galia yahav: the german artist erik schiemann's obsession with nazi death camps / haaretz
In conversation he spews more and more details about the holocaust, about the camps, relates horrifying events. For 20 years the Berlin-based artist Erik Schiemann has been photographing in concentration camps throughout Europe, 10 of them in black and white only, and has amassed a huge visual archive dealing with what it looks like to visit a camp. A small part of this archive is now exhibited in the show “Visitor's Book: Photographs from a Personal Archive” at the Herzliya Museum. The show is made up of landscapes, mostly empty and gloomy, and of portraits of visitors to the camps; some tourists, some on official commemorative visits, in the middle of ceremonies or simply walking around and staring with unclear expressions. “The portraits are masks, stone faces” he says, “I'm trying to avoid cliched facial expressions of victimhood, in order not to limit the focus to the question of 'sadness', so that the faces remain as an open question, as a text that has to be read.”

His small exhibit, really just a corridor's worth of an exhibit, is part of a series of exhibits currently shown at the museum under the title “Back to Berlin”. Its subject is the influence of the city on artists and their ways of dealing with its past. “The exhibits attempt to bring forth points of view that focus on the ways of cristallization of a contemporary culture of memory among creators who see themselves as part of the 'third generation'”, writes curator Aya Luria, this being her first project as manager of the Herzliya Museum. “They're dealing with this issue through the large icons of the war and of German culture while adopting practices from historical research or from artistic quotation.” The central exhibit at the museum is “What's Completely Hidden in the Revealed” by Ilit Azoulai. Next to it is presented the group show “Second Glance” (which is concurrently being shown at KW, the Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin) which includes work by Maya Zack, Erez Israeli, Andy Hope, Amir Yaziv, Alona Rodeh, Ella Littvitz, and others, as well as the exhibit “A Letter from Mr Faust — Seven Calls from Berlin” curated by Amir Fattal and Stephan Köhler.

Seen next to the plethora of projects that try to be interesting in a forced way, to find an “angle”, to process the holocaust, this way and that way, and that have no element out of proportion, exaggerated, boundary-breaking and are designed perfectly, there's a strange quality to Schiemann's humble project. The fact that he didn't invent some new photographic language of his own (the large hall where Azoulai's work is shown is a good example of the bombastic effect a new photographic language can have), the fact that he doesn't decorate his project with all sorts of theoretic justifications, that his work isn't the result of esotericism but is itself all core, center—humanist photography in the camps— there's in all this some measure of honesty. Schiemann doesn't avoid direct mourning.

Schiemann is interested neither in the camps' appearance nor in the information contained there, but rather in the ceremony of the visit itself. In a manner of speaking, he turned visiting the camps into an obsessive pilgrimage, and photography into a medium in the magical sense of the word: a way to communicate with the dead.

He is “guided by a desire to understand and decipher some thing about the place and what happened there — some thing that cannot be made clear from the 'big picture'”, writes Sapir Huberman, who curated the exhibit with great attention and gentleness. “Sometimes I found among his photographs a field of flowers where the parade ground used to be, sometimes an antiquated area or a prisoners' building which was obviously built by the prisoners themselves. Many photographs show portraits of camp visitors, of people who work there or of people who live in the adjoining area. Sometimes the people photographed seem to be acting in front of the camera as in a theater, and sometimes they seem like prisoners from back then.”

One such example is a photograph of an old man who's standing at attention in the middle of an empty field, with a forest in the background, projecting a long shadow on the ground. This is the parade ground in Buchenwald. The man (Viktor Karpus, a holocaust survivor) is dressed in prisoner's clothing which he brought specially for the visit and to carry out a private ceremony of standing at attention in the parade grounds. The photographer stands in front of him, with him, from a distance. This is a horrific photograph because one can see it isn't a return to the past, but rather a continual present, and despite the theatricality it isn't a rehearsal for a play, because the play has already taken place. All that's left is the place itself as an infinite stage.

The photographs describe tree tops in Majdanek, a part of a wall in Ravensbrueck, a landscape in Gross-Rosen, the stairs to crematorium 28 in Majdanek, an older man covering his eyes, perhaps wiping away his tears in Treblinka. Puddles in Birkenau. Miranda in Birkenau, her gaze averted sideways. The showers' compound in Birkenau, with names written on the wall. A cell block in Dachau. Tire tracks in the snow at Sachsenhausen. Grass in Trawniki. A cell block reflected in another block's window, Auschwitz.

“Schiemann isn't motivated by the desire to document the subject matter historically or ideologically, even though he read about all the camps and did extensive research on them” writes Huberman, who met him by chance during a visit to Sachsenhausen. “His recurring visits are the expression of a personal and inner obsession.”

In a strange way, continuous observation of the photographs brings to mind not historical documents of the camps, but rather the character Auggie Wren from the movie “Smoke” (directed by Wayne Wang, from a story by Paul Auster). Auggie Wren owns a tobacco store in Brooklyn, and he's also an amateur photographer. Every morning he takes a photo of the street corner where his store sits. The same view, as it were, the same frame every time, but its contents are different every time, unique. In his albums, which he keeps in the back of the store, he accumulates a multi-year calendar of humanity on planet Earth from a tiny point of view, which tries to capture “a non-dogmatic perspective on human behavior”, as Auster puts it. “It doesn't take more than five minutes a day” explains Auggie Wren, “but I do it every day. In sunshine or in rain, even during a snowstorm. Like the mailman. Sometimes I feel that my hobby is my real job, and that my real job is just a way to support the hobby.”

It seems this description fits Schiemann as well. His life's work is also anti-archival because he doesn't attempt to catalog anything. The people photographed aren't identified, and there's also no information about their visit. There's no map of Europe included or names of the camps, and there are no dates when the photographs were taken. There's no way to tell in which sequence the photos were taken or how frequently, they're just images floating around in the artist's consciousness. The project's anti-archival nature is like a unification ceremony. “Sapir's curating fascinated me because I've already grown cold towards these images” he says. “I looked at those pictures so much, that I don't feel anything towards them anymore”. And that's the show's center of interest: a complete lack of shame towards this stasis, and towards the obsessive-compulsive elements inherent in the process; towards the kitschy aspect that accompanies it, a shamelessness about its inconclusive fascination, about its repetitiveness. A melancholic atmosphere accretes around the complete lack of distance which leads to emotional disconnection. Schiemann's complete submersion in the materials of the work, and he's saturated with them, doesn't demand for itself a process of completion, closure or processing. And this is precisely the exhibit's importance: everything that isn't a form of “recovery” (to use the language of mental health).

There's a 'stuckness' aspect to this exhibit, a stubborn stasis born of “boredom”, born of presentational cliches we've known over and over for the sake of “the tension between what we already know about these places and the actual experience of a personal visit there”. That's why it's a shame that only 30 photographs were presented in this show, rather than allowing space for more and more of the same, since the strength of this project lays not in the individual image, but rather in obsessive repetition, in quantity.

Translation Gabriel Benaim


2014.10.04 / haaretz.co.il