Ton image me regarde ?
Jeu de Paume, Paris
February 9 to June 6, 2010
As of late, participatory art, like many other disciplines, has become increasingly centred on contested domains and popular issues such as health, education, and urban regeneration – or, as Swiss philosopher Max Picard puts it, “the loud places of history.”1 Within participatory arts there is often an implicit, yet compelling, assumption that media and public attention to issues that figure into public art attest to their social significance, while lack of interest evidences their irrelevance. That which is not spoken of, it seems, is assumed to have little or no consequence. However, as Esther Shalev-Gerz knows, it is often silent moments, ones that not only shape private lives but have a powerful effect on public life, that are often both the most overlooked and the most telling. “What interests me is people, their words, their silences, their lives, their ways of resisting and getting through their history,” says Shalev-Gerz.2 Her desire to capture the expressive potential of silence is evident in a major retrospective at the Jeu de Paume that looks specifically at her commissioned projects from the last two decades.
The exhibition runs along the top floor of the gallery, which is bisected by a stairway entrance and marked by one of Shalev-Gerz’s iconic works, Inseparable Angels 12 (2000–10). The work is a clock with two joined faces with hands moving in opposite directions, deriving from her earlier installation The Imaginary House of Walter Benjamin (2000), which remains elemental to her work as “an admonishment to remember the past in order to understand the present.”3 This contemplative experience of past and present was particularly powerful in one of the first rooms of the gallery, where people clustered around White out – Between Telling and Listening (2002), a mesmerizing video installation presented on two hanging screens accompanied by photographs lining the walls. With a commission from the Swedish Museum of National Antiquities, Shalev-Gerz followed an interesting thread between two facts: that no word for war exists in the indigenous Sami language, and that Sweden as a nation has not engaged in warfare for the last two hundred years. Wondering if these two facts were connected, Shalev-Gerz invited Asa Simma, a woman of dual Swedish-Sami identity, to respond to historical writings that correspond between Sami and Swedish cultures. In addition to creating drawings from photographs documenting the rows and rows of boxes in the museum’s collections, Shalev-Gerz filmed Asa in her Stockholm apartment responding to the historical writing about her people while reflecting on her own identity. This powerful projection is paired with an equally riveting projection showing Asa, relocated to her ancestral land in the traditional Sami area of northern Sweden, silently listening to her own words, yet remaining a readable presence, exemplifying the complexity of silence as a universalizing force not only in inviting audiences to listen but also in its profound ability to create responsibility in the listener to create meaning.
Although communication actualizes our being, Shalev-Gerz knows that it is the silences between what is said that transform our understanding of one another and ourselves.4 The video installation Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz 1945–2005 (2005), for instance, shows that this is the silence that exists only through communication or speech, when speech ceases to be at the limit of what can be said, when it is impossible to understand and explain the inconceivable and the unthinkable. Shalev-Gerz interviewed sixty survivors of Auschwitz about their experiences before, during, and after the war. Rather than showing their responses, Shalev-Gerz takes the moments before they formulated their responses, when they are thinking, remembering, and trying to find words that express the otherworldly horror of the Holocaust. This silence creates another language of the unspeakable understood by the heart or soul.
There are other ways in which silence is intersected when the participants in Shalev-Gerz’s video installations remain mute, as they are engrossed in listening to sounds. This notion is clearly manifested in Sound Machine (2008), in which Shalev-Gerz re-created the sounds of machinery from closed textile mills. She then interviewed and filmed former factory workers who were pregnant while working and placed them with their now-adult children in front of a virtually re-created factory. Standing together, mothers and daughters listen to echoes of a shared past while traces of sadness, remembrance, and, at times, wonderment flash across their faces. The soundtrack cannot be heard while one is viewing the installation but can be heard at the entrance to Jeu de Paume. Identity, experience, and memory overlap, and boundaries between mothers and daughters, blur as Shalev-Gerz constructs these “portraits” through her resurrection of sound and imagery.5
Just as Shalev-Gerz places us in an intimate relationship with portraits, bringing her subjects up close to us, she also puts us in contemplative relationships with objects and events. In MenschenDinge/The Human Aspect of Objects (2004–06), she interviewed an archaeologist, a historian, a restorer, a director, and a photographer about their relationship with objects found at the former concentration camp in Buchenwald, Germany. Despite its echoes of anthropological recording, Shalev-Gerz’s project is undisputedly born of passion. The work’s components are arranged in a spacious room arranged to resemble a study room, with a red circular table encompassing much of the space; placed on the walls are photographs that show two views of each discussed object in the hands of the speakers. Generating simultaneous modes of attention among the participants, Shalev-Gerz inserted a number of video monitors into the surface of the table that required them to sit together and look down at the screens. Each participant carefully retold the importance of found objects such as combs, bowls, mirrors, and jewellery – all fashioned in the face of suffering and death. Archaeologist Ronald Hirte, in his interview, tells about an inmate who smuggled in a mirror fragment: every Sunday two hundred emaciated inmates would gather and “use this one mirror fragment; pass it from hand to hand, so that everyone can look at himself.” After listening to the interviews, I went to look for the mirror in the photographs to consider whether this act was a fierce acceptance of reality or an act of human interconnectedness. And, much like the exhibition itself, with its silence and presence, its relationship between past and present, it suggests that it is both, which is both heart-wrenching and inspiring.
1 Max Picard, The World of Silence (Chicago: Regnery, 1989), p. 84.
2 Interview by Marta Gili with Esther Shalev-Gerz in the exhibition catalogue Esther Shalev-Gerz: Ton image me regarde!? (Paris: Jeu de Paume, 2010), p. 158.
3 Ibid., p. 151.
4 Conversation with artist at her studio, Paris, May 2010. 5 Ibid.
Elizabeth Matheson is an independent curator and writer on Canadian and international contemporary art and culture.