Elana Katz is an American conceptual artist with Jewish origins who lives in Berlin. Within the vast ‘Spaced Memory’ project, she travels through Eastern Europe looking for places the Jewish memory of which ahs been effaced or forgotten. In order to mark her discoveries in an almost ‘archaeological’ action, she puts together unusual performances designed to bring up the attitude towards collective memory. She did it in Belgrade, where she covered with white a common basketball court between blocs of flats, once the place of a synagogue. Or in Pristina, in Kosovo, where she organised an opening in the empty, yet remodelled space of a former boxing club destroyed in the war, that used to be a Jewish yeshiva. Immobile and silent, the artist greets the visitors and shakes hand. Her hand is covered in white powered which leaves a perishable trace on their hands, suggesting an unpredictable, fragile and versatile memory. The white used in these performances if naturally not coincidental, it is conceptually ambivalent: on the one hand, white is absence, on the other hand white comes with the claim of a pseudo-innocence of overlaid memories, some ignoring the other. Another object of interest to Elana Katz are the gravestones which, put together in the quietness in a graveyard, could hide contradictory memories, like some mute coexistence of torturers and victims. But the graves are not always a place of peace – remember the troubling film of the Georgian Tengiz Abuladze, `Repentance’, where the forced exhumation of the former dictator seems to offer a therapeutic chance. How do we deal with the past? – is one of the questions the Berlin artist relaunches through this special combination of artistic installation and performance that characterises her expression. One should not forget that Germany has been in a hypermnesia for some years now, an exacerbation of historical memory, no mater how traumatic it may be. Back to Romania to continue her explorations taking the trace of former Jewish sites, this time in Cluj, a city that once had a flourishing Jewish community, the presentation of her artistic proposition have birth, in a small audience, to a legitimate question: Where do we stand in Romania from that point of view?
The local context is meaningful. Ceausescu’s ‘national’ communist regime elaborated a eulogising Romanians’ history, a process that has left behind some serious sequels upon our mentality. The confrontation of ‘the skeletons’ in our own closets has been shy. A Romanian film awarded with the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival has recently stirred some critical reactions as it was raising, rather brutally, the topic of the long Gypsy slavery in the Romanian Countries, only half abolished in the 19th century. `Aferim` reminds not just of the discretionary violence of the old masters – in this case it is brutal castration applies as exemplary punishment – but also strongly discriminatory popular mentalities concerning the Gypsy, but also Jews, Turks (hated not just as masters), foreigners in general, but also homosexuals – briefly anything that would not fit into a generally accepted pattern. In other words, a mentality which today one would call reactionary not only did dominated for far too many centuries, fuelling culpable injustice, but is still active even if underground. Of course, looking at the past with the eyes of the present is always a risky business, for history does not unfold with the easiness of a videogame, but is the result of complex structures of realities that are difficult to master. So any judgment of the past will take a special effort of ethic conceptualisation. But such difficulties should not inhibit the confrontation of painful histories.
The local anti-Semitism continues to be an unresolved issue and the assumption of responsibility for deportations, massacres and war crimes has only begun. Let us not allow our consciences to go to sleep – such crimes and discrimination wouldn’t have been possible on that kind of scale without a fostering ‘cultural’ context. The Orthodox Church, for example, would have quite a few reasons to pronounce a few mea cupla, but is moral self-sufficiency make such repentance more than improbable. Looked at with the eyes of the present, the Romanian past is dotted with exacerbated ‘identity’ conflicts. Some of the rulers even persecuted the Armenian, as they stood for a heretic version of Eastern Christianity. But the problem is not so much to judge the ‘sins’ of the predecessors, but to acquire a more stimulating use of historical memory. In evangelic terms, we could say this is something like ‘removing the straw from your own eye’, which would give us a less distorted and restrictive view of reality.
It’s been said that the difficulty to face one’s past also comes from the ambiguity of its ideological stakes. We have experienced that directly during this last quarter of a century, when the judgment of our communist past has been paralysed by the contemporary political conflict, especially under the conditions of a scarcity of visionary political ideas. The undertaking by the artist Elana Katz could be helpful in that respect, as it can suggest to us the crucial role of an ‘artistic’ approach to the past. In order to appropriate it, the past needs to be rebuilt first, and that calls for a redistribution of significant moments in an open interpretation horizon. The past is not just a curse, it is also a resource. We intensify our existence to the extent to which we succeed in creatively integrating our past. Perhaps too much caught up in a self-sufficient present, we forget about the difficult existential labour of a genuine personal evolution – which entails engaging processes of conscience as regards the traumatic discontinuities of life. In other words, we are alive as long as our past is alive. But most often the past is silent, therefore one needs to discover its les eloquent expressiveness. This is, in fact, one of the merits of conceptual art – it cultivates a more intimate relationship between the artist and the public, exactly because the assumed conceptual intention has a more accentuated companionship in exploration for fundamental prerequisite. And, in order for it to come out of the traps of sterile emotions, the past has to be explored in common.