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Robin Kandel




Gaye Chan
Kaili Chun
Sally Clark
Binh Danh
Ian Everard
James Fee
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Robin Kandel
John Morita
Katsushige Nakahashi
Masami Teraoka
Lynne Yamamoto
I think a lot of it was carried over from the adults because as a kid you just feel what the atmosphere is around you.
- Fred Kandel

The various narratives that make up Reconstructing Memories are fragmentary. No narrative is complete. Through innocent neglect 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, 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 recreate not only the details of her father’s story, but to also approach the periphery of his experiences, to fill-in some of the gaps, to reveal the things she knows and the things she thinks she knows.
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 most the works in Reconstructing Memories – is an attempt to reconcile a vague and fragmented memory, to piece together those scattered details that the artist recalls. (A new installation, which is a continuation of this video series, is included in the exhibition at the Art Gallery, University of Hawai’i, Manoa.)

Robin Kandel’s father, Fred, hid in the forest for 18 months during the Second World War along with other members of his family and other refugees. She applies her training as an abstract painter to her video installation exploring her father’s experiences. In story 1: run, the visitor walked into an uncanny environment; 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, challenging the firm ground we stand-on, and challenging everything we think we know about history. 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,” Fred Kandel comments. “When members of the family were killed, they were buried in the woods.” In Kandel’s installation these words are transcribed and are underfoot, the remnants of human life – human hair, and dirt – disturb and destabilize the visitor precisely because of their abject connotations; referencing the dead buried in the forest. The abject sensation Kandel provokes in the spectator allows us to experience – albeit remotely – the 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 faint 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 the installation. 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. story 1: run approaches that frightful recognition of being discovered, of hearing gunshots just off in the distance and that survival instinct setting in, that immediate compulsion to run.

For the Collapsing Histories exhibition (which has since evolved into Reconstructing Memories) in Tokyo, 2004, and the University of California Santa Cruz, 2003, Kandel explored another dimension of her father’s narrative, in her story 2: postola. 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.

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 recounts:

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, this detail so vivid and emotionally charged, is then filtered through the artist’s own vague and fragmented memories of her father’s experience produces something very potent. This act of creating postolas – this craft inscribed in Fred Kandel’s mind – saved his life; and it made artist’s 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?

In run/dig, which is a continuation of Kandel’s video series, the artist reconstructs other aspects of her father’s wartime experience. Fred Kandel recounts in his audio-tape testimony digging; digging for potatoes in farmers’ fields rummaging for food, digging out subterranean shelters in the forest, and also burying the dead in the forest. Presented in a split-screen, run/dig juxtaposes the act of digging with running. At least at one level the two images seem to contradict one another; while on the one hand digging out subterranean shelters suggests a stationary existence and although undoubtedly rough and ‘primitive’ these camps must have offered a relative sense of stability, however juxtaposed to the video material depicting the act of digging there is also scenes of running through the forest, the comparison illustrates just how tenuous life must have been, how relative safety could never be taken for granted and might disappear and inspire the camp’s inhabitants to run for their lives.

There is also something abject about run/dig: the act of digging too closely mixes life with death. The act of digging is associated with the search for food and constructing shelter, but it is also associated with burying the dead. Kandel places a vessel of water in front of the monitor producing quite an unsettling affect. When viewing the piece through the vessel of water, the split image reverses sides; literally the image is destabilized, mixed together. Moreover, the video image is viewed through water, typically associated as a life-giving force. run/dig perhaps more than the previous two video pieces, in its mixing of life and death, directly negotiates/confronts the possibility of non-existence.

Recently the artist has been exploring her mother’s background as well, in what she calls her “mythological parentage.” As with most of us in the discourse of family-lore there are often conflicting narratives, an aunt or uncle might have a completely different take on particular events in family history from one’s parents. Over the course of many years a story might be embellished, exaggerated, distorted beyond recognition. How then do we navigate through these divergent and potentially untrustworthy narratives, how does one sort out fact from fiction, how does one reconstruct a family history when there is disparity in the recollection of an event? Specifically for Kandel she is interested in the constitution of family-lore: while on the paternal side of the family there is the harrowing tale of survival during the Second World War, on the maternal side of the family there are possible links – or so the family-lore has it – to the notorious Purple Gang. Kandel, like all of us, has to work through her “mythological parentage” to reconstruct her own family history.

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