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Charles Merewether

Reproduced with permission from the monograph titled, Lauren Berkowitz, Craftsman House, 2001 

Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories. Walter Benjamin(1)

How do we commemorate a sense of loss that is part of familial history rather than simply one's own? Is memory stored in everyday objects and, if so, do they form the historicity of a culture? Can we speak of art as a sensory experience of history - a world that creates and sustains our relationship to the historical? If so, can art reanimate sensory perception as both a form of remembrance and a means of living on, a memory that sustains the things we wish to remember as a vital part of the present? Is it the place of an author or artist to recover the texture of such memories, the mark left of a legacy buried deep within the recesses of the second and third generation?

Since 1990 Lauren Berkowitz has produced three overlapping bodies of work that explore these issues. In drawing upon photography and documents, utilitarian and disposable objects as well as natural materials, Berkowitz appears to follow well-established artistic movements of the 1960s, especially Pop art, nouveau realistes and arte povera. In particular, her practice follows the idea of collecting and recycling, and the complex engagement of these art movements with a consumer-based cultural economy of expenditure and exchange. However, Berkowitz's work exposes the dimension of historical, corporeal and sensory memory within the practices of collecting, retrieval and recycling. The fascination with preservation and a culture of endless expenditure is transformed into a sign of the precarious balance between permanence and transience, remembrance and loss, Utopia and dystopia. The practice of art for Berkowitz is discovering this threshold on which we stand, seeking to gather and illuminate what has been lost to the world while preserving and celebrating what remains. Rather than following the structure of presence-absence, the work may be viewed within the framework of the trace and aura. Benjamin writes:

trace is the appearance of a closeness, regardless of bow far away it might be, that was left behind. The aura is the appearance of a distance that is elicited, regardless of how near it might be. With the trace the thing becomes tangible. In the trace we take possession of a thing, in aura it overpowers us.(2)

Through the trace of representation and auratic presentation, Berkowitz seeks to release a sensory perception of the past, a residual memory that acts as an index of the past as lived within the present. The objects become monuments to the fragility and anxiety surrounding the structures and forms of remembrance.

Naming and Belonging

Berkowitz began a series of five works in 1991 nominally entitled 'Installation', with Buffalo Dateline, 1995, as the final piece. Installation 2, an earlier version of Buffalo Dateline, was first shown at Yoshii Gallery in New York City in 1993. It comprised a cylindrical room of four walled sections, with an interior made from thousands of rolled-up pages from the local New York telephone book. The exterior incorporated telephone bills and rubbish retrieved from the bin that was then attached to a grid-like frame, while the second and third sections were woven from property and personal advertisements, such as lonely-hearts columns.(3) In building these monumental structures, Berkowitz read off the pages until she herself was finally enclosed and silenced by the surrounding walls. The idea of personal advertisements, house acquisition and telephone calls providing a comfort zone of security and human contact was threatened by containment and isolation within this space. Berkowitz has remarked: 'Many of my room and wall constructions initially promise comfort and protection, yet once occupying the space or encountering the objects one becomes aware of their precarious fragility, and sometimes claustrophobic qualities inducing anxiety.(4)

In Installation 4, 1993, the telephone book again functioned as a double-gesture towards formal anonymity and personal information about individuals, families and the community.(5) Berkowitz built columns containing all the listings under her own and her husband's family names. By so doing, she performed a ritual of naming, of identifying herself and others as sharing a common history, as belonging to one another. That the telephone books were made from recycled paper invested the idea with a redemptive power, insofar as it represented an act of retrieving and constituting the bare signs of a family history.

Berkowitz's piece attests to a desire to recover a family - if not construct one for herself while living away from home - which had been scattered either through migration or exile from pre-revolutionary Russia or the Nazi occupation of Europe. The columns became the roll call of names, the register that serves as a form of ledger in which accounting is done. These are the names of family members who emigrated and therefore survived. The telephone book as a disposable object suggests the tenuous nature of recovering evidence of a family history. Berkowitz has said that the experience of looking at the columns of names from the telephone book was 'similar to looking at the listing of names on a war memorial'. She continued: 'I recall my Aunty Minn telling me all records and information were destroyed when the Nazis marched into Minsk, making it impossible now to trace any information on our relatives.(6) What remained was the family album containing pre-war photographs of their Russian relatives. Like the correspondence, the album ends with the war. The telephone books become commemorative monuments, yet by virtue of their being recycled and presented as free-standing columns, the artist gives them new life as a living engagement with a dispersed family history.(7) The work of art becomes a way of filling the silence of the ensuing years and of making a bridge between Berkowitz's generation and that of her family.(8)

The idea of retrieval is further elaborated in two subsequent installations of 1995, Collected Histories and Reclaiming Memory. While these installations continued the idea of an embedded memory and history within the discarded or expendable consumer object, the objects chosen addressed more directly the vagaries and aporias of memory, erased histories, the forgotten, and the transience of life. The idea of collecting evolves as an archival practice that intertwines public records and documents with personal histories and memories.(9) Following a commission from the Prahran City Council in Melbourne, Berkowitz spent six months of 1994-95 searching through the council archives for information on family histories, including that of her own family, who had established a successful furniture business in the area. Presented at the Toorak-South Yarra branch of the Stonnington Library, Collected Histories, 1995, was a construction of vertical columns of archival photographs and texts on aluminium plates, representing undocumented photographs of 'past lives and unmarked events' - the public and private histories of Prahran. In particular, the work became a homage to the mundane and ordinary labour of women. Photographs of the war effort show women standing in front of vast rows of empty glass jars ready to be filled with jam. Following the historiographic practice of telling history through ordinary people rather than leaders and heroes, the work corresponds to what Christian Boltanski has referred to as 'small memory', that which differentiates us from one another.

Shortly afterwards, Berkowitz produced Reclaiming Memory, 1995, for an exhibition on 'The Wandering Jew: Myth and Metaphor' at Melbourne's Jewish Museum. Even in the naming of each work, a critical temporal shift can be seen in the conceptualisation and orientation of her work. The move is from the more passive concept of 'collected histories' as a process of recovery to a performative notion of memory as something that is living, belonging as much to the present as to the past. The inspiration for Reclaiming Memory came from the stories of the artist's Polish mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor from Auschwitz. The number on her arm is a constant reminder of past suffering and the fate of her family. Every Friday night at dinner, stories of the past would emerge in one form or another. Berkowitz's mother-in-law had lost all her family, except for one relative who had emigrated to the United States before the war. Berkowitz gathered these stories, together with those from her own family, as one might a collection of objects. The artist then began to gather the stories of other survivors who gave testimony of their experiences, often for the first time.

Reclaiming Memory may be viewed as a tribute to and commemoration of the artist's family and other families who either survived or perished during the Holocaust. Structured as thin walls, this archival work bears a trace of the past. The walls function as monuments, exposing a tension between memory and history, suggesting that their relationship can never be resolved: each is dependent upon the other; each offers what the other cannot. Memory claims an authenticity in its ability to represent the dimension of the past as experienced, while history claims an objective representation of the past as it occurred. Memory questions the 'self-sufficiency' of history, it opens the door to the stream of remembrance after the fact. Yet the reverse may equally be true. For while history often overlooks the texture and detail of individual memories, of lived everyday life, memory and remembrance suffer from forgetfulness, erasure and distortion.

What then of the collector whose purpose in collecting is to restore to history the forgotten or discarded? One is reminded of Walter Benjamin's observation that the 'deepest desire' of the collector is to 'renew the Old World'. Through collecting one performs an act of nostalgia, the longing to return, and the feeling of exile and estrangement that produces a desire to return. Yet Benjamin warns us that 'Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories'. Collecting for Benjamin is characterised by a 'dialectical tension' between order and disorder, a 'balancing act of extreme precariousness'.(10) It is not so much the 'chaos of memories', but ordering the residual material trace of memories, and one's own memories, which are often about loss and dispersal. The precariousness of Berkowitz's installations is that they expose irresolution within their very structure. If neither memory nor remembrance can be trusted, then identity finds itself in an odd place. The 'order' that she brings to each work fails to overcome the traumatic reliving of the past as it occupies the body and memory of her family. There is no safe haven between memory and history. The 'chaos of memories', as Benjamin remarks, can only be overcome through a process of ordering that is forgetting. Yet this, too, creates anxiety about the precariousness of living between disorder and order, between too much memory and too much forgetting.

Illumination of the body

During 1994 Berkowitz developed another strand of work, exemplified in the sculptural installation Bags, Bottles, Newspapers. The three-part installation consisted of a corridor of plastic bags suspended from the ceiling, a hanging web of shredded newspapers, and a long rectangular floor-piece of standing bottles and jars. In each piece the artist gestured towards recovering ephemeral debris through a serial grouping of the same object.

This and other works produced over the following three years - using onion sacks, bottles and jars, rubber gloves, soap (glycerine), test tubes, plastic and paper bags - suggest a late modernist interest in transforming consumer waste and excess into objects of aesthetic contemplation. However, the gesture of retrieval and recycling of discarded material also denotes a re-elaboration of subjects associated with feminist art of the 1970s, and the work of such artists as Eva Hesse.(11) As in a later work, Translucent, 1998, where Berkowitz used glycerine soap to create a crescent-shaped wall, these pieces echo the repetitive processes of women's labour in production and the rituals of everyday life: shopping, cooking, eating, cleaning, washing. Nonetheless, the repetition in Berkowitz's work also generates difference, and the offering of a counter narrative. Infused with and refracted by light, the coarse materiality and utilitarian function of the object is invested with a surplus memory. The work becomes the repository of the body's labour, and our perception of the work is of that residual trace, a memory that we recognise as something shared, a latent and Utopian commensal history.

In Building 40 Project, 1995, the artist sealed the gallery space by stacking white polystyrene fruit boxes to create a cave-like interior, an anti-monument of emptied-out vessels that trans-formed a sculpture of readymades into a minimalist object. Although filled with light, the interior space also created a powerful sensation of claustrophobic containment, as if one was surrounded by the debris or vestigial traces of one's own labour. This tension between transparency and enclosure also characterised Onion Sac Wall, 1996. Constructed from orange onion bags, the woven work retained the sense of its function as a container while the refraction of light through it suggested membrane-like tissue or skin.(12) The sacks acquired the texture of the body in a way that recalls Luce Irigaray's idea that the texture of light may be linked to tactility and the maternal. The artist is thus able to revitalise and transform the banal and the everyday. Furthermore, through the elaboration of discarded objects and materials she opens up their associative power, as if unpacking the symbolic energy condensed within each object. This is articulated in Berkowitz's reflections on the work: 'Wall, monument, symbolic, celebration, commemoration, sacred, Wailing Wall, onion tears, mourning, emotion, memory, passion, red, orange, danger, fire, flames, blood, life, death, ethereal, endless, repetition, archive.'(13) Objects carry not only the 'chaos of memories' but also a disruptive chain of associations. The work itself becomes a way of both releasing and controlling this vertiginous multiplicity of meaning.

A comparable associative way of generating meaning functions in other work produced over the period 1995-96. In Polystyrene Room, Glass Room, Green Room, Vessels, and Clear Glass Cluster, all 1996, the artist induced a sense of anxiety by creating structures from fragile materials. Rather than the chaos and fragility of memories and their traces evoked in earlier works, this was anxiety associated with precariousness, impermanence and collapse.

Wall Red Yellow Blue and Celestial, sculptural installations from 1997, mark a significant shift in Berkowitz's work towards a more highly charged, abstract form of symbolism. Wall Red Yellow Blue evoked the symbolic through hanging assemblages of test tubes and water dye. Celestial, produced for a group exhibition at St Patrick's Cathedral in Melbourne, comprised four hundred tall, cylindrical, chemical bottles from a country town serendipitously called 'Arcadia'. The bottles were filled to varying degrees with golden-coloured water and placed in front of an altar. Gold is associated with the purest and most precious of metals, but the artist also commented in her catalogue statement on the association of glass, light and water with purity: glass with clarity and transparency; light with the manifestation of God, and water with cleanliness and purification.(14) Similarly, while Berkowitz used light to illuminate colour as in stained-glass windows, she also related her work to modern abstraction and the sublime. She notes: the 'work of Jewish artists like Rothko and Newman, who used biblical narratives and exhibited in sacred places. They sought a purity in their work, in quest of the sublime.(15) By linking Jewishness to abstraction and the sublime, the artist provides an important clue to the metaphysical dimension of her work and the desire to transform the mundane materiality of objects through light. In Celestial the light no longer reveals the trace of a past long gone, but illuminates the transparency of the material world and the transcendence of the present illuminated within the sphere of the sacred.

The metaphor of light enables us to understand better how the strands in Berkowitz's work not only intersect but also inform one another. For instance, in pieces such as Reclaiming Memory, 1995, light becomes an essential property of meaning - in the illumination within the photographic process of reproduction. Quite simply, without light the work could not be presented. While the previous work captured its subject as a form of trace on light-sensitive photographic paper, in pieces such as Celestial empty material is given form and life through light. The serial character of the object-based pieces, unified and diffused by light, heightens their auratic power. They gather presence through light. Yet what is it that the light illuminates more than a presence that fills the space of absence? Is light a material force that reveals the essence of the object, or something that is otherwise invisible? What has been driven from the world and what reveals itself under its brilliance? Pure emanation? Or does light shed light on the fact that there is nothing behind the light, nothing to be revealed? There is no divine body to be seen. Nothing appears. Take the light away, and there is nothing but the void of night. It is an absolutely unavoidable 'there is' (il y a), as Levinas remarks, an anonymous being, undifferentiated consciousness, nothing to see, anonymity.(16)

And we are left with what remains: the columns of photographs of those no longer alive, the humble materiality of bags and bottles, and the empty form of the discarded container. To ask more, perhaps, is to ask too much. It is the idea of 'discarded' - referring to refuse and expenditure, the excess and waste of the commodity, and also to the impure - that implies the idea of exile and extermination. Expenditure becomes the ground on which the work is founded. Seen in relation to one another, the works reveal sacrifice or rejection rather than assimilation as the essential locus of contemporary life.

Savage Arcadia

The third strand in Berkowitz's work refers to some of her earliest pieces, in which she worked with natural elements in the landscape. Perhaps the most telling example is Tarook, Taarak, produced for Realities Gallery in 1992. The artist gathered eucalyptus leaves of various species from the nearby native-bush areas of the Yarra River in Kew and scattered them over the ground of a small courtyard garden of the gallery. The crushing of leaves underfoot as one crossed the courtyard created a strong fragrance that recalled the Australian bush and acted as a counter-point to the English ivy that had been planted in the surrounding garden. Stepping onto the leaves also symbolically recalled English colonial settlers stepping onto Australian shores. Then as now, Berkowitz's use of native plants suggests a displacement of the colonial landscape. Tarook, Taarak, 1992, was also the first work of this kind concerned with a re-articulation of memory and association through a conscious collecting and re-presentation of material.

Berkowitz continued to develop these ideas, in subsequent installations such as Heartsease, 1995, for 'Seven Histories of Australia' at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, and Follies for Australian Perspecta 1997: 'Between Art and Nature' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Heartsease was a layered garden-bed formed into concentric circles. Each layer was made from distinct indigenous and imported plants, symbolising a division within the landscape. While appearing to be little more than an ornamental display, the concentric circles recalled the circles and dots of Aboriginal desert art that represent campsites or sacred sites, and a historical dateline (similar to rings on a tree) that marks the indigenous, colonial and modern occupations of the land.

Follies comprised three floor-to-ceiling woven walls of aromatic plants representing three continents: chillies (the Americas), lavender (England and Europe) and the Australian indigenous banksia. Chillies with their pungent and overpowering smell symbolised the 'New World' and its European exploration. Columbus, Humboldt, Darwin and others explored and set about recording and classifying the Americas with a view to discovering land and natural products that could be of benefit to Europe. Chillies became a natural resource to be expropriated. Banksias were named after Joseph Banks, the botanist who travelled with James Cook on his voyage of 'discovery' to Australia. Banks spent his time collecting, classifying and naming indigenous plants that he took back to England. By virtue of their nectar, banksias were part of the traditional diet of the Aboriginal people, but they also symbolised white middle-class modernity. This symbolic meaning was codified in the modernist paintings and prints of Australian artist Margaret Preston. For a transplanted English culture, banksias represented the possibility of Arcadia, lush and unlimited growth beneath the harsh sun of a foreign land. Lavender's fragrance and medicinal properties are associated with scenting and healing the body, but lavender is also associated with Victorian England and its legacy within contemporary white Australian culture.(17)

By relocating botanical material in an art-museum space, Berkowitz was able to break down the division between museums of art and natural history. Her Perspecta installation represented the museum practice of displaying, collecting and preserving specimens, and gestured towards the Botanical Gardens - also founded in the colonial period - that lie adjacent to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Art became, like plants, the object of sensory pleasure in this work, entailing an education and aesthetic heightening of the senses. Installed like large monochrome or colour field paintings, Follies preserved for a brief time the beauty of nature. It evoked the relation between preservation, mortality/immortality and transience while also alluding to architectural follies set in eighteenth-century gardens and, through them, to an Arcadian dream world infused with the aromatic presence of plants. Yet, as in her earlier work, Berkowitz disturbed this Arcadian retreat through her choice and interplay of materials, reminding her audiences of the historical links between the landscape, plants and a history of trade, science and colonial occupation. Utopia for one became dystopia for the other. Collecting preserves life, or forestalls death in preserving life as an object of observation and science.

The contradiction inherent in collecting and preservation continues to pervade Berkowitz's work. From the comforting and claustrophobic labyrinth of newspapers to the colonial history of the botanical garden to her video titled The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1998, her work reveals a persistent disturbance that lies at the heart of her subject. The video depicts a fragmented sequence of images, nocturnal animals in zoos and sea-life in aquariums. Here, animals can be admired and protected from extinction, but they are also 'living museum displays' held in captivity. So held, they often lose the ability to survive outside of captivity.(18) The practice of collecting and archiving saves animals, objects and memories from disappearing, but at the cost of turning them into objects of the past, as if preservation itself was an acknowledgment of their transience rather than their renewal and continuation. Through the materials she salvages or the environments she creates, Berkowitz exposes us to the fullness of experience that these things provide and the order of fragility or danger to which they belong.

Anxiety of the sign

For Berkowitz the practice of art, like collecting, is about fate and living on, a way of moving back and forward, about the past and future, memory and remembrance, which constitutes the sensory experience of the world. As Walter Benjamin observed, collectors as 'physiognomists of the world of objects' are 'interpreters of fate'. 19 Collecting and art, for Berkowitz, coalesce in an everyday practice of retrieval and preservation, of making order out of the 'chaos of memories', and the fear that those memories will disappear unless seized. She explores what Benjamin identified in the desire to collect as an impulse to turn back fate and 'renew the Old World'.

What is important in this process is the image becoming legible, and having a residue of historical memory and value. Yet within the new order that Berkowitz creates we are also exposed to the gap between language and experience. There is no continuity, neither the aura nor trace is adequate, although they remain the necessary condition of recollection.

Berkowitz produces art that seeks to recover a sensory memory of the past, a form of historical practice that reanimates shared experience across time and space. Her work captures the present time, its passage and suspension between past and future, its coming and going. And while this is an art that exposes us to the anxiety of such revelation and the evanescent, fragile beauty that resides in shared memory of what has passed, it continues to renew a consciousness of being in the world as if for the first time.

1. Walter Benjamin, 'Unpacking my library', in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p. 61.

2. Walter Benjamin, Das Passagen-Werk, vol. v, 1982, p. 560. Cited in Sigrid Weigel, Body and Image-Space, Routledge, London and New York, 1996, p. 120. 

3. In Installation 5, 1992, Berkowitz used rolled-up pages from women's fashion magazines that exuded fragrance from sachet advertisements for perfume. The work of art is linked to the body, displacing the primacy of the visual by an olfactory experience. It becomes the shared site and repository of the body in which tactility, materiality and corporeality can be experienced as a surplus value and Utopian moment of pure expenditure. 

4. Cited by Gareth Sansom in Up the Road: Contemporary Artists Out of the Victorian College of the Arts, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, 1998, p. 36. 

5. The artist also produced a sound piece, originally accompanying video footage of these two installations, in which listings of her family name found in the New York telephone book are read aloud. We may imagine that latent within such a performance is not only the idea of naming but also the experience of immigrant arrival, when the names of families are called out at the point of entry, and permit papers are reviewed. 

6. Correspondence with artist, 8 June 1998. 

7. Berkowitz followed this series with a similar installation entitled Buffalo Dateline, 1995, in which she used local telephone books and lonely-hearts columns from Buffalo newspapers. This installation was made for the exhibition 'Essence and Persuasion' at Anderson Gallery, Buffalo. 

8. Berkowitz relates how her aunt has spent recent years trying to find out what became of her family. Correspondence with artist, 13 May 1998. 

9. The autobiographical is also woven into a larger story in Miscellaneous, 1996, an undulating wall of old receipts from cookery, needlework and life-modelling classes held at Prahran Mechanics Institute. In making this work, Berkowitz discovered that the woman who taught cooking classes had been her grandmother's cook. Correspondence with artist, 5 September 1998. 

10. Benjamin, 'Unpacking my library', op. cit. pp. 60-1. 

11. In such work from 1996 as White Bag Wall (frieze of white bags), Rubber Band Columns (woven rubber bands), Clear Glass Cluster (glass beer bottles), Cobwebs (packaging tape), Green Room (green fruit trays) and from 1997, Envelope Construction (used, addressed, stamped envelopes), the function of the objects is displaced by an apparently content-less sculptural form. Throughout this period, Berkowitz's art is marked by a strong connection to the work of the 1960s, especially Pop art and nouveau realistes and their critical elaboration of commodity culture as 'infecting' all spheres of everyday life. In these terms, the work of Berkowitz can also be connected to a generation of Australian artists and the journal Art + Text, which sought to rearticulate the legacy of Pop art within the context of Australian culture. 

12. See Lisa Yallamas, 'Lauren's prized work is in the bag', Courier-Mail, 12 February 1997.

13. Artist's statement, Moet & Chandon Contemporary Art Award, 1997. 

14. See Margaret Woodward (ed.), World Without End, exhibition catalogue, St Patrick's Cathedral, Archdiocese of Melbourne, Melbourne, 1997, p. 19. 

15 ibid. 

16. See Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, 1969. 

17. The link between scent, the work of art and women recalls Installation 5 (see fn. 3). However, there is a departure from the association with consumer culture to an exploration of an embedded memory of the senses. 

18. See Spiderbox, an exhibition with Rozalind Drummond, exhibition catalogue, Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Canberra, 1998. 

19. Benjamin, 'Unpacking my library', op. cit., p. 61.

Charles Merewether
Copyright © 2001