & Shlomi Yaffe, Jasmine Bakalarz, Itay Ziv, Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, Hubert Czerepok, Florencia Levy, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Simone De Iacobis & Małgorzata Kuciewicza, Lukas Ligeti, Maya Schweizer, and Sharon Lockhart.
Exhibition design: Marcin Kwietowicz, Grażyna Stawicka, and Magdalena Romanowska
This exhibition was organized within the framework of the program "Open Museum--Education in Action", project "Jewish Cultural Heritage", component of "Faces of Diversity". Supported from the Norway and EEA Grants by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.