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COLLECTING, COATING, COVERING: LAUREN BERKOWITZ

Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition Tide at Artspace, Sydney, 2004.
Adam Geczy, 2004

The novel Fiasco, by the Hungarian-Jewish Nobei Laureate Imre Kertesz, is a vast and semi-ironic meditation on the ineptitude of expression at every level, from the effectiveness of writing to its transmission and proliferation. As an Auschwitz and Buchenwaid survivor, what concerns him most is how the memory of tragedy sinks into its own abyss, and can only be recovered in pregnant silence, or cannot be recovered at all. His narrator pedals on the spot of his own prevarication and the unwillingness of publishers to publish his book. Bedeviled and forlorn, he ponders that:

"...this inessentiality: that is tragedy. Yet on the other hand each kind of mediation that seeks to enclose in representative contours will suffer running aground. For tragic images live in the world of fate, and the perspective of tragedy is eternity; while the world defined by the totalitarian system of power is the confined and insurmountable world of situations, and its outlook merely being the time in which these situations unfold. How could this experience be open to mediation when it is already not transmissible in experience, while also not wanting to be, because the essence of these particular situations—situations which are both abstract and concrete-touch upon the inessential and at the same time exchangeable nature of personality, and this personality, as a measure of this situation, has neither a beginning, nor process, let alone an analogy—and the situation as not the measure of reason, is unreal. Maybe—I thought to myself—one should construct an apparatus, a gyrating mechanism, a trap..."

The work of Lauren Berkowitz is not quite a trap, although it engages in a forceful and relentless amassing of objects. She places then arranges them in environments, which impose themselves on the viewer, insinuate into personal space, and sometimes prevent entry. I want to explore this aspect of extensive gathering in the work of Berkowitz with particular reference to the compensatory act that is an endless process of overcoming a void—the void created by the atrocities of the past: Berkowitz is Jewish, from German and Russian ancestry. Her descendants fled the pogroms and those who remained perished at the hands of the Nazis. It is a void that is not only personal, but ethical, for and long forgotten about, but, in light of continuing horrors, perennially forgotten; and that is the void from the hole, rent in the cherished notion of human benevolence and meliorism. Hence, in any time since in our memory, we have been faced with a cold succession of imponderables: the vacuum created by the Cold War and now the deep and bloody scissions in the Middle East that promise never to heal. To all these we might add the reluctance of Australia's government to acknowledge anything but a glorious past—most presently for us the void persists as a result of the stolen generation and the Howard government's imperious attitude to our indigenous population. This hitch brings home to us strongly that progress is a selective notion which, when imposed, leads to the very conditions of it aims to avoid. (Take for example the US imposition of its own concept of freedom on Iraq, which has led to the solidification of several militant fundamentalist groups).

(And, in speaking about covering and compensation, it is also apposite to have begun this essay on Berkowitz's work with the translated passage by Kertesz; from the German, not the Hungarian: thus Kertesz's words on the impossibility of translating tragic situations comes to you, probably now muddied, as a translation from a translation. An autobiographical irony to inflect this is that my father, a Hungarian gentile, denied me the possibility of learning Hungarian. The denial was his form of a compensation for what he wished to escape, and the beginning of his own translation and assimilation into a new world and a new life.)

The objects in Berkowitz's work are replacements on a mighty scale, Ersatze, but not the Ersatz, the substitute that Freud associates with the fetish. Her work is not a psychosexual compensation for unfulfilled desire, though it may be called an expression of the anxiety over lack. The lack is a cultural lack. A better analogy for the compensatory process may be found in Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He observes that, in everyday speech, overly elaborate expatiations are frequently compensations for the concealed truth. It’s a commonsense argument: if one recognises the explanations for the semi-mendatious compensations that they are, and listens closely to what is being said and what is being dodged, such articulations can reveal more about the truth and the motivations that lie behind wanting to conceal it. For Berkowitz, each work is the invention of a set of rules and strategies which, for the space of the making, be it three to eight months, even a year, engender a benign order to compensate for the absence of order. In this process the order simultaneously amplifies what it compensates for. Almost all of Berkowitz's work can be thought of as some sort of covering and more often a multi-layering. The layers can be read as heavy compensation for what is unrecoverable and lost.

Some of Berkowitz's installations are more directly about the past than others. The memorial work, Reclaiming Memory, held at the Jewish Museum in 1995, provides a key to the installation Tide at Artspace nine years later. Here Berkowitz created a checker-effect of old photographs with the hand-written memories of survival and loss from the Holocaust. Tide is also about reclaiming, most immediately in reference to the reclaimed Woolloomooloo Bay. A blanket of sand stripes regularly monitored by thinner lines of salt, the work alludes to the surface that lies hidden, or better, suffocated, by the concrete and construction. Sydney's (and Melbourne's) recent overdevelopment is also a matter that is brought to task. This mass-construction has been a process that is more obsessed with the future than acknowledging what had gone on before. The work appears to say that, even though this is reclaimed land, there is little evidence of it. The process of installing the work was arduously time-consuming. Its ritualistic character is performative in effect. One has the genuine feeling from each work that the most important labour is already done. Her work occurs against a backdrop were labour and its value is an increasingly abstracted thing, and where productivity and labour do not necessarily suppose one another. Artistic labour in particular is not valued in itself, only in outcomes. When a good work of art shows the signs of considerable time and effort, it is hard not to see at least see some small part of it as tussling with an economic rationalist model.

Whether in Tide, or in other geometric installations like Colourfield, 2002, Berkowitz employs a Minimalist armature of grids and repetition for the purpose of displacing the organic, or 'natural', quality of the material. The aims of solipsism and seif-referentiality in Minimalism are goals that seek to remove the object from any association whatever, and to make the viewer conscious of the very act of looking. Minimalism returned to the quasi-mystical discovery of the French Symbolist poet Mallarme that something is required for the suggestion of nothing. The ontological paradox of the registration of non-being and being is that you can only ever have being in order for non-being to be reached in some vestigial way. As Mallarme at the end of the 19th century and the Minimalists in the 1960s brought to notice, a blank page (in the case of poetry) or a blank room (in the case of art) does nothing to tell us nothing, as both come to us as either in their glum, unremarkable everydayness, or as sites of anticipation, waiting for a poem to be written on the paper's surface, or waiting for a work of art to be installed in the room. The discovery is that a non-arbitrary form could be enlisted for the service of the arbitrary. It was in being brought close to this arbitrariness that the viewer could begin to discover nothingness. It is only as a result of the controlled measure of abundance in Berkowitz's work do we get the hint of the aching absence, which the surface of the work seems to try to hold in check.

Surveying Berkowitz's work from the last decade or more, one detects an underriding interest in the human construct of nature. This is nature the construct. Tell people that nature doesn't exist and they'll look back at you puzzled. Nature is, as we know it, something of an 18th century invention used to oppose the concept of culture. This is the great irony about nature. It is the thing used to oppose, and render understandable, the synthetic and the constructed. It is the imaginary benchmark that supplies the outside constant to the process of human, 'non-natural' agency and change. The environment is not just the forest, it is your own backyard; it is the landfill that your block of flats was maybe built on. Berkowitz was doing environmental art before it became fashionable again a couple of years ago.

'Environments' is the term coined by the US artist Alan Kaprow in the 1960s for installation art in the open, art that demands some sort of human involvement. Given the (just) concern over the environmental in recent years, it is a term that will no doubt experience re-interrogation. Berkowitz has long made installations that confound the natural and unnatural through environments of overtly synthetic, manufactured objects. In Recyclable, 1993, the viewer wends their way through a forest of paper bags; three years later Berkowitz produced the Polystyrene Room, a mysterious cave-like space made entirely of styrofoam boxes. Given the present rumblings that Australia should follow suit with Europe and charge for plastic bags to reduce the incidence of non-degradable landfill, Berkowitz's mass of plastic shopping bags (Bags, 1994) seems more than mildly prophetic. Then came Onion Sac Wall, 1996. The red surface that the bags described returned in Follies, 1997, but this time using chillies; the flat surface against the wall had evolved into a spiral that the viewer entered only to leave with eyes watering from the overwhelmingly caustic atmosphere. As Berkowitz's work shows, the opposition between natural and unnatural becomes arbitrary--nothing in 'nature' has so many chillies together in such density; yet there are innumerable boxes, bags and synthetic paraphernalia around us all the time that we seldom register their plenitude.

In every work of Berkowitz one encounters an unaccountability of number. This is where the sublime begins in her work, in what Kant called the mathematical sublime. The viewer feels in the presence of a phenomenon beyond measure, take for instance the amount of telephone calls made in a day (in 1993 Berkowitz produced the Installation no. 4, a structure made entirely of New York phone books), or how many gallons of water a major city uses in a week, how many hamburgers are consumed in a day, how much trash is generated each day-that sort of thing. The mathematical sublime is what exceeds the spatial limits of the calculating consciousness. The phenomenoiogical sublime is not measurable and this is where the force of metaphysics takes over. As Lyotard and other philosophers have pointed out, the Holocaust is sublime, because the magnitude of its terror, the extremity of its inhumanity, can only begin to be thought. It is unfortunate, though, that the magnitude of the Holocaust has tended to dull the visibility of commensurate terrors: from the systematic killing of blacks in Tasmania (most non-Australians or even Australians for that matter are ignorant of the fact that Australia succeeded, if on a smaller scale, where the Nazis had failed, the cleansing of an entire state) or the most expeditious massacre in human history recently in Rwanda of close to a million people in less than six months. When we think of human ills, it is customary to forget, to cover over, whereas a different kind of covering is needed in order to make the unknowable, unseeable knowable as unknowable and unseeable. Open, large-scale memorials more often fail as they substitute for thought, and do the thinking for us. They allow us to ignore and forget. Yet the covering for uncovering is one of the main purposes of art.

Tide evolves from a series of works about the environment where additions— themselves new layers, coverings—have lead to natural imbalance, therefore destruction, the removal, the taking away of what had been there before. For instance Colourfield, an arrangement of coloured flower heads framed by salt to look like a hard-edge abstraction, used aesthetics and refined order to belie a deeper insidiousness. All these species were introduced at the time of colonisation as ornamentals—for beautifying domestic gardens—which are now treated as weeds and are considered environmental pests. The artist's act of collecting, then, was perverse, gathering the unwanted instead of the wanted.

For the legacy of a crisis, a holocaust (not just the Holocaust), is a loss of innocence. To have the grim truth announced decoratively is now an established strategy of artists who delve into the way signs have been vitiated and overcomplicated by history. It has now become customary for artists to make installations and present collections of detritus, which initially present themselves with openness and vulnerability (I'm thinking of artists like Doris Salcedo or Christian Boltanski). The idea is that you, the viewer, inquire about the work only after experiencing the work's ostensible ingenuousness. When your initial blithe feeling collapses, the work of art is reached, realised in that collapse. The collapse encapsulates a feeling of cultural dismay. And you are brought closer to the way in which objects, things, places, can be made to speak in multiple registers depending on the experiences they 'witnessed', for these objects are surrogates in the absence of a witness. The surrogates to be seen in Tide are in the ironic use of sands used to make mortar and concrete, the very stuff that has covered the original sand from view. Ironic as it is, it is as much a symbolic gesture of healing that transcends the work proper; figuratively speaking, the materials used for 'harm' are used to 'heal'.

Salt is an important component to both works. In Colourfield, it most evidently referred to the erosion and salination of the soil; in Tide, most evidently the salt water lapping against the sand. It is a substance as positive as it is negative. The human organism needs salt, but too much can be harmful. Salt's sterilising qualities can be used for food preservation and for enhancing flavour, but salt is also the substance associated with bitterness, loss and regret. The Jewish feast of Passover is customarily accompanied by a bowl of salty water that symbolises the tears caused by the losses endured by the Jewish people. These tears offer temporary solace; salt water heals and cleanses. So the salt in Tide is far more than a formal device. It is first an allusion to what would remain after the seawater just outside the gallery were distilled, distillation being of course the chemical process of purification. Yet the salt is also the substance of degradation and death, a metaphor for impositions that have prevented the perpetuation of ancient Aboriginal tradition. Every three rows of sand (each three rows are in a different combination, giving a feeling of movement and variation in the repetition, as in the patterns drawn by the tide itself) are divided by a thinner band of salt, as if it were a monitoring barrier, a controlling belt, a disciplinary line.

And as with so many of Berkowitz's works, the viewer feels the imposition of her statement in not being able to move into or around the work. Geometrical formats, with their rigid and seemingly insurmountable logic, can have a deterrent effect, in this case silencing the viewer. This is not done in the name of coercion, rather to say: Stop. Wait. Listen. Listen to the movement of the tide. You cannot hear it? Attend to this void.

 

Notes

1. Imre Kertesz, Fiasko (1988), tr into the German from the Hungarian by Gyorgy Buda and Agnes Relle, Hamburg: Rowohit Taschenbuch Verlag (1999) 2001, 67.

Copyright 2004, the author and publisher