NECESSITATING MY ALLIANCE: A MEDITATION ON THE PLASZOW CONCENTRATION CAMP. [DRAFT]

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This writing exists primarily as a response to a site of Holocaust memory but is infused by the ideas and musings of previous critical and literary scholars whose investigations have trodden my path many times before and whose perceptions cannot help but to inform my own (Kristeva) and this is a good thing. Memory and post-memory now must serve to further contemplate these events and re-evaluate their meanings and to make salient to us now, living nearly seventy years since the liberation, their philosophical dimensions and relevance. Two timbres of my written voice, one critical, philosophical and investigative and the other creative and contemplative will characterize my writing. And in this conjunction of theory and imagination, new interpretations may be realised and made possible? And I might further understand something of myself, bridging the gap that is the lacuna in our ‘understanding of’ and ‘being with’ the phenomenological world (Merleau-Ponty, Figal)

1 The Memoried Ground

Somewhere in the rolling hills, somewhere in the heat, somewhere in the dry sharp heat are kept the memories of those who were once here. Those that lived and died here and left untoward in haste, emptied as they were into the space that now is filled ‘filled up to the brim, and even above the brim’ by their words and their presence. Stilled as it is by their watchful eyes.

And one is always being watched here, one is never alone even if no one else from the lived world can be seen.

Conscious of this I am walking, wandering / wondering, my feet being pricked by the sharp grass, through the gaps in my sandals. Embodied, I am present. The grass made brittle by the scorching summer sun and so long in places that it nearly reaches my waist. What were beaten tracks here are now indistinct, the memoried ground is obscured and overwritten by footpaths made by those living now, who crisscross to get home, or shop or get to school. This space is like any other, but of course it is not. ‘Dear visitors! You are entering the site of the former concentration camp “Plaszow”. Please respect the grievous history of the site’.

I ask again in contemplating this space, why such things still me and whether if through this meditation I am in my way piercing the ‘the Cloud(s) of Unknowing’ and lining my soul with that of something that might be called “God’? And in some ‘mystic haziness’ I am at one with a celestial entity to which in my normal life I do not subscribe. Like the feeling one gets when awed in a space of worship and are inclined towards silence and whispers, be unobtrusive, be less than. And I “came to believe that there existed a power greater than myself and sought through meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, as I understood Him” . As we understand Him here is the key. No Apollonian deity for me , it not being necessary to characterise or to personify that which covers like a mist or a vapour my knowing, my thoughts and intention. This ‘idea’ propels me into a deeper and richer realm that enables my writing and facilitates the dimension of my thinking.

Deep
In the time-crevasse,
By the
Honeycomb-ice,
There waits, as a breath-crystal,
Your unimpeachable
Testimony.
-Paul Celan

So in imagining this space I am not fixed but can drift to write and draw and to draw upon that which now fills the void before me. In Voicing the Void Sara R Horowitz discusses the voracity of Holocaust fiction, of the role of the imagination to voice and speak, elucidating the void and those events with a different clarity, one distinct from witness primacy or historical formality. She cites Barrett Mandel and notes “Language creates illusions that tell the truth” (Horowitz 1997:05) And this is made possible because it is rooted in our “human being and culture” (Ibid) And that human ‘being’ is distinct, and contributes a chorus of responses tied to individual memory and histories.

So what do I bring to this imagining? Born 14 years after the liberation into a time when no real scholarly activity existed that questioned, theorized or investigated the meaning of the Jewish genocide. And the concept of Holocaust Studies was decades away. Writer Ava Hoffman posits a reason as to why, “Stand to close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand to far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters”. (Hoffman 2005:177) Hoffman believes that our need to ‘reckon’ with the Holocaust should not be underestimated or diminished and that “the question and the challenge at this moment (seventy years after the liberation) is how to find the right tone of response, and measure of expression” (Ibid) She suggests that the indirect ‘view’ of these events – as being mediated by art, literature, film and also the filter of our own ideas and memories – is problematic. And that locating the “adequate valence of reaction” (Ibid:178) through the corruption of the ‘spectacle’ of suffering (Sontag) further distances us from it.

And from where I stand, the mists have cleared and the fog lifted and I see sharply and in such clarity the spaces of such fragile memory overlapping with the projections of my imagined past. The past that took place here, was no flickering spectacle and was lived and breathed. I can see it and I can walk through it, the barracks, the latrines, the horses and carts, chicken run and the grey house. And the hills are full and bloated, rolling as they now do gently, undulating, now feminised, reclaimed, returned to nature and part of what lives and breathes and changes. But what had once sated these mounds does not bear thinking about. Bodies hastily exhumed from mass graves, cremated on the site, the ashes spirited away. And “we will destroy the evidence together with you…and people will say that the events you describe are to monstrous to be believed…” (Levi 1998:1) And a landscape that is carved and defined by such events and then carpeted and concealed but now is calmed, needs to be read and understood before it can yield its secrets. And it is possible to do so.

In archaeology, it is possible to identify interventions that leave visible traces in the landscape revealing what is (or was) buried and because Jewish Halacha law forbids actual excavation, it becomes necessary to read and interpret the landscape in this way, where ‘placeness’ has been obscured and can only be located (intuited) through trace, their archaeology becoming a meta-narrative for the excavation of personal meaning and identity. Interventions in the landscape leave visible traces and burial, particularly mass sites of burial cause interactions with the natural environment that impact directly on flora and fauna growing in the area. The process of bioturbation in forensic taphonomy.

And here nettles abound, colonising the fertile ground that from the air point to the place where the ‘Prick’ SS Unterscharfuher Albert Hujar orchestrated the burial, subsequent exhumation and incineration of over 10.000 prisoners. Hujowa Gorka , the site of this ‘Aktion’ is named after him. And now, I sit and paint here. A warm breeze lifts the images that I have laid out to dry on the small public bench in front of the crucifix that commemorates the events that happened here, events that have come to define the Gorka. These images now litter the ground and continue to scatter, each a wash of colour attempting to gesture the mood that oozes from the imagination when one is ‘connected’ to this lieux de memoire.

2 Mourning, melancholic mourning

“By dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element” (Nora 1996: XVII). So says Pierre Nora when contemplating sites of French memory. But Plaszow is also a lieux de trauma (site of trauma) and a lieux de deuil (site of mourning) and as described by Dominic De Capra, this mourning takes many forms, as a collective or a smaller more intimate experience. Nora citing artificiality and deliberate fabrication, claims such sites replace or sublimate ‘real’ memory. I prefer the Freudian concept, of working-through and view the sites as “necessary in order to make living in the modern world meaningful” (Marquard 1986). This is ‘place’ as monument in which “the work of forgetting” is blocked And where as explained by Marianne Hirsch “The spatiality of memory (maps) onto its temporality” (Hirsch 1997:22) where the visual conflates with the verbal and the written, yielding as suggested by W.J.T. Mitchell a sort of “imagetext, a double coded system of mental storage and retrieval” (Ibid:22) And this is complicated even further by post-memorialists like myself whose connection to such spaces “is not mediated through recollection but by imaginative investment and creation” (Ibid:22)

Mourning, melancholic mourning, this place ‘stops time’ blocking as it does ‘the work of forgetting’ (Nora) which now ebbs and flows across this terrain. And like on Adler’s stage I dance and pierce the space, reaching and stretching into the past to reveal that which is broken, mute and has fallen silent. And in stretching, a space that moves beyond the pale of writing and the “limits of memory” (Horowitz 1997:22) the words shedding just enough light to limn the outlines of forms now rendered in drawing, marking and gesturing, in and across the surface. Seamlessly transmogrified.

In his novel Blood from the Sky Piotr Rawicz talks of describing such scenes and foregrounds the limits of language. “One day I shall try to capture this scene. If I do, a niggardly demon will do its best to rob me of every destitute word that might serve to describe the objects and human beings surrounding me here and now, so close and so tangible-human beings with whom I don’t know what to do, except love them. I shall have obstinately to snatch from this jealous demon every word that is even slightly appropriate, and it will be a harder battle than the one through which I have just gained victory. More shameful, too, like everything that serves to describe, to debase reality” (Rawicz: 276)

3 The Searching Heart

In The Journey by HG Adler, the significance of the stage as a metaphor chimes with my own feelings of spectatorship, of being an observer, an outsider, of somehow being beyond or outside of the performance but still on the stage, still in the time. Adler, ‘on times stage’ who in spite of believing he has been removed, is concerned that he has been effaced but then realises he is just in fact on a different part of a journey. The metaphor is further extended to include the idea of flight, representing the motif of another stage and how “the entity (thing or person) that experiences it, is born in (and a constituent element of) memory itself”, here depicted as a constant wanderer (allusions of the wandering Jew) on a journey that represents our own creation” “and ourselves. We will ultimately be answerable to ourselves “amid the destruction of our only meaningful and yet impalpable achievement”. Adler describes as a ‘theatre of horrors’ the world at large, as it is full of contrast and counterpoint, peace and terror and at its very centre is “known only to the searching heart.” (Ibid p5) And this is where the journey ends. It is your first and your last memory, so compelling that it is neither near nor far but it is inevitable and it will follow its path in spite of our intensions to denote or dictate its path. We are for Adler set on our own stage. “There as elsewhere, we are not forsaken, we are never forsaken”. (Levinas).

And this place is a stage isn’t it? Where memory is slowly poured like concrete into a mold, filling the gaps that form to reach the edge of my thinking and my knowing. And in the distance, closer to The Memorial of Torn- Out Hearts, is where I am being led. It has a deep jagged fault that rips and tears across the chests of five figures that are bent almost double under the weight of stone from which they are hewn. One for each of the five countries from where the victims who were last seen here began their journey. The fault symbolises how they were torn not once but twice and also signifies the rupture in time and space that the Holocaust itself has now come to represent. And confronted, paused and stilled, like them, I am forced up, up into the sky way above the bristled hem of the birch trees that also serve to memorialize the martyrs and I am beyond, out and away, far, far from here.

4 The Blue and the Grey

Blue protects white from innocence
Blue drags black with it
Blue is darkness made visible
(Jarman 1993:114)

And my path has led me here to this hazy blue place and I, answerable only to myself now wander and determine its meaning and the extent of my belonging. “Blue transcended the solemn geography of human limits” (Jarman) and offered something ‘other’ to those that were here. ‘Other’ and beyond reach ‘the Eden beyond (their) grasp’. (Minnis 2015:220) and if it is to believed that whatever goes beyond nature, we grasp through faith alone (Aquinas) and everything that was Plaszow and everything that was the Holocaust was beyond nature, then all that was left was the authority that lay beyond.

And in the blue, there appeared, hovering above the ruffled hills scattered with buttercups and cornflowers, a darkness, barely visible to the naked eye. ‘A place for the scrutiny of memories and for the discovery of a sign through which we can discern ‘the very notion of the sacred’ (Leiris:1938 in Taussig, “What Colour is the Sacred” 2009) with Leiris concluding that ‘the most sacred of aims is to acquire as exact and intense an understanding of (ourselves ) as possible’.

A ribbon of blue spans the frame and forms a barrier through which the sky cannot penetrate. The grass wrapped, eider filled and smitten with fauna and tucked so tight that your feet cannot move. Lied like whales, which slowly worm and lump through the cold, still, deep blue. And lost here are the words, muffled somewhere amongst the fossilled cries of the saved. For those that drowned here escaped early the rabid claws of the wolves that scented, cornered and finally consumed them.

In Blue Territory, Robin Lippincott’s meditation on the much less known Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, the leitmotif of distance recurs. “I paint from a distance. I decide what I am going to do from a distance.” (Lippincott 2015:81) Surveying the canvas from as far away as possible. Made estranged from the visceral body, made distinct from its derivation and its cause. She explains that although abstract her work has content and requires for its motivation her to be thinking about something. My drawings and writing from Plaszow represent evidence of the ‘working through’ process of meditation and contemplation that drives to depict not only the places in which I stand or drift across, like this one, but to excavate something of my own contingency and self. The self not residing in the visible world of the body but in the formless faculty of the unseen and the unwritten, to be found instead located in the abstraction of the heart and which represents the first tentative steps to self-knowledge.

Blue was critical to Mitchell’s painting “whether the blue that makes darkness visible, (or) the blue of morning glories and delphiniums” (Kertess:1997:29). And like Monet to which her urgency and intensity are partly owed, she shared an exigent and wondrous engagement with landscape and made gesture fit to burst, and in Monet, through the fixation of his stare. Here, for Joan Mitchell was the belief that true fidelity lay not in exacting verisimilitude but in the emotive realm of the surveyor, in the confluence of the seen and imagined.

I am stood before the Grey House at the Southern most edge of the place, once a funerary home for those Jews who were buried here when it was a cemetery before the war. And that was here on Abraham Street, now obscured and cauterized, where the stones that marked the emptied graves were recycled and used for making footpaths in the camp. Some of which still mark out where tracks and roads dissected the camp. I walk over and not around them in a peculiar but conscious act of reverence.

The Grey House, grey against blue. And a grey that;

“Makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make ‘nothing’ visible”. (Richter 1975:92) So I am grey. I am inconspicuous, I have the capacity to mediate and I have the capacity to make nothing visible and I can do it in such a way as to be illusory. And this is the rub; I can be the enchanter, or magus, making the invisible visible to evoke a past that can no longer be seen or ‘touched’? In part psychically automatic, [in my work the drawing ‘appears’, it is unplanned] yet also somatic, deriving as it does, as much from my body. I encounter this place in many ways, physical and temporal, from within, from beyond, micro and macro (Steinbeck and Zola)

5 The Right Measure of Expression

To encounter is to be turned, “whether for a moment or for life; to encounter is always in part not to know” (Benson, Connors 2014:5) And this encounter can be read as “being with” (Ibid) what is there, what is still there, what is missing, what has replaced what is missing and how, as a practitioner and an observer, I respond to this lacuna, this gap in our facility to witness (or to re-witness) (Agamben). Merleau-Ponty suggests that as artists we recreate the specific phenomena of the world, and not a reproduction of how it is presumed to appear. And that this is achieved through the mediation of the body”. (Harty) So that thoughts and ideas, words and lines that touch are overlapped and imbricated to form patterns of knowing. A constellation. (Benjamin)

And this landscape is as much a landscape of thought. It is malleable and like thought can be shaped, alluded to, elided and eclipsed by new contexts and new dimensions, by an unexpected intervention, that’s pricks and wounds us.

And here perhaps to Ava Hoffman can be offered the possibility that in this intersection or what Merleau-Ponty might call “a vortex” or disturbance might be one way of locating “the right measure of expression” (Hoffman 2005:177) to which she refers in response to the Holocaust and its subsequent meanings.

Writing Between the Lines Symposium. Cardiff University.

4th Sonder

“Hold me tightly by the hand, do not tremble [————] because you will have to see even worse”.
Zalman Gradowski Rouleaux d’Auschwitz (1944)

At the beginning of Camera Lucida Roland Barthes describes how when looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother Jerome, he is amazed to realise that he is “looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor” he go’s on to explain how when he mentions this amazement to others he becomes aware that “no-one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it”, concluding that life consists of these “little touches of solitude”. (Barthes 1999:3)

This solitude, often in my own case manifest as reverie, is a state I recognise when standing at sites of Holocaust memory. ‘These are the trees that witnessed…’ or ‘this is the sky that …’ or ‘this is the path on which the feet of those who …etc’. These are my moments, when I lapse into reverie and stare…into space…sometimes seemingly, at nothing. Like when looking at Photograph #283 and like Barthes staring into the eyes of Jerome, it is a moment of solitude and I am left wondering… what to do with my feelings, what do they mean and how might they be expressed and represented.
This is the basis of my creative practice.

Karen Barad in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway attempts to describe how reality is actually shaped. And in the chapter entitled Humanist Orbits she says, “Man is the centre around which the world turns. Man is the sun, the nucleus, the fulcrum, the unifying force, and the glue that holds it all together. Man is an individual apart from all the rest. And it is this very distinction that bestows on him the inheritance of distance, a place from which he can reflect on the world, his fellow man and himself”. Barad talks of the world and its “possibilities for becoming”, that although apart we are connected “entangled” with all and each other. And instead of residing in the folds of our individual brains, memory she suggests, exists in the enfolding(s) of space and time. Ava Hoffman writing in her book After Such Knowledge further explains how this concept of physical and temporal distance is significant in how our relationship to historical events is defined. “Stand to close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand to far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters”. (Hoffman 2005:177) I see how both these interventions, coming as they do from different epistemological worlds define the nature of our complicity in the act of forming, shaping and revering history. We can after all, only be stood in one place and at any one time and I can only stand as an anachronism to the event I observe through the prism of a post-witness and be mindful that “like those birds that lay their eggs in other species nests” – Michael De Certeau contests in The Practice of Everyday Life – “Memory produces in a place that does not belong to it”. (De Certeau 1984:86)

And I have ‘felt’ that profound place, stood in that very spot and stared into and through its distance beyond the clutter and notions of the now and connected still to its charge, for my knowing resonates and vibrates beyond the formal dialogue of the image and it still paralyses and still it engulfs me.

For John Berger the photographed image of war is “doubly violent” (Berger 1980:43) in both its capturing of violence but also in how it does violence to time itself, torn as it is from its historical context. And we are left with this ethereal residue, this flicker of light, the ‘elevated moment’? Berger concludes that such photographs are “printed on the black curtain which is drawn across what we choose to forget or refuse to know”. (Ibid: 42) So we could say that the photograph is the trace of the eye that we cannot shut. And that “the picture that attests to Auschwitz,” as suggestedby Dan Chare “must do so as much by what it fails to show as by what it does” (Chare 2011:149)

The question with Photograph #283 is what is it trying to make us see?

Whilst my primary artistic practice has been drawing, writing is becoming ever more central as a further creative means of expression. Indeed it is increasingly in the confluence of these two ‘modes’ where my true practice resides.

Elided? Blurred? Smudged? What of my knowing and imagining? For I am invoked to look and to look again through and beyond the image, to squint and burn my stare into the black where I see nothing yet I see everything. The punctum pricks me, wounds me and links with me. And that shadow like Hokusai’s ‘Great wave of Kanagawa’ falls and folds into the light, its fringe masking an ominous silence. Photograph #283 anchors me in the permanence of not knowing.

And as the camera clicked in that snatching of light I become caught, a witness to the evidence of its mechanical blink. It skewers my looking, this “partial object” attracting me and drawing me towards its detail which interrupts my reading yet holds my gaze, in a “a temporal hallucination”. “For the camera does not train on the total object, that which is known but here is not seen, it is forever separated”.
(Barthes 1999:) Barthes referring here to the photographers ‘second sight’, “does not consist in seeing but in being there” Lopez 2016:14)

Yet how to analyse this moment? An image divided equally, an uneasy symmetry. One side black, amorphous shapes, not determined, hovver in the shadow. To the left trees are silhouetted against an arc of light, its apex almost reaching the top edge of the frame, although the image is not deliberately composed – its context suggesting a snatched and random moment. The dark is heavy, heavy with black, concealing, a veil of unknowing, an abstract intrigue. Its dark expanse revealing the situation itself, “ the space of possibility [allowing] the photograph[s] to exist” (Didi-Huberman)
In the light I am directed upwards towards the tops of the trees, arch braced like diagonal ribs, they form an apron that covers and contains me and at once pushes me slowly back towards the black. Yet I am still present and active in the moment and look skywards, through the tracery beyond and into the light, the light like Gradowski’s moon that makes no distinction and illuminates anyway indiscriminately the transgressions and the wretched sins taking place below. This moon that still;
“Appeared with magnificent charm, escorted by her retinue, (the stars) carefree, calm, happy and content went out on her secret excursion to see how her realm, the night-world, fared, and granted humanity a ray of her light.” (Williams 2015)
A reductive truth, a shard, non descript. Yet something. A path to the absolute? Charged as testament, a requiem and tangible proof of the potentiality, the latency of nothingness. Photograph #283 is my window to a space and a zone beyond, Primo Levis’ Grey Zone perhaps?, moral ambiguity, good and evil, an ethical compromise under duress, tied irrefutably to my witnessing. It invokes and beckons me (as maybe it beckons you?). Do we answer? And if we do, how then should we respond?

Zalman Gradowski, a Jew from Luna in the district of Grodno, on the Lithuania, Poland border was a member of the Sonderkommando, the special command in Auschwitz known as the bearers of secrets because they knew about the extermination and witnessed it first-hand. Gradowski’s testimony written on 81 numbered pages was found in an aluminium canteen amongst the ruins of the crematoria in Birkenau in 1945 but was not published until the end of the 1970’s . In three parts, it was entitled In the Heart of Hell and in part one Gradowski uses the repeated motif of the moon. He cannot understand “how the moon dares to show herself above the hell of Auschwitz without demonstrating the slightest identification with the people being tortured to death below“.(Gutman 1998:525) Gradowski’s buried testimony along with the accounts of other Sonderkommando have become known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz and further engage us in the often-problematic questions regarding the limits of testimony.
Photograph #283 resists easy categorization. French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman in citing the unique horror of the Shoah claims it ‘surpasses the forces of human imagination and attempting to represent it in images or words borders on the banal”. (Didi-Huberman) here also referencing writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt who when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. Photograph #283 whilst on the surface being prosaic, avoids such banality through its very ambiguity and absence, the absence of presence and its corollary, the presence of absence. Like a Rothko painting or a Mallarme poem, it necessitates my alliance. The image acting as a net, into which we cast are our own fears, our own constructions and ultimately our own histories. “To know, we must imagine for ourselves” (Didi-Huberman 2007:)

And in this imagining, I wonder what they thought? And what they believed? For them, praying here would have been a challenging discretion. But they did and for good reason, divested as they were, of everything but their relationship with God. In Yosl Rakover talks to God, a fictional account by Kvi Kolitz set in the final days of the Warsaw ghetto, a meditation of a dying Jew’s last words to God, Emmanuel Levinas wonders whether the Shoah is evidence of the absence of God when he asks “what is the meaning of the suffering of innocents” (Kolitz 1999:30) and when Levinas confirms later that “the God who veils his face is neither a theological abstraction nor a poetic image” (Ibid 1999:82) perhaps it becomes possible to imagine in photograph #283 the potential of the known in an attempt to depict the abstract intrigue that exists beyond it, where God himself is in the black, and In Hebrew Hester Panim ‘hiding his face’. And also found here, are the traces of a complex relationship the Jewish victims had with their God, where for some, the Holocaust destroyed the reality of a God, where most were distraught by the seeming absence of God and asked “Do we not suffer because God has left us?” But for others, the rejoinder…“I cannot say after all I have lived through that my relationship to God is unchanged. But with absolute certainty I can say that my faith in Him has not altered by a hairsbreadth” (Kolitz 2000:9), for ‘God is with you in your suffering’.

Similarly, in his Deluge drawings, Leonardo Da Vinci attempts to arrest time and space by depicting a huge surge of water and the indiscriminate nature of the destruction left in its wake. Da Vinci describes how in the face of such overwhelming power there were those who finding it is was not sufficient to just shut their eyes, “laid their hands one over the other to cover them more closely so as not to see the cruel slaughter made on the human species by the wrath of God”. (Kemp 2007:318) But In Photograph #283 God himself was shutting his eyes, for in this image we are obviated, our gaze directed upwards and away from what is occurring just below the frame “And I shall hide my face from them and they shall be devoured”. From Deuteronomy 31:17 (Neis 2013:62)

In Photograph #283 we are mediated by Black and white and (this) “makes visible in a positively illusionistic way” (Richter 2009:92) 
“a complex blank”. (Mafe) And now rapt with its sublime and spiritual accord, I am drawn to “the pure ground into which all the figures have dissolved” (McEvilley 1993:12) or been disappeared. And this journey has led us here, to this place and it is bereft. Yet what it lacks resounds elsewhere, and it is glaring and prescient. For here, those who are obliterated by the black are obscured and perhaps, it is us. (Levi)

And like Gradowski drawing down the moon, entrained by its ceaseless circadian rhythm, persistent and relentless, I am carried “escorted by her (the moons) retinue…(to beyond the fence) on her secret excursion to see how her realm, the night-world, fared, and granted humanity a ray of her light”. (Williams 2015) It echoes night and day and signals the rapture of light, life giving and redolent, pointing as it does to an authority beyond. The black though still encroaches and disturbs and is omnipresent. Yet the darkness made visible, as Primo Levi in his poem The Black Stars stated, “Not energy, not messages, not particles, not light. Light itself falls back down, broken by its own weight.” (Gould 2007:144) Here contemplating the science of black holes, Primo Levi evokes a phenomena that suggests our vulnerability and insignificance in the face of such forces, where as in Auschwitz our faith in universal harmony is destroyed “and the universe (is brought back) to a condition of chaos” (Ibid) Levi then resolves as if further contemplating Photograph #283 “And all of us human seed, we live and die for nothing, The skies perpetually revolve in vain”. (Ibid) So, the process of art making is often the endeavour to make the invisible, visible, to re-invoke something that we cannot see anymore and where time and distance affect the way in which this process is materialised and caught; transcendentally, irreverently, and where the artist or as in the case of Photograph #283, the witness, acts as sorcerer unwittingly capturing the poignancy of nothing yet the potency of everything.

Photography in the moment of its happening absorbs light, and for that split second when the aperture opens and closes, indiscriminately draws in its image and it becomes fixed. In drawing and painting, we render, interpret and express something seen, understood or imagined, we mediate, our eyes and our hands forming and shaping. But Photograph #283, in it ambiguity, its obliqueness is rendered like a drawing as it fixes us, in its black and white and its greyness, unknowingly perhaps? But I think here in the realm of the ‘uncertain’ lies the distinction and the rejoinder to Pagnoux and her assertion that such readings of photograph #283 are evidence for how “a passion for constructing nothingness admonishes those who choose to fill the nothingness rather than to face it”. In demonstrating such a failure of imagination I think Pagnoux totally misses the point, it is precisely because the Holocaust is so unimaginable that it becomes so incumbent on us to engage our imagination and to do so says Jill Bennett – Professor for Art and Politics in NSW – we must find methods for “describing that which is seen, if not hitherto imagined” So it is how we find life in these fragments that chimes with my desire to make sense and attempt to construct my own imaginings from these seemingly and endlessly “complex blanks”.

…And finally, to be reminded of philosopher Karl Popper’s words (which is where I started) regarding our theories (and ideas) being our own inventions; out of which “we create a world, not the real world, but our own nets in which we try to catch the real world”

And perhaps this is what we do when we abstract and contemplate the lived world…cast our nets, in our own fashion, to catch something of ‘our’ own particular real world.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOOKS AND JOURNALS
Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Duke University Press
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Berger, J. (1980) ‘Photographs of Agony,’ in About Looking, Bloomsbury. London.
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De Certeau, M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press.
Didi Huberman, G-D (2007) Images in Spite of All. University of Chicago Press.
Didi Huberman, G-D (2001) Memoire des Camps. Exhibition catalogue.
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Gutman, Y & Berenbaum, M (1998) Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press.
Gradowski, Z (1944) Rouleaux d’Auschwitz / Auschwitz Rolls / Scrolls of Auschwitz
Hoffman, E (2005) After Such Knowledge. Vintage, New York.
Kemp, M (2007) Leonardo Da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Oxford University Press.
Kolitz, Z (1999) Yosl Rakover talks to God. Vintage, New York.
McEvilley, T. (1997) Capacity: History, the World and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism. Routledge, London.
Neis, R (2013) The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture. Cambridge University Press
Kuspit, D. (Ed.) The Exile’s Return : Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post- Modern Era. Cambridge University Press.
Levi,P (1989) The Black Hole of Auschwitz. Polity Press, London.
McIver Lopes, D (2016) Four Arts of Photography: An Essay in Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons
Popper, K (1976) Unended quest: An intellectual autobiography. Fontana, London.
Richter, G (2009) Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961 – 2009, Thames and Hudson. London.
Richer JP (2010) The Notebooks of 
Leonardo Da Vinci, 1888, Createspace.
Wajcman, G & Pagnoux, E (2001) Les Temps Modernes. Gallimard Parution
Wajcman, G De la croyance photographique – Photographic belief
Pagnoux, E Reporter photographe à Auschwitz – Auschwitz photojournalist
Williams, D (2015) Critique of Gradowski’s Moon over Auschwitz.

DIGITAL
Bennett J (2009) Images in Spite of All. CAA Reviews. New York
http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/1380#.V6yQoCOANBc
(Accessed July 2016)

Daniel Mafe. The Paradox of Indeterminacy, Unknowing and (Dis)orientation in the Presentation of the Unrepresentable. QUT Digital Repository:
http://eprints.qut.edu.au/
(Accessed July 2013)

Tactical Aesthetics by Headcut
http://tacticalaesthetics.org/articles/subversive-photographs-thoughts-on-barthes/
(Accessed July 2013)

The Materiality of Nothing (Conference Review)

Lancaster Institute of Contemporary Arts (LICA) 14 July 2016
screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-14-58-06

My research starts with the question, Why do I keep returning to sites of Holocaust memory and how can drawing be used as a tool to excavate a past personally unlived? I have recently been to a conference which chimed with this question’s intention of probing the unknown and the seemingly immaterial. The Materiality of Nothing symposium at LICA extended conversations initiated at LICA’s 2015 Dark Matters conference. How we encounter the immaterial and how this might be negotiated in practice were analysed from an artistic perspective as well as scientific.

Anna Lovatt, began the conference with a detailed and insightful analysis of Richard Tuttle and the Void of Lessness. Tuttle, an American post-minimalist artist known for his small, subtle, intimate works has described his work as an attempt to ‘create something that begins at ground zero or is connected with ground zero’. The theme of ‘shimmer’ was introduced and became a leitmotif for the day

Liz to Freitas’ paper (read in her absence by an adroit Charlie Gere) took us into the realm of ‘speculative mathematics’. She argued that philosophy should have invested more in the speculative materialism of science rather than focusing on the transcendental and the elusive. This was dense and challenging stuff. Further contributions speculated on theory and its role in explaining and predicting, thoughts on the contingency of art and how we, through physics, detect the invisible world. A presentation on the geo-philosophical notion of ‘the shape of the air’ by Bronislaw Szerszynski explored the idea of correlationism and how we relate to objects.

Charlie Gere began his paper with a description of a recent visit to a Japanese garden in Eskdale and to Sellafield, the nuclear fuel reprocessing site. Gere traversed art, language and culture to consider how that which is beyond signification, be it beauty or horror, can be effectively defined and articulated. He used the examples of Auschwitz and Hiroshima to suggest that language is doomed to fail in the face of such phenomena.

Rebecca Fortnum’s paper, Apophasis and Art, was an investigation into language, image making, reading and looking and what cannot be said. She related this, via her own practice, to the tradition of painting and to discourses of silence. Fortnum returned the discussion appositely to the realm of creative art practice.

The symposium concluded with a discussion sparked by objects and drawings brought by delegates (including myself) that were examples of things used to ‘think with’. They included journals, sketchbooks and three-dimensional pieces that facilitated the investigation of ideas about the unseen or the manifestation of nothing.

Writing Between Lines (conference presentation)

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The 4th Sonderkommando Photograph:
Photograph #283 and the Inheritance of Distance.


“Hold me tightly by the hand, do not tremble [————] because you will have to see even worse”.

Zalman Gradowski Rouleaux d’Auschwitz (1944)

At the beginning of Camera Lucida Roland Barthes describes how when looking at a photograph of Napoleon’s younger brother Jerome, he is amazed to realise that he is “looking at the eyes that looked at the Emperor” he go’s on to explain how when he mentions this amazement to others he becomes aware that “no-one seemed to share it, nor even to understand it”, concluding that life consists of these “little touches of solitude”. (Barthes 1999:3)

This solitude, often in my own case manifest as reverie, is a state I recognise when standing at sites of Holocaust memory. ‘These are the trees that witnessed…’ or ‘this is the sky that …’ or ‘this is the path on which the feet of those who …etc’. These are my moments, when I lapse into reverie and stare…into space…sometimes seemingly, at nothing. Like when looking at Photograph #283 and like Barthes staring into the eyes of Jerome, it is a moment of solitude and I am left wondering… what to do with my feelings, what do they mean and how might they be expressed and represented.

This is the basis of my creative practice.

Karen Barad in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway attempts to describe how reality is actually shaped. And in the chapter entitled Humanist Orbits she says, “Man is the centre around which the world turns. Man is the sun, the nucleus, the fulcrum, the unifying force, and the glue that holds it all together. Man is an individual apart from all the rest. And it is this very distinction that bestows on him the inheritance of distance, a place from which he can reflect on the world, his fellow man and himself”. Barad (1) talks of the world and its “possibilities for becoming”, that although apart we are connected “entangled” with all and each other. And instead of residing in the folds of our individual brains, memory she suggests, exists in the enfolding(s) of space and time. Ava Hoffman writing in her book After Such Knowledge further explains how this concept of physical and temporal distance is significant in how our relationship to historical events is defined. “Stand to close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand to far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters”. (Hoffman 2005:177) I see how both these interventions, coming as they do from different epistemological worlds define the nature of our complicity in the act of forming, shaping and revering history. We can after all, only be stood in one place and at any one time and I can only stand as an anachronism to the event I observe through the prism of a post-witness and be mindful that “like those birds that lay their eggs in other species nests” – Michael De Certeau contests in The Practice of Everyday Life – “Memory produces in a place that does not belong to it”. (De Certeau 1984:86)

And I have ‘felt’ that profound place, stood in that very spot and stared into and through its distance beyond the clutter and notions of the now and connected still to its charge, for my knowing resonates and vibrates beyond the formal dialogue of the image and it still paralyses and still it engulfs me.

For John Berger the photographed image of war is “doubly violent” (Berger 1980:43) in both its capturing of violence but also in how it does violence to time itself, torn as it is from its historical context. And we are left with this ethereal residue, this flicker of light, the ‘elevated moment’? Berger concludes that such photographs are “printed on the black curtain which is drawn across what we choose to forget or refuse to know”. (Ibid: 42) So we could say that the photograph is the trace of the eye that we cannot shut. And that “the picture that attests to Auschwitz,” as suggestedby Dan Chare “must do so as much by what it fails to show as by what it does” (Chare 2011:149)

The question with Photograph #283 is what is it trying to make us see?

Whilst my primary artistic practice has been drawing, writing is becoming ever more central as a further creative means of expression. Indeed it is increasingly in the confluence of these two ‘modes’ where my true practice resides.

Elided? Blurred? Smudged? What of my knowing and imagining? For I am invoked to look and to look again through and beyond the image, to squint and burn my stare into the black where I see nothing yet I see everything. The punctum pricks me, wounds me and links with me. And that shadow like Hokusai’s ‘Great wave of Kanagawa’ falls and folds into the light, its fringe masking an ominous silence. Photograph #283 anchors me in the permanence of not knowing.

And as the camera clicked in that snatching of light I become caught, a witness to the evidence of its mechanical blink. It skewers my looking, this “partial object” attracting me and drawing me towards its detail which interrupts my reading yet holds my gaze, in a “a temporal hallucination”. “For the camera does not train on the total object, that which is known but here is not seen, it is forever separated”.
(Barthes 1999:) Barthes referring here to the photographers ‘second sight’,

“does not consist in seeing but in being there” Lopez 2016:14)

Yet how to analyse this moment? An image divided equally, an uneasy symmetry. One side black, amorphous shapes, not determined, hovver in the shadow. To the left trees are silhouetted against an arc of light, its apex almost reaching the top edge of the frame, although the image is not deliberately composed – its context suggesting a snatched and random moment. The dark is heavy, heavy with black, concealing, a veil of unknowing, an abstract intrigue. Its dark expanse revealing the situation itself, “ the space of possibility [allowing] the photograph[s] to exist” (Didi-Huberman)
In the light I am directed upwards towards the tops of the trees, arch braced like diagonal ribs, they form an apron that covers and contains me and at once pushes me slowly back towards the black. Yet I am still present and active in the moment and look skywards, through the tracery beyond and into the light, the light like Gradowski’s moon that makes no distinction and illuminates anyway indiscriminately the transgressions and the wretched sins taking place below. This moon that still;

“Appeared with magnificent charm, escorted by her retinue, (the stars) carefree, calm, happy and content went out on her secret excursion to see how her realm, the night-world, fared, and granted humanity a ray of her light.” (Williams 2015)


A reductive truth, a shard, non descript. Yet something. A path to the absolute? Charged as testament, a requiem and tangible proof of the potentiality, the latency of nothingness. Photograph #283 is my window to a space and a zone beyond, Primo Levis’ Grey Zone perhaps?, moral ambiguity, good and evil, an ethical compromise under duress, tied irrefutably to my witnessing. It invokes and beckons me (as maybe it beckons you?). Do we answer? And if we do, how then should we respond?

Zalman Gradowski, a Jew from Luna in the district of Grodno, on the Lithuania, Poland border was a member of the Sonderkommando, the special command in Auschwitz known as the bearers of secrets because they knew about the extermination and witnessed it first-hand. Gradowski’s testimony written on 81 numbered pages was found in an aluminium canteen amongst the ruins of the crematoria in Birkenau in 1945 but was not published until the end of the 1970’s (2). In three parts, it was entitled In the Heart of Hell and in part one Gradowski uses the repeated motif of the moon.

He cannot understand “how the moon dares to show herself above the hell of Auschwitz without demonstrating the slightest identification with the people being tortured to death below“.(Gutman 1998:525) Gradowski’s buried testimony along with the accounts of other Sonderkommando have become known as the Scrolls of Auschwitz and further engage us in the often-problematic questions regarding the limits of testimony.

Photograph #283 resists easy categorization. French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman in citing the unique horror of the Shoah claims it ‘surpasses the forces of human imagination and attempting to represent it in images or words borders on the banal”. (Didi-Huberman) here also referencing writer and philosopher Hannah Arendt who when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. Photograph #283 whilst on the surface being prosaic, avoids such banality through its very ambiguity and absence, the absence of presence and its corollary, the presence of absence. Like a Rothko painting or a Mallarme poem, it necessitates my alliance. The image acting as a net, into which we cast are our own fears, our own constructions and ultimately our own histories. “To know, we must imagine for ourselves” (Didi-Huberman 2007:)

And in this imagining, I wonder what they thought? And what they believed? For them, praying here would have been a challenging discretion. But they did and for good reason, divested as they were, of everything but their relationship with God. In Yosl Rakover talks to God, a fictional account by Kvi Kolitz set in the final days of the Warsaw ghetto, a meditation of a dying Jew’s last words to God, Emmanuel Levinas wonders whether the Shoah is evidence of the absence of God when he asks “what is the meaning of the suffering of innocents” (Kolitz 1999:30) and when Levinas confirms later that “the God who veils his face is neither a theological abstraction nor a poetic image” (Ibid 1999:82) perhaps it becomes possible to imagine in photograph #283 the potential of the known in an attempt to depict the abstract intrigue that exists beyond it, where God himself is in the black, and In Hebrew Hester Panim ‘hiding his face’. And also found here, are the traces of a complex relationship the Jewish victims had with their God, where for some, the Holocaust destroyed the reality of a God, where most were distraught by the seeming absence of God and asked “Do we not suffer because God has left us?” But for others, the rejoinder…

“I cannot say after all I have lived through that my relationship to God is unchanged. But with absolute certainty I can say that my faith in Him has not altered by a hairsbreadth” (Kolitz 2000:9), for ‘God is with you in your suffering’.

Similarly, in his Deluge drawings, Leonardo Da Vinci attempts to arrest time and space by depicting a huge surge of water and the indiscriminate nature of the destruction left in its wake. Da Vinci describes how in the face of such overwhelming power there were those who finding it is was not sufficient to just shut their eyes, “laid their hands one over the other to cover them more closely so as not to see the cruel slaughter made on the human species by the wrath of God”. (Kemp 2007:318) But In Photograph #283 God himself was shutting his eyes, for in this image we are obviated, our gaze directed upwards and away from what is occurring just below the frame “And I shall hide my face from them and they shall be devoured”. From Deuteronomy 31:17 (Neis 2013:62)

In Photograph #283 we are mediated by Black and white and (this) “makes visible in a positively illusionistic way” (Richter 2009:92) “a complex blank”. (Mafe) And now rapt with its sublime and spiritual accord, I am drawn to “the pure ground into which all the figures have dissolved” (McEvilley 1993:12) or been disappeared. And this journey has led us here, to this place and it is bereft. Yet what it lacks resounds elsewhere, and it is glaring and prescient. For here, those who are obliterated by the black are obscured and perhaps, it is us. (Levi)

And like Gradowski drawing down the moon, entrained by its ceaseless circadian rhythm, persistent and relentless, I am carried “escorted by her (3) (the moons) retinue…(to beyond the fence) on her secret excursion to see how her realm, the night-world, fared, and granted humanity a ray of her light”. (Williams 2015) It echoes night and day and signals the rapture of light, life giving and redolent, pointing as it does to an authority beyond. The black though still encroaches and disturbs and is omnipresent. Yet the darkness made visible, as Primo Levi in his poem The Black Stars stated, “Not energy, not messages, not particles, not light. Light itself falls back down, broken by its own weight.” (Gould 2007:144) Here contemplating the science of black holes, Primo Levi evokes a phenomena that suggests our vulnerability and insignificance in the face of such forces, where as in Auschwitz our faith in universal harmony is destroyed “and the universe (is brought back) to a condition of chaos” (Ibid) Levi then resolves as if further contemplating Photograph #283 “And all of us human seed, we live and die for nothing, The skies perpetually revolve in vain”. (Ibid) So, the process of art making is often the endeavour to make the invisible, visible, to re-invoke something that we cannot see anymore and where time and distance affect the way in which this process is materialised and caught; transcendentally, irreverently, and where the artist or as in the case of Photograph #283, the witness, acts as sorcerer4 unwittingly capturing the poignancy of nothing yet the potency of everything.

Photography in the moment of its happening absorbs light, and for that split second when the aperture opens and closes, indiscriminately draws in its image and it becomes fixed. In drawing and painting, we render, interpret and express something seen, understood or imagined, we mediate, our eyes and our hands forming and shaping. But Photograph #283, in it ambiguity, its obliqueness is rendered like a drawing as it fixes us, in its black and white and its greyness, unknowingly perhaps? But I think here in the realm of the ‘uncertain’ lies the distinction and the rejoinder to Pagnoux and her assertion that such readings of photograph #283 are evidence for how “a passion for constructing nothingness admonishes those who choose to fill the nothingness rather than to face it”. In demonstrating such a failure of imagination I think Pagnoux totally misses the point, it is precisely because the Holocaust is so unimaginable that it becomes so incumbent on us to engage our imagination and to do so says Jill Bennett – Professor for Art and Politics in NSW – we must find methods for “describing that which is seen, if not hitherto imagined” So it is how we find life in these fragments that chimes with my desire to make sense and attempt to construct my own imaginings from these seemingly and endlessly “complex blanks”.

…And finally, to be reminded of philosopher Karl Popper’s words (which is where I started) regarding our theories (and ideas) being our own inventions; out of which “we create a world, not the real world, but our own nets in which we try to catch the real world”

And perhaps this is what we do when we abstract and contemplate the lived world…cast our nets, in our own fashion, to catch something of ‘our’ own particular real world.

NOTES
(1) Karen Barad American feminist theorist, known particularly for her theory of agential realism.

(2) Holocaust Studies began in earnest in the 1960’s with scholastic conferences being held from the 1970’s. As late as the 1980’s ‘Functionalists and ‘Intentionalists’ were arguing as to whether the Final Solution was a structured plan of annihilation or whether it arose as the result of a system that evolved.

(3) The moon is feminised by Gradowski , (her) gender playing an important role in the narrative, where his relationship to it is imagined in the form of a love affair and where she is represented as ‘indifferent and unmoved. (Williams)

(4) Jon Barraclough spoke of this in a lecture at Manchester Metropolitan University on June 04 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

BOOKS AND JOURNALS

Barad, K (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Duke University Press

Barthes, R (1999) Camera Lucida. Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc

Berger, J. (1980) ‘Photographs of Agony,’ in About Looking, Bloomsbury. London.

Chare, N. (2011) Auschwitz and Afterimages, Abjection, Witnessing and Representation. I.B Tauris. London.

De Certeau, M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press. Didi Huberman, G-D (2007) Images in Spite of All. University of Chicago Press. Didi Huberman, G-D (2001) Memoire des Camps. Exhibition catalogue.
Gould, E & Sheridan, G ( 2007) Engaging Europe: Rethinking a Changing Continent. Rowman & Littlefield

Gutman, Y & Berenbaum, M (1998) Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp. Indiana University Press.

Gradowski, Z (1944) Rouleaux d’Auschwitz / Auschwitz Rolls / Scrolls of Auschwitz

Hoffman, E (2005) After Such Knowledge. Vintage, New York.

Kemp, M (2007) Leonardo Da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature and Man. Oxford University Press.

Kolitz, Z (1999) Yosl Rakover talks to God. Vintage, New York.

McEvilley, T. (1997) Capacity: History, the World and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism. Routledge, London.

Neis, R (2013) The Sense of Sight in Rabbinic Culture. Cambridge University Press

Kuspit, D. (1994) The Exile’s Return : Toward a Redefinition of Painting for the Post- Modern Era. Cambridge University

Levi,P (1989) The Black Hole of Auschwitz. Polity Press, London.

McIver Lopes, D (2016) Four Arts of Photography: An Essay in Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons

Popper, K (1976) Unended quest: An intellectual autobiography. Fontana, London.

Richter, G (2009) Text, Writings, Interviews and Letters 1961 – 2009, Thames and Hudson. London.

Richer JP (2010) The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, 1888, Createspace.

Wajcman, G & Pagnoux, E (2001) Les Temps Modernes. Gallimard Parution Wajcman, G De la croyance photographique – Photographic belief Pagnoux, E Reporter photographe à Auschwitz – Auschwitz photojournalist

Williams, D (2015) Critique of Gradowski’s Moon over Auschwitz.

DIGITAL

Bennett J (2009) Images in Spite of All. CAA Reviews. New York http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/1380#.V6yQoCOANBc (Accessed July 2016)

Daniel Mafe. The Paradox of Indeterminacy, Unknowing and (Dis)orientation in the Presentation of the Unrepresentable. QUT Digital Repository:
http://eprints.qut.edu.au/

(Accessed July 2013)

Tactical Aesthetics by Headcut

http://tacticalaesthetics.org/articles/subversive-photographs-thoughts-on-barthes/ (Accessed July 2013)

WRITING BETWEEN THE LINES

EXPLORING CREATIVE WRITING AS A RESEARCH METHODOLOGY.
CARDIFF UNIVERSITY. SEPTEMBER 2016

NOTES

Abstract
My presentation will aim to examine the ‘content’ and the allusions of Photograph #283, which is one of a series of 4 images taken at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland during the summer of 1944. It is thought that a Greek Jew, Alex Errera made them on a camera that was smuggled in and out of the camp by the Polish resistance. They are the only known images taken by someone imprisoned there. ‘Elided? Blurred? Smudged? What of my knowing and imagining? I am invoked to look again to look through and beyond the image, to the edges, to squint and burn my stare into the black where I see nothing, yet I see everything. Its punctum pricks me, wounds me and connects to me. As a practice-led researcher I am keen to involve creative writing in ways that go beyond the normal processes of reflecting on practice, seeing it more akin to my drawing as a tool of visual articulation and expression. This exchange between drawing (image) and writing, as an intersection, is a further cairn – a marker – in the process of my thinking and Photograph #283, anchored as it is in a “not-knowing” provides me with the opportunity and space for further contemplation. “Man is an individual apart from all the rest. And it is this very distinction that bestows on him the inheritance of distance, a place from which to reflect – on the world” (Meeting the Universe Halfway. Karen Barad p134) Foucault describes a similar approach to writing history as archaeology, where discursive traces of the past are investigated in order to write a ‘history of the present’. This is important because it articulates how through writing (and drawing) it becomes possible to connect and evoke something that isn’t there anymore. My presentation will demonstrate how this approach to creative / critical writing allows for the spaces ‘between the lines’ to shape part of understanding and that somewhere in these gaps, new ways of being ‘with’ the subject are made possible.

ETCHING, THE HOLOCAUST AND THE INTUITIVE DRAUGHTSMAN

You Can Still See the Trees 2016

A system of image making where the concept of emergence is implicit in the drawing and printing process and where pictures not planned begin to define and reveal themselves, appearing like sorcellerie in the course of their becoming. And when as before the images were unknown and undisclosed, existing like ghosts in the ether, they can now be unlocked and deciphered by the intuitive draughtsman to form spectral allusions connecting to the wider constellation of practice. This process can be represented in three stages. I define them as traces as each is transparent and fluid, where the next stage never completely mitigates interaction with the previous.

First Trace: The drawing stage (the unlocking, emergence)
Second Trace: The forming stage (the denotation, definition)
Third Trace: The consolidation stage (the corollary, consequence)

The etching process is mysterious and elusive through which I am able to harmonize and clarify my responses consistent with the memory being imagined.

BARE 2b 50304small

KNOWLEDGE or CERTAINTY

BRONOWSKI KNEELING

“There are two parts to the human dilemma. One is the belief that the end justifies the means. That push-button philosophy, that deliberate deafness to suffering, has become the monster in the war machine. The other is the betrayal of the human spirit: the assertion of dogma closes the mind and turns a nation, a civilization into a regiment of ghosts — obedient ghosts, or tortured ghosts. It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false — tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas — it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we ‘can’ know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.
I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and as witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people”.

Jacob Bronowski. The Ascent of Man (p370-374)

Proposal
These words were spoken in episode 11 of Jacob Bronowski’s epic history of science and civilization. The Ascent of Man, published in 1973 and described by Bronowski as “A personal journey of intellectual history” and as “monuments of unaging intellect” here citing Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium in which Yeats enunciates the anguish of old age and the imperative to remain active and vital even when the heart is “fastened to a dying animal” (the body). I am interested in these juxtapositions of art and literature, art and science and further intrigued by the philosopher’s use of art in their writing. Reflecting upon and questioning reality in different ways and seeking to depict the rational and the spiritual dimensions of this enquiry, in its relation to ‘being in the world’ helps to define my practice. Like Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger or Gaston Bachelard who said there existed two forms of thought: scientific and poetic. And when not seen as a binary it becomes possible, like in Bronowski’s writing and oratory, to exist in the confluence of both.

When he describes “Science (as) a very human form of knowledge”. Bronowski connects the mind and the soul, the tangible and the abstract, of what is and isn’t understood and how we are always stood on the brink of the unknown but reach and stretch forward “for what is to be hoped’. My own practice embodies this idea of the unknown and of guessing in order to visualise form, of working with the potentiality of the known in an attempt to depict what abstract intrigue exists beyond the veil. An extrapolation. But recognising also that there is always a degree of positive concealment. It is desirable to not know and to strive to discover, to be driven by the why? Rather than the how? We cannot know or expect to know, for as Bronowski says, as he kneels at the pond adjacent to Crematorium 5 at Auschwitz, “This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
I admire this writing because it is clear and it is emphatic. Whilst Bronowski had the outline (a sketch) of what he wanted to say to camera, it is clear he is responding to the poetics of the space. The embodiment and the assimilation of his thought ‘into’ and ‘of’ the space is what make it emphatic. In these few lines, Bronowski exemplifies how language can equate to and harnesses our intention to understand, that which is beyond.
His use of literary allusion in the form of a quote by Oliver Cromwell reinforces the power of the oratory, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, and think it possible you may be mistaken’. His language is structured simply. There is no affectation here, no pretense. It is language intended to communicate and not to obfuscate. His use of figuration makes accessible themes of destruction and waste. There is also fragility in his language, the language of one reaching and stretching for the tools to articulate the moment of his thoughts. This vulnerability bridges the gap for the reader / listener who sits outside of Bronowski’s lived experience, in that moment but who is invited to be present vicariously.
My proposal seeks to deal with the seeming binary of that which is tangible and that which is unknown and I am inspired by words like Bronowski’s that seem insistent that the burr of my voice should emerge and be vindicated – emergere – “bringing forth and bringing to light,” that which in the words of cultural historian Raymond Williams, is my “art lived through experience”.

The 4th Sonderkommando Photograph (Prelude)

4th Sonder

“Generally they spoke little about their past. They were not given to telling stories, and it seemed that they tried not to think about earlier times at all” Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Photograph #283 is one of a series of 4 images taken at Birkenau during the summer of 1944. It is thought that a Greek Jew, Alex Errera made them on a camera that was smuggled in and out of the camp by the Polish resistance. They are the only known images taken by someone imprisoned there.

Elided? Blurred? Smudged? What of my knowing and imagining? I am invoked to look again to look through and beyond the image, to the edges, to squint and burn my stare into the black where I see nothing yet I see everything. Its punctum pricks us, wounds us and links with us. And that shadow falls and folds into the light, its fringe masking an eerie, ominous silence. And here, ambivalence is manifest in the haziness of the image. Photograph #283 is anchored in a “not-knowing.” The camera clicked and in snatching the light I am caught in its insistent glare. It skewers and traumatises my looking, this “partial object” (Barthes), this detail that attracts and holds my gaze, “a temporal hallucination” (Ibid).

Yet how to analyse this moment? Divided in two, with one side heavy with black, the other an arc of light directs me upwards towards the tops of the trees, forming an apron that covers and contains me and at once pushes me slowly back towards the black. Elīdēre, still present and active in the moment.

Black and white mediates, “and makes visible in a positively illusionistic way” (Richter)
“a complex blank”. (Mafe) A fascination with the sublime, “the pure ground into which all the figures have dissolved” (McEvilley) or been disappeared. Through reductive notions of purity, the minimal and the obscure, this journey has led us here, to this place and it is bereft. Yet what it lacks resounds elsewhere, and it is glaring and presient. There, those who are obscured and obliterated by the black are saved and it is us. (Levi)

The Emergent Subject

emergent subject

ADAM PHILLIPS [on Sebald] Tradition of Melancholy. People who try to locate this fundamental feeling of loss in history [anchor]…at a loss. The history gives you some sort of story about this. The feeling is that there has been some sort of catastrophe that cannot be located and that one is living in the aftermath of that catastrophe. To capture perception [Patience After Sebald] “I want to tell you a story about a walk but in fact I have told you a story about the catastrophes of Western culture since the Second World War. The fear is; if you stop and allow yourself to be a writer [an artist] the catastrophe will be like an avalanche. Whereas, if you keep walking, you might be ok”. HG ADLER [The Journey] serves as an image of fate [or] a timeless metaphor for the plight of the people who have been forbidden. The metaphor also represents memory itself, which sets out onto a journey and is also dragged along through constant wandering. Rings of Saturn. An account of a walking tour in Suffolk. But is really a metaphor for [Adler / Journey metaphor] for the catastrophe in Europe [Holocaust]. The people he meets, the places he visits, the historical and literary references prompted by what he sees and what he senses. To take my mind on a journey. Red Bank [North Manchester] Becomes a palimpsest for meditations about Holocaust events and catastrophe. Memories and continuities [and that nothing ever entirely disappears. To Make film, to draw, etch and print and to write. Mieke Bal: Stories – Acts of Memory. Matta, Gottlieb. Avoidance of contrivance. Emergent
narratives. The Emergent Subject. Artist Jon Barraclough. Film and sound. The choices we make affect the narratives. How do we investigate, what emerges? To make the invisible, visible. To re-invoke something that we cannot see anymore. How time affects the way we see things. Transcendental, irreverent, artist as sorcerer. Karen Wilkins American commentator on the Abstract Expressionists. How do we draw transcendental? [This connects with time] Da Vinci Deluge drawings. “Make the clouds driven by the impetuosity of the wind and flung against the lofty mountain tops, and wreathed and torn like waves beating upon rocks; the air itself terrible from the deep darkness caused by the dust and fog and heavy clouds” [The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, 1888, Volume 1, section 605] Drawing:Film:Narrative. Breaking the boundaries of the process of movement and time.

A visual archaeology through drawing

drawing small

Why do I keep going back to sites of Holocaust memory and how might it be possible for me to use drawing as a tool to excavate a past personally unlived? Foucault describes his approach to writing history as archaeology, where discursive traces of the past are investigated in order to write a ‘history of the present’. This expresses a desire to link with something beyond ourselves. The extent to which my identification with the victims, through the writing of Primo Levi, (1989) Paul Celan, (2002) and Robert Desnos (2005), will also be examined as I formulate my visual responses. My research will test subject and practice, investigating the relationship between both.

My research is timely, in an era of Holocaust history without living survivors. What does this history mean for me and for who I am? Is it only through the mediation of art that a response to such events can be articulated, making marks and gestures to evoke something that isn’t there anymore? In Figuring it Out (2003) Colin Renfrew makes a case for the parallel visions of artists and archeologists in how they both excavate meaning. Lambros Malafouris (2013) who like Renfrew adopts a cross-disciplinary approach to further understand the intertwining of the mind with the material world, writes of a ‘hypostatic approach’ where the substance, essence, or underlying realities of ‘things’ are as important in the excavation process as the ‘objects’ themselves. I will be using drawing as my means of archaeology. A further intertwining.

The first phase of my research will be situated in relation to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, because for him ‘perception’ as an expressive and creative concept is intimately linked with artistic practice. I will focus on his ideas of space, sensing and the body as they appear in the Phenomenology of Perception (2012) and I will ask what these ideas mean for my relationship to sites of Holocaust memory, being as I am, both subject and object. ‘Touch and touched’. (Merleau-Ponty p98 on double sensations.) This will mirror the hypostatic approach of (Malafouris) and operate at the intersection of existence and essence (Merleau-Ponty p130). Victoria Grace-Walden asks the same fundamental question in her PhD study, ‘how do I relate to the tragic past of a place of holocaust memory’.

Architect and author Christian Norberg-Schultz writing on Architectural Phenomenology asks how placeness should be determined and how meanings present in a given environment can be uncovered. I will do this making visual and literary responses on site and through work developed later. These intuitive, gestural and contemplative drawings will build a resource that will be later scanned, layered and erased. New meaning will be excavated and revealed in this way, interpolated in images of the place and of myself. I will produce notebooks and journals using a range of different tools and media. Each approach yielding a different aspect and nuance, further testing the integrity of the materials. This work will culminate in an exposition, setting forth a body of investigative research explaining my findings.

Merleau-Ponty describes the ‘intertwining’ of subjective experience and objective existence as a ‘chiasm’, suggesting that subjectivity arises from the space ‘in-between’ these bodies of experience. I intend to investigate this gap through writing and the ‘happening’ of drawing and how it begins to define me. Drawing in this way becomes an event and connects with perfomative possibilities where the ‘Space of Encounter’ can perhaps become defined in a more multi-sensorial way.

Christian Boltanski in “The Missing House,” 1990 on Grosshamburger Strasse, Berlin, a memorial space dedicated to ‘absence’ and German artist Daniel Blaufuks in his struggle to understand the reality of the Terezin concentration camp, reckoning with what he calls “the colour of memory” are two examples of artists in the field who are interrogating this ‘gap’ between the subjective and the objective.

Visual responses made at the Plaszow site (visits specified on my timeline) and those responses made later, will afford me the opportunity to reflect on the dynamic of absence and presence. Both are contingent on what I don’t and cannot know. The concept of ‘the Emergent Subject’ is then central to my methodology, where narratives form from the resonances between materials, ideas, objects and subject.
In ‘On Not Knowing, How Artists Think, Rachel Jones emphasizes how this state of not knowing is “what makes us think, ask questions, and seek to understand”. In the early stages of my research, I will also examine the morphology / structure of my own drawing as my primary tool of expression in making a visual response.

The locus of my research is the site of the Plaszow concentration camp, chosen for the following reasons;

• It is distinctive from Auschwitz due to the scarcity of the original camp infrastructure remaining.
• It is a road much less travelled. Whilst tourism exists it is by comparison, relatively uncontaminated.
• It is arterially connected to Kraków and the Podgorze Ghetto in particular.

In archaeology, it is possible to identify interventions that leave visible traces in the landscape revealing what is buried and because Jewish Halacha law forbids actual excavation, it becomes necessary to read and interpret the landscape in this way. My research will develop in year 3 to respond similarly to the landscape as a site where ‘placeness’ has been obscured and can only be located (intuited) through trace. The archaeology of these spaces become then a meta-narrative for the excavation of personal meaning and identity and begins to provide a framework to answer my principal question of “why (do) I keep returning to this place”?
Jean-Luc Nancy (2013) has said that “Drawing is the gesture of a desire that remains in excess of all knowledge”, meaning perhaps that at best, it is a response to an instinct, a stimulus that is outside of our conscious and predetermined world, only becoming tangible once it is formed. Here the reckoning begins