Growing up, we had a family joke about the fairly common experience of opening a cupboard and finding mom’s overflow stash of things like Kleenex, beans or toothpaste that no longer fit in the kitchen or bathroom. We’d darkly refer to it as her Holocaust syndrome, implying that her need to stockpile, to be prepared, was inherited from her mother, a hidden child survivor. The following body of work is situated at the intersection of coming across 10 cans of crushed tomatoes in the bathroom while looking for toilet paper and the impulse to hold close and care deeply for items and people that have been historically taken away.
Using found objects and creating work that uses or depicts an accumulation of materials, I reflect on a particularly Jewish collecting impulse that inspires a culturally specific method of storytelling. Each work is informed by the organized chaos of collections, the aesthetics of tangential narratives, restlessness and layering in order to express my own relationship with various facets of cultural Judaism.
See the exhibition here & here
Photography by Karice Mitchell
I think a lot about what I’ve termed the “Jewish collecting impulse”. Broadly speaking, I’ve noticed a strong disinclination towards making minimalist work, (despite the relentless popularity of the aesthetic), in so much of the post-Holocaust art made by Jewish artists. I’ve observed that the bulk of work that I’ve seen/read/heard made by Jews, especially women, non-binary, and queer folk, in the 20th and 21st centuries, is characterized by the organized chaos of collections, winding narratives, and a general feeling of restlessness. Nowhere better is this energy harnessed than in the charm bracelet.
When I saw Greta Perlman’s charm bracelet at the Jewish Museum in New York, I was immediately enthralled by its delicateness, quirky femininity and its surprising silence (a characteristic jingling usually accompanies a charm bracelet sighting). Little is known about how she acquired the charms while interned at Thereseinstadt. Prisoners were sometimes able to make small art works and hide them away in the walls, though it is likely that Greta traded food for some of the pieces when she worked in the camp’s kitchen. The bracelet itself was probably assembled after the war when Greta immigrated to the United States .
In The Collections of Barbara Bloom, a retrospective tome of the titular artist’s work, art historian Susan Tallman describes Bloom’s interpretation of the charm bracelet as an autobiographical monument. Tallman writes that while charm bracelets might be easily overlooked at first, when they do command your gaze they encourage a deeper sort of looking to understand their significance. In contrast, large monuments beckon only brief glimpses by demanding we take in the whole shebang at once, lest we strain our necks. Tallman then goes on to describe Bloom’s fascination with a friend’s densely packed charm bracelet. She writes, “the [charms on the bracelet] are not words in a sentence, but objects from the real world fallen down the rabbit hole and brought together by a conspiracy of fortune and design .”
Similarly, Greta’s charm bracelet is a hodgepodge of objects and pictures that offer otherwise uncharted insight into her life in the labour camp. Assembled as they are—cramped and dangling on top of each other—the charms collapse the distance between the brutality she experienced and the mundane aspects of her day to day. There is a pot and ladle because she worked in the kitchen, as well as a bullet and lice comb to symbolize the routine horrors of life in the camp. There are several charms indicating a possible love interest, and sandwiched between the comb and a camel lays a toilet charm, replete with a tiny, hinged lid. The museum’s website says that the toilet is a subtle joke about the indignities prisoners faced, although perhaps Greta just wanted to convey that life during the Holocaust was absolute shit.
So what does this have to do with a Jewish collecting impulse? Well firstly, the charms are a type of collection. In his book “Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like to be a Thing”, Ian Bogost explores the value of a list, or a seemingly superficial collection of materials (such is a charm bracelet), in literature and by extension, society at large. He writes:
"Like a medieval bestiary, [the study of experiencing the physical world] can take the form of a compendium, a record of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation. The simplest approach to such recording is the list, a group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma. [The study experiencing the physical world] is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence."
In Greta’s case, the composite grouping of objects and pictures hanging from a cord becomes a profound expression of the courage and ingenuity of a woman aiming to maintain some control over her life within an oppressive and perilous system. In other words, dividing her experience up into tiny symbols, gives a more thorough understanding of the whole.
Secondly, charm bracelets have the circular yet scattered narrative quality that most collections contain. The items in the collection are both tautologically tied to the theme of the collection, while remaining separate entities with their own reference points and histories external to the collection as a whole. In the case of the bracelet, each charm is a stand-in for everything and nothing while the bracelet en masse contains a metonymic quality by being a rough interpretation of an entire life. To quote Bogost again, he describes organization of “the stuff of being” as matter that is “constantly shuffle[ing] and rearrang[ing] itself, reorienting physically and metaphysically as it jostles up against material, relations and concepts.” A similar description can be applied to a charm bracelet: little cacophonous chunks of life, signaling, however superficially, to the events, ideas and life story of the wearer.
Thirdly, Greta’s bracelet indicates that even in the harshest circumstances, her collector’s spirit—her drive to save, create and give meaning to her life—did not perish at the hands of the Nazis. She was able to hold onto essential parts of her humanity by holding on to the tiny charms that represent love, ritual and even comedy.
In truth, the charms in this exhibition lack any sentimental value beyond the fact that I’ve assigned metaphorical significance to them by way of Greta Pearlman and Barbara Bloom. They are mostly from a giant online retailer, sold in a pack of 100, save for the single, tarnished strand draped over a piece of glass that was my actual charm bracelet as a kid. Regardless, I am consistently struck by how these cheaply made tchotchkes are able to express the power of collections, accumulation and, as Bogost puts it, “realism in multitudes” . By immersing myself in the world of the charm bracelet, that is, the world of tiny monuments, I feel more equipped to properly honour what’s been there all along- cans of tuna, toilet paper, crushed, diced and whole tomatoes along with a desire to fill in the cracks of the foundation with more foundation. The more charms we add, the more charming we’ll be.
Points of Contact (mandibles, tarsal claws, and adhesive pads and hair). performance for video.5:46. 2020
The title and concept of the video are inspired by the way ants form living surfaces on water or in air to get from point A to point B. Ants will create as many points of contact with each other as possible using their mandibles, tarsal claws and adhesive pads in order to float and keep the group travelling forward. With this work, I want to convey that collecting and accumulating materials, that is, creating many physical points of contact with both animate and non-animate histories, can keep communities afloat and moving as well.
By forcing these slinkys into a shell-like shape, I am, in some ways, reconfiguring the existing framework of protection and what that says about tradition, progression and creating positive change from within. While there are obvious and applicable symbolisms to shells and barriers in the context of a minority group, my intention is to consider how these charged protective outer shapes and materials function as just one of many layers in the overall assemblage of the work. Not just a protective barrier, the pile or dome has a coziness and familiarity embodied in the very nature of the shape: things strewn on other things that perhaps don’t necessarily fit together like legos, but are perfectly cradled, nonetheless. Safety then, is derived not from encasing yourself in a hard shell, but from the collective carapace that allows for movement and support within the structure. Through layering and accumulating, each stratum is illuminated and reinvented by everything above or below.
Follow up performance in 2021.
Click here for an exhibition inspired reading list compiled by me in collaboration with MJM
Funding for this exhibition was generously provided by the Ontario Arts Council
Process work that no longer exists.