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Home » Publications » Catalogue Excerpts » Lily Markiewicz Promise II

Lily Markiewicz Promise II

Lily Markiewicz: Promise II
Lily Markiewicz: Promise II
Lily Markiewicz: Promise IIPurchase the catalogue
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A Public Conversation with Dorota Glowacka and Lily Markiewicz

Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery
7 July 2002

Ingrid Jenkner Good afternoon, Iím Ingrid Jenkner, Director/Curator of the gallery. I have the honour of welcoming you to this special event associated with the exhibition Promise II. The dialogue will last for about one hour, after which time the speakers will open it up to include everyone in the room.

The discussion is being recorded, so please state your name when you speak from the floor.

Lily Markiewiczís visit to Halifax has been funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Council and the Kent Institute of Art and Design. Her visit has been sponsored locally by Mount Saint Vincent University Art Gallery, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and the Centre for Art Tapes. I am especially grateful to Ariella Pahlke, of C.F.A.T., and Jan Peacock, of N.S.C.A.D., who were the instigators of the entire project.

MSVU Art Gallery is presenting Promise II in the context of an exhibition program in which [African] diaspora aesthetics have been a recurrent motif. Within this area of artistic production, repetition and indirectness of reference function as poetic markers of difference. They also fulfill an ethical purpose, which is to sustain a process of remembering.

In the installations of Lily Markiewicz, memory is also a central theme.

Table of Contents
The artist was born in post-war Germany and completed her education in England. She lives in London and teaches at several post-secondary institutions, including the Kent institute of Art and Design. She works in performance, film, video, and in the spatialized format known as installation art. Her installations typically incorporate video, photography and, in the case of Promise II, recorded sound. Her work has been exhibited since the late 1980s in Europe and the United Kingdom and, less frequently, in Canada.

If you have visited Promise II already, you may be asking yourself, “What has this to do with the Holocaust?” That happens to be one of the questions under consideration this afternoon.

In Promise II each element has been carefully weighed. The components of the piece generate a spatial situation that is temporary and provisional, yet specific in its effects It is no accident that the installation cannot be grasped from any single vantage point. In such a situation we are obliged to attend to our own reactions, even as we enact a ritual of navigation through space and time.

Lily Markiewicz and Dorota Glowacka met for the first time in Halifax, two weeks ago. Lilyís artistic practice represents one aspect of her intellectual commitments. Dr. Glowacka is a humanities scholar whose receptiveness to visual art has already been appreciated in the local art community. She is an Associate Professor in the Contemporary Studies Program at the University of Kings College. A book of essays entitled Between Ethics and Aesthetics: Crossing the Boundaries, co-edited by her and Stephen Boos, was recently published. Dr. Glowackaís writing in this book reflects her research interests in critical theory, Holocaust literature, and contemporary fiction from around the world.

Lily Markiewicz Whilst Dorota is organising her papers, I too would like to extend my thanks to all the people Ingrid mentioned, as well as to all members of the staff at the gallery and Ingrid herself, for their warm welcome and invaluable commitment to this entire project. I would also like to welcome everybody and thank you for having given up the chance for a Sunday in the garden or away out of town on this first sunny day in a while.

Dorota Glowacka I would like to thank Ingrid Jenkner for inviting me, and I wish to add to her introduction that Lily was born in Germany and I was born in Poland, which is not irrelevant to the topic of our conversation. Related to this displacement from the homeland is that we are having this conversation in a language that is the second language for both of us. Another similarity is, as was written in the invitation to this event, that we are both children of Holocaust survivors. Well, I was also referred to as a “Holocaust specialist,” an appellation that I, strangely and very strongly, resist. I wonder whether you experience a similar resistance to the confining of your work in the category of Holocaust art.

LM Well, I, too, hold a certain resistance to being subsumed into a Holocaust narrative. But I guess for me it all depends on what one actually means by “the Holocaust”. If we mean a historical event which took place some fifty or so years ago, measured by and in chronological time and sitting in a defined historical frame, then my answer is definitely NO. If, however, we begin to think of “the Holocaust” as something much more present, as something which is not just located in historical time but as something which is measured by other means, in a non-chronological fashion, then I would have to say yes. What Iím referring to is not just an understanding that each event has reverberations beyond its original coordinates, but more specifically to what is called traumatic memory. Here the past is repeated in the present as a history which literally has no place, because it has not been assimilated into a coherent understanding of itself and cannot, therefore, be part of a past, nor can it be truly present, as it is something of the past. [In her anthology, Trauma, Cathy] Caruth relates this differentiation back to Janet, who differentiated between narrative memory and traumatic memory. So in my work, Iím interested in memoryĖand the different ways of remembering. For example, I the Judaic tradition, memory is one of the prime sites for self-definition; itís the repository for the self. You celebrate Passover as the freeing from slavery and the wandering into exile as though this was happening now, today, to you. See, I do think of myself as a second-generation survivor and, as such, I believe I suffer a form of post-traumatic stress. And I would like to differentiate between the original trauma of having survived the war and my experience, which is about being brought up in a society which has not dealt with this trauma.

DG It was only after Helen Epstein published her book Children of the HolocaustĖwas it in 1979?Ėthat people first started paying attention to this transmission of trauma between generations. Epstein wrote that the children of survivors showed the same symptoms of the survivor syndrome as their parents. This book was a revelation for me, as I am sure it was for many others. But, just to play a devilís advocate, how do you know that the symptoms of the trauma you experience actually come from your parentsí experience of the past, as opposed to being your own, in the present? How do you distinguish between the two?

LM Well, Iím not sure. You see, one of the typical characteristics of PTSD is doubtĖdoubt about what one feels and from where it originates.

DG How do you cope with this uncertainty? Do you try to transform it into a comprehensible narrative? Do you name it? Or do you resist naming it because then you would almost explain it away?

LM “It” assumes a certain consciousness, an awareness that “it” exists. But, it took me about ten years of slowly feeling my way into a darkness, into something I had no name for, no awareness of, before I could begin to find a focus, a clearer sense of what I was trying to tackle, to deal with. Epstein was certainly helpful as an affirmation that what I was feeling wasnít just about me but something that was shared by others, was something much bigger than me, and political. But in all these years, I was also doing battle with another central paradox within trauma experience, which is about the ambivalence between wanting to speak about and name this, and yet wanting also to deny it, wanting to forget. Judith Herman wrote at length about this. So I guess that my will to express myself must be strong and my expression is a form of witnessing, myself for myself.

DG But isnít there also a need to be witnessed by somebody else and be a witness to others? We spoke before about different ways of witnessing...

LM Of course! But in the end, I am the one who needs to decide what to do. In order to witness, you have to be conscious and present. Again, there is a paradox, which means that, in the face of a traumatic event, most people absent themselves, cannot stay present to experience the horror. This then means that it becomes traumatic precisely because they couldnít witness what was happening fully in the first place. And this is where the different ways of witnessing operate: you not only need to witness yourself, but often you need to be witnessed by someone else first before you can begin to witness yourself. I guess itís the doubt thing again.

DG But if trauma remains in the unconscious and always eludes understanding [in a way] that we always fail to recognize it as such, how can we ever bear witness to the traumatic event? Doesnít it become transformed into something else, into a comprehensible account, and in this way forgotten as, exactly, a traumatic event?

LM I guess I donít see it quite in such simple terms. We are such complex beings and there are often openings which allow us to see something whilst we remain blind to other things. However, in many ways what I try to achieve in my work is part of the process of becoming conscious, or to name it differently, to witness. What Iím trying to do, both for myself and an audience, is to implicate myself and the viewer in the moral and ethical task of witnessing/bearing witness. To witness means to be present, to be conscious of something you experience. To bear witness presupposes this and asks us to relate what we have witnessed to others. Itís a profoundly responsible task, not just in relation to something of major consequence. So in Promise IIĖin fact, like in most of my other workĖIíve tried to create a space within which we can begin to become conscious of ourselves and, through that, of a particular condition. In this case itís a question of placelessness or suspensionĖthe kind of placelessness which traumatic memory inhabits or that we inhabit. The idea is that viewers become conscious of their own bodies and movement, thereby able to consider questions of meaning and of consequence. And once the context of this work become clearer, one becomes part of the witnessing process, whether this is in relation to oneís own memory or that of someone else.

DG I must say, when I visited the installation two days ago, I had a deeply uncanny experience. I felt suddenly “ungrounded” to the extent that I lost my breath. Lily was laughing at me because I was literally breathing hard and started sweating in the midst of the cool, air-conditioned room. The installation really affected me in a very somatic way. I felt that the work is making a demand on me, that the viewer becomes a part of this space and has to work hard rather than just consume it.

LM I wasnít laughing at you at all. And yes, I certainly try to make an environment that is affective, that resists easy assimilation, or that is not a kind of “one-liner”, as a lot of more popular work is. Not that I donít also like such work, but itís not what I do. Iím more interested in finding something out about myself and entering into some kind of dialogue with the viewer. I think of my work as much more long-term andĖhow shall I say-relational. If you think about witnessing, it means that you enter into a kind of relationship, first and foremost with yourself. You also, if you have been present in that moment of witnessing, will have the need to extend that out, towards others. But most importantly to me at this time is the moment of relating to yourself, which really means that my work is not about affirmation; itís really about trying to find ways of making you come into contact with yourself through the work, then with the work. So in many ways, yes, Iím interested in questioning, maybe, what one is so sure ofĖnot in an undermining sort of way, but so that one can begin to ask questions, to oneself and to the work.

[continued in exhibition catalogue]



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