Friday, February 26, 2010

Esther Shalev-Gerz, Ton image me regarde !? Jeu de Paume

Esther Shalev-Gerz’ sophisticated video installations are perfect companions to Omer Fast’s exploration of memory, its formulation and evolvement through telling stories. After a matter of minutes in Shalev-Gerz’ latest exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, I felt as though I was back in the world of story telling and moving images, examining the process of remembering and making sense of memories through telling and listening to stories. And like Fast’s videos, Shalev-Gerz is interested over and over again in the immigrant experience of displacement. That said, the images of the two artists couldn’t be more different.

I can’t think of another film and videomaker who translates the immigrant experience into the production, aesthetic and reception of images better than Shalev-Gerz. Roughly speaking, her work falls into two main concerns: how to remember and integrate German history into our individual stories, and second, the search for a public understanding of the immigrant experience through personal memory. In what was, for me, one of the most captivating of the installations, First Generation (2004), one wall of a room is covered with the words of first generation, diverse nationality immigrants to a small town in Sweden. Shalev-Gerz has asked them a series of questions: “On your coming to Botykyrka what did you lose? What did you find? What did you get? What did you give?” On the wall are their poetic responses. At right angles, on another wall, we see a camera lovingly wandering over and around the faces of the same interlocutors in such extreme closeup that we find ourselves looking at the lines carved by wrinkles, individual eye lashes, pores of skin, blemishes, eyes. The image has nothing to do with reading the expression of the person in the image. In fact, the extreme closeup ensures that we cannot read their expressions – there is no knowing what they are thinking as we watch them listen to their own responses. In a typical Shalev-Gerz strategy, the image is mute, the sound playing off somewhere else, and we are left with the impossible task of matching the words on one wall with the images on another. This separation of sound and image is echoed at every level of the image and the relationships it sets up. There is a separation of text and image, sound and image, appearance and identity, that also creates a displacement or a disquiet in our reception process. Unable to look at the image and hear or see the words in the same moment, we, like the portrayed are left with a fractured, disquieting experience of what it means to be an immigrant to small-town Sweden. The first time I saw the installation, the young Algerian guard said to me – you can’t understand this piece unless you know what it is to be an immigrant. Certainly, the feeling of being displaced, exiled, moved from one place to another, destined to spend a lifetime trying to marry one’s self or selves in two countries, two languages, two histories, the past and the present, came alive as I watched First Generation. I can’t say if viewers who have never known a similar kind of displacement will or won’t understand the piece, but I can say that, for me, its power lay in an identification with the lifelong search to make sense of the unsettling process of integration. And this search is played out everywhere in First Generation, except on the landscape of the very faces we expect to disclose such secrets.

Another piece whose profundity is difficult to articulate is MenschenDinge, (2004-2006), a piece that might be described as a memorial to those imprisoned at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Shalev-Gerz interviews a historian, conservationist, archaeologist, photographer and the director of the museum at Buchenwald about the objects that have been found over the years in the grounds of the one-time camp. The objects are photographed and digitally retouched in still images that adorn the circular wall of the room. Inside this wall, we sit at a circular bench and watch the professionals discuss their work as it is carried out with the found objects. Each of them brings the objects alive in a manner that is, all at once, fascinating, sensitive, profound, pragmatic. As the specialists tell what they know of the objects, what they ask of them, where the objects lead them, to what knowledge, to what identity, we are plunged back into the world of Buchenwald, imagining the daily activities of the one-time owners of these simple treasures. We imagine the man who fastidiously cleans his teeth with a reconstructed tooth brush even as his death is inevitable, we see the two users of a bowl inscribed with two numbers, two names, and we watch the tiny mirror as it is passed around from inmate to inmate as they (sometimes reluctantly) get a glimpse of their faces deformed by hunger, overwork and illness. The stories woven by the objects show how these prisoners kept their spirits alive and self-esteem intact even in the most grueling of circumstances. And each of the professionals allows the objects to lead us into a secret historical world: the objects bear the traces, sometimes the scars, of the identity of the owner, telling a little of his or her life. While we don’t always know who the owner was—even if there is a name or a number scratched on the surface, there are instances where no such person can be found in the records. But nevertheless, we feel a connection to the man or woman with a 5 digit number when the historian tells us via the bowl that the prisoner must have come from Auschwitz to Buchenwald because in Buchenwald the numbers didn’t go up that high. And we know that the prisoner came to Buchenwald to die.

The workers at the museum are philosophical, they are profound, moving in their respect for the object as if it was the prisoner him or herself. They are careful never to idolize and mystify these treasured objects which are, at the end of the day, no more than everyday objects that served a purpose. Like the faces of the immigrants in Botykyrka, those of the passionate and sensitive workers at the Buchenwald museum are surveyed lovingly, up close, somehow erotic in the relationship between camera and face, they become beautiful. The passion and the gentleness with which these people approach the objects is caught in the tone of a voice, the unflinching tenderness with which they talk about the owner of the object, not, once again, in anything we see in the image such as the pores of their skin or the intensity of their eyes. Finally, the impact of the “interviews” comes from the fact that Shalev-Gerz invites the professionals to allow the objects to tell their stories, stories that, in turn, lead to the stories of their owners.

There are more, equally compelling works on display at the Jeu de Paume. A very powerful single channel video shows the view from the front window of a taxi as Shalev-Gerz travels the road between Weimar and Buchenwald. Again, like the workers in the museum, the taxi driver is profound, as he talks about how the road is bumpy because it was made by the prisoners, and how we must remember, "forgetting is no good." His narrative of orientation is interrupted by fragments of the texts of Walter Benjamin’s texts on Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s words and his figure of the angel of history hovers over the work as a whole when the taxi driver is further interrupted by narrated texts from Paul Klee, Gerhard Scholem, Heiner Müller. Throughout Anges inseparables (2000) the image is doubled, one awkwardly superimposed on the other as it reflects in the window of the taxi. As if the perspective is off, as if the image has been fractured and fragmented like the windows of the Jewish-owned establishments on Kristallnacht, like the contradictions of a Benjaminian history. The road between Buchenwald and Weimar is of course, well-trodden with its own palimpsestic history of literary, cultural, philosophical stories, all of which are in unruly conflict with the memories soldered into the surface of this same road, the memories of those who didn’t live to tell their own stories.

So what does this all have to do with Omer Fast? If Fast is concerned to show all of the things that get in the way of the story being told, Shalev-Gerz is determined to allow people to tell their stories, no matter what. Contrary to Nostalgia, there is much going on behind the scenes in Shalev-Gerz’ films that we are not privy to. Instead, we are left with a vision of Shalev-Gerz’ creation of the possibility for her “interviewees” to be profound, to go deep inside of themselves and to express their relationships to the material they work with, whether it be the past, the transformation of a landscape, or the relics of another life. To do this, she tears open what might otherwise be the comfortable relationship between image and sound, between talking and listening, past and present, viewer and viewed. And in the spaces between these deliberately forged schisms, come the lyrical and intimate stories that cannot otherwise be told.

More of her works can be seen on her website.

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