Seeing memorials

March 18, 2016

 

13-130597 Hirosh Cenot view R adj

A shorter version of this was published in this week’s Ithaca Times

There is a strange kinship between photography and the structures people build to commemorate historical tragedy. Photos have the ability to pull from the past—a particular moment and point-of-view, a unique appearance. They give a semblance of immortality to the evanescent. Memorials, of course, have a physical presence that photographs lack. Often they take on an abstract form, easily legible, meant to dignify loss but at the risk of distracting or distorting. But the two modes complement each other—think of how iconic facades lend themselves to postcards. Both make public what might otherwise be private.

The intersection of these two forms of remembrance is a major concern for Ben Altman, an Ithaca-area photographer who also works in sculpture, installation, and performance. A British native, Altman has been a full-time artist in the area for about a decade. Before that, he lived for twenty-five years in Chicago, where he did commercial photography—learning techniques he now uses to different ends.

Since 2013, Altman has made several trips, traveling around Europe, the United States, and Japan, seeking out memorial sites and markers. The Holocaust has been a recurrent theme but Altman’s investigation is more general. How do people give physical form to traumatic memory?

Nearly fifty, mostly recent, images from Altman’s ongoing “Seeing Memorials” series compose an exhibit of the same name, currently on display at the Community School of Music and Arts. The show, which concludes this month, was put together by Altman with help from CSMA director Robin Tropper-Herbel. The presentation is generously large, filling the school’s basement gallery as well as the lobby. (A selection from the same series, mostly different, was shown early last year at Corners Gallery in Cayuga Heights alongside work by Laurie Snyder, another local photographer.)

Altman will also be exhibiting his related “Site/Sight” series this spring at Light Work, a photography center in Syracuse. Shot in parallel to “Memorials,” these center, not on the sites themselves, but on fellow visitors caught in the act of picturing them. (This self-reflexive questioning of the medium is characteristic of Altman’s approach).

A series of four Charred Remains prints from a decade ago serves as a kind of prelude. Shot in Idaho in the aftermath of a fire, these black-and-white close-ups of fallen trees revel in crisp details, rich textures, and abstract but familiar forms. As with Edward Weston’s (1886-1958) famous shots of green peppers, an analogy to the human form is inescapable. In the context of “Memorials,” these reclining, contorted torsos become sinister.

Most of the work here was shot using a Holga, a cheap “toy” camera made lacking standard controls and made entirely out of plastic—including the lens. Manufactured in Hong Kong since 1981 and recently discontinued, the device has developed a cult following that has built an aesthetic around its technical limitations. Altman’s Holga images display a characteristic loss of peripheral focus and vignetting—a quite noticeable shadowing around the corners.

According to the artist, this is meant to be akin to human vision, which also loses color and focus outside its center. More broadly, it serves as a metaphor for the limitations of human understanding, memory, and empathy.

The bulk of “Seeing Memorials” is made up of 12” x 12” Holga images with the larger prints shot using a 4×5 (film) view camera. The pictures have been arranged in rows and (in the case of the former) stacked grids, meant to emphasize formal and thematic connections. The overall presentation has a neat symmetry and a deliberate quality that is rare in exhibitions of local art.

Most of the pieces have been printed in black-and-white, with strategically placed color images adding to the varied cohesion of the overall collection.

A row of three large (20” x 26”) monochromes hung on the gallery’s central back wall forms a centerpiece. In placing them together, Altman has used similarities of form and composition to draw analogies between the three disparate sites.

On the left is Cenotaph for the Victims of the Atomic Bomb, Hiroshima, Japan, unusual here for its symmetrical composition and straight-ahead perspective. (It’s also his only image from his Japanese trip.) The view centers on the saddle shaped concrete arch, which shelters a symbolic grave stone. Through it—in a carefully calibrated view—we see the famous Genbaku Dōmu (Atomic Bomb Dome), the ruins of the pre-war Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. A flower-filled planter out in front and the lush spring foliage that enfolds the scene at middle distance offset the severity of the arch and the surrounding plaza.

Like the larger Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park of which it is a key part, the cenotaph was designed, in the early fifties, by the celebrated Japanese modernist architect Kenzō Tange (1913-2005).

Occupying the center of the CSMA lobby’s back wall, WWII Memorial Outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London shares the neat left/right symmetry of Cenotaph—this time, our view is aimed downwards, a mild disorientation. The structure commemorates Londoners killed in the war. Its design is modest but elegant: a flattened cylinder of dark stone with indented, serif-capped letters. We can read: “1939-1945 REMEMBER.” The structure is encircled by a drain and a decorative border of paving stones. A stone plaza, slick with rain, fills the rest of our view.

On the right is Cemetery Entrance Gate, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, USA. The picture has its own dignity yet does not attempt to conceal the awkwardness of the site. The viewer is placed at an oblique angle to the gate, which consists of a narrow bridge of scaffolding—surmounted by a cross—held up by two thick pillars of brick and whitewashed blocks. Mismatched fences surround it. In the foreground there is an entrance ramp and a patch of mostly shadowed dirt. Above, the sky is an impassive even tone. We can see little of the actual graveyard—mostly a cluster of stones underneath a silhouetted tree in the center.

The cemetery commemorates the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, in which over 200 Lakota Indians—men, women, and children—were killed by the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, under the direction of Colonel James W. Forsyth.

Hung separately, A Native American History of the United States (I abbreviate some of these titles), shows us the backside of one of the pillars. The tall image neatly frames the central column with an indistinct view of the rural landscape in the distance. The white painted surface has been covered with marker writing. But this is no ordinary graffiti—rather we are presented with a timeline of violence and other indignities perpetrated by the US government against the native population. A blunt injunction at the top tells us to “F— Historical Trama” [sic]; at the bottom,, we are reminded that “The Meek will own the Earth.”

A grid of 12” x 12” Holga images focuses on found text, found at a variety of memorial sites and encompassing several languages. These are in muted color or black-and-white. They are characterized by their oblique viewpoints and their cropping and blurring. All of these qualities serve to make much of the writing difficult or impossible to read. Locations and events memorialized range from Columbine and Wounded Knee to Dresden and several European World War I sites. The writing ranges from poignant or descriptive history to warnings and regulations.

 

22-150611H-9 Amiens Cath

Memorial Plaque, Amiens Cathedral, Somme, France is the most aesthetically striking of these. Improbably enough, the French and English plaque—hung above us to the right—commemorates a division of soldiers from New Zealand who died in the Battle of the Somme. (The sign, though emphasized in the shot, must be an inconspicuous presence within the grand Gothic interior.) Here we see the skinny bundled columns, archways and tall windows through a dream-like atmosphere of shadow and blur.

Hung near the staircase leading to the CSMA’s basement gallery, another sub-series recalls the work of Aaron Siskind (1903-1991), whose photographs of textured surfaces are frequently compared to Abstract Expressionist painting. Shot at the Nazi camps of Breendonk, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück (in Belgium, Austria, and Germany, respectively), these larger digital color images have a beguiling beauty that is difficult to reconcile with the unspeakable acts we are meant to associate them with.

27_DSF3484 Breendonk #1

Breendonk, located outside of Antwerp, was constructed as a fortress in 1906. Obsolete for that purpose, the Germans in the occupied country turned it into a prison camp in 1940. In Breendonk Fortress Camp #1 and #2, Altman has captured one of its stranger details: windows painted blue, presumably to block the light or view for the inmates. The effect in both images is like stained glass, creating an incongruously sacral effect.

Altman has reserved the basement for Holocaust-related pictures, mostly square Holga shots with one grid of them in color.

Echoing the hanging upstairs, a row of three 20″ x 26″ black-and-white prints lines the back wall. Punishment Block, Ravensbrück Camp for Women echoes the formal symmetry of Cenotaph. So too does Symbolic Rail Tracks, Treblinka II, Poland, which portrays a procession of concrete “tracks” built during the Soviet era to commemorate the death camp. Symbolic Recreation of “The Tube,” Museum Memorial Site at Bełżec Camp, Poland displays an uncanny affinity to The More that Is Taken Away, a performance piece, for which Altman literally dug an earthwork cum grave in the backyard of his rural property.

33-150705-8 Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, Germany

The human body and its absence forms a subtext for Bathtubs, Ravensbrück Camp for Women, a poignant and eerie still-life. The black-and-white Holga picture shows six abandoned tubs, seen obliquely in a diagonal procession that stretches from background to fore. Two are ajar relative to the others, setting up a strange visual rhythm overlain with a waffle-like grid of lights coming in from the upper-left corner. As in a Cubist painting, the space—and our relationship with it—is unclear.

It isn’t easy to address an act of historical mass killing effectively in a work of visual art, particularly through a series made long after the fact. The art that comprises “Seeing Memorials” combines a palpable material lushness with a literary approach to metaphor and meaning that avoids the trap of easy answers at the possible expense of moral irrelevance. The project is fun, if harrowing, to write about—filled with visual analogies and inviting far-ranging historical reading. Whether it goes beyond this is an open question.

“Seeing Memorials” is on display at the Community School of Music and Arts from February 5 through March 25. “Site/Sight” can be seen at Light Work in Syracuse from March 21 through July 22.

 

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