Memory is the most baffling aspect of being. It is often visual and physical, and yet fluid, elusive, and deceptive. Memory and its uses is the thematic link between two European artists, one Polish and the other German, whose works went on display this week at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It is the first time they have been exhibited together and the first time that many of these works have been loaned by the institutions that commissioned them, Israel Museum director James Snyder said during a preview of the show.
Remembering brings together the works in various mediums of Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990) and Joseph Beuys (1921–1986).
The exhibits are arranged so that the point at which the space of one artist flows into that of the other refers “to the glory and the horror of the twentieth century,” said guest curator Jaromir Jedlinski, of Warsaw, whose idea it was to show the two artists together.
At the meeting point, on Kantor’s side is a cross on wheels and a photo from a late performance (1988) titled “I Shall Never Return,” in which objects and figures are covered by a shroud-like black cloth. On Beuys’s side is “The End of the 20th Century,” 31 basalt slabs suggesting dead bodies; here memory is also personal, Jedlinski’s co-curator, the museum’s Suzanne Landau, said.
Kantor turned to performance early in his career; during World War II he founded an experimental, underground theater group that performed through 1944. During that war Beuys served in the Luftwaffe as a rear-gunner in a Stuka bomber and was shot down in March 1943 on the Crimean Front. Beuys constantly created and reinvented himself, and also recycled parts of earlier works, Landau said. The story he told of how he was saved—that Tatars found him in the snow and covered him with animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health—was probably one of those reinventions.
The story is reflected in one of his most powerful works, an installation titled “Palazzo Regale, 1985” which evokes an elaborate mausoleum. Seven large framed brass panels covered with gold dust hang on the walls of the room containing two casket-like display cases. The case in the center suggests a body: At the upper end of a fur coat is a black sculpted head, its larynx marked with an X, as if to indicate that the person had been permanently silenced. The other case contains what appears to be a slab of animal fat and various kinds of bandaged limbs and prostheses.
The most haunting of Kantor’s works one which also deals with memory and death, is “The Dead Class,” which was performed more than 2,000 times starting in the 1970s. The characters, who are dead, confront their younger selves—lifeless figures of children seated in rows at battered wooden desks. Kantor plays the teacher in the performance, seeming to direct the action with tiny hand gestures. In a documentary that is part of the exhibition the artist talks about his interest in the desks—the “wrecks” that are the bearers of memory. The physical objects from this performance that are exhibited are the children sitting at their desks and the figure of a dead child lying on an old-fashioned bicycle. How they were used in the performance can be seen in a version filmed by Polish director Andrzej Wajda.
A third exhibition, Drawing in the Margins, opened last week and is adjacent to those of Kantor and Beuys. It shows works spanning 45 years by Joshua Neustein, who, according to curator Meira Perry-Lehmann, “subverts the conventions of drawing.” Born in Poland and educated in the United States, Neustein has lived and worked in Israel and in the US. One work, “Taped Map of Israel, 2006” consists of an outline of Israel created with cheap masking tape that pulls away from the surface, changing the boundaries, and an additional outline that increases the territory but also suggests the temporary nature of the geographic borders.
This work, as well as the videos Neustein has created, “show how you demarcate territory, which is what all artists do,” he said.
Some of the works were made by erasing square or oval parts of graphite scribbles, then putting the erasures in a see-through envelope and attaching them to the scribbled-on paper. The erased parts are not really erased, Neustein contended, but rather created.
One two-hour video shows water dripping into a glass of Bordeaux wine, causing the wine to gradually lose its color until it takes on the color of champagne and then is completely transparent, that is, pure water. Perry-Lehmann described it as “a meditative work about identity.”
All three exhibitions are to continue through October 27, 2012.
Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. All images courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.