LANDMARKS is a 12-projector 16mm film installation that examines the representation of Holocaust-related landscape—in particular, the sites of the former Nazi extermination camps: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
My specific inquiry emerged after a conversation with esteemed Holocaust Historian, Raul Hilberg, while I was attending a conference at Claremont McKenna College in California in February 2004. During our discussion we spoke about his appearance in Shoah (1985), and I mentioned my intentions to go to the former Nazi extermination camps represented in Lanzmann’s film. To my surprise, Professor Hilberg said that he had never been to any of the death camps. For him, their primary function is commemorative—adding that they are nothing like they were during the war: these places are “gravesites” from which nothing new about the Holocaust could be learned. Intuitively, I disagreed with Professor Hilberg, though I could not, at that time, legitimately defend my position. In order to prove whether or not he was correct, I endeavoured to determine if there was anything I could learn about the Holocaust only through physically being at these sites.
- Still from LANDMARKS. Cornfield outside Oswiecim. Oswiecim, Poland (2004).
Because the physical spaces of former Holocaust-related sites exist within a larger landscape—that is, within the same world in which we live—I believe that experiencing these locations firsthand undergirds our attempts at understanding the Holocaust. Even where the physical surroundings have transformed over the years to a point beyond their original appearance, the existence of these sites in the natural world grounds them in ordinary reality that cannot be communicated strictly through documents and artifacts. The sheer geographic physicality of these decrepit sites puts memory in a tangible space—thus demystifying and stripping its traumatic power—and it is this co-existence of the appalling and the routine that my practice seeks to reveal. My research does not arrive at new historical knowledge about the Holocaust, but seeks instead to cultivate and express a new way of approaching Holocaust-related sites, an intention which surfaces out of an inability to reconcile the facts by themselves.
In addition to a critical analysis of landscape in Shoah, and because I consider that memory and place are not something that written language can, by itself, adequately express, my research outputs include the development and presentation of two creative projects, that I have entitled LANDMARKS and Dachau Brick. These pieces document both my visits and material relationship to a number of Holocaust-related sites in Poland and Germany. In part as deference to the subject itself, and in part to discover what could come from documenting these spaces in ritual detail and from multiple viewpoints aimed to displace my pre-existing understanding of these sites, my methodology for both filming and representing these spaces took on a formalized character.
During pre-production for LANDMARKS, I hung a large map of Poland on my wall on which I charted my road trip to the six former Nazi extermination camps that Lanzmann visits in Shoah: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Belzec, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. These sites form an imperfect circle on the map, and this geographic shape informed not only my travel itinerary but also the installation itself. I drove clockwise via these historical landmarks, effectively circumnavigating the southern half of Poland.
At the former camps, I used a spring-wound 16mm Bolex motion picture camera to shoot single frames, as opposed to multiple, continuous frames at the standard 24 frames per second. Utilizing this technique, I managed to capture over 40,000 individual black and white images. Inspired by the expansive visual treatise Lanzmann presents in Shoah, I used a motorized 16mm Beaulieu camera loaded with colour film to shoot long unbroken takes of the surrounding landscape. These panoramas of the spaces between one death camp and the next show the disquietingly close proximity of these sites to civilian populations—rural communities, towns, and large cities. The spaces between these landmarks fill in some of the irresolvable gaps to an impossible narrative—they make it real—while the contrasting filming techniques represent a kind of visual post-mortem of the landscape.
I sent the colour film stock to a lab for processing, but hand-processed the black and white camp-related footage myself, using water that I had collected from Birkenau’s “Lake of Ashes.” As a last step, I viewed each individual film frame on an optical printer, and then re-photographed several thousand of what I regarded to be the most compelling images for the installation.
From this footage, I created 12 separate film loops ranging from 8 to 24 feet in length—six loops to represent the six camps, and six to represent an aspect of the topographic space between each of these sites. For the installation, I arranged 12 projectors in a circular, equidistant pattern around the periphery of a large black box theatre space, and projected the loops onto a canvas lampshade-like structure, 30-feet in circumference, that I suspended from the ceiling. The successive arrangement of the loops mirrored the geographical relationship of the camps as they appear on the map, with the loops for each camp flanked on either side by images from the surrounding “space between.”
- LANDMARKS exhibit. Overhead view of installation (not in full darkness). Reading University, Reading, UK (2006).
- LANDMARKS exhibit. Overhead view of installation (full darkness). Reading University, Reading, UK (2006).
Running at 24 frames per second, the edges of each projected loop touched the images projected on either side, effectively producing a solid band of contiguous moving images that wrapped around the giant lampshade. The audience could walk freely through the space, between projectors and projection surface, as well as under and inside the cylindrical screen itself. Because I could not take the audience to the camps themselves, I wanted to bring the present-day camps to the audience.
Over the mechanical whirr of the running projectors, I played a looped audio recording of a 20-minute conversation I had with an elderly man who served as the sole attendant at the Chelmno camp memorial museum—essentially, an old single-room house staffed by a local volunteer. During this part of production, I was traveling without a translator, so I was unable to understand what my Polish host was saying, and he could not understand me. Our conversation about the artifacts that sat piled in cardboard boxes on the floor was recorded on mini-DV, and there is something in our failed efforts to communicate that struck me as important to this work.
- Shooting LANDMARKS. Spoons at the Chelmno Memorial Museum. Chelmno, Poland (2004).
The concurrence of a fragmented conversation bereft of understanding is a critical aspect of LANDMARKS. It is a dynamic that is echoed in the architecture of the piece itself, insofar as the spherical structure prohibits the possibility of seeing all of the images at once. Instead, a simple truism applies: what one is able to see depends upon where one is standing. Yet, even while the audio precludes connectivity, and despite the frenetic subliminal pace of the camp-related images juxtaposed against the expansive shots of the neighboring landscape, the overall piece conjures an uncanny solemnity. Somehow the parts create a whole that is satisfyingly and appropriately unresolved.
- Shooting LANDMARKS. Helicopter outside hotel near Majdanek. Lublin, Poland (2004).