The Holocaust is a subject that on the surface seems to defy artistic representation.
The nature of history, the practice of historicisation and the processes of memory still pose aesthetic and ethical problems for contemporary thought.
The way we remember and what is rendered as history is hinged on the role played by images in mediating memory and history. Family photographs, television and film images along with the personal expression inherent in artistic production are forms through which we mediate our personal and cultural histories. It seems crucial that many of these representations of history are explicitly about family relationships and the mediation of memory through familial conflict. This topic of the family photograph and the kinds of familial gazes and subjectivities it embodies and, which addresses a range of family images in addition to its discussion of family pictures in relation to the Holocaust.
In the 1960s the subject of the Holocaust was not avoided, but appeared infrequently in art, except in the realm of building public memorials, principally at the sites of destruction in Europe. Artists responded very much like survivors themselves who decided against talking about the event. Since the l970s new generations of artists have emerged, with sensitivity toward the subject, and have attempted to grapple with the difficulties of art after such a monstrous period of destruction.
In his video « La racine perdue le père de mon père », 2007, a 9 min film projected over a three paneled screen, Cyril de Commarque addresses the issues of mourning and memory. His grandfather, a member of the French Resistance from 1940, was captured, deported by the Gestapo in 1943 and died in Buchenwald in 1944. He had helped members of the Maquis and Jewish families to hide in the forest.
n 2005, the French State’s admission of its responsibility in the deportation of members of its own population finally made it possible for a number of families to begin the process of mourning and to retrieve their own memories from under the cloak of silence…
Apart from the video, the installation is centred around two other objects: the root of a sixty year old tree recently extracted from what remains of the Buchendwald camp and a cello which used to belong to the artist’s grandfather. Through a pair of headphones, one can hear Cyril repeatedly chanting the prison matriculation number of his grandfather over untuned notes played from the cello that slowly began to reverberate again. This reminds the viewer the brutality of the loss in the family. The lost branch, unable to grow or be repaired, symbolises the mute wound of his family tree.
The artists, who have dealt with the subject of the holocaust, can be found through 3 generations. The first generation of artists is Holocaust survivors themselves who have worked as professional artists. Children of survivors, sometimes called “the second generation,” make up the second group. The third group is artists not directly connected with the Holocaust who have developed a sensitivity toward the subject because of their humanitarianism and empathy and attempt to understand the event and convey it to others through art.
For the second generation, art provided an appropriate entry for questions of memory, absence, presence and identity. Given the research based work by artists like Robert Morris, Christian Boltanski, Jonathan Borofsky, Anselm Kiefer, Sue Coe and others, the visual representations of the second generation mark the continued impact of the terrible period of the Holocaust on a generation that did not directly experience it. These are children who cannot conceive of their existence without the vast imprint of the Holocaust upon it.
The third group, the “outsider” generation has important ethical boundaries to consider when approaching the subject. The art of this group cannot be “memory” for they did not experience the event itself. It may be an interpretation (derived from a sense of vulnerability as an artist), a historical narrative, reflections on place, absence and presence, photograph or film, or simply a confrontation with the impenetrability of the subject or who bring to the subject their unique perspectives because of their relationship to the event. The greater question at hand, however, may not be the Holocaust, but an attempt to penetrate the nature of man and seek light through the darkness of the late twentieth century.
Cyril de Commarque belongs to this third generation. He filmed his father as he was searching for his own father on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death. This period of family history had until now been suppressed.
Like Marianne Hirsch writes in her essays, Cyril de Commarque’s film argues that the look of the familial gaze offers a specific kind of subjectivity: within the family, as I look I am always also looked at, seen, scrutinized, surveyed, monitored. Familial subjectivity is constructed relationally, and in these relations I am always both self and other(ed), both speaking and looking subject and spoken and looked at object: I am subjected and objectified.
In many ways the film ultimately affirms the importance of memory and mourning as the means to rework, engage and confront the past. It is precisely in the controversies and tensions, in the conflicting stories and multiplicity of voices, in the desire to both deconstruct and question,that the past can be sustained and witnessed within the present. In « La racine perdue le père de mon père », the trees of blocks 58 to 61 whose roots are buried in the camp’s ruins raise the question of whether growth is possible when memory and mourning remain deferred?
 Marianne Hirsch is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Her recent publications include Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997), The Familial Gaze (ed.1999), Time and the Literary (co-ed.2002), a special issue of Signs on “Gender and Cultural Memory” (co-ed. 2002), and Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust (co-ed. 2004).Hirsch is concerned with the role of family pictures in the construction of individual and familial identity and as a means through which the past, including the traumatic events of the Holocaust, is negotiated, framed and reframed.
Hirsch uses the term “postmemory” as a means to understand the complexities not only of the memories of the children of survivors, but the process of cultural memory itself. She argues that postmemory is related to issues of the diaspora and temporal and spatial exile; it is an essential means to understanding memory precisely because it is distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.
Postmemory is about the continuation of memory and its regeneration in those for whom memories are experienced once or twice removed. Liss, who also employs the term, uses it to refer to “the artists’ distance from the events as well as their relation to the fallout of the experiences.” It could be said that these authors see artistic engagements of postmemory as offering compelling means to reexamine not only the ways in which the past is understood, represented and mediated, but to reconsider the past itself.
– Installation video, roots and sound installation: May to September 2011 Musée du Mémorial de Compiègne
-Video projection, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BNF, May 2010
-Berlin sept. 08, installation at the Johannes Kirsche, curator Caryl Ivrisse:
Video installation projection on 3 screens in a loop, 8’40”, la Racine perdue
Root extracted at Buchenwald Concentration Camp
Matricule 42152 sound installation, cello in a plexi box with two head phones, 1’loop
-New York 2007, 92 Y, video performance in opposition of Günther Grass text.