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Artemis Alcalay- The Remembrance Exhibition

After recently getting back into contact with the artist who I studied for my Masters Degree, I decided to post about the research I conducted into her work. I still admire and keep up to date with the work of Artemis Alcalay, and it makes me feel really nostalgic when I look back on my research. I have broken up the text with images from both the exhibition, and the work of other artists who I compared with Alcalay. Enjoy!

Loss and Absence: The ‘Remembrance’ Exhibition (2001), Artemis Alcalay

This study is an exploration into the work of the artist Artemis Alcalay (1957-) and her exhibition entitled Remembrance displayed and hosted at The Jewish Museum in Frankfurt in 2001, for the Jewish Museum of Greece. The work of Alcalay directly engages with the sensitive and painful subject of the Holocaust, thus uncovering her own personal identity; a binding duality between both her Jewish background and her Greek identity.

Situated in juxtaposition of each other, for Artemis they allow “disobedience” within her work, as the artist terms it.[1] I shall be examining the exhibition as a reflection of “post memory” and how the artist translates these reawakened memories into her exhibition, using this space as a memorial to respond to the loss of her ancestors and to honour their memory, but also as a space to re-examine her own identity and history.[2]

Figure 1. Christian Boltanski. Reliquaire, 1990, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photographs, lamps, six metal drawers with grill, tin biscuit boxes, 210 x 166 x 42.5cm. Image taken from Solomon-Godeau (1998).

Her work displays memory as both an embodiment of union but also fragmentation, as these items act as souvenirs or mementoes, collected and amassed to piece together various memories, but they are also disjointed; flowing as a continual narrative. [3] Through examining the theme of loss and absence within the individual pieces of this exhibition and also as a collective whole, I shall conclude by analysing the stabilising persistence of the exhibition space as a container of memory.

Artemis Alcalay (1957-) is a Jewish-Greek artist, born in Athens and currently residing in Greece. Although her previous work has not directly reflected upon the Holocaust, it is now present within every work that she now produces.[4] Initially focusing on landscape painting, it was not until the 1980s-1990s that Alcalay began to experiment with work depicting the texture and folds of fabric, providing a link with her family’s fabric business and heritage. [5]

Figure 2. Artemis Alcalay. The Cross, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Wood and fabric, 50 x 90 x 3cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Her desire for a new direction and approach during the late 1990s evolved primarily through a course on marionettes. She reflects on what this point signified for her:

“So I was creating the marionettes out of wood and they lay on my working table, a friend of mine, an art historian (Andre Zivanari from Cyprous) told me that she liked them as they were naked. This is how it all started-with this work, myriads of images from the concentration camps came in front of my eyes and I couldn’t avoid them anymore. I felt as if I too were lying there dead and naked…”[6]

Figure 3. Artemis Alcalay. The Offering, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 18 x 24 x 6cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The marionettes were particularly significant for Artemis as she felt as though she had reawakened her family’s past, allowing for a re-engagement with her ancestors whose Holocaust stories she had heard from relatives. She realised that ultimately she was beginning to deal with her family history and particularly concepts involving loss and absence.[7] Hirsch (1997) describes how those that have not physically experienced the Holocaust are still marked by their family’s experience, with memories of their parents and grandparents passed down and transmitted to them, creating a borrowed memory- a “postmemory”.[8]

Alcalay herself can therefore be seen as a “postmemory” artist who portrays her own necessary and excessively intervening link of experiences of memory.[9] Memory here acts as liberation in a sense, as through acknowledging her family’s past Artemis is allowed the chance for freedom from the trauma that her family suffered.

Figure 4. Artemis Alcalay. The Parchment, 2000, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 35 x 26 x 7cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The title of the exhibition is predominantly significant as the word for “remember” in Hebrew (Zachor) is understood as a command- here the viewer is commanded to return to the past and to his or her memories. The artist acts as not just a victim of her family’s past but also as the possessor of these memories, a vessel for all what came before, a link in the chain. Does the truth only lie at the beginning of the chain? Is Alcalay’s story worth telling, as the “story echoes down the corridor of time, a story changing with the telling?”[10] I would argue yes, as her story is of minorities as well as the story of her own family; individualising the exhibition space would have fragmented memory cultures further and threatened to denationalise collective memory.[11]

Therefore, identifying with her nation and also her family induced a variety of religious imagery within her work which also uncovers conflicts within her own personal identity. She particularly conveys both a Greek and Jewish story through her use of Jewish and Greek imagery and iconography, which in turn exposes a struggle for dominance as shall be discussed.

Figure 5. (left) and detail (right). Artemis Alcalay. For Those Who Lived Together, For Those Who Died Together, 1998, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Salonica- also displayed in the ‘Remembrance’ exhibition in Frankfurt for the Jewish Museum of Greece. Mixed media, 80 x 100 x 100cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Within the Jewish tradition, “lamentation is intimately linked with hope.”[12] The exhibition therefore acts as a space for mourning and honouring those that have passed away instead, perhaps, as a space for melancholy. Melancholia locks the individual into a repetitive cycle of depression and trauma, but mourning allows for the possibility of “recathexis”, permitting the sufferer to break free of their cycle of grief.[13]

It may allow for renewal and “working-through” rather than “acting-out” which may provide hope for the individual.[14] The exhibition provides a way of counteracting the tendency to repress emotions and memories, and perhaps even to break the repetition associated with melancholia. For mourning to even be effective, perhaps we need the space of the exhibition as mourning requires a “solidaristic social context”- people need to be brought together.[15]

Figure 6. Artemis Alcalay. Body Parts, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 37 x 37 x 4cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Consequently, the exhibition space allows for this process by ultimately mutating into a cathedral of memories whereupon icons transform the exhibition area into a space for worship and prayer. This use of the art object as votive and sacred is also illustrated within the work of Christian Boltanski (1944-), such as within his piece ‘Reliquaire’ (1990) (Fig. 1). Here objects are directly placed upon altars, altering our perceptions of their use and status. Boltanski’s installations are often placed within the space of a church, whereas Alcalay transforms the exhibition space itself. Both perform the devotional in the process of the display; completing a ritualistic organisation.[16]

Figure 7. Artemis Alcalay. Portrait, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 25 x 39 x 19cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The religious aspects of the exhibition are conveyed predominating through symbolism, such as within the piece entitled ‘The Cross’ (1998) (Fig. 2). Artemis declares “as a Jew I dare to use this symbol-it is a disobedience but who cares?” [17] The religious art of Judaism forbids the use of iconography (this stands in stark contrast to ancient Greek art) therefore the artist breaks with the tradition of the Jewish temple and its art in general. Clothes adopt further meaning within this piece as upon the piece of wood a plain white shirt is outstretched in a gesture of offering and vulnerability, the unfolded sleeves completing the cross emblem.

Figure 8. Artemis Alcalay. The Sleep, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 60 x 80 x 10cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Here the missing body is eerie and unsettling- whose clothes are these? Artemis acknowledges that the cross is a universal symbol and also part of Jewish history, therefore she displays this symbol, in a way, to reconcile both Jewish and Christian art. Memories resurrect the dead, allowing for a rebirth of the past- here the cross is an emblem for this resurrection.

A combination of both Alcalay’s identity (illustrated through the religious aspects of this piece) and the Holocaust are brought together simultaneously as her use of clothes refers directly to the Holocaust whereupon personal items, shoes and clothes were removed and discarded. Alcalay therefore acknowledges the importance of re-accumulation, the preservation of the personal; displaying such items as artefact and iconic through religious symbolism.

Figure 9. Artemis Alcalay. Rosita’s Dress, 1999, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 30 x 40 x 4cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The religious connotations also allow the viewer to reflect upon the artist’s dual identity, illustrated through such works as the ‘The Offering’ (1998) (Fig. 3) which relates to the sacred act of honouring the dead. Here the influence of ancient Greek funerary art whereupon the deceased are depicted as being visited by beloved relatives and servants becomes apparent. In particular, the depiction of the delicate white hands clutching a bunch of white flowers is reminiscent of the funerary Greek sculpture tradition, with Alcalay’s primary influence revolving upon epitymvies steles.[18]

All in white, the ascetic colour refers to the votive and pure, but is also symbolic of healing. The viewer becomes acquainted with notions of forgiveness and cleansing particularly through this lack of colour. The piece is also heavily textured, relating to the notion of memories rekindled through the act of touch as these are textured memories, cold yet inviting.

Figure 10. Artemis Alcalay. The Dress II, 2000, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 40 x 50 x 4cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

In juxtaposition, Alcalay also directly evokes Judaism as seen within ‘TheParchment’ (2000) (Fig. 4) depicting the opening of the Torah Scrolls.[19] Two white hands pull the scrolls open, displaying six flowers, their stems laid out meticulously. The flowers refer once again to the honouring of the dead, but placed upon an important document they gain even more significance; honouring the dead is now seen as law.

The religious pieces within the exhibition relate to the past and present; they are created through the use of modern materials, yet they adopt the form of relics. They depict old traditions from two religions, traditions which are still carried out today .[20] These pieces do not specify victim’s names or identities, they are not seen as entirely a personal tribute and therefore others can ultimately associate with them. They are consequently icons to be recognised by all, for the viewer to acknowledge the loss of loved ones and to honour their own lost relatives.

Figure 11. Anselm Kiefer. Lilith’s Daughters, 1990, Gagosian Gallery, London. Oil, emulsion, shellac and ashes on canvas, with human hair, lead aeroplanes, copper wire and ash-covered dresses, 330 x 80cm. Image from Kaplan (2007).

These works evoke the importance of honouring remembrance as they reflect upon a shared legacy. Lowenthall (1998) examines this within his work The Heritage Crusade, stating “to share a legacy is to belong to a family, a community, a race, a nation. What each inherits is in some measure unique, but common commitments bind us to others within our group.”[21] It generates nostalgia and bonds, as well as re-engaging with roots, which is why heritage is particularly important to Diasporas.[22]

Figure 12. Artemis Alcalay. The Box, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 18 x 24 x 6cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

We value our heritage and history more when it is put at risk.[23] However, it could also be argued that these works represent art of generic elegy rather than reflecting upon historical remembrance.[24] However, I would argue that Alcalay’s work moves away from the danger of generating melancholia (whereupon historical commemoration is lost through the acknowledgment of mortality through lamenting the dead) by the use of abstraction and the refusal to use names, as I shall now discuss.[25]

Figure 13. Artemis Alcalay. The Parcels, 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, installation. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Through refusing to specify victim’s names or identities and therefore allowing the outside viewer the possibility of connecting with these pieces, the Remembrance exhibition (2001) continues this premise through its figurative pieces. These works particularly relate to the theme of loss and absence.

For example, through ‘To Those Who Lived Together and To Those Who Died Together’ (1998) that now belongs to the collection of MMCA in Salonica (Fig. 5), Artemis uses the form of the marionette to engage openly with this theme. Here two marionettes- figures of a bride and groom in wedding attire- are held motionless suspended above other broken marionettes which have been heaped into a pile representing discarded bodies.

Figure 14. Artemis Alcalay. The Closed House I, 2000, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Acrylic on wood, 80 x 90cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The bride and groom are held in union but will ultimately live with the trauma that they have suffered. There is a distinct lack of identity through the discarded marionettes- they remain nameless in a heap, forgotten and cast away.

De-humanised in a sense as they lose their reality; they are either puppets, controlled and used (as seen in the bride and groom) or they are broken people (the discarded marionettes). This theme is also illustrated within Alcalay’s accompanying piece ‘Body Parts’ (1998) (Fig. 6) where there is the sense of both presence (the human form) but also of absence (the life force). These “body parts” lie as abandoned items- who are the owners? Why are they discarded? Already we question the absence of the body and the identity of the owner/s.

Figure 15. Artemis Alcalay. The Closed House II, 2000, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Acrylic on wood, 80 x 90cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

These figurative works within the exhibition resemble relics; almost adopting the guise of archaeological remnants, extending Alcalay’s influence of ancient Greek art. Artemis has “unearthed” these works, and in doing so, has “unearthed” memories. These works appear delicate; as though they could crumble and turn to dust upon touch; therefore the relic has romantic connotations as its delicate nature is pure and sumptuous.

This reinforces the notion that these objects represent the archaeological, as this exhibition is also an excavation into Alcalay’s identity and memory. Devoid of colour and life, they seem to appropriate death but not wholly decay. Instead, they adopt a “preserved state”, timeless and fixed, but on the brink- they could disintegrate if touched.

For example, ‘Portrait’ (1998) (Fig. 7) and ‘The Sleep’ (1998) (Fig. 8) depict figures and faces as sleeping or dead (the viewer is never sure which). The decapitated head in ‘Portrait’ (1998) particularly hints at death, yet a peaceful death- the white head rests on a pillow, protected. ‘The Sleep’ (1998) resembles finality- the couple are at peace, they are together in the marital bed with the bed resembling a universal symbol for marriage and togetherness.

Figure 16. Artemis Alcalay. The House (Separation), 1998, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Acrylic on wood, 80 x 90cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

These faces seem to take on the form of death masks, votive icons. They are enshrined in their protective covers and pillows, which again reflects on the sacred. These works are illustrative of dreams, the realm of the unconscious and the subconscious, which relates to the nature of memory itself- it is elusive and selective, it flows as a sequence. Images can reappear on the surface; some are lost to the deep recesses of the mind.[26]

For Artemis, there remained a shadow haunting her and a direct urgency to produce these works. Perhaps this is reflected within the form that these works take- they are delicate and easy to destroy. As the last survivors of the Holocaust and the children of the victims disappear, the need to record and display memories has become urgent.[27]

Figure 17. Christian Boltanski. Missing House, 1991, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photograph of aerial view of ‘Missing House’ installation, mounted plaques. Image taken from Solomon-Godeau (1998).

Trauma has been passed down through the generations with the third and fourth generations feeling the traces of this which calls for them to interpret and display this trauma. However, can the viewer themselves ever truly engage with these works? Are they too cryptic and indirect? This may disorientate the trauma, but then again is there any “right” way to respond, remember or to even display suffering?

Because the Holocaust is often seen as beyond representation in a sense, how can the imagination represent something that is unimaginable?[28] What is left for the imagination to do? The exhibition cannot intensify the reality, the Holocaust is already intense. This therefore unveils a challenge that artists continually face as the risk of “aestheticizing” the Holocaust emerges.

Wolff argues that the beautiful in post-Holocaust art can engage the viewer in a sympathetic “but by no means passive” reflection on its theme.[29] It is abstract works that may pose a threat, as complexity “gets in the way” of its ability to represent the Holocaust.

However, literal realism is as threatening, as this can alienate the viewer through displaying horrific imagery.[30] In contrast, there are artists who are completely against beauty in Holocaust art, as producing beauty from such an event is seen as creating an extension of the crime.[31] Abstract art rejects conventional figurative work or symbolism but can still have emotional impact as it heightens the process of “looking” rather than making work identifiable to the viewer.[32]

Employing recognisable imagery and particularly using the figurative may be too simplistic to represent the Holocaust- the Holocaust was barbaric, therefore abstraction could be viewed as somehow appropriate.[33] The beauty of Alcalay’s works may therefore worry the viewer about their “fatal attraction” but the abstraction and direct simplicity of these works grounds them within an appropriate framework.[34]

The artist succeeds in displaying both the trauma and emotive nature of her message, without resorting to dark and threatening imagery, thereby drawing the viewer inwards to reflect upon the Holocaust together.

At first glance, the work of Alcalay may seem ambiguous but, as Apel has argued, it is not surprising that many artists address the Holocaust in this way due to the “difficult, elusive, enormous and even ungraspable nature of the subject.”[35] The Holocaust is perhaps “unknowable”.[36]

Alcalay employs a “postmodernist approach” in the sense that she is aware of the fragmented nature of experience and the problems associated with the retrieval of knowledge (particularly through her family), and uses the past as a way of producing new knowledge and a greater awareness in the present.[37] Like other “postmemory” artists, she is distanced from these events and so does not consider the Holocaust directly but in ways that bring to the surface the tensions and discontinuities between the past and the present, ambiguities, impasses and lacunas that are part of the memory effects of the Shoah.[38]

However, her work cannot function without her own narrative- as well as giving authenticity to the exhibition it is needed to locate these art objects within the Holocaust. Therefore the beautiful and ambiguous nature of these works is not threatened.

Art can be both beautiful and mournful, yet there is something “indecent or unethical” about creating Holocaust art in this manner.[39] But even to make this art work “sublime” which carries with it notions of pleasure and pain, this can lead to “too great a distanciation.”[40]  However, beauty need not be reduced to such simplicity- it can be complex and emotional, which is perhaps why some Holocaust artists such as Anselm Kiefer (1945-) create beautiful yet sinister work.[41]

By employing the beautiful in post-Holocaust art, it can be argued that we can approach the past in a deeper fashion- it is an “aesthetic mourning” in a sense, which can expand our understanding of the events themselves which the Remembrance exhibition (2001) achieves.[42]

Through many of the works within the Remembrance exhibition (2001), the beautiful and mournful is approached through reflecting upon the happiness, innocence and nostalgia of childhood, such as within ‘Rosita’s Dress’ (1999) (Fig. 9). This is the artist’s self-portrait.

Here Alcalay positioned herself in the past, locating herself at the Holocaust. It is her own death, with flowers over her dress, as though she herself is being remembered and honoured. Named ‘Rosita’s Dress’ from a play entitled ‘Dona Rosita’ in Athens, here Alcalay enables both performance and death to be reunited as romantic notions of death and the final curtain call are instantly conjured. Here Alcalay performs her own death as a child, providing a sacrifice, an offering.

Dresses are heavily gendered as feminine and Alcalay repeatedly uses the dress within the exhibition such as within the piece ‘The Dress II’ (2000) (Fig. 10). Thrown flowers are cast upon the dress in the act of a final farewell, acknowledging death and departure. The floating material, the delicate nature of all the dresses and the flowers, all suggest the feminine and the innocent as they represent the artist’s childhood, her own identity, but also rebellion as it is the Jewish woman who is evoked here.

Judaism is seen as a patriarchal religion to the artist, therefore she rebels against it within her work by making the feminine the centre motif and repeatedly evoking her Greek identity, which in turn displays her volatile nature.[43]

The artist Anselm Kiefer (1945-) also employs the image of the child’s dress within his work ‘Lilith’s Daughters’ (1990) (Fig. 11). Here the ash covered dress refers to the ashes of the Holocaust, the loss of innocence and death itself. There is also the reference to Judaism within the title- Lilith in Jewish mysticism refers to the first wife of Adam, who became a rebellious figure sometimes represented as an angel or even a demon.[44]

Here the dress is a far more bleak and disconcerting image than that of Alcalay’s work although both artists employ the beautiful, yet somehow sinister and rebellious.

The empty dresses within the exhibition represent the missing body, the absence of children and the loss of innocence due to the Holocaust. The dresses, the shoes, the flowers is all that is left to remind us of their existence. Here the lack of bodies in the clothes calls upon the ghostly. The spectres of the dead perform for the viewer and consequently death becomes a performance re-played. Alcalay’s experience in theatre helped her to conceive the exhibition as a huge set created for a play, as memory itself can be seen as a theatre space allowing for the drama of our histories to be replayed.[45]

Alcalay reflects upon these “left” items within her pieces ‘The Box’ (1998) (Fig. 12) and ‘The Parcels’ (1998) (Fig. 13). ‘The Box’ (1998) depicts memories as framed mementoes. Boxes store “keep sakes” things that are precious and worth saving and preserving- here the black open box, laid open like a wound, exposes its white contents to the viewer. A white skirt, top and pair of shoes are laid out bare and vulnerable. ‘The Parcels’ (1998) directly refers to packaged memories, protected and preserved.

The four parcels are tied, with the small child-like hands held over the string with labels, although no writing is seen. These items mingle with childhood memories, “the way all girls play and make dolls, sewing their clothes, arranging everything in boxes, with flowers.”[46] There is a nostalgic desire in collecting and accumulating, whereupon Alcalay adopts this process and presents these works as artefacts to acknowledge the missing or the lost.[47] These mementoes or even “souvenirs” represent the distanced experience, as they evoke the past though they cannot entirely recoup.[48] These are also souvenirs of death, death from the Holocaust and personal death within the artist’s family, also holding stasis as representative of eternal death.[49]

Alcalay uses the children’s world in order to express and create. She acknowledges the contradiction between her own life and that of the previous generation-the happy childhood memories victims were deprived off without reason, declaring “do I feel guilt? I dare to answer: yes.”[50] Engelking describes this guilt as a “kind of loyalty to the dead” although Alcalay’s generation also represent victory in a sense: victory over death through the continuation of life. [51]

Figure 18. Artemis Alcalay. The Garden, 2000, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 18 x 23 x 8cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The concept of the container is revisited through the notion of home. Seen as an international symbol of security, happiness, creativity and love, it is the space in which children are created, where one relaxes with the beloved persons around him or her. In Alcalay’s work all of these elements have disappeared. In ‘Closed House I’ (2000) (Fig. 14) and ‘Closed House II’ (2000) (Fig. 15), Alcalay has painted directly upon the outline of a house to create the effect of fabric draped across their walls; these houses have become enshrouded, in mourning, as no one lives within them anymore.

This act is reminiscent of when we cover the bodies of people who have passed away or when we cover ourselves to sleep. Sleep and death are closely linked within the exhibition as they both indicate absence- either absence of consciousness or absence of life.

Ghosts are present within these walls, intentionally invoked by the artist to fuse both presence and absence; particularly the presence of the immaterial (the affect that the missing has on the viewer).[52] The ghost is uncanny, fearful and unknown, encouraging the viewer to reflect and long for places and people which are recognisable.

‘The House (Separation)’ (1998) (Fig. 16) reflects calmly upon the nostalgic elements of the ghostly, here the clothes of the couple who once lived within this house, happily married, are shown. It is death, the concentration camps, war, that separated them and all that remains are their clothes. These are arranged in a white, ghostlike composition, as simply a trace, a residue.

Absence is also reflected within Christian Boltanski’s work ‘Missing House’ (1991) (Fig. 17) an installation constructed within the void of a bombed building. The house in both artists work suggests the idea of vacancy and emptiness. Whereas Boltanski’s work is situated within the void of the missing house, Alcalay uses the house symbolically.

The uncanny is also evoked through the depiction of hands and feet within Alcalay’s work. Within the motif of the feet the artist draws upon her influence of ancient Kouroi statues of men. One foot is often depicted in front of the other as typical of the Kouroi, suggesting a sense of movement. This is reflected within ‘The Garden’ (2000) (Fig. 18). The delicate feet, with their absent owner, walk across a white floor sprouting flowers.  Depicting phantom limbs gives reference to people and bodies consequently leaving powerful absences.[53]

Figure 19. Artemis Alcalay. Wandering II, 2001, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 20 x 80 x 4cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

Feet and hands are sensitive and vulnerable. They leave imprints and memory traces, with fingerprints themselves illustrative of our unique identity. Hands engage touch, they reach out. This is portrayed within the two works ‘Wandering II’ (2001) (Fig. 19) and ‘The Ribbon’ (1999) (Fig. 20). The hands do not lose their way, they are guided by each other with the red ribbon flowing and surrounding the white floating hands.

The ribbon itself renders the image of blood, representative of the bond of family through blood. In comparison, phantom limbs are also seen within the work of Tatana Kellner. This is represented within her work ‘Fifty Years of Silence’ (1992-4) which displays two books with casts made from the arm of each parent of the artist.

The casts display their tattoo from the camps, a bodily inscription, for example within the piece ‘B-11226 The Father’s Book, Fifty Years of Silence’ (1992) which depicts the arm of the artist’s father (Fig. 21). There is the presence of the arm, but the absence of the body. Here the limbs have an identity and a surrounding narrative presented within the text of the enclosing books.

They are a personal testimony relating directly to the survivors of the Holocaust. Made by the child of the survivors, Kellner herself is also defined as a “postmemory” artist.[54] Both Kellner and Alcalay have lived with an “absent memory,” and have chosen to represent it.[55] The books themselves are placed within boxes, which have to be opened to reveal the art work inside. The boxes themselves are reminiscent of coffins; Artemis herself places items in boxes allowing the viewer to open up secrets and silences and to shed their protective covers.

Figure 20. Artemis Alcalay. The Ribbon, 1999, The Jewish Museum, Frankfurt. Mixed media, 45 x 40 x 5cm. Courtesy Artemis Alcalay 2010.

The works are therefore entombed.[56] This method has been engaged with previously within the piece ‘The Box’ (1998) (Fig. 12). Christian Boltanski also reflects upon the notion of “containers” within his work such as within his piece ‘Reliquaire’ (1990) (Fig. 1) whereupon tin boxes are used. The importance of preservation is clearly seen within the work of these Holocaust memory artists, with the exhibition space itself fundamentally adopting the role of a container.

The Jewish Museum displays the past to us as a persistence and stable place, a container of memory which has the power to identify us and stabilise ourselves.[57] The artefacts presented enable the viewer to engage and bestow value upon them, providing an anchor for the past to be circulated. It assumes the centre for recall, or even the site for where the memory was originally laid down.

As well as a place of information the museum also acts as a place of commemoration. This duality allows for different rituals for different people; visitors engage with this space in different ways according to their identity and their own personal history.

The Jewish Museum also houses exhibitions, permanent or temporary. The Artemis Alcalay exhibition Remembrance (2001) is temporary. The temporality of this space is an issue that needs to be addressed as once the exhibition is removed, these memories could also be argued to be removed. This stands in stark contrast to permanent installations by Holocaust artists such as Christian Boltanski who produced ‘The Missing House’ (1991) (Fig. 17). Here there is a permanent memorial to loss and absence that remains fixed and stable.

In juxtaposition, the fluidity of the temporary exhibition space enables us to question how memories may be housed here. The ebbs and flows of people through this space add to its temporality; nothing remains fixed in time. Are memories therefore removed, re-written or even lost? I would argue that as future temporary exhibitions take the place of others, a palimpsest of memories leave their residue for returning visitors, allowing memories to linger.

Figure 21. Tatana Kellner. B-11226 The Father’s Book, Fifty Years of Silence, 1992, Rosendale Women’s Studio Workshop. Mixed media, 31 x 50 x 5cm. Image from Hirsch and Suleiman in Hornstein and Jacobowitz (2003).

Can the Holocaust even be memorialised by people who do not have a direct connection to it? There is a universal identification with the Holocaust- it is inscripted into other traumatic national memories across the world.[58] It is seen as a “Jewish catastrophe,” but it has also been globalised allowing it to become the property of others.[59]

The Holocaust has become symbolic of unique loss, an “icon of loss for the world…a template event by which loss can be recognised.”[60] Alcalay’s exhibition transcends beyond the national identification, specifically through the display of her dual identity.

Therefore perhaps both the national viewer and the global viewer can identify with her work. Consequently Alcalay recognises that it is important for messages not to be diluted and permeated so much that they lose their significance for the victims.

In conclusion, the Remembrance exhibition (2001) suggests to me the vulnerability of memory; how memory may easily be lost, but  also the importance of countering this and subsequent attacks on memory such as the denial of the Holocaust or encroaching anti-memory.[61]

One way of countering these attacks is through art and museums- by making it available to the viewer, the memory of the Holocaust may be kept alive, although the temporary exhibition space is proved as problematic. However, Alcalay allows for a stable locale for her work, drawing upon the notion of palimpsest.

Through examining Alcalay’s work directly, the acknowledgment of what has been lost is felt through mourning, with each viewer able to imprint themselves and associate themselves with the works. The narrative of the artist grounds these works within the theme of loss, absence and the Holocaust, enabling the historical legacy to remain, drawing the exhibition away from simply “relics of memory” and instead transforming the space into a reflection upon Holocaust “postmemory”.[62]


[1] Discussion with Alcalay, March 7, 2010.

[2] Hirsch, 1997: 1.

[3] Kuhn in Radstone, 2000: 187.

[4] Discussion with Alcalay, March 8, 2010.

[5] Discussion with Alcalay, March 8, 2010.

[6] Discussion with Alcalay, March 8, 2010.

[7] Discussion with Alcalay, March 8, 2010.

[8] Hirsch, 1997: 1.

[9] Young, 2000: 1.

[10] Bigsby, 2006: 23.

[11] Levy and Sznaider, 2006: 133.

[12] Postone and Santner, 2003: 253.

[13] Freud, 2005: 203.

[14] Freud, 2005: 204.

[15] LaCapra, 1998: 184.

[16] Solomon-Godeau, 1998: 5.

[17] Discussion with Alcalay, March 9, 2010.

[18] Ancient stone slab/pillar on grave, seen as portals to immortality in Ancient Greece.

[19] The opening and closing of these scrolls are a sacred moment in the synagogue as it depicts the opening of the laws of Judaism, the story of the people of the bible and the source of knowledge.

[20] Her identity as Jewish is actually the identity of a member of a minority and these works reflect on the way she interacts with her two identities (the Greek and the Jewish) who are themselves sometimes contradictory (philosophically, culturally, ideologically and politically).

[21] Lowenthall, 1998: 2.

[22] Clifford, 1994: 302.

[23] Lowenthall, 1998: 24.

[24] Solomon-Godeau, 1998: 5.

[25] Solomon-Godeau, 1998: 7.

[26] Appelfeld in Bigsby, 2006: 1.

[27] Postone and Santner, 2003: 1.

[28] LaCapra, 1998: 181.

[29] Wolff in Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003: 156.

[30] Wolff in Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003: 162.

[31] Young, 2000: 2.

[32] Godfrey, 2007: 4 and 206.

[33] Godfrey, 2007: 7.

[34] Friedländer, 1993: 19.

[35] Apel, 2000: 4.

[36] Rothberg, 2000: 6.

[37] Apel, 2000: 7.

[38] Apel, 2000: 21.

[39] Kaplan, 2007: 1.

[40] Kaplan, 2007: 9.

[41] Kaplan, 2007: 109.

[42] Kaplan, 2007: 167.

[43] Within the traditional and conservative Jewish religion, women are not allowed in the holy arc- they have another entrance to the synagogue and sit in another part of the shrine to the men. The congregation needs ten men in order to start, but the women’s presence is not counted.

[44] Kaplan, 2007: 120.

[45] Bennett in Hodgkin and Radstone, 2006: 62.

[46] Discussion with Alcalay, March 9, 2010.

[47] Solomon-Godeau, 1998: 5.

[48] Stewart, 1993: 136.

[49] Stewart, 1993: 144.

[50] Discussion with Alcalay, March 9, 2010.

[51] Engelking, 2001: 249.

[52] The ghost itself defines binary oppositions- past/present, life/death, real/unreal, the material/the immaterial, rational/irrational, body/spirit. Here it is also bound up with ideas concerning homesickness and nostalgia.

[53] The idea of the “ghost” and the “uncanny” are inextricably linked within philosophy from the nineteenth century to the present, reflected in the work of Freud, Marx, Heidegger and Derrida. The word “uncanny” has different meanings for different cultures and languages- in Greek it translates as foreign or alien. In German it translates as unhomely and is applied to something which was intended to remain secret, hidden away, yet has emerged. It is unpredictable with conflicting meanings. It is the strange and the mysterious but also the frightening.

[54] Hirsch and Suleiman in Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003: 82.

[55] Hirsch and Suleiman in Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003: 89.

[56] Hirsch and Suleiman in Hornstein and Jacobowitz, 2003: 90.

[57] Casey, 2000: 1.

[58] Levy and Sznaider, 2006: 5.

[59] Levy and Sznaider, 2006: 8.

[60] Feuchtwang in Hodgkin and Radstone, 2006: 79.

[61] Hartman, 1994: 10.

[62] Hirsch, 1997: 1.

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