Two photographers from Poland at Walter Keller’s Gallery
Neue Zuercher Zeitung
Feb 19th, 2013
David Seymour, known as Chim, and Agnes Janich are photo artists from Poland. Their works are currently on display in a dissonant double exhibition in Walter Keller's gallery in Zuerich Bellevue.
Harmony can look different. But the harmony at Walter Keller’s, trend setter and agent provocateur of the Swiss photographic scene might be doubtful. When one visits Keller's small art room at Bellevue, faces dissonances so vivid one finds it difficult to stand still.
Eyes wide open
Two Polish-born photographers of Jewish origin, but different generations meet with a clash: David Seymour (1911-1956), also known as Chim, the co-founder of Magnum agency, with vintage children's portraits from the post-WW2 period and Agnes Janich (born 1985) with the presentation of her own lovemaking and cute-looking art-and-architecture installations of children's clothing in her hometown of Lodz.
On one wall, on the ruins of Europe, Seymour's wide-eyed children, traumatized by the horror of war, of hunger, of despair. It is perhaps the most important, and certainly most legendary and most influential work of Chim: the photo essay about Europe's war orphans, Children of post-war Europe, commissioned by Unesco in 1949.
And on the other wall? There are two series of works that Janich presents here in her first [note from the translator: 12th] solo exhibition outside Poland. And as it is so easy to interpret Chim’s humanistic appeal, it becomes ever more difficult for the casual observer to recognize that hers is the same humanistic goal, translated into the language of the next generation.
However, there is a subtle difference: Janich replaced the sober documentary attitude of the post-war reporter by a radically subjective sexual narration.
And why not? Why not, when Anna Hutsol and her Femen activists protest topless against Putin, the World Economic Forum and domestic violence in Turkey? The Femen's syndrome is part of contemporary art, even older than Femen itself. Agnes Janich’s feminist factor and erotic performance have a dimension that isn’t easy to be neglected.
Looking closely, on one of the bodies of the lovers one can see a stigma, a kind of tattoo: a short outline of a love story, written and engraved on the skin in brave student writing. They are collections of confessions which Janich found during her research on the WW2 in diaries of Holocaust survivors. Under the skin of today’s young Europeans - whether of Jewish origin or not - the spirits of that time are still alive. So says the artist, and to make it more convincing she uses her very own body.
There is no doubt that the strategy of seduction implemented by Janich, educated in New York and operating internationally, is as cold-blooded as it is clever. And who, looking at the soft pornographic work That You Have Someone (2012), still has doubts about the artist’s commitment, finds proof of her conscientiousness in her installation work Bits and Pieces (2010). The location of the installation is the former Litzmannstadt ghetto in Lodz, the longest persevering after the Warsaw Ghetto and the second largest of the Nazi henchmen.
Janich decorated the facades of former manufactures which employed children as forced laborers, and a former children's hospital, recognizing them as places of memory. She hung children’s sleepers as empty coverings of helpless little bodies which suffered cruelty here. Not unlike Christian Boltanski, to make a grand comparison, she uses everyday objects, especially clothes, to evoke the European trauma and to bring up associations which are valid to the present day. Is it conciliatory?
A peace message.
Conciliatory. Yes, this is it. David Seymour, who lost his parents in a Nazi death camps, used child war victims in his message of peace. Agnes Janich, from the Facebook generation, uses the eroticism of her own body to bring us to the same conclusion. And perhaps even further. From the feeling of guilt to the state of - harmony?
Zurich, Galerie Walter Keller (Oberdorfstr. 2), till March 30th. Janich’s first artist book, "Body Memory", is available at the gallery.