When Pauline Kalker and her colleagues bring Auschwitz to haunting life through thousands of handmade puppets in KAMP, it often leaves audiences speechless. But the piece is perhaps no less moving for Kalker herself, whose grandfather died in the Nazi concentration camp.
“I wanted to reenact that place and make a reconstruction of the circumstances under which he died,” explains the artist by phone from Rotterdam, where her interdisciplinary company Hotel Modern is based. She adds that no one has ever been able to ascertain if her grandfather was killed or succumbed to disease there. “I wanted to be with him in a symbolic way at the moment of his death.”¦For me as an artist, I wanted to connect with his history.”
The performance, which runs February 3 to 6 at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, will be the first outside of Europe, and is an apt example of the way the fest spotlights theatre that pushes boundaries in powerful new ways. In KAMP, Kalker’s partner in Hotel Modern, the architectural-model maker and visual artist Herman Helle, has painstakingly constructed the gaunt figures that move about en masse within a scaled-down version of the barracks, the crematoriums, and even the Arbeit Macht Frei gateway (the one that was recently stolen and desecrated). They are moved silently by puppeteers, while tiny digital cameras project their drawn, haunted faces onto big screens.
Herman helle photo
Helle and Kalker travelled to Auschwitz to research the horrific death machine that was the camp. “It was comforting to go there—and necessary—but always painful to know it really happened. That’s something very difficult to accept, and I think people protect themselves from the truth.”
They also sought the support of camp survivors. “For instance, my uncle, who’s 86—he was in different camps.”¦and when he saw our models and saw our approach and approved, that gave me the trust to move forward.”
The enormous model has a highly stylized look: cold, otherworldly, and distant. But the almost ritualized meticulousness of it pays its own kind of homage to the dead. “There were 20 rows of ovens where people were burned. We put miniature bodies in there to testify in that way without words,” Kalker says.
In the end, KAMP achieves something that movie portraits cannot: a vast overview that gives a clear sense of the scale and logistics of the camps.
“It was a murdering machine that was designed very well. Because KAMP is a moving model, it shows that machine in a very comprehensive way”¦but because we do close-ups of these people being humiliated, it makes them very human,” Kalker explains. “We don’t have the intention to show how it really was—for us, that’s not possible. But the people who died deserve that we not close our eyes to these things.”