Spaces for Recollection

"Here is where they went, in a slow-moving procession coming from all parts of Europe. This is the horizon they caught a last glimpse of. These are the poplars, those the watchtowers with the reflections of sunshine in the windowpanes. This is the door they went through, into the rooms bathed in glaring light, rooms in which there were no showers, just these four-cornered columns made of sheet metal. These are the foundation walls between which they perished in the sudden darkness, in the gas. That streamed out of the holes. And these words, these realizations say nothing, explain nothing. All that remains are mounds of stones overgrown with grass. Ashes remain in the soil from those who died for nothing [...] Nothing is left other than the total senselessness of their deaths." (Peter Weiss) * More than half a century after the persecution and extermination of European Jews, the past is no longer readily available just like that. The events evade any effort to capture them directly. Not only because they had been violent and traumatic, because no common frame of reference can be constructed between the "Camp System" and the world without camps, because the universal language, experiences and events outside the camp are not capable of being grasped: "But we had just come back," Robert Antelme writes, "we brought our memory along with us, our experience that was still very much alive, and we feel a tremendous longing to voice that experience the way it was. Yet from the first day on it seemed impossible for us to fill the gap we had become aware of between the language we possessed and that experience, the greatest part of which we still felt firsthand. [...] No sooner had we begun to talk of it, we were already left speechless. What we had to say now started to become inconceivable, even for us." Today the past thus evades being captured directly not only due to this "speechlessness", but also simply because a great deal of time lies between the events then and today's recall. Suffering, humiliation and death fade gradually – the whole of another life lived on settles itself over them, a life comprehensible as a consequence, reversal or even explication of the horror and the agony. The deportation, imprisonment and liberation thus appear in a new context defined less by the past than by the present. Remembering is then frequently equivalent to an agonizing archaeological excavation at which the strata (of life) deposited and maturing over the course of time are painstakingly cleared away centimeter by centimeter and reviewed in terms of each layer's own significance and their relationship to one another. Some things can be found thereby which had become long forgotten, some remain lost forever and must be supplemented on a trial-and-error basis using knowledge from the present. Well-tempered recall, though, is not to be had for the taking. Not from eyewitnesses still alive, and not from their children or grandchildren, either. But in the case of those children and children's children, the so-called second and third generations, just what does that kind of recall look like? The point is that they themselves lack even the experienced knowledge that was conveyed to them. As the Austrian author Schindel writes, they "don't have to survive death [in itself] in reality using some kinds of strategies, this Jewish death." They are only able to experience the past secondhand. They are forced to rely on the accounts given by parents, on their gestures and the ways they act, on texts, photographs, memorials and commemorative sites. Their recall can only refer to that which others have recorded in the widest variety of media. Their texts, installations, exhibits and films are thus not attempts to depict the events themselves: What they do is to testify to the co-depicting of their own, multiply communicated experiences themselves within the process of remembering. And yet, even in light of the relayed communication and distant time involved, it would be a mistake to believe that this kind of recall – Marianne Hirsch calls it "post-memory" – would be unable to hit the center of those events. Photographic Recall – or About Resisting Unambiguity For a long time, the knowledge that the facts of history do not stand for themselves, that they are inseparable from the causes they call to mind, inseparable too from the present and the framework within which those facts are located, all that did not affect the testimony given in evidence regarding Shoah. Photography in particular was regarded as the medium that was able to provide a true-to-life depiction of reality and document history. It was the guarantor for a kind of real presence of the past in the present, for "that's how it was" (Roland Barthes). Although, it has become clear since the Auschwitz trial that thinking along those lines is too simple. This can be seen, for example, in the way the photographs from the Auschwitz Album were dealt with. Authenticated by the "Internationale Vereinigung der Auschwitzer Häftlinge" ('International Association of Auschwitz Internees'), the photos were specifically intended to serve as documents and genuine evidence, yet that didn't mean at all that they were interpreted solely as such. For Lili Jacob, a Hungarian Jew who had found the album in an SS barracks in 1945, the photos obtained a value equivalent to remembrances of her family. The album became a family album for her in which familiar faces known to her were depicted. In contrast, the photos were difficult pieces of evidence for the judges and prosecuting attorneys because they did not testify to any form of maltreatment. Years later, Robert Faurisson, a French revisionist, utilized several photographs to deny the extermination of European Jews. Even in light of material like this, it can be seen as a result of the various interpretations and attributions that the sense and meaning is not expressed in the pictures themselves, but that the statements made by these pictures can be very different, even contradictory, depending on the viewer and the viewing horizon. That insight, however, is not enacted artistically until produced by the second and third generations in their works of art. As a result, a sense of aesthetics has formed around documentary photography which, similar to that found in literature, has made the fact of having communicated what has been depicted, the construction of that which has been depicted, the way that has been done and the dependency of its significance on the beholder an added subject of discussion. In the artistic examination of and confrontation with Shoah, the present and one's own subjective access to the past are co-enrolled – the past is seen and interpreted anew as the present. It is not over and done with: It extends into the present in ways that are often oppressive, changing itself in the process and the present along with it. Many of the picture series and installations coagulate into a kind of "find the ?" picture puzzle, a challenge to the viewer to read them, to supplement them with one's own knowledge and experiences, to take on a stance regarding them and, frequently, to position oneself within them. It is especially this resistfulness toward distinctness and meaningfulness that characteristically mark Till Leeser's Displaced Memories. Because Displaced Memories use photography to move the absence of life and exterminated life into the focal point. The absence of what actually occurred, the abasement the people endured, their degradation and murder, is so extreme that a demand is placed on the beholder's eye to try and supplement that which is missing to a certain degree. Memory then takes shape, not in terms of the object depicted, but in the interference between picture and viewer instead; by the person looking letting themself be drawn into the blank spaces and, at the same time, by calling up stores of knowledge in the form of other images, narratives, historical data, experiences or recollections of their own as a kind of countermovement, and then making the correlations among them. Memory is no longer a storehouse, a vessel or even a secured spot for safekeeping, but rather more a constantly variable space for remembering within the subjects. During the viewer's attempt to place the visual perspective via inner "counterperspectives", the two-dimensional surface area of the picture is heightened to three-dimensionality, the area is given a "focus for recollection". Till Leeser's Displaced Memories are a work of recollection based on deliberately eschewing distinct unambiguity – through blurring, colors and the choice of objects. Crops or fragments of enclosures, walls, ceilings, floors and building complexes are written over and defamiliarized via photographic techniques so that a downright ambiguousness is obtained by force, all the way to a certain disorientation. The photographs are not comfortable. They want to be interpreted, yet they simultaneously don't let themselves be interpreted on a lasting basis. The viewer thus never comes to rest: The past not only becomes the present, it leads into the future by always wanting to be thought of further. When viewing the photographs we are called upon to have a historical conscience, an awareness that knows of one's one responsibility for history and how that history is shaped, a conscience that knows that history does not remain dead, over and done with when it is reshaped over and over again from the present for the future.

Dr.Ariane Eichenberg

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