In the Image We Hear Your Voice
by Anouchka Freybe
I do not believe in history, rather that history is a construction. I believe that history is about who is talking – it is reactive. […] History is not frozen – we always talk to what we experience or understand today.
– Esther Shalev-Gerz
For over four decades, Paris-based Esther Shalev-Gerz has been examining history and identity construction through a poetic form of looking and telling, questioning and answering. She has created a substantial body of work that integrates the voice into the genre of portraiture. Using media such as video, photography, 3D animation, text, sound, sculpture, installation and public space intervention, Shalev-Gerz has reframed expectations about what we know, what we share, and why we tell stories of belonging. In her preference for using machine-generated images, one might view her as a kind of techno-magic realist, someone who is interested in capturing the moment a spirit is generated in front of the camera.
From the beginning of her practice, Shalev-Gerz has been engaged in project commissions that situate others in the position of talking, integrating their realities into her observations without destabilizing or co-opting their voice. She has built on collaboration as a concept, pushing its boundaries to expand on the potential of sharing in various formats: as participant, reader, viewer, actor, artist. Collaboration in representation, specifically through the camera and sound recordings, offers the potential to think from the perspective of others, to unite thinking and social reality – which is the task of art, according to political theorist Hannah Arendt.1 As Arendt has argued, it is our shared responsibility to understand dialogue, private and public, in order to understand the lines of thought behind action.
The projects assembled for the first time in Toronto at the Koffler Gallery are iterations on this theme of the portrait as a reactive voice to history: The Portraits of Stories (Les Portraits des histoires) (1998–2008), First Generation (2004), The Place of Art (2006) and The Gold Room: An Answer to Jorge Luis Borges’ Text The Scandinavian Destiny (2016). While removed from their original locale and context in cultural centres in Europe, they function independently of their commission sites. Shalev-Gerz’s work embraces fluidity in a state of borderlessness. While certain commissions have brought about active public involvement, as with the construction of The Public Gallery in Sandwell, England – the most recent site of The Portraits of Stories – or the commitment to building a creative centre for artists of Bergsjön subsequent to the realization of The Place of Art, many of the stories speak more generally to the potential for trust and cultural sensitivity activated by individual voices daring to engage.
The Gold Room was recently commissioned by the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. Shalev-Gerz chose to work with the Gold Room, a museum gallery named after the precious metal of the objects primarily featured in this space. The artist asked five curators of the collection to each speak about an artefact that they felt was most important, and five refugees to Stockholm to tell a story about the one thing they could not have left behind on their journey to Sweden. The newcomers agreed to lend their objects – a cross, a watch, a diploma, a necklace, a Madonna – for installation in the Gold Room for the duration of the project in the same vitrine with the artefacts from the collection.
Shalev-Gerz filmed the narrative portraits at close range, against a dark background, sound unfiltered; the camera gently scans and focuses, while the voices animate the objects. A gold square hovers over the centre of the screen throughout, providing the illusion of a gold-leaf embossment of the image; it serves both as a nod to the Surrealist photographic technique of solarisation,2 and as an imprint of sculptural permanence on the oral narrative – a kind of bronzing filter that connotes timelessness (holding something ephemeral in place) and an aura over the narrator. As in earlier projects, Shalev-Gerz uses the video footage as an archive that can be mined, producing a series of portrait and object prints. The digital stills serve an indexical function, charting the nuanced, revealing differences between artefacts, expressions and gestures. They also become new objects, generated by the artist’s act of mediating the moment.
The Gold Room proposes a reading of objects that are not just emblematic of trade and conquest, but define a connection between life and the spiritual hereafter – testifying to a deeper meaning that underlies the Scandinavians’ avid interest in travel and the import of gold. In Viking mythology, for instance, important voyages must be accompanied by a vessel that safeguards your spirit. The meaningful objects carried by the refugees on their difficult journeys can be described in similar terms, as holding the most defining life experiences and precious memories of their owners. The artist intended her series of portraits as a response to a 1953 essay written by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Scandinavian Destiny,” which considered Nordic people to be destined to a quiet historical impact, even though they travelled worldwide before any other Europeans. While Borges states “In universal history the wars and books of Scandinavia are as if they never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze,” the speakers in The Gold Room seem to answer with a view turned inward, a solipsistic reverie that discloses more the longer one listens.
By juxtaposing the two groups of portraits, the artist exposes the differences of perspective, experience and emotional stance between the historians and the refugees. While the gold square functions as a unifying device, underneath that surface the speakers’ relationships to the objects contrast radically. Whereas the historians’ passion is mitigated by professional distance, the refugees’ connection to their objects is indelible. One only needs to hear their voice and watch their body language to understand how they are defined and empowered by their lived history, its significance deeply embedded in the object. As one of the newcomers says of his golden necklace, “It is part of me. The gold is not just gold, the cross not just a cross. Here we are, really family.” Foregrounding the personal significance of these mementos not only allows them to be displayed in a state of equivalence with the artefacts, but also makes it possible to view the Gold Room in a new light, one that considers the rich and personal stories the historic objects might also contain.
Shalev-Gerz’s First Generation (2006) is a permanent installation created for the Botkyrka Multicultural Research Centre in Fittja, Sweden that ties together the poetry of personal legacy and the unifying potential of shared stories. Fittja is a Stockholm suburb that is well known for its new communities. The artist asked thirty-five first generation locals to respond to four questions about their experiences of departure and arrival, from home to a new place: “What did you find, what did you lose, what did you give, and what did you get?” She recorded their answers as an audio file, and then played the recording back to them. As they listened to their answers, the artist filmed their facial responses in extreme close-up. The effect of deconstructing a portrait in these details recalls Dadaist techniques – the breaking apart or “morselling” of an image – allowing viewers to consider what can be gleaned from the fragmentation of our speech and our bodies, as a process. To read the body for insight into a labyrinth of thoughts is both an intimate, private engagement, as well as a public tool for communication. As a permanent installation at the Botkyrka Centre, the project is also separated into two: the images can be seen from outside the building, but the sound can only be heard once people step inside. This division creates an intended gap between sight and sound.
“What did you find, what did you lose, what did you give, and what did you get?”
The soundtrack was later transcribed into four languages (Russian, English, French, German), and the artist created a mural version of the project with forty-three stills from the video along with accompanying text pieces. At the Koffler Gallery, the images and English text fragments form two intersecting cloud-like clusters. The approach of splitting content into two parts is a frequent leitmotif in Shalev-Gerz’s work, and while it gestures to the inherent components of conversation – talking and listening – the “splitting into two” suggests an implied collaboration between halves, or a tension between what is known and what is left unspoken. The separation between the speaker and their statement translates into a physical experience of disconnection, an embodiment of identity displacement that newcomers to a place must bear.
The Portraits of Stories is an iterative project that precedes First Generation, and employs a more linear question-and-answer style of documentation and presentation. The project was initiated in 1998 at two sites: in Aubervilliers next to Paris, and in Belsunce, Marseille. Both municipalities invited Shalev-Gerz to create a new work. She decided to respond to the history of these places as sites in transition due to demographic shifts, asking over two hundred people the question, “What story should be told today?” The speakers were given the freedom to choose what they wanted to say, and to select what and where to film.
Though Shalev-Gerz explored the personal narrative and the filmed portrait with more nuance in The Gold Room and The Place of Art, what is so effective in The Portraits of Stories is the diversity of accounts and reflections. The interpretation of “What story should be told today?” moves from the personal and familial to the political context of the surrounding urban environment. Although each story is unique, Shalev-Gerz has sequenced the portraits so that they flow from one to another, thereby suggesting an underlying connection. The editing gradually underscores the essence of community: that it is not about sameness, but variation. In Marseille, one woman shares her reflections on what she perceives as positive change (the arrests of drug-users), while the following male voice laments it: “The only thing we’re facing in the area is struggling to keep our housing; when they say redevelopment, they mean moving people…” In 2008, The Public Gallery in Sandwell, England presented all of the projects in one place, including a new iteration, marking ten years of the series. An abridged format at the Koffler features the Marseille and Sandwell iterations; the impact of the two different locales and time periods is subtle, but notable. In the first instance in Marseille, the artist used a fade in/fade out technique to soften and demarcate the transition zone between portraits; later, in Sandwell, the narratives are spaced apart by a quiet space, a bookmark of the speakers’ surroundings.
In The Place of Art, Shalev-Gerz recorded participants and asked two questions with open-ended possibilities: “How would you define art?” and “Where would you locate the place where it happens?” The artist interviewed thirty-eight culturally-diverse artists residing in Bergsjön, a suburb of Gothenburg. They were all responding to urgent realities – some sharing in their need for a cultural production and meeting place, and others more concerned about how to increase visibility and opportunity for their own practices as well as for the arts in their community. Shalev-Gerz generated architectural renderings based on their responses, creating a blueprint of their vision. These digital models were compiled into a video projection narrated by the participants, and unfold as dreamlike utopian sequences. They represent another language, manifesting between the idea and its physical realization. Light rotates around these models and casts ever-shifting shadows, a reminder of time’s passage and of the earth’s path as it moves around the sun.
“How would you define art?”
“Where would you locate the place where it happens?”
Shalev-Gerz once again conceived of her project as two-sited, with components exhibited at the Göteborgs Konsthall and at the Rymdtorget’s shopping centre in the artists’ neighbourhood. In the video featuring the artists, their answers to the first question appear on the walls behind them in varied, enhanced typeface, as if the walls are bearing their words and revealing their secrets. Between these sequences are “echoing” quotes by diverse artists who participated in the controversial post-colonialist exhibition Magiciens de la Terre in Paris. Likewise installed at two locations (at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle at Parc de la Villette) in 1989, the exhibition was influential for Shalev-Gerz, leading her to contemplate where a real exchange between artists and environments was happening.3 Shalev-Gerz’s collaboration with artists in Gothenburg prompted a more direct discussion around the definition of a healthy, vibrant artistic community, answering a broader call to civic responsibility.
To experience Shalev-Gerz’s four works together in one space, detached from the architectural and cultural cues offered by site-specific commissions, reveals an underlying current in her formal, aesthetic choices. Her precision with the lines, cuts and overlaps of projected and still images is deliberate, and her interest in lens-based technologies coincides with a broader intention to foreground the importance of symbolically holding time. British academic Jacqueline Rose has written in her book Women in Dark Times that Shalev-Gerz is among a small group of women who have redefined a role for female artists – one that does not fit into any conventional mode, but is distinctive in its artistry as a form of defiance. Through her focus on the activation of history through speaking and listening, Shalev-Gerz lends weight to history through the “unexpurgated, often pained, voices of a European legacy still pressing on the future – the trauma of the war, (but also) the migrant shades of the modern city.”4 She, like Borges – who said that he was not political, but concerned about ethics – builds forums and gives voice to the people. Repeatedly exercising how we may look to collaborative interactions to build blueprints for the future, Shalev-Gerz’s work asks us to share responsibility for fostering mutually respectful relationships.
1 “The Human Factor: Hannah Arendt,” Ideas with Paul Kennedy, CBC podcast, April 23, 2014, www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/ideas/episode/15525808.
2 Solarization is a photographic process in which the image captured on a negative or on a print is reversed in tone, meaning the dark areas will appear light and light areas appear dark. The phenomenon is also known as the Sabatier effect when referring to negatives.
3 Annie Cohen-Solal, “Revisiting Magiciens de la Terre,” Stedelijk Studies Journal Issue #1, Fall 2014 (Collecting Geographies), https://www.stedelijkstudies.com/journal/revisiting-magiciens-de-la-terre/.
4 Jacqueline Rose, Women in Dark Times (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), 160.
Originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, Esther Shalev-Gerz (born Gilinsky) moved with her family to Jerusalem in 1957, where she graduated from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. Since 1984 she has lived and worked between Paris and Cortes Island, Canada. Major retrospective exhibitions at Jeu de Paume in Paris (2010), Musée des Beaux Arts in Lausanne (2012), and Wasserman Projects in Detroit (2016) established her as a widely respected artist, along with her significant public works in Hamburg, Israel, Stockholm, Wanas, Geneva, Glasgow and more. She is currently producing her latest permanent artwork, The Shadow, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
Anouchka Freybe is a writer of fiction and non-fiction, drawn to storytelling that explores issues around transformation and community. She is a first-generation Canadian with a background in art history and literature, and research interests in contemporary multimedia art practices. She lives in Toronto, with roots in Vancouver and Germany.
Esther Shalev-Gerz was generously supported by the Institut français and was presented in partnership with the 2018 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival as a Primary Exhibition.
Design: Tony Hewer | Editing: Shannon Anderson, Mona Filip
Koffler Gallery installation photos: Toni Hafkenscheid
Digital publication to the exhibition Esther Shalev-Gerz
Presented by the Koffler Gallery | April 5 to June 3, 2018 | Curator: Mona Filip
© Koffler Centre of the Arts, 2018, in collaboration with the individual contributors. All rights reserved. ISBN 978-1-928175-15-5.