Fragments of a Life


Catalogue of exhibition: brosura_FOAL_web_spreads


JUNE 27-AUGUST 30, 2016

“In 1983, at the age of almost eight, I emigrated with my parents from Romania. While trying to determine our direction in a moment of wait for pending authorizations, we had a two-week stay-over in Switzerland, mostly Zurich, where we had an uncle, one of only two Holocaust survivors including my grandfather’s mother of a family of ten children. Here we considered applying for political asylum and becoming Swiss. We didn’t, and I eventually became American. In 2009, twenty-six years later, illustrating a certain irony of fate, I emigrated once again, from Chicago back to Zurich, the city we had once rejected, this time with my own personal nuclear family.
While conducting research for the 2012 Zurich exhibition, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Hospitality as Artistic Practice, which explored the relationship between the “immigrant” and “native”, the “self” and the “other”, and in which I included a work by Daniel Spoerri, known as a Swiss artist, I discovered that his father and my own great-grandfather had died on the same death train those fateful days in June 1941, in Iasi, Romania, during the largest pogrom in Europe.
This pivotal moment in history created thousands of interrupted biographies and paved the way to numerous intertwined destinies and parallel routes, acting as a constant reminder of the continued impact of past violence, war, and trauma on future generations. Many of these intertwined destinies are presented in Fragments of a Life,an exhibition that unites artists, writers, and filmmakers currently living in Switzerland, Israel, and other countries, who trace their roots to Iasi or Romania and whose families, forced to flee the violence of wartime anti-Semitism and post-war injustice, were ripped apart and thus scattered across the globe. Through the process of migration, (that we find happening en masse once again, albeit with refugees coming from different geographical regions), some people became alienated from their new surroundings, belonging neither here nor there, floating through time and space in search of “home”, while others constructed new identities by way of forgetting.
In my quest to come to grips with my current situation, once again an immigrant trying to rebuild after having cut the roots that I had put down elsewhere, I was confronted by the universality of the immigrant condition, and the persistent influence on the present of our relationship to the past, what can be called our time perspective. This influence is so powerful that it shapes our identity, perception of self, and even the way we create and recount memories. Despite the desire to liberate ourselves from it, the past keeps us prisoner in ways we cannot even fathom, creeping into our artistic approach, interests and preoccupations, and of course actions.
“Time is at the foundation of experience. And at the basis of everything in this world. Time means Life in fact,” concludes Sorana Ursu, my grandmother and the subject of the exhibition’s eponymous video Fragments of a Life, recalling her adolescence in Iasi, her social relations (including Lidia Iliesu and Waldy Grunspan who are featured in the archival portion of the exhibition), the horror of the pogrom and her father’s murder, secular Jewish identity, and the disillusionment with the Communist ideology that she had embraced in her youth as an escape from the terror of fascism and anti-Semitism. Our discussions were recorded over the course of two visits to Chicago, where she has lived since 1986, and on Skype, highlighting our own fragmentary interactions, the distance that separates, and the process of forgetting as both a constructive and destructive phenomenon. While we need to forget to survive, at the same time we eliminate a part of ourselves.
“I always had this impression that Jews and Romanians have a lot in common”, she laments. “They need to find an identity… This is what we lack, roots.”
Uprootedness, however, is seen as an advantage by Daniel Spoerri who, in the Wild Child of Jassy, the video made especially for the show, speaks of his last year in Jassy, wandering the streets with no schooling or adult supervision after the murder of his converted Jewish father, a hybrid identity that is analysed in the artist’s text, “…so he remained the most enduring, 2010”. This period of “freedom” was followed by Spoerri’s eventual emigration to Switzerland with his Swiss mother and six siblings. Once in Zurich he lived for a couple of years with an uncle whose last name he was given as a replacement for Feinstein, seen as too Jewish to bode well in his adoptive land. This condition of “homelessness” and “non-belonging” permitted the artist to adapt more easily to new cities throughout Europe and even New York. We sense the impact of this experience in his multifaceted oeuvre, which discloses his preoccupation with ephemerality and impermanence as seen in his Eat Art events, where the artist’s main material is food, chosen for its social and existential function. His “Tableaux Pièges”, on the other hand, serve as a way to defy death by casting captured moments and experiences – eaten meals – into wall sculptures that also work as objects of memory, like photographs.
“How could all these people have disappeared…And we just accepted it…”, ponders Sorana Ursu looking at photographs of her friends and relatives who now exist only on those small pieces of paper and in her stories.
Elianna Renner’s video Yankl and Yankl asks, as Aristotle himself once did in On Memory and Reminiscence, (one of the first essays on the topic, which influenced all future memory theory, and cited here as we refer to “roots”), how can we remember someone who is absent? In her video, Renner tries to reconstruct the events that ended in the death of both her great-grandfathers in the pogrom. Through the few remaining family accounts offered by her aunt and mother, who are separated by oceans and continents, the artist works with a theatre director to create a narrative from these pieces.
“Historical truth! What is historical truth? There is no such thing,” Sorana Ursu blurts out when pressured to express official history as opposed to her own fragmented memories.
Jassy Dark Days is a series of ten drawings produced by Samy Briss in 1948, at the age of 18, the first such artwork to depict the event. Exhibited for the first time as a complete group in the frame of Fragments of a Life, Jassy Dark Days evokes in a delicate and expressive style pain, fear, and suffering: some drawings recalling archival photographs of murdered Jews lying on the street in front of Christian houses, others representing the post-war trials of 1946 when some of the perpetrators were judged and sentenced by the Romanian People’s Tribunals. All drawings make use of the “affective impressions” of first-hand accounts and images seen by the artist after the events depicted, not through personal witnessing.
Aristotle’s reflection on the connection between memory and sense-perception is undertaken by Myriam Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eyes, a tour through the city of Iasi for one person at a time. It is a mostly blind experience of the urban space and forgotten Jewish sites until a certain moment of confrontation when the blindfold is momentarily removed. This allows the participant to connect directly, if for only a few seconds, with an object along the route, a detail that would otherwise be unnoticed, creating meaning through sensory suggestion, establishing that “…we remember that absent thing which we do not perceive”.
The artists and projects included in the exhibition all attempt to reconstruct from mere fragments what is gone, to capture the impermanent and keep it from disintegrating further. We witness the desperate need to make sense of one’s existence, to create a narrative while knowing that assumption and invention often play an even stronger role than recollection. Memories change with the passing of time, as do we as individuals – our new experiences alter our view of things past, while the past continues to influence our future decisions.
Fragments of a Life presents the émigré experience through personal narratives and biographical material, in the form of artwork, book, film and theatre: from different angles and different perspectives, with differing modes of expression. The exhibition counters, if only for a brief time, the slide toward forgetting, by confronting us with the stories of the few remaining and those long gone.
“I don’t want this photo to evoke just a tragic episode…I want you to remember the good parts of the short but wonderful moments that we all spent together. It was a fleeting dream…Everything is fleeting…We won’t be exceptions to this rule. What I’m asking you is that every now and then, you remember me as I once was,” is written forebodingly on the back of Waldy’s photograph.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Iasi pogrom, we consider with renewed urgency the notions of memory, home, identity, and belonging, on the backdrop of the greatest migration wave since World War II, analyzing our attitudes in the present by trying to understand the past.”

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