Monday, April 4, 2011

Amos Gitai, "Traces," at the Palais du Tokyo

Amos Gitaï, Berlin-Jerusalem, 1989
I wonder what other major museum in the world would undergo renovations and, rather than close down for months on end while the work takes place, turn its construction site into an exhibition space?  And then have one of the world’s leading artist/filmmakers utilize the space, who, in turn, ends up creating dialogues and historical resonances between the museum, the Holocaust, and his own family history? Even before stepping through the doorway that leads down into the building site in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo, I was enthralled and excited by the very idea of Amos Gitaï’s installation, Traces.

This was an amazing and unforgettable experience –

Traces is a filmic poem for Gitaï’s father, Munio Weintrab Gitaï, and a polemic on the enormous historical circumstances that incarcerated him. The father was an architect who trained at the Bauhaus in Dessau and in 1933 was accused of “treason towards the German people, and subversive activities”. He was tried in June 1933, sentenced to jail for six months and exiled to Switzerland before finding his way to Palestine in July 1934. Munio’s only crime was, of course, that he was born Jewish.
Amos Gitaï, The Violinist, 2011
The exhibition is difficult to watch and to listen to. The basement space overflows with soundtracks; as we step through the door, we step into another world where we are bombarded with noise. Each video installation is accompanied by its own soundtrack, but they merge, indiscriminately, cacophonously, to fill the huge space underground at the Palais de Tokyo. The minute we step away from the voiceover coming out of a speaker, the noise of the others drowns out all comprehension of what is being said. The images are equally difficult to watch as they are faint, merged with the walls onto which they are projected, like graffiti that scars with its unsavory stories. The walls are textured and like the walls of any construction site, they are crumbling, potted, uneven. There is nothing particular about these underground walls, but overlaid with Gitaï’s images about the insanity of Nazi “justice”, we start to see the blemishes as bullet holes, the remnants of posters as cries for freedom, the writing on the wall as solitary voices of resistance. As I watched Gitaï’s panoramic image of an infinite track across the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer, and used for the famous Nazi Party rallies, all I could see was the wall behind the image. All I could see was the wall next to cell block 11 at Auschwitz. Here prisoners were routinely lined up along the wall only to meet their death by a firing squad. There were many stray bullets at Auschwitz, bullets that still mark the wall of execution at cell block 11. I could see those very bullet holes in the wall onto which the fragments of Lullaby to my Father, 2011 were projected.

Amos Gitai, Lullaby to my Father, 2011
As I watched Gitaï’s fictionalized images of his father’s indictment, trial and imprisonment, the walls of the Bauhaus buildings resonated throughout my experience. The Bauhaus walls were clean, functional, geometrical, unblemished, and of course, socially motivated. And thus, Munio’s history projected onto the decrepit walls of the Palais de Tokyo, knowing his career began in Germany at the Bauhaus, becomes increasingly disturbing. As the individual (Gitaï’s father) and his image become lost in the devastation of the space, the magnitude of twentieth century history takes over as the subject of Traces. I can’t remember the last time I experienced the “place” of the moving image so powerfully in dialogue with the images themselves.

Amos Gitaï, Lullaby to my Father, 2011
These walls of the Palais de Tokyo were the very walls within which French Jews were brought and stripped of their possessions during World War II. Thus, they are walls steeped in the same history that is explored in the films. Sometimes I wondered if the walls were hews especially for the exhibition as their texture was so rich and so forceful when put in conversation with these fragments from Gitaï’s films. And then, of course, I would remember, this is a space in the throes of renovation, signaling hope and possibility of rebuilding. All of these layers of meaning, of history, of temporality, make the walls in their dialogue with images, the most compelling aspect of Gitaï’s installation.

Amos Gitaï, Berlin-Jerusalem, 1989
My favorite of the film fragments was a fictional recreation of the hands of the stenographer as she documented the trial of Munio Weintrab on 14 June 1933. The hands of the typist are mesmerizing, while the sounds are confrontational, as each clack on the old machine becoming isolated from the others. The image of the gracious hands in motion in close up, focused on a task, was very moving, while the soundtrack alienated. And then, the image would disintegrate as the wall behind it took over, became more present to the insanity of what we knew the woman was typing.

We never see Munio –he remains invisible, even in the fragments of Lullaby to My Father in which he is the subject of the film. In one such fragment we see Munio’s lawyer visit him, the camera stands behind the bars of the prison cell while the lawyer goes inside the cell. The lawyer talks to Munio explaining that they are going to have to plead for his release on the basis of his health records. But we never see Munio. Even though Munio lived until 1970, it is as though he disappeared with all of the other Jews in the Holocaust. He is invisible, but his presence and that of all the others who were murdered in his wake haunt the basement of the Palais de Tokyo. Again, Munio’s story becomes that of the many whose lives and deaths remain undocumented, the many who did not survive the Nazi brutality.

Amos Gitai, Free Zone, 2005

Traces is not really about the details in Gitaï’s films: in them we won’t find a logical, coherent whole. Because to do this, we would need to sit down and watch the films in their entirety in a movie theater. Rather, the installation is about the person who is invisible, silent, about an image that never fully captures the trauma, the image as graffiti that scars the walls of history, and thus becomes the image as the trace of another world, another life that can never be grasped.

This representation of what is ultimately absent, together with the dialogue that is set in motion between walls that tell of histories that are only ever gestured towards and the images that color them, makes Gitaï’s installation powerful. Within the genre of works that explore personal memories of a family member in order to visualize a post-memory of the Holocaust, this is among the very best. Its movement from individual story to the enormity of the historical trauma, simultaneous with the spectator’s immersion into the construction site that enables the articulation of both the personal and the grand historical narratives, is unforgettable.

1 comment:

Mary Quinn said...

Intrinsic, cellular, experiental memory... the essence of which is so often seemingly impossible to capture... in a word, in a sound, in an image. Thank you Frances... you made this exhibition come to life for me... you grounded me.. you brought my realization back into perspective... centered.. thank you.