Hanging on to the past

Tel Aviv sculptor Meira Grossinger threads a Holocaust theme through her latest exhibition.

grossinger art 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
grossinger art 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tel Aviv sculptor Meira Grossinger is displaying her latest exhibition, "The Backyard - or Childhood Memories," at the Jaffa Port. The ominous display features four works: Cage, Threads, Collective Memory, and Me, My Daughter, My Doll. Each piece has its own story, but all work together to portray a progression of feeling as one passes through the exhibit. The first exhibit, Cage, is relatively tame. A series of strings are hung from the ceiling, and they envelop fabric butterflies in cages. The items used are simple, providing the bones of a scene. Grossinger explained that the cage was meant to represent life. The butterflies are "life that is born right into a cage," she said. When extended to humanity, the metaphor is about "life living you." This principle of fate, which permeates the exhibit, is tightly connected to the Holocaust. Grossinger, a second-generation Holocaust survivor, was "born into a feeling of uncertainty and fear" that she took from her parents. "I carry something with me from them," she said. "I've never believed in free choice. Today you are very happy, tomorrow something must happen and turn you upside down. That is the cage of human life." The theme of the hanging strings is repeated in the second installation, Threads. The metaphor is kept as the symbolic cage expands to encompass a room full of figures. Threads consists of sculptures created with various materials, scraps and bits of fabric. Crying children, heads bent to their hands and surrounded by open suitcases, fill the scene. As a novice, my impression was one of loss. The mood was partially one of fear, but also of intense distress. I almost wanted to lean over and comfort the crying child in the foreground, bent over in her mismatched shoes and tattered clothing. But at the same time, I violently rejected her. I was afraid to touch her, afraid to even look at her. She was sad, pathetic, hopeless… and grotesque. She is Frankenstein; they all are. They were created not by nature, but by a lack of, or failure of nature. This is a collection of forgotten objects and memories. One is struck not only by what is there, but by what is missing. No ground, no real clothes, no background. One figure, seated on the ground and reaching out a hand, is even missing a head. The covered faces are interesting, because feeling is usually displayed with the most expressive part of the body - the face. This move also hides identity, purposefully taking away a vital part of the scene. The figures have been stripped of whatever made them unique, whatever made them human. Grossinger explained that the mismatched materials purposely resemble garbage. "They are remnants of our culture being made into pieces of human beings, thrown out into a kind of backyard," she said. "No one wants them." And yet, a cocoon from which a butterfly will spring forth floats in the air, above the scene. Grossinger explains that "in that garbage where things are not actually alive, a kind of life is being created." THIS CONTRAST between death and life, between despair and hope, is a common theme in Grossinger's works. "It is the duality between sweet and sad, good and cruel, protection and danger. I always play on duality," she said. The next piece in the exhibition is enough to make the viewer jump out of a distressed but relatively tranquil reverie. Me, My Daughter, My Doll consists of 45 young-looking female heads created from the same sort of bits and pieces as the earlier children. The shock factor is strong as the heads eerily sway in the air, held several feet above the ground by threads. "It's talking about childhood that was cut off, that was finished too early," explains Grossinger. She speaks of the lives of her parents, the lives of the many young Jews who spent their childhood in hiding - or worse - during World War II. "They all were made on clothing hangers," says Grossinger, speaking of the heads. "They are like on a show, like being merchandised, which also belongs not only to the Holocaust but what happens to girls everywhere - in Vietnam, in Africa, all over the world." In the final work, Collective Memory, the exhibit grows still darker, and the connection to the Holocaust, previously only hinted at, is solidified by the photograph of Jews being released from a concentration camp in the background. A legless ballerina sways in the foreground. She is part of the "collective memory of Jews coming here from Europe," explains Grossinger. "Jews learning how to dance, ballerina boxes… these are sweet memories. The Holocaust is also part of our collective memory." The grimness raises questions about human nature. "Why?" asked Grossinger. "Why do we ourselves cause so much suffering to other people? We were born in the Garden of Eden and caused ourselves to be thrown out of it. Why couldn't we have a peaceful life? Why is our world so imperfect?"