Agnes Janich; I can be made into 21 soaps.
An invterview by Marta Pietrasik
Gazeta Wyborcza Lodz
June 22nd 2010
My loved ones talked about the War on end. When I was six, I was convinced that everyone goes to Camp. - says Agnes Janich. This friday, the artist will cover the former Litzmannstadt Ghetto buildings with sleepers, earmuffs and doll dresses, identical to that the ghetto children produced.
Marta Pietrasik - Do you come from Lodz?
Agnes Janich - Yes, I was born here 24 years ago. But I only spend the first nine months of my life in Lodz and then got back for a year of pre-school. Me and my family left for Singapore and RSA. When I was 19, I decided to move to New York and graduated from the School of Visual Arts there. Now I travel a lot because of my work - the Emirates, Indonesia, Switzerland, Germany. I live on the train, in a plane, in New York and in Warsaw.
-So where is your home?
-In art, love and religion. When I was a teenager, the answer wasn't so simple. Me and my sister changed schools very often since our parents and grandparents work in foreign trade and diplomacy. I liked moving. At the age of 13, I started running away from home. I raised the most conservative parents in the world to be the most liberal ones. Right before I started doing and showing my art, I conceived a trip in the footsteps of Vincent van Gogh. I was in almost every village where he lived. Then again, my home was a very Polish one, focussed on history and tradition. I grew up learning about the Warsaw Uprising and the Lodz ghetto. I rarely see such a strong national identity, such an attachment to values such as honor, around the world. I'm proud to be Polish.
-What does it mean that your home is also in your religion?
-I chose my faith on my own. My mother thinks that religion is a private matter, my father is a catholic. I returned to my family's Jewsh roots originating from the 18th century. My synagogue in New York is one of the five most liberal synagogues in the world. To me, European Judaism is a little bit different, there is a context of rebirth here, of life despite the Annihilation. In the US there's almost only the concept of life. One can not escape the memory of 6,5 million Jews being gassed here. I don't even think it okey to avoid this thought. Anyway, in the US it's easier to live, dance, eat challach in the synagogue holding hands with one's boyfriend and singing Lecha dodi in a mini skirt.
-How did your parents react to your choice of faith?
-My parents don't like to admit our roots. It's typical amongst my friends' families. But my life is based on my decisions. I took my last name after my beloved great grandma. I changed it a few years ago, just like my first name. When all of my loved ones turned out to be English speaking, Agnes instead of Agnieszka seemed a must. I felt bad when they mispronounced my name. Agnes Janich is someone I've always wanted to be. My parents accepted it. I think they felt that they can take me as I am or loose me altogether. The times of being followed at dates, finding my torn and trashed diaries put together in their bedroom and being threatened by police for porn images are over.
-Why didn't you ever do art in Lodz?
-No one invited me for...no one knew me. People outside of Poland recognize me well. In Austria, where I'm working with one of the best galleries, Charim, I know almost every curator. Many in New York. At first, I was the one approaching museums and galleries. Now it changed. I conceived the Lodz project a not long ago - it's about ghetto children which died of hunger and exhaustion. The Litzmannstadt ghetto is unique in this that the children here didn't even make it to the crematorium. People who have influenced me most - Great Grandma Hela and my Grandma's Sister, Irka, who now lives in the Doly district, were both much touched by the war. The were hiding, cooking for Nazis and for Jews, they were deported. Like almost everyone in Poland at that time. My Grandpa's Uncle returned from Auschwitz in a tin. My loved ones talked about the War on end. When I was six, I was convinced that everyone goes to Camp. Then he dies or, if he's lucky, e.g.being a pretty girl, he serves in a Nazi officer's house. There she waits to be raped and hopes for survival. This was the truth, as subjective as any, that I grew up with. I had to face it. But that's not the only reason why I've done a lot of work on the Annihilation. It's not just a Jewish problem, nor a Polish, nor a gay one. All you need to do is be human to feel touched by it. I visited 19 concentration camps, read 500 diaries, met 80 survivors, studied archives in New York, Majdanek, Auschwitz, London. I feel in Love with someone from the United States of Amnesia. Someone who didn't want to remember. I wanted to be his memory, understand him, meet our two worlds. I wanted to change my loved one's world and I found myself in changing it for strangers.
-You change the world by art?
-My projects are very in your face. I work topically, Annihilation, Love, the Family. In Cleanliness is Goodliness, I found out that one can make 21 soaps out of me. I made symbolic soaps of all my loved ones. In Lighting the Night, I wrote the names of my loved ones and burn them on the water to examine what if...In Till Death Do Us Part I asked, would we sacrifice for one another. I planted roses in barbed wire. I built cold, dark labyrinths filled with the howling of dogs ( Man to Man at the 9th Sharjah Biennial ). I watched 11 thousand pictures of child corpses during a single weekend. Joanna Tokarska-Bakir wrote about me that I compare Love to Annihilation and test the Holocaust on myself. I agree. Artur Zmijewski tests history on others, I - on myself.
-Is it hard to live with such an attitude?
-I had my head shaved bare for three years. For five, I dressed in black and destroyed every relationship that God put my way. My desktop pictures a bruised Auschwitz survivor. She made it. I wonder, would I die for my beloved...I would have wanted to. And I feel guilty for now knowing, not being sure. That I fail to talk to God in such a way to get a definitive answer.
-In Lodz, you are concentrating on the ghetto children.
-The facade of the 35 Lagiewnicka St hospital will be covered with sleepers, the one at 14 Franciszkanska St - with pink doll dresses, and the one at 77 Drewnowska St - with white earmuffs. I want to remind people of what happened here before life went on after the war. These children have no graves nor families to remember them. Maybe the ended up in the carrots our grandmas ate, maybe in the ashes that hovered above Auschwitz. Maybe in the fishes our grandpas caught. People who remember these times are still alive. Now is the time to talk about them. If the world is to move on, we should be aware of what we did 70 years ago. People don't want to remember. During the national mourning, a friend said about my projects on the Holocaust - oh, please, we all know but we've got to move on! She was tired of remembering. But the world still breeds concentration camps in North Korea. Tortures in Guantanamo Bay. It's easier to forget. I have to try to have people open their eyes. In Auschwitz, I heard It's a better place to live since you came here. That's why I do it. If anything will change the world, it's either Love or Art. Every time I want my project to touch at least one person. And so far it works!
-The walls in Lodz bear a lot of antisemitic remarks. Aren't you afraid of the difficulties in finding an audience for the project?
-Hate-speech is everywhere. In the Fabryczny Railway Station underpass, however, I saw a note Jews, come back! The camps were here. Hitler had an incredible propaganda machine running. It's worth trying to combat it all the more. I will hang 275 sleepers. If people want to steal or destroy them, it's their right, their land, their Baluty. I don't live, don't pay my taxes here. They have the right, they're the insiders. People have varying sensitivities and a right to various reactions, to different ways of looking at the world.
-The ghetto was also one of adults. Why did you choose children?
-When I lived in the RSA, I had all sorts of children at school - black, yellow, white. We had a different mate beside us at every lesson. Hardly anyone could pronounce the other persons' name. We all had different faiths, different parents, but we played together. Then our parents drove down in their limos and the black ones drove their children one way, the white ones - in another. No matter how hard one tries, some things are incredibly hard to eradicate from the adult world. That's where children loose their innocence.
This innocence is the point of art. To be an adult on the outside and to still keep the child in. That five-year-old that is astonished everyday. That says, this gentleman has a side-growth on his face and the other one is blond, why don't they get together? Every day I hear from my well-meaning sister Stop it, this won't work, you're only making yourself vulnerable. From my friend Don't do a project on Jews and Arabs because someone might rape you when you travel. From another Do you always have to hurt yourself for these films? So far I'm alive. And there's always someone, the audience or a critic, like that from Sao Paulo, thanking me for opening his eyes wide to the world. Someone has to deal with difficult topics. That's the point of art - one person changes another person's world.