Marking The Stranger
Catalogue essay by Harry Nankin about exhibitions by Shirley Cass at Red Gallery, Fitzroy & Jewish Museum of Australia, St Kilda, 2006
Theodore Adorno spoke for many of his own generation when he declared that ‘After Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.’ Like Adorno, traumatized, angry, a refugee, those few survivors who have attended to their experience publicly have preferred to address it head on through politics or scholarship rather than the apparent obscenity of pleasure gained from making or witnessing art about those events. Art like the novels of Primo Levi are exceptional.
The problem for following generations considering the Holocaust, as Melbourne academic Inge Clendinnen recently observed, is that so enormous an event almost inevitably renders art purporting to represent it trivial. No matter how well-intentioned, literal re-representation of something so infamous is at best pointless and at worst, exploitative. This is particularly the case in visual media: witness the excruciating pedagogy of Judy Chicago’s 1987-93 Holocaust project.
Though few contemporary artists would obey Adorno’s taboo, most would recognise the wisdom of Clendinnen’s caution. As she argues:
The most effective imagined evocations of the Holocaust seem to proceed either by invocation, the glancing reference to an existing bank of ideas, images and sentiments (‘Auschwitz’), or, perhaps more effectively by indirection… The pathos of Anne Frank’s diary derives not from the words before us.but from our knowledge of what is to come.*
Given its significance in Jewish history, it is perhaps ironic that the most important visual artist to address the Holocaust to date has been Anselm Kiefer, a German of the radical post- war generation. Cognisant of the Holocaust’s presence in contemporary collective consciousness, his strategy has been to infer history and German guilt through an iconographic maze steeped in German land, identity, literature and myth. He invokes the Final Solution through potent signs such as converging railway lines and points to it indirectly through illustrating archaic German myths of blood and soil.
Cognisant of Kiefer’s precedent, Shirley Cass’ sombre installationMarking the Stranger also traces the history that led to the Holocaust but from a perspective, agenda and iconography evocative of the ghost of a thousand years of prejudice against European Jewry. Employing a mix of what Clendinnen might identify as invocation and indirection, the installation recalls public spaces of Jewish suffering such as a Nazi concentration camp or an Iberian auto da fé, one of the bloody ‘trials of faith’ conducted by the Catholic Inquisition against tens of thousands of heretics and Jews between 1481 and 1810.
Dominating the space are a dozen super-human-sized lawn-cloth coats impregnated with paraffin wax. Stiff and bloated as if in death and hung from the ceiling, they are as a crowd of souls of the condemned, wafting slightly from a touch or the breeze of a passer-by. They glow yellow, luminous, translucent and lit from beneath like the savage fires of extermination. Most have a cloth badge sewn over the heart using a design ignominiously prescribed for Jews by malevolent host authorities. There is the yellow tabula introduced by the English church in 1218; the red and white rota brought in by edict of Louis IX of France in 1269; a yellow circle with red bull’s eye introduced by Queen Maria of Barcelona in 1397 and; the yellow Star of David forced to be worn by Jews under National Socialism.
On the side of one cloak the artist has imprinted the denigrating figure of Synagoga, an imaginary Jewish woman conceived by Renaissance clerics to embody Judaism’s theological ‘blindness’ in the face of Christian revelation.
In an alcove hangs a ragged off-white linen jacket with blue stripes and a blue Star of David sewn on one elbow. The jacket ends in tassels like those of a Jewish prayer shawl. At the entrance stands a three hundred-year-old Spanish wooden door littered with the repeated photocopy of a Jewish child’s face.
Marking the Stranger uses dress and adornment as a metaphor to illuminate the deadly politics of oppression. The principle is simple. For a minority group to be forced to make known their identity through legally enforced modes of public dress or display is to confirm their status as inferior, threatening or other. Wherever they have resided in Christian Europe, Jews have frequently been forced to be visibly marked as strangers through prescriptive wearing of garments, headwear and badges. Invariably, such garb has served to locate Jews as targets, preliminary to exclusion, expulsion or, all too often, execution.
Unstated in the work but inextricably woven into the story of visiblemarking are the repeated ‘race’ lies, group libels that have been imposed upon and invisibly ‘worn’ by Jews collectively and repeatedly throughout the last millennia. These include historical libels (the Jews murdered Christ); blood libels (Jews ritually kill then drink the blood of Christians); conspiracy libels (Jews secretly control the world); sexual libels (Jewish men menstruate) and, libels of envy (all Jews are rich). Enforced marking was never a product of vague or benign prejudice. It was always the outward sign of an already generalised, dangerous and libelled that is, demonised ethnic identity. What Cass presents to us is not just a history of marking the Jew as stranger. It is a history of the Jew as enemy.
The formal and material choices of this marking as art are replete with artistic antecedents. The couture tropes used in the cloaks and the tattered jacket recall Eva Hesse’s gaunt translucent hangings such asContingent (1969). Individually, each cloak is suggestive of Robert Gober’s silk, muslin and linen Wedding Gown (1989) whilst their grouping is a clear reference to Magdalena Abakanovicz’s massed rough-hewn enigmatic headless figures such as Crowd (1986). The Spanish door carrying photocopied portraits of Holocaust victims defers directly to Christian Boltanski’s haunting mixed-media altar pieces memorializing the tragedy.
Overriding these formal associations however is Cass’ juxtaposition of Adorno’s famous statement with a poem by Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. The very writing of this poem was and is a contradiction to Adorno’s proscription. The ‘conversation’ set up by their adjacency mirrors the understandable mixture of feelings of the artist herself in confronting and making art about this subject. Neatly projected onto the floor of the installation, the poem reads
Came, if there
came a man
came a man to the world, today, with
light-beard: he could,
if he spoke of this
only babble and babble
The poem is a suitably indirect reference to both a long history and one event encapsulating the difficulty and the possibility of art after the Holocaust. And, it is perhaps indicative of the observation that the most successful art in any medium usually emerges out of difficult subjects, moral dilemmas and contradictory impulses.
* Clendennen, Inge, Reading the Holocaust, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1998, p185.