Esther Shalev-Gerz's exhibition shifts and drifts across time and place
At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until April 14
While walking through Esther Shalev-Gerz’s exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, it’s difficult to resist a biographical reading of the films, videos, still photographs, text, and sculpture on view. Born in Lithuania, this internationally renowned artist grew up in Israel, lived for a while in New York and Berlin, is based in France, and teaches in Sweden. She also spends portions of each year on the West Coast.
Some of her work is, indeed, explicitly autobiographical. In Still/Film, for instance, she revisits her own and her mother’s childhood homes as a way of reflecting upon the meaning of place, and the wartime losses suffered by her family and community. But Shalev-Gerz also implicitly addresses themes of disruption, marginalization, and persecution while working with culturally and geographically disparate groups of people. She has travelled widely in the realization of her collaborative art, connecting with individuals and communities across barriers of language, culture, and experience.
With her former partner Jochen Gerz, Shalev-Gerz developed the acclaimed Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg. In A Thread, she worked with local residents to create a permanent installation of circular benches in a park in Glasgow. And in 2009’s Open Book, she created images of rare publications in collaboration with staff of the Vancouver Public Library. (This work has been remounted in the Walter C. Koerner Library at UBC.)
The complex, transcultural, and multilingual nature of Shalev-Gerz’s own narrative feeds into her generous examination of other people’s histories. It also seems to account for the way she opens herself to questions concerning how such histories are recounted and how individuals and groups may be portrayed. She registers memory as an insistent yet elusive presence in her art—as it is in our lives. Like memory, many of her images are spectral and multilayered, shifting and drifting across time and place. They slow down, loop around, fade, or face each other across spaces measured in silence.
The Belkin exhibition expands upon a show originally mounted at the Kamloops Art Gallery. Curator Annette Hurtig, who died last year of cancer, initiated the KAG show but was unable to complete it. (Fellow curator Charo Neville ably accomplished that task.) Hurtig’s ghost, however, seems to hover here with the other souls whose passing is marked by Shalev-Gerz’s images of a burial mound, an abandoned playground, a historic town square, and a road built by prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
As the Belkin’s Scott Watson notes in his curatorial essay, this exhibition “meditates on histories of dislocation and violence”. It also alludes to economic uncertainty (in the video Perpetuum Mobile, a 10-franc coin continuously spins and wobbles but never falls still), angels, art-making, and transcendence (the mixed-media installation Inseparable Angels: The Imaginary House of Walter Benjamin), and the intersection between personal and cultural identity (the two-channel video WHITE-OUT).
The “star” of WHITE-OUT, which is subtitled Between Telling and Listening, is Asa Simma, a Sami performance artist based in Stockholm. The Sami are an indigenous people whose traditional territory extends across northern Sweden, Norway, and Finland, and into Russia’s Kola Peninsula. In Shalev-Gerz’s work, Simma sits in her urban home and speaks about her family, her personal history, and her relationship to her Sami identity and culture. An intentional lacuna is created between “telling and listening” in the second projection of Simma, wordlessly hearing her own narrative while seated outdoors near her northern birthplace. Part of what is remarkable about this work is its relevance to the conditions, past and present, of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, and its timeliness in relationship to the Idle No More movement.
In the three-channel video Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz 1945-2005, Shalev-Gerz gives shape to unspeakable loss, revealed in the resonant silences of 60 elderly Parisians, all survivors of Auschwitz, as they pause to collect their thoughts and memories before answering questions about their lives before, during, and after their death-camp incarcerations. Projected in slow motion, their wordless images moving right to left across three large video screens, the interview subjects look up, down, and sideways. They sigh, grimace, rub their faces, or cover their mouths. They lean backward or hunch forward as they summon the ghosts of their harrowing past. It’s a powerful and deeply moving work.