From a
common
past

Contemporary glances on the shadows of the past

Introduction

The history of Europe is marked by a succession of contradictions, expansions, conquests, inequalities and conflicts, but also by an extraordinary multicultural and multilingual richness of diversities, which becomes increasingly more evident as a result of the migratory flows of those seeking refuge, fleeing from the horrors of their countries, so similar, at times, to the ones that we are slowly blissfully forgetting.

In such a delicate historical moment, characterized by a scenario of crisis and skepticism, in which Europe has understood more than ever the need to make a common front to solve the current global health, but also social and economic emergency, it is necessary not to forget but rather reflect on the common past that has united the countries that make up the Union, the cultural and emotional baggage of all its citizens.

“The presence of ancient or recent traumas relating to wars has an impact across generations that weighs on life and relationships, not only among neighboring peoples but also within societies. So taking them up, revising and archiving them, lightens this weight, which is otherwise handed down from generation to generation”.

These are the words of the psychoanalyst Paolo Fonda, expressed in an interview in 2015, which explain the fundamental importance of the collective reviewing of a traumatic experience, useful for “neutralizing” its negative impact, otherwise destined to be perpetrated.

For its “ability to probe the places where rationality does not reach, and bring out the unconscious matters”, it is precisely art, according to Fonda, that constitutes one of the most suitable tools to illuminate the dark corners of traumatic luggage of humanity, transforming them into a shared narrative and teaching.

Many of the works that animate the collective exhibition From a Common Past are the result of personal and family experiences linked to the dramatic events that, especially in Europe of the 20th and 21st centuries, have overturned the fate of entire populations: totalitarian regimes (with the tendencies that they have entailed, such as anti-Semitism, anti-Gypsyism, xenophobia), revolutions, Shoah and holocausts, and the violence with which citizens of some parts of the world, even today, are forced to live together on a daily basis.

With the works on display, 10 international artists have identified and reviewed the “gray areas” that these events continue to project onto the contemporary world, invisible and never untied knots that intrude – at an unconscious level – even on the new generations.

If some of the artists present were directly touched by these events, others have made the topic of conflicts and the way in which these are narrated and remembered – through rituals and memorials – the focus of their research.

The itinerary of the exhibition proceeds by gradually widening its geographical panorama and meanings: if the first part, with the works of Lesya Pchelka and Vasilisa Palanina, Manca Bajec, Katarzyna Pagowska and Sylvia Griffin, the protagonist is the Jewish holocaust, in the second room, with the works of Marcela Avellaneda, Jason File, Mircea Ciutu and Boris Beja, the vision extends, reaching to include other holocausts and the narration of slices of life of Nations in which the wounds caused by political choices are open, or not yet heal.

Strong, in this second group of works, is also the image of the bare earth and burials in mass graves, deprived of any sacredness. The ground, tormented and violated with cigarette butts, is the only horizon that we can observe in one of Ciutu’s works, which evokes the violence perpetrated in Romania under the government of Ceaușescu; the fragile installation by Avellaneda instead tells the brutal reality of the Colombian mass graves, while the series of works by File refers to mass burials in the former Yugoslavia.

Always underlying in From a Common Past are the universal themes of life and death. Not surprisingly, the “mobile” installation by Boris Beja closes the exhibition, with its archetypal representation of dance: a reflection on the eternal flow of time, conveys a message of hope and trust that, in the incessant progress of history, the memory of the past can always be kept alive.
Also represented in the online exhibition is the work of Israeli artist Dan Allon, who with his performances – in which he portrays, for days and days, the fictional character of a dictator – reflects on the dangerous power of charismatic leaders to influence the masses, on totalitarian regimes and on systems of political repression.

The exhibition is part of the ArtForRemembrance project co-financed by the European Union program “Europe for Citizens”

exhibition artworks

On the Holocaust

Sylvia Griffin

1958 / Sydney / Australia

NO, NO, NO

video / 2016

“No, no, no” are the words of denial and frustration of the artist used frequently during her research in locating her family member’s names amidst various spellings for each.

Inspired by the discovery of a Holocaust memorial in the Jewish cemetery on Kozma Street, on the outskirts of Budapest, this video is the result of extensive research into documents relating to her family members who have been its victims. In “No, No, No” the artist’s hand writes every variation of her mother’s name – in all the ways that she found it written in the archive documents – and then repeatedly erases it.

This action, ritual for the elaboration of a personal mourning, symbolizes the removal and loss of individual identity and the thousands of family vicissitudes within a vast collective historical narrative that is generally handed down.

Sylvia Griffin

1958 / Sydney / Australia

MATERNAL PALIMPSEST 2

video, 4’35’’ / 2018

In this video work, Sylvia Griffin is inspired by her visits to the Holocaust Memorial in Budapest, Hungary. The artist writes the names of her female relatives deceased during the Second World War, or who have died since then, and then erases them with a symbolic gesture, staining her hand and blackening the marble surface. What remains of her is a palimpsest of names that represent her family history on her mother’s side.

Katarzyna Pagowska

1977 / Wyszków / Polonia

Black triangle

Installation with glass on black wall and speaker / 2017

The black triangle was a badge used in Nazi concentration camps to mark a group of ‘asocial’ prisoners that included: women of ‘depraved’ sexuality, women who aborted, people with addictions and disabilities, the poorest (homeless people and beggars), and, until 1942, the Roma.

The martyrdom of other groups of the Nazi victims has been acknowledged and commemorated by the Polish government in the form of omnipresent monuments and memorials, and regular honouring ceremonies. Those monolithic monuments shape Polish national memory and identity on a conscious level. Nevertheless, for various reasons, including political and religious ones, the black triangle victims have never been officially acknowledged up to this date; the memory of their martyrdom is destined to remain peripheral, latent, subconscious. The glass panel is placed on a black wall; despite being translucent, it reveals the form of a black triangle thus acting as a work of memory. The black triangle is accompanied by the sound of a honorary rifle salute. It was fired by the Polish army to commemorate nationally established martyrs; now the sound of the salute has been “borrowed” by me to individually honour the black triangle victims.

The glass surface is shiny, one can see her/his face mirrored; this reflection represents one’s identity that grows more comprehensive as the suppressed, dormant memory becomes acknowledged. The Black Triangle is a monument founded by the awakened memory.

Manca Bajec

1982 / Ljubljana / Slovenia

Witness corner marked

Sound installation with silver balloons / 2016

Manca Bajec is an artist, writer and curator whose interdisciplinary work focuses particularly on the issue of memory, war monuments, public commemoration and historical revisionism linked to wars.

The work on display is inspired by the artist’s discovery of the diary of her great-aunt survivor of a concentration camp from the Second World War. The installation, made up of silver balloons floating in space, constitutes an ephemeral “talking” monument, which disseminates the oral, invisible and intangible testimonies relating to various conflicts in recent history that the artist has collected.

Moving away with its silver globes from the traditional aesthetics of war memorials, Manca Bajec gives shape to a real transitory and fluctuating “counter-monument”, which becomes a sounding board for not one, but many wars, with voices records of Holocaust survivors and people who have lived in conflict areas such as the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.

Lesia Pchelka and Vasilisa Palanina

1989 e 1986 / Minsk / Belarus

Fertile Soil

Video installation, 6’ / 2017

The action of the artists, who together form the Cargo collective, takes place near the village of Drodzy, situated a few kilometers from Minsk. Where during the Second World War, the German occupants set up a concentration camp that held 100,000 war prisoners and 40,000 civilians between ages of 15 and 50. In consequence, the territory became a mass grave for more than 10 thousand people buried in the ground, which is now converted for agricultural purposes.

Today very few people are aware of the history of this place as a concentration camp, the location of which the collective was able to find through an accurate archive of photographs dating back to 1941. In their performance, the artists plant crosses, which are then sprayed with water, to symbolically cultivate the memory of human tragedy. With their action, they restore the commemorative value to the place and recognize the victims who are buried there, drawing the attention to the dangerous erasing of the remembrance of the historical events, including the most recent ones.

exhibition artworks

TOTALITARIAN REGIMES IN EUROPE AND IN THE WORLD

Jason File

1976 / USA

The Hole Truth

Collage and acrylic on canvas / 2015

Jason File is an artist and international lawyer, former United Nations war crimes prosecutor.

At the center of the A4-sized works in “The Hole Truth” series lies a single piece of paper hole-punch waste, generated by the hole-punching function of printers at the ICTY (International Criminal Court of the former Yugoslavia) used to crate ring binders of evidence presented at trial. Therefore, each work corresponds to a specific sheet filed at the Court.

Moreover, the canvases are placed under tension in a way that might indicate the places where mass graves and other relevant points were found, as indicated on maps used at the ICTY.
The bright stripes recall colors of the circus tents: some of the first mass graves excavations in Bosnia-Herzegovina took place right under these structures, at the time the only means available to protect the sites from the elements.

Marcela Avellaneda

1975 / Colombia

Vueolos Mutilados

Mixed media installation / 2018

Through ephemeral and organic materials “Vuelos Mutilados” evokes the fine line between life and death. The artist uses poetic and delicate metaphors to portray the drama of war and the cruel and violent means used by subversive groups in Colombia, under the passive and indifferent gaze of the state.

For decades, the Colombian people have lived uncertain of their fate, in the fear of being kidnapped, imprisoned in inhumane conditions and of disappearing forever, without ever being found by their loved ones. The work tells the horror of the mass graves hidden in his country which, gradually found, emerge from oblivion.

Mircea Ciutu

1989 / Bucharest / Romania

Reeducation

Tempera and mixed materials on paper / 2018

The artist Mircea Ciutu was particularly influenced in his practice by the events of his country, which are constant in his work. In fact, his work carries within it the echo of the Romanian Revolution, a series of events and protests that in 1989 – the year of his birth – led to the collapse of the communist regime of dictator Ceaușescu.

The protagonists of his great expressionist canvases are the sacred men, lost and alienated young people, creatures with no rights and no duties who wander around waiting for someone, anyone, to take away even that, the only thing that still belongs to them, bare life. In archaic Roman law, homo sacer is someone who for a crime committed against the divinity or the structure of the state was abandoned to the revenge of the gods, and expelled from the social group. In Ciutu’s works, this figure is embodied by the victims of tyranny and political conflict.
The canvases of “Reeducation” are the altarpieces of a lay altar which contains within itself, at the same time, both sacred and cursed. The use of color and shapes are an expression of the tormented state of mind that has long characterized his country.

exhibition artworks

A hint of hope

Boris Beja

1986 / Trbovlje / Slovenia

Clay Dance

installation / terracotta, metal / 15 x 80 cm / 2011

Boris Beja’s work embodies various cultural references to convey a message on the importance of memory. The clay cylinders on the wall, which the public can touch and move with their hands, are inspired by Tibetan prayer scrolls which, if turned, according to the Buddhist tradition, have the ability to purify karma, and are equivalent to a prayer.

With these clay forms, Beja has engraved the images of the famous medieval iconography of the dance macabre (recurring topos in art, re-proposed by many authors especially after the dramatic events of the world wars), which evokes the relationship between life and death, and warns of the incessant passage of time and the cycling of history. Losing your memory is dangerous, and preserving it for future generations is a must. The clay rolls engraved by the artist are therefore configured as a way to leave a testimony in the matter of time that passes and of what has been.
The cylinders showcased hanging on the wall were furthermore used by the artist as patterns from which he created prints-memories documents arranged on the floor.
The representation of dance and movement, associated with the spirituality of Tibetan scrolls, at the same time conveys a joyful meaning, a good omen for the times to come.

Exhibition Video-tour

Appendix

The figure of the dictator

Dan Allon

1982 / Netanya / Israel

Presented at the exhibition, a selection of photo and video testimonies portray the research and the creative process of 4 artworks and performances conceived by the Israeli artist Dan Allon between 2014 and 2016. In “Letter to his father”, “The Shawish of section four”,”Anschluss” and “All in order Mr. General”, drawing on personal life experiences, Allon reflects on political and social issues of global interest. Giving life to an imaginary character of a dictator – sort of an alter ego impersonated by himself – induces the viewer to dwell on the realities of totalitarian regimes, their drastic repressive systems and the dangerous capacity of charismatic political leaders to influence the masses.

To stimulate this research, says the artist, was first and foremost the obligatory three-year experience of military service, during which, against his will, he was assigned to a detention center for political prisoners. The character of the general-dictator originates precisely in these circumstances: it was born as a game between Allon and his peers, dictated by the need to play down, through irony, the rigid daily life in the military base.

During his period of conscription, in yet another round of violence between Israel and Palestine, the Israelis took prisoner about 10,000 people. To contain them it was necessary to reopen a prison that had been closed for about 12 years, located in Kzioth, in an extremely isolated part of the country, close to the Egyptian border. In the first 8 months of the reopening of this location, both the prisoners and the military were placed in large tents, waiting to be transferred to the nearby facility.

After about 10 years from this experience, Allon collects his thoughts in a series of works and artistic performances that combine in (a fusion that makes them indistinguishable at times) personal and family memories, psychological implications and political issues of a universal nature.

Letter to his father

Artist’s book and installation, spoken word performance / 2014

In “Letter to his father” – a collection of writings that the artist writes to his father, read in a performance in which the author wore the uniform of a military general – Allon develops for the first time the theme of the relationship between a prisoner and a guardian, who is embodied in the complicated relationship with the parent.

For more information click here

The Shawish of section four

Performance / 2014

In the performance “The Shawish of section four”, the figure of the dictator, of whom the artist plays the role, is affected by the Lima syndrome (which consists in the birth of a strong empathic bond in a person responsible for a form of confinement of the person controlled by him). The action takes place in the environment where the individual spends his imprisonment, a military tent decorated with flashy fabrics (vivid and personal reminder of the experience of military service in Kzioth) that combines both the objects of a prisoner and those of a dictator, in a surreal and alienating mixture that interrupts any clear and distinct division between the two figures, transforming both into a prisoner and a guardian, linked by an ambiguous emotional relationship.

Anschluss

Performance / 2016

In “Anschluss” (explicit reference to the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938, with the aim of forming “Greater Germanic Reich”), Allon lived for a month in Nes Ammim, a village in northern Israel, founded and inhabited by a Christian community of European volunteers, where he had been invited by the village administrators to spend an artist’s residence. Here, for the entire period of his stay, with no interruption Allon wore the uniform of a dictator who, having taken command of the place (annexed to his imaginary state), gave orders to the local community, unaware of what was happening, in a singular performative and social experiment.

All in order Mr General

Performance at Caos Gallery di Venezia / 2016

Finally, the apex of research on the subject finds their sum in “All in Order Mr. General”, a performance that Allon staged first in Tel Aviv (Meshuna Gallery, 2014) and later in Venice (in an initiative curated by IoDeposito, hosted by the Caos Art Gallery, 2016), in which the artist lived for several days in a row (one week, in the case of Venice) in a fictitious cell set up by him inside the exhibition spaces, impersonating 24 hours on 24 the role of an imaginary general-dictator. Without ever leaving his prison and always under the gaze of the public, Allon, strictly dressed in a representative dictatorial uniform, carried on the daily routine of who he defined as a “dictator of nowhere”, who now has power only over his person.
Thus confined, the executioner par excellence is also a victim at the same time. The cell, equipped with a few elements – a bed, a television – was set up by the artist inspired by what was observed in his experiences in the detention centers. The aesthetic references of his performance “All in Order Mr. General”, in fact, take from the direct and prolonged observation of the places of confinement observed during his military service: Allon was struck by the tendency of prisoners to build a “habitat”, to emulate a sort of a small house, even in a narrow and hostile space, in order to bear the separation from one’s home.

The image of the character depicted is equally studied: his clothing derives in fact from the research conducted by the artist on the clothing of charismatic dictatorial political figures of the recent past, such as Idi Amin Dada (Uganda) and Mu’ammar Gaddafi (Libya ).

Referring to iconographic testimonies and documentaries of the time, Allon noted how, in addition to the uniform of power, these public personalities with a pronounced ego used to wear eccentric details, such as flashy scarves, which made them extremely recognizable.

With this performance, Dan Allon reflects on the topic of political repression, one of the main tools for maintaining domination by those in charge. Aware of the unequal relationship between the weak and the powerful in warring societies, the artist highlights the complex relationship between the military and the civil world, too often characterized by injustices. The performance also brings the question of the ambivalence of history into the spotlight, and is a subtle warning of the possibility that the fortunes will be suddenly reversed, changing the fates of winners and losers.

Video clips from the documentary film “General Idi Amin Dada. A Self Portrait” from 1974, dedicated to the political leader of Uganda, one of the videos that Dan Allon analyzed the dictatorial figure observing his behavior and his image.
CREDITS

photographs and videos about the exhibition Mattia Carrer
cover image: Michał Ziętek
photos of Reeducation : Mircea Ciutu

THE ARTISTS
Sylvia Griffin sylviagriffin.com.au
Vasilisa Palianina www.vasilisapalianina.com
Jason File www.jasonfile.com
Mircea Ciutu www.instagram.com/mircea.ciutu
Boris Beja borisbeja.eu
Dan Allon www.danallon.com

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