I think a lot of it was carried over
from the adults because as a kid you just feel what the atmosphere is
- Fred Kandel
The various narratives that make up
Collapsing Histories are fragmentary. No narrative is complete. By design,
oversight or in an effort to 'spare us' the details, stories have been
kept from us. Katsushige Nakahashi had no idea that his father worked
in Zero maintenance crew at a Nagasaki Naval Base, James Fee returns to
Peleliu to fill-in the gaps in his father's narrative and there is something
analogous in Robin Kandel's installation work. In her installation Story
1: run, Kandel hoped to repatriate not only the details of her father's
story, but to also approach the periphery of his experience.
In April 2002 Kandel learned that two
audiotapes from a 1983 interview were made recounting her father's childhood
experiences in Berezno, Ukraine. The artist's statement notes:
He [Kandel's father] was accompanied
by his mother and younger brother, his grandfather and two uncles. Other
members of his family, including his father, were killed either while
in hiding or because they refused to leave their home and enter work camps.
We didn't talk much about my father's childhood when I was growing up. As
I got older he occasionally mentioned some detail, what the shelters in
the woods looked like, for instance, or a raw potato is edible. I believe
he thought I knew the actual story, not my vague and fragmented version.
I thought I did too.
Story 1: run - as are all the works
in Collapsing Histories - was an attempt to reconcile that 'vague and
fragmented' memory, to piece together those scattered 'details.' (A new
installation, which builds on the first piece, will be included in the
exhibition at the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery.)
Robin Kandel's father, Fred, hid in
the forest for two years during the Second World War along with other
Jews. She applies her training as a painter to the video installation
exploring her father's experiences. In Story 1: run, seen here, the visitor
walked into an environment that was uncanny; to a certain degree it was
like walking into one of Kandel's abstract paintings. The rich colors that
are characteristic of Kandel's palette were distinctly evident (ocher,
black, various shades of gray, and browns), however, the environment that
Kandel created stimulated more than vision. The texture that we might associate
with her painting was displaced under-foot; the floor was covered with
paper lined with text (her father's narrative), dirt, and human hair. The
effect was reminiscent of a forest floor - there was a slight sponginess
to the floor - just as one might find in the natural environment. Although
the sensation underfoot was subtle, it was disturbing as well, by destabilizing
the viewer's footing, threatening - in a figurative and literal sense -
our foundation, of what we know, challenging the firm ground we stand on
so to speak. The shadows that were cast by lights positioned behind tubular
structures, suggestive of trees, accentuated the rich textures and added
an element of haunting contrast.
Living in the forest provided some protection,
but it never guaranteed survival. "Food was begged for, foraged and stolen,"
Kandel comments. "When members of the family were killed, they were buried
in the woods." The words transcribed and underfoot, the remnants of human
life (e.g., human hair), the dirt, disturb and destabilize the visitor precisely
because of their abject connotations; their link to the dead buried in the
forest. The abject sensation reconnects that tenuous grip on life in the
forest and the constant threat of death.
Situated in this environment, Kandel's
father can be heard - although only in a whisper - detailing his experiences;
of which a significant part was spent literally running for his life.
A video projection of running through the forest adds yet another layer
to this 'frightful' environment. The blur of trees, the high contrast of
the black and white footage, disorientating and chaotic in the sporadic
flashes of dark and light, approaches something of Fred Kandel's experience.
run approaches that frightful recognition of being discovered, of hearing
gun-shots just off in the distance and that survival instinct setting in,
that immediate compulsion to run.
For Collapsing Histories, Kandel expects
to explore another dimension of this narrative, in her Story 2: postolas.
This installation series, when contemplated further is inseparable from
the notion of survival and mortality, not only Fred Kandel's, but also
the artist's. Obviously her mortality is intimately connected to her father's,
and strangely it is feet that metonymically signify survival and mortality.
Earlier I spoke of the texture underfoot
and the abject connotations of the dead as suggested by the texture of
the floor, but this is not the only significance to feet and their connection
to survival and mortality. When recounting the process of making run,
Kandel with camera in-hand ran through the forest. "I scared myself a
little," she comments, "but mostly I realized that I might be one of those
'people who just couldn't keep up and remained behind.' Of course, remaining
behind meant almost certain death." The artist here is not only confronting
her father's mortality, but her own. And it is the ability to run, or not,
which meant the difference between life and death - and it is here that
The endurance to run, to drop everything
in a single instant and run for your life was also closely related to
one's ability to make shoes. Fred Kandel recites:
The shoes are called postolas. The peasants
in the area had it to an art form. We just made crude versions. But when
we were in an area that had birch trees we would cut one inch wide and very
long strips from the bark. And whenever we had time we would weave shoes.
They didn't last long.
After 60 years Fred Kandel remembers
how to make postolas, and out of the artist's 'vague and fragmented'
memories comes something so potent, a detail so vivid and emotionally
charged. This act of creating postolas - this craft inscribed in Fred Kandel's
mind - saved the artist's life; it made her life possible. In such lucid
terms, do we ever witness our own mortality; do we ever witness that catastrophic
experience that might have precluded our very existence?