Faces of Race and Faces of Memory
מיצב, מוזיאון ישראל, ירושלים. אוצר: יגאל צלמונה. 1988
Installation, Israel Museum Jerusalem. Curator: Yigal Tzalmona. 1988
Haim Maor's work touches on an existential and cultural, and very Israeli nerve - a live-wire which charges the concept of Israeli identity and which connects between the Israeli and the Jewi s experience. The "new Israeli", the one who "is no longer Jewish but also no longer Hebrew", has begun in recent years to transmit, among other identity-distress-calls, messages of a new affinity with Jewish experience (and note all the recent pilgrimages made by the Israeli intelligentsia to Poland). Haim Maor, Israeli artist, kibbutz member and second-generation Holocaust survivor, gives expression to the anxieties and hopes that nourish this affinity.
The present exhibition, like previous ones by the same artist, is built as a consciousness-raising route and has a somewhat theatrical aspect. It operates in time - the viewer passes from one station to another up a dead-end way. At one of the first stations he encounters a group of photographs resembling police photos or mug-shots of the kind made in Nazi death camps. The nature of the photographs, their contexts and their functional arrangement imbue the series with an atmosphere of alienation, loss of human identity and even sadism. The viewer, passing among them, cannot avoid a comparative identification of the various facial types and their racial characteristics: some look Aryan, others Semitic; he becomes "a potential racist..." At the same time, as it is known that the faces belong both to Jewish kibbutz members and tc Germans, and that not all the Jews look "Semitic", he becomes aware of the falseness of identification by stereotype.
With a lingering sense of dissatisfaction, the viewer proceeds to the next station where he passes before a row of the same images painted on wooden boards. The further he advances along this route, the older and more worn the boards become and the more blurred and indistinct the figures painted on them. Here and there the number that was tatooed on his father's arm at Birkenau recurs.
The paintings operate on several levels of meaning and along different semantic axes: the blue colour of the backgrounds is reminiscent of the colour of the mizrah in Polish synagogues and is thus associated with a collective Jewish heritage, but it also brings to mind the "sublime" blue of royal portraits in German Renaissance painting. The portraits themselves connect both with the portraits of the dead painted on wooden-panels in FAIYUM, Egypt, in the first centuries, and with the paintings of the kings and nobility of the Renaissance or with Medieval icons of saints. Furthermore, all the paintings are at one and the same time also objects, at times magically imbued with the presence of the original. This creation of objects which exist in the context of both art and death is related to the arstist's own history -- his grandfather was a carver of tombstones in pre-war Poland.
These paintings, with their layers of meaning, do not function as aesthtic, seductive objets d'art, but as signifiers. Together with the photographic portraits they trace a signifying chain, they constitute a semantic crossroads at which the royal sublime encounters the rejected and the outcast, the beautiful meets the threatened and soiled, the Jew mettc the German, the victim the murderer, and life confronts death - to create a human totality that blends light and darkness.
The gradual blurring of the paintings also signifies memory, or rather, forgetfulness, the cancer that eats away at the past. The dregs and distortionS of memory, its fragmentation - this is the natural process which the HoloCuast survivor both yearns for and fears. "To remenber and to forget". And the final station is the isolated, mirror-enclosed cell, where the viewer at last finds himself. The game is over. His is the next portrait in line, but this time he is condemned to truth and reality.
Maor's work integrates the collective dimension with the personal and private expression. On the one hand it refers to basic Jewish and Israeli traumas (Holocaust and racism), and on the other it constitutes an act of private exorcism, a preoccupation with family myth and woth the world of fears endured by the son of a Holocaust survivor (the portraits of himself and his family members are a significant element in the present exhibition). Maor's work is based on a synthesis of significations, but the juncture of all the meanings and contexts is his private self.
A number of young Israeli artists have recently dealt with the Holocaust, but Maor is virtually alone in the consistency with which he treats this difficult subject. That is why it is important to show his work. It is neigher the demonization nor the ritualization of the Holocaust; it is clear-sighted. Maor presents racism as a component of humanity and sees the rationalistic approach together with an awareness of the given tragic complexity of the human "1"-- as saving solutions.
Yigal ZaLmona, Curator - February 1988
"The starting-point of all the stories I have told has been the dead. One does not become a teller of stories in order to
gain fame. It is connected with a wound, with pain."
"Four people were talking about pine trees. One defined them by species, class and variety. One spoke of their drawbacks in the lumber industry. One quoted poems about pine trees in various languages. One put down roots, sent forth branches and rustled."
(Dan Pagis, "Last Poems")
The Faces of Race and Memory
A mystic once said to me: "Something which is defined as 'mystical ceases to be so the moment it is known and understood."
My series "The Faces of Race and Memory" examines the convolutions of individual and collective memory, and the consious and emotional conceptual system connected with the term "race". It is an attempt to exorcise demons by deliberately defining and intensifying memories. In my work human portraits are juxtaposed and "catalogued" in the spectator's mind as "Jewish" or "Aryan". The pictures and photographs serve as a factor accelerating the externalization of the spectator's prejudices, and during the course of his or her comparative observation he or she becomes a "potential racist".
By means of my work I seek to examine the basic components of racism under the microscope of stereotypes, and to review prejudices. The germ which is enlarged under the microscope and identified by its "individual characteristics" shifts from being a mystical element to being the recognised and understandable symptom of a disease for which a remedy exists.
My work also seeks to clarify the process of remembering or forgetting. The holocaust and memories of it, forgetting, causing things to be forgotten and denial, distortion and misrepresentation, serve as an axis leading the associative system from the here and now to the past and back. Along this axis there are many points: race theory, anthropology, body language, criminal photography and drawing, sarcophagus art in Faiyum, pictures in synagogues, Christian icons and the culture of royal portraits. My pictures have drawn on all those and received new identifying marks. I seek complexity, and that which is revealed in a simple, encoded arrangement is in my view one of the basic compoents of the world. It is a complexity which contains complementary and combinatory dualism.
78446, the number which appears among the portraits, is the number which was tattoed on the arm of my father, David Moscowitz, when he reached Auschwitz-Eirkenau in 1942. For me that number symbolises all numbers, the loss of human identity by the individual who forcibly or willingly becomes subservient to a well-oiled, technocratic machine, as well as schools of racism whose continuation is factories of death.
Constituting the whole from the fragments of memories. Is this a
picture of the world consisting of fragments of memories which were once whole? Or is it perhaps an entire world created of fragments of memories piled on remnants of memories?
Memory and man do not die, they disappear. But awareness gives energy to those who remain, those who survive, those who hold on to the fragments. They walk on towards the echo chamber.
Haim Maor - Givat haim Me'uhad - December 1987