by Mona Filip
Visiting the archeological site of an ancient city – cold, quiet ruins that have long forgotten the lively pulse of what once was – might leave you feeling indifferent and remote. Until you discover, on the step of a threshold, a faint indentation marked in stone by the daily gesture of opening and closing a door – the trace of a human hand. Time collapses, distance dissolves, and for a moment you are in the presence of the hand that opened the door. When the present claims you back, you sense it missing, like a phantom limb of your own.
To approach Auguststrasse 25, the first visual arts project by sound artist E.C. Woodley, one has to cross the threshold of one of Toronto’s oldest shuls, the Kiever Synagogue. Built in 1927 by the First Russian Congregation, the Kiever is the secret gem of Kensington Market, a vestige of the city’s once bustling Jewish quarter. Entering the sanctuary, the visitor encounters an unexpected sight in the southwest corner: an old-fashioned living room and a young woman cozied up on a couch, immersed in a captivating book. The woman’s dress, as well as the furniture and objects that surround her, place the unusual setting in the past. A fresh copy of the Berliner Tageblatt on a desk indicates the date and place: it is 1928, Berlin.
For roughly a century before World War II, Jewish secular thought, intellectual achievement and artistic expression flourished in Europe, and particularly in Germany, with unprecedented brilliance and vigour. Not entirely safe from adversity, the Jewish elite and the broader middle-class which took prideful interest in its accomplishments played an essential role in the cultural zenith of bourgeois Europe and greatly influenced the paradigm of Western thought. In the years that followed, the German Jewry that produced some of the most revolutionary modern ideas was almost entirely obliterated. In the context of the contemporary European city, material traces of an early 20th century Jewish past – whether exalted or banal – are often represented only by a synagogue, still standing where little else survives of once vibrant, everyday worlds. The place of worship acts as a site of remembrance, both by design and by default.
Using performance, installation and sound, Auguststrasse 25 evokes the private world of the pre-Holocaust, emancipated Jewish household, with its cultural investment in an urban European past and the democratic Weimar Republic. Developed by Woodley for the Off-Site program of the Koffler Gallery, this multi-media project engages the Kiever Synagogue in a performative gesture of remembrance, and initiates a convergence of past and present. By setting the living room of a secular Jewish apartment from 1928 Berlin inside the historic Orthodox sanctuary in 2010 Toronto, Woodley’s work overlays two distinct geographic locations, two spheres of life, and two moments in time.
Auguststrasse 25 is an imagined address, referencing a real street once running through Berlin’s most dynamic pre-war Jewish neighbourhood. At the same time, the name alludes to the Kiever’s own location at 25 Bellevue Avenue, just one block west of Augusta Avenue, an area once central to one of Toronto’s earliest Jewish communities. Set-up in a quiet dialogue with the synagogue’s interior, the installation portrays in careful detail the ephemeral, material daily life in the relative calm before the storm. Berlin radio broadcasts1 and echoes of a neighbour practicing the piano2 provide an intermittent, subtle backdrop for the solitary figure of the young woman in her parents’ home. Her actions are introspective; they ritualize domesticity and emphasize an inner world. She never speaks or acknowledges visitors; she exists entirely in a different time and space. Played by actor and writer Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, the resident of Auguststrasse 25 is modeled in part on a young Lilli Jahn,3 a German Jewish doctor who was later killed at Auschwitz. Based on Jahn, Corbeil-Coleman developed a fictional character, Lottie. A full-fledged individual with a rich interior life, Lottie remains however a stranger to the viewer, a mysterious, definitive other.
Drawing on his experience with theatre productions as a sound designer, Woodley adopts a similar vocabulary to that of the stage, creating nonetheless a work that ultimately defies categorization within any traditional artistic discipline. The setting is not fabricated but rather reconstructed, with the attention of an author describing a palpable world, through the precise choice of authentic objects. Unlike theatrical performance, the piece is not intended for a collective audience, but rather for a solitary spectator whose contemplative presence may parallel Lottie’s gestures. In fact, the work has a life of its own even if no witness is present, or if the viewer is not “tuned-in”, absorbed in a book, or daydreaming. Integral to the piece, the synagogue provides its sanctuary for the visitor to linger, sit on its old wooden benches and become part of the two entwined realities – that of the present day and that of the imagined Berlin apartment building. A privileged time and a contemplative space are thus offered, encouraging pause to experience the encounter and reflect on the nature of memory and history, self and other, the domestic and the sacred.
As Walter Benjamin writes, “memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre. It is the medium of past experience, just as the earth is the medium in which dead cities lie buried.”4 Employing theatrical means to craft an experience that moves beyond theatre into a different dimension, Woodley creates an impermanent memorial to a lost world. The temporary apparition of the Berlin apartment inside the sacred space inscribes itself into the ritual role of the synagogue, which is, in the artist’s view, a theatre of remembrance. However, while religious ritual and historic accounts have a predilection for the dramatic, what is remembered here is not the extraordinary and the mythic, but rather the forgotten mundane realm, elevated to symbolic status.
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. […] For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.5
Commemorating the sphere of the secular and the everyday, Auguststrasse 25 attempts to sketch a missing trace and provide a fleeting memory of what was completely eradicated by the Nazi regime. The fragility of this recreated moment echoes that of the world evoked. For the duration of the exhibition, the shifting natural light and the choices of the actor alter the manifestation of the piece every day. Once the project ends, the memorial itself remains only a vanishing record in the minds of those who have seen it. Far from being set in stone, it is an image as transient as a photograph fading in time. Gradually, the memory will be buried again.
1 German radio audiences increased at a rapid pace by the mid-twenties and Berliners accounted for a large part of the avid listeners. Station directors were compelled to prioritize popular culture, education and entertainment programming, which encouraged original productions for the acoustic medium. This led to the development of a new genre: the radio play (Hörspiel). Two of the most revolutionary plays of the period are featured in the installation, alternating with the music of Hugo Wolf, Mahler and Schoenberg. One is Alfred Döblin’s adaptation of his famous novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz; the other is SOS…rao rao…Foyn: “Krassin” Saves “Italia”, written by the Communist playwright Friedrich Wolf. Through this new audio play surprisingly accepted by the Berlin station, the Internationale aired for the first time on German radio.
2 Woodley’s recordings of Eve Egoyan rehearsing the piano accompaniment of the andante movement of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata and Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 142, No. 1 in F Minor, D 935.
3 Lilli Jahn’s surviving letters were published by her grandson and editor of the German magazine Der Spiegel, Martin Doerri, in the biography My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900-1944. Originally published in Germany as Mein Verwundetes Herz (Munich: Deutches Verlags-Anstalt, 2002), the English translation was published in 2004 by Bloomsbury, New York.
4 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-1934, Berlin Chronicle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 611.
5 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Shocken Books, 1978), 255.
Auguststrasse 25 was created by E.C. Woodley with:
Actor: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman
Set Design: Teresa Przybylski
Lighting Design: Jason Hand
Meredith Woodley, Denise Cronenberg, Susan Dicks, Marjorie Fielding, Eve Egoyan, Lance Schibler, Daniel Pellerin, John Steinberg
E.C. Woodley is an alumnus of the Manhattan School of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music. He apprenticed in London, England with composer Michael Kamen, writing music and arrangements for Terry Gilliamʼs film Brazil. Recent music work includes film scores, sound design and theatre compositions for many award-winning productions. In 2005, Woodley won a Dora Award for That Time, a series of five short Samuel Beckett plays directed by Jennifer Tarver. As the creator and host of The Lost and Found on Toronto radio station CKLN-FM, Woodley has broadcast his original audio collages monthly for the past several years. Audio collage on CD includes A Ward of the Government (1992) and the soundscape work Abide with me (New York No. 1) (1995). His critical writings appear in Canadian Art, Border Crossings and Art in America. He recently curated the exhibition Fernand Leduc, 1970 – 1999 for the Olga Korper Gallery. E.C. Woodley is based in Toronto and Amsterdam.
Design and editing: Tony Hewer | Photography: Isaac Applebaum
Digital publication to the exhibition E.C. Woodley: Auguststrasse 25
Presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at the Kiever Synagogue, Toronto | April 22 to May 30, 2010
Curator: Mona Filip
© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2010, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved.