From Darkness to Light
The Jewish Children’s Museum
792 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213
Shown: November 3-9, 2009
More than half a century has passed since the Holocaust. As the number of survivors dwindles, even as the amount of documentation grows, there has been a shift in focus from recording the facts to working out how we can relate to these facts. As the generation of eyewitnesses passes, we are entering an era that must deal with the problem of memory without access to direct experience. Yad VaShem’s recent refurbishment is a manifestation of this shift, and the new focus can be felt across the spectrum. In literature, along with eyewitness narratives we now find a plethora of books dealing with the experiences of the “second generation,” the children of survivors who are witnesses only to the aftershocks, such as Amir Gutfreund‘s semi-fictionalized Our Holocaust. Jonathan Gati’s From Darkness to Light is a valiant attempt to do the same in the visual arts.
Gati, a documentary photographer, was asked to accompany a group of high school seniors on a Heritage tour through the death camps and ghettos of Poland-a twofold task that indicates the shift of focus from the preservation of fact to the relationship to memory. He was not only to document the past, but also the new generations’ relationship to that past. The images in the exhibition were culled from the over 4000 photographs that Gati took during this trip. They were chosen to work as a series, and are very deliberately set up within the exhibition space to help the viewer make a transition from a distanced, second-hand viewing to a more direct relationship with the past. Indeed, Gati wishes the photographs to act as a replacement for the presence of the survivor who accompanied the group. In a manner analogous to how the survivor made alive what were essentially ghost towns and dead memorials, he hopes the exhibition will add experiential presence to disconnected facts.
From Darkness to Light was hung in the Jewish Children’s Museum’s largely unused fourth floor, and Gati had incorporated the unfinished building as an essential part of the exhibition, so that the photographs functioned as part of an integrated space. In this, Darkness to Light is closer to instillation than traditional photography. It is a multi-sensual work, combining text, lighting, music, and video to immerse the viewer in a journey of witnessing which corresponds to that undergone by the Heritage group. The exhibition opens in the relatively broad and well-lit entrance hall. In this room, the photographs record the experience of the later generations, of those who are not eyewitnesses. The first image is of modern Jewish graffiti: brightly colored stars of David spray-painted onto concrete walls. Next come images of public spaces: synagogues, memorials, the Warsaw Jewish cemetery (which was left intact by the Nazis as part of their Jewish museum). The Heritage students can be seen saying their first prayer in Poland, and standing on the ruins of what was once Mile 18 in the Warsaw ghetto. The survivor stands below the mount, at once separate and a part of this memorial service. Low down in the photograph, he is both connected to the dead buried beneath the now paved street, yet standing, he is also part of the living, facing, in Gati’s words, both the past and the future.
The exhibition then continues through a darkened hallway that is painted black, which acts as a transition into the world of the camps. The single photograph on display can barely be seen, and one needs to strain to make out the only spot of white in the room: a view of Majdanek on a winter morning, as seen through the cracks in a gate. The next two rooms, painted a dark gray and dimly lit, represent the world of the death camps. There is no longer a human presence in the deserted images. The only human voice comes from the texts that are scattered throughout the room: testimony of survivors, poetry, fragments of diaries from the ghettos. The exhibition pans from the outside in: from the gate and outer buildings into the relative intimacy of the latrines and showers, and finally, on the last wall, to the body of the victims- the remnants of hair, the piles of shoes. The movement inwards corresponds to a change in scale, as the subjects gradually grow to life size-and then larger. This change in scale is essential; the large size, combined with the full, dramatic color, forces the viewer to confront these by now well-known images anew, giving the piles of shoes an almost-human presence. They become a metonym for the victims.
The final room transitions back to present, as the viewer exits to a video montage of the high-school students’ faces and expressions throughout the tour. The closing thus reconnecting past and future, and creates a circular return to the opening images of the students praying-and to our position as second-generation witnesses.
Any modern work of art that attempts to deal with the Holocaust is faced with a painful paradox; the very pervasiveness of Holocaust memorials and museums has served to distance us from it. The horrifying images have become commonplace; the public has become inured, and we often feel that we are seeing a picture of a picture, rather than a reality. From Darkness to Light implicitly acknowledges this problem by not bothering to label the photographs, as though conceding that everybody knows what these images represent. And indeed, many of the photographs in the exhibition feel predictable, already known. Yet Gati tries to break up these almost stereotypical images in several ways. The first is by including lesser-known elements of the camps, such as the latrines, and juxtaposing them to quotes by survivors. Another technique is layering the different time frames, allowing us to feel the distance between today and then, thus the famous image of Auschwitz’s gate is made unfamiliar by the inclusion of a new electrical gate with a sign demanding that cars halt. Gati is most successful when he turns away from recognizable imagery completely; the disturbing close-up of a shattered doll, timeless with its porcelain blank face and disconnected wig, could be from any place and any time, but in context becomes a moving and disturbing embodiment of shattered childhood and shattered bodies, a stand-in for the missing victims.
The installation-like approach to the exhibition is its strongest and most innovative element, and shows great potential in considering ways to represent the Holocaust. However, it is only partially successful, and comes at a price. The large size of the photographs, and their free mounting on boards rather than on the walls, helps integrate the space, and also subliminally echoes the shapes of the tombstones that appear in several photographs, subtly conveying the suggestion of a graveyard. On the other hand, some of the photographs lose quality with the enlargement, and the tilt of the boards causes disturbing reflections on several of the pieces, giving a sense of haphazardness. In addition, the music, taken from Schindler’s List, is very theatrical, and instead of making the imagery more immediate, actually serves to create a distance from the act of witnessing, reinforcing the feeling that this is a story, rather than a reality. Nevertheless, Gati’s ambitious first exhibition shows he is dealing seriously and thoughtfully with both his subject matter, and his viewers.
Batnadiv HaKarmi Weinberg holds a masters in comparative literature, and has lectured at various institutions of higher learning in Israel, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently working towards a masters of fine arts at the New York Studio School.