Memorial Gestures is an annual programme at Holocaust Centre North inviting artists to respond to their archives and collections. In this inaugural edition, Jordan Baseman, April Lin 林森 and Laura Fisher were selected as artists in residence and have produced works featured in the current exhibition at the University of Huddersfield Queensgate Campus. The Holocaust Centre North Archive contains the collections of around 120 families who rebuilt their lives in the North of England following persecution and genocide. The stories preserved are ones of discrimination, displacement, migration, forced labour, making new lives and difficult decisions. At the centre of Memorial Gestures is the belief that these stories resonate in our present moment. The exhibition forms a welcoming introduction to the Centre with the works displayed through the entrance hall, inviting visitors to engage with them.
Laura Fisher’s textile and print pieces are the first encounters. Large knitted blankets, entitled ‘Red Cross Blankets’, hang through the space and drape across a sofa. The textiles were made on campus and are based on archived letters and telegrams to and from concentration camp prisoners and their loved ones. With titles such as ‘heaps of love kisses yours henry mendel’, ‘Hast du nicht Schnackerl’ and ‘To wish you a prosperous life’, these vast, soft pieces signify the tender emotions that these letters and telegrams evoke. Each letter, comma, watermark and official stamp is uniformly knitted in combed cotton that has been carefully colour matched, with the samples displayed alongside the archive materials. The visitor is invited to interact with the blankets: to touch and feel or wrap up in one. In transforming the material and scale of the original archival material, Fisher has reinterpreted the emotional weight of her subject matter.
Fisher also displays a series of monotype prints and a graphite drawing of hand gestures, ‘Spaces Between’, based on family photographs belonging to Holocaust survivor Tom Kubie. These photographic albums were recovered after the war. The hands are simple outlines in negative space, drawing attention to the absence of other features such as the faces and identities of the family members. They also reflect on touch and its absence, which resonates with Fisher’s material concerns in her textile pieces. The hand gestures speak a language beyond words, in visual terms and in reference to sensory closeness and distance.
Fisher’s works are displayed alongside archival material, small assemblages of wood, concrete, cooking parchment, bandages, carpet, graphite, paper, metal and found objects that resemble miniature house facades. ‘Ich bin hier’ (I am here) speaks of Holocaust survivor Iby Knill’s survival and relocation to England. The title pays homage to a poem Knill wrote in later life, ‘Ich war da’ (I was there), which describes the violence and horrors she endured, including imprisonment in Auschwitz, forced labour and a death march. Fisher’s artistic response focuses on Knill rebuilding her life after these horrific experiences through the use of industrial, domestic and found materials. In referencing Knill’s poem, Fisher does not exclude the past but draws attention to the often overlooked history of Postwar resilience, despite the heavy weight of loss and trauma. The muted greyscale palette references the black and white photography of the era. As with her other pieces, Fisher creates these memorial gestures with a gentle and considerate sensibility.
April Lin 林森 used the residency period to develop a multi-channel video installation, ‘The Gaps Between the Unforgettable’. The video of five minutes thirteen seconds is looped on each screen at staggered times, creating a fragmented sequence. The videos feature items from the archives being handled or juxtaposed against the images of hands. Text and image are intertwined as layered narratives that repeat and interact with each other across the screens. The spoken text can be listened to on headphones, generating an intimacy with the work.
The single chair available for viewing the work is noticeably institutional; it is the kind of chair that you might expect to find in an archive or library. This choice resonates with the nature of the space and the objects that appear on the screens. The viewer is invited to examine these artefacts and words, to consider their origins and contemplate whose history is being told. Do these videos document the survivors’ and families’ histories? The artists’ experience during their residency? Or is it the curator who takes care of the archive? This multiplicity is reminiscent of how oral histories are passed from generation to generation, with each story and iteration a version of both remembered and forgotten elements.
Featuring recent footage shot by April Lin 林森 of Holocaust survivors, now in their 80s and 90s, the hands on screen gesture to the artefacts in the foreground. The use of hand gestures visually resonates with Fisher’s work and gives a sense of the present handling the past. Sometimes we see the artefacts being carefully held or repositioned, bringing a tactile care to the act of remembering. The three screens might be interpreted as symbolic of past, present and future in exploring memory. April Lin 林森’s work is a meditative and reflective piece on the role of the archive in the lives of the various people who inform, care for and interpret it. Their work speaks of the nature of memory and memorial archives as multitudinous and shifting across time and perspective.
Jordan Baseman’s single channel video ‘These Were Not Simple Deaths’ sits adjacent to April Lin 林森’s installation. Similarly, a chair and headphones are provided for a one to one experience with the work. The image on screen is a darkened frame of established trees moving slightly in the breeze. There is no horizon or sky visible through the branches, but just enough light to see the rhythmic movement of early leaves.
The narrator of Baseman’s work is Lilian Black OBE, daughter of Eugene Black and founder of Holocaust Centre North. Eugene Black and his brother survived the Holocaust, but lost their entire family. Lilian talks about her memories of childhood and how her father’s imprisonment and liberation from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was never discussed until her discovery of documents in a box she was told not to open. Lilian’s story is one of discovering the past after a long period of silence. She describes how the TV would be turned off if anything about the camps came on screen. In order to protect her father from traumatic reminders of the past, she was also sheltered from it.
Lilian’s narration is subtitled as text set against the trees. Whilst listening closely, the viewer is aware of this dark, barely distinguishable background as a metaphor for the untold history the narrator was seeking. Lilian talks of the generational trauma as ‘tentacles of genocide’ that run through families, and her father’s experiences become interwoven with her own. She speaks eloquently of the complexities of her family’s history that she has pieced together. Poignantly, Lilian reflects on the contemporary relevance of history, noting that some of the conditions that gave rise to the Holocaust continue to inform our interactions and encounters.
Baseman’s artistic approach to this archival material appears simple yet it is also attentive and respectful in the way it frames Lilian’s narrative. The effect is an acute tuning-in to her words, of active listening and understanding. It is a powerful yet gentle work in presentation and delivery – a common theme running through the exhibition as a whole.
All three artists have approached a heavy and significant subject matter with sensitive and respectful artistic sensibilities. Their choices of subject material from the archives provide a varied and accessible insight into the written letters and postcards, artefacts and oral history within. Each artist has approached the notion of ‘memorial gestures’ in unique and thought-provoking ways that complement each other in a coherent and compelling interpretation of the Centre archives.
Memorial Gestures continues at Holocaust Centre North, University of Huddersfield, until 27 July.
The Memorial Gestures residency programme was developed from an idea and sentiment by Alessandro Bucci. The first exhibition has been curated by Paula Kolar. Hari Jonkers facilitated archive access, with support from Tracy Craggs, who played a crucial role in ensuring survivors and their families were involved in the process. The project is funded by the Ernest Hecht Charitable Foundation and by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities. The second round of Memorial Gestures residencies will be announced soon.
Alice Bradshaw is an artist, curator and writer interested in discarded, everyday materials and words.
This review is supported by Holocaust Centre North.