Agnes Janich

My Strength is My Vulnerability, catalog essay

My Strength is My Vulnerability, an essay on the art of Agnes Janich,

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve, PhD,

in:Agnes Janich, Body Memory,

Fotohof Edition, Salzburg, AT

& MCCA Elektrownia, Radom, PL

ISBN: 978-3-902675-80-4,

ISBN 978-83-85901-91-4

 

My Strength Is My Vulnerability

Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

 

My strength is my vulnerability. It is the key with which I open and close space. It is my map through space.

—Ernesto Pujol[1]

 

 

 

A WORD

 

“No word” at least in the rather metaphorical sense I am employing the word ‘word,’ here comprises only the meaning assigned to it by an etymological dictionary. The meaning of every word also reflects the person who utters it, the situation in which it is uttered, and the reason for its utterance. The self-same word can at one moment radiate great hope while at another emit lethal rays. The self-same word can be true at one moment and false the next, at one moment illuminating, at another deceptive. On one occasion it can open up glorious horizons, on another it can lay down the tracks to an entire archipelago of concentration camps. The self-same word can at one time be the cornerstone of peace, while at another, machine-gun fire resounds in every syllable.[2]

—Vaclav Havel

 

There is a reason Agnes Janich does not work solely with words. Her work, whether about War or Love (two of her major focus areas) exists to produce affect, even experience, and oftentimes, memory.  In War it is experience; in Love it is affect. In all it is about memory not as a simple case of what is remembered but the very production of memory of affects and experiences in War and Love in her viewer.

 

Part I: WAR (2009-2012)

 

One might say history is researched and written by anyone, while memory necessitates a remembering being, an agent of recollection. In this sense, can I remember for you? Can you for me? Can memory exist if the person or culture from which it originates is disallowed even to live? Can you or I embody an other’s past, put on their skin, be given the gift to remember as that other —not just stand before photographic documents and printed postcards in a museum only to move on? These are the questions Agnes Janich’s War trilogy made over a period of three years: Man to Man (2009), Bits and Pieces (2010), and Cleanliness is Goodliness (2012)address.

The question is, what if those experiences cannot be possessed in the first place? Even by the possessor? In other words, what about memories that do not build and create a sense of self but quite the opposite: actually diminish the self? Such is the case of oral testimonies of genocidal war such as Holocaust survivors. In his indispensable book Holocaust Memories: The Ruins of Memory historian Lawrence Langer analyzes the oral histories of Holocaust survivors found in the Fortunoff Archive at Yale University. Langer’s book is based on hours and hours of oral testimonies. His argument is simple but devastating: unlike written testimonies, in oral accounts of the Holocaust, the grammar of heroism and martyrdom is utterly absent. There is no language to smooth over the fragments of discourse. In other words, oral testimonies underscore the unrepresentable, literally unspeakable, nature of devastating trauma.  As an example of the way writing inevitably heroizes or memorializes the raw experience of trauma, he quotes Martin Gilbert in his book, The Holocaust. Throughout the greater part of the book, Gilbert writes of Nazi atrocities with a ruthless resolve not to masquerade the worst until in the final paragraph he writes:

 

The will to resist was strong and took many forms.... Even passivity

was a form of resistance. To resist the dehumanizing, brutalizing

force of evil, to refuse to be abased to the level of animals, to live

through the torment, to outlive the tormentors, these too were acts

of resistance. Merely to give witness by one’s own testimony was, in

the end, to contribute to a moral victory. Simply to survive was a

victory of the human spirit. [3]

 

Due to the horror of accounting for atrocity, any writer finds it hard not to write without resorting to some kind of redemptive grammars: of resistance or of the ultimate moral victory of the human spirit in basically surviving the experience. Yet this is very different from Chaim E. who dryly reports, brusquely deromanticizing the will to survive that surfaces so often in Holocaust commentary. Listen to the following:

 

It is hard really to tell what a feeling that is. You are not an individual. You think you are right, you know all the answers, and you try to find logic and things like that that doesn’t exist at all. It is one purpose there: that is, to kill the people, so that’s the purpose there. So all the logic doesn’t apply there. It is really hard to explain that. And to have this feeling. It is easy to tell, but the feeling is very hard really to bring over to somebody [that] understands it, what really it means.[4]

 

Here the survivor is more besieged than heroic. He cannot make sense. He finds it impossible to bring the feeling over to someone. He does not draw moral conclusions or strive to contain the experience. He states exactly how impossible it is to present it and does this in a stunted, halting speech. For him, there is no language of resistance.

 

What we learn from Langer’s book is there is a quite acute différance that binds both speech and writing.[5] And yet, what Langer discovers is there is also a real difference. In this instance it is the way nonfiction writing on the Holocaust often produces a moralizing voice based in a heroic grammar.[6] Agnes Janich’s installations work more by way of an oral logic than a written one. She does not redeem or moralize The Holocaust but sets out to produce the very affect that such experience of atrocity produces, and in doing this her art does not sooth, but bites.

 

I. Bits and Pieces, 2010

 

Tiny doll dresses, sleeping jumpers, multiple children’s earmuffs dot the sides of the abandoned Lodz ghetto whose windows are now cracked and broken. One window stands out with its angular shard jutting against the daylight. The window, once a raw material of protection, now threatens to cut. Empty suits and lifeless objects meant to be inhabited and used, hang like fallen angels around these windows. Such a gentle embrace of absence and potential, of the quotidian moment of a sleeping baby or a playing child. This is not sentiment but a memorial to the notion of loss and the possibility of what could have been. But the earmuffs make the difference. A completely unexpected introduction of experience. The experience of vulnerability where earmuffs signify a tiny head in need of protection from the elements. Cold so intense it threatens to freeze the tiny child’s ears. All three remnants—of play, of vulnerability, of the absent hanging bodies— are at once cheerful, even sweet but the skin they stick to (the walls of the Lodz ghetto buildings) makes them painful. One sees life as much as absence in these talismans of childhood serialized (repetition as objectification) into grids across the surface of the buildings. Bits and Pieces forces us to imagine (and experience) the quotidian reality of the children that once were or might have been— parts that stand in for an absent whole.

 

II. Cleanliness is Goodliness, 2012

 

One can make 21 soaps like me.

Agnes Janich

Would be their brand name,

The trademark

They’d sell under

In the Third Reich

 

…the other trademarks are the people I know… [7]

 

The story of the mass, or limited, manufacture of bars of soap from corpses of Jewish body fat by the Nazi’s is an example of the (contested) history anyone can write for even these stories have been brought into question by recent research. But, regardless, the figure of Nazi soap is an example of the memories we do not have because the individual people who possessed the first-hand experience of living through the process of death and fat removal are not here to tell us the story.

In Cleanliness is Goodliness my name— Thyrza Nichols Goodeve —is a bar of soap. When I see this there is a feeling I attach to this. It is a queasy sensation deep in the area of my stomach. It causes me to have associations that are personal, revolting, disgusting, angry. I do not feel proud. But then I am also honored (that she put me on a bar of soap) but by saying this I feel ridiculous. But let’s do away with writing for now. Let’s do away with identifying with me, the person in the present. Let’s take away discussions that sooth or make sense of what these soaps signify because in the process the bars of soap will somehow take on an aesthetic appeal, perhaps even heroic, certainly narcissistic. Could we—the community Janich includes by etching her extended world —and by proxy —those who visit the piece, just let them be, and yet let them be etched by the names of people connected to the artist? What would this mean?

 

Smell, touch, hold, imagine, the production of that history. Names cut.

Flesh. Soap. Cast our imagination into each bar, into the dismemberment, systematically, of skin, fat, nothing more than killing, worthlessness, without agency, no meaning, no redemption, no reconciliation.

Circumstances.

No heroes

No martyrs.

Raw experience.

Can this be cleansed?

 

No bar of soap can clean itself of the fact of having no first-hand memory of an experience. The bodies, the persons are not here. But, Janich is making this very memory for us, right here and now. And … all the logic doesn’t apply there. It is really hard to explain and to have this feeling. It is easy to tell, but the feeling is very hard really to bring over to somebody [that] understands it, what really it means. Can you imagine that time mine feeling ? [8] (emphasis added)

 

III. Man to Man, 2009

 

You step in. Out of the light. All black. All sound. This is harsh, even unbearable. A labyrinth. Images of threatening dogs, their teeth barred, gnashing, more darkness, blood, fear. This isn’t pleasant—no dolls’ dresses or smell of fresh soap.  One’s heart races. Sweat. Nowhere to go. Immersion. Must flee. Disgusting, besieged, a feeling of fear that may take over the senses too much. One’s body is not one’s own. (Although you, unlike prisoners subjected to the dogs, do have agency to walk out of the installation.) Are you watching and listening to the snarling, tethered, entrapped dogs that contain the space? Or is it in your body? Do you resist? Feel brave?

 

For some Man to Man may in fact feel too brutal; it may, ever so slightly, even induce something like posttraumatic stress. This is not a joke. For: to understand violence, one needs to feel its effects. As one leaves, one is possessed. One will remember this. And now it is untenable, if not preposterous, to even think of what I introduced earlier, of listening to someone recount the experience of being made into a bar of soap (except perhaps, in fiction such as Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, which runs backward in time so acts of death become acts of return to life).  Or to suggest that what one experiences while in Man to Man leaves even a second of recollection of the violence and dehumanization done to individuals treated no better than dogs. But, if one is pierced as these three pieces set out to do, we may leave feeling diminished and shaken.  But is such a reaction true to the life of the dead? Is there a way to resist moralizing? It is not one of the narcotic images of disappeared individuals, families, communities, and cultural traditions that passes through us, offering up the language of victorious memory. Such recapturing into language isn’t the point. That is too easy and Agnes Janich knows this. Through the ferocious sound and imagery, we have become encased in the experience of Man’s inhumanity to Man. It has literally been implanted in us as an experience, soon to become a memory. We walk away with ourselves forever changed. We are possessed. As Philip K. said in his oral testimony: It’s my skin. This not a coat. You can’t take it off. And it’s there, and it will be there until I die…[9]

 

LOVE

 

He Fucked Her Good (2009)

I Hate My Body When You’re Gone (2012)

Is A Whole More Than A Sum of Parts (2012)

That You Have Someone (2012)

 

The body of silence has a profound stomach with teeth that can bite, chew, suck and swallow practically everything and everyone.

—Ernesto Pujol [10]

 

Nonetheless Janich is not afraid of the redemptive, of the turn away from horror into the possibilities of pleasure in  LOVE and WAR. Not always pretty (Hiroshima Mon Amour, or Angelina Joli’s controversial In the Land of Blood and Honey, or the book In Love and War, by Alice Kurowsky) yet often times pretty to think so [11] (Casablanca, Dr. Zhivago, Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms, or Duras’ War). In her website description of That You Have Someone, the piece is described as A series of true stories of Love in times of War, when life was larger than life itself. Made mostly in 2012, Janich’s four pieces continue to explore affect but this time based on a vulnerable body of another kind. One constituted from the vicissitudes of love rather than (or in the context of war). As Roland Barthes dissected the language of love in A Lover’s Discourse, Janich, explores the discourse of the amorous naked body in what Ernesto Pujol calls its thisness. The vulnerable body need not be a weak or absent body but quite the opposite, the body in its dissolved, ecstatic state, is in many ways at its most present. This is what Pujol identifies as the foundation of his performance practice.

 

I am ultimately performing my thisness. It is not an act, a choreographed ritual, a costume, a drag, a temporary persona. I perform the no-self in whatever stage of evolution it is at that moment. The performance is who I really am. I engage performance as a moment of revelation. [12]

 

Some of Janich’s works are actual performances (Lighting the Night, These Are a Few of my Favorite Things) and some of the LOVE projects evolve from performance (He Fucked Her Good is A film installation of a man and woman undressing to the sound of social commentaries on male and female promiscuity.) But one may make the point that all her work is performative. For instance, the collection of photos of the ritual of trying to rid someone’s soul from one’s body in I Hate My Body When You are Gone.  Or the potent collection of probing, investigative gestures of a young woman investigating her body in light of Other’s quotes on one’s Self in Is A Whole More than A Sum of Parts (even though The self-same word can, at one moment, radiate great hopes, at another, it can emit lethal rays.). In all these series (and certainly the stories of love in a time of war performed in That You Have Someone) one finds that quality of affirmative thisness that Pujol discusses. Pujol suggests, and Janich’s work acts out, how there is no static self but only one wholly susceptible to time (the displacement and deferral of Derrida’s différance), ever in evolution, in a state of becoming— the matter of writing the body (the language of love and pain) which is always a memory in the making. As she explored the actual affect of atrocity in the WAR series, in LOVE Janich produces the fragmented discourse of the self as a lover’s discourse (Barthes’ book after all is called A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments); of memory, affect, and absent presence. Both war and love explode the boundaries of the self, as Agnes Janich shows.  But we are given the chance as viewer’s to begin again in a language of the body:

 

Love has two affirmations. First of all, when the lover encounters the other, there is an immediate affirmation (psychologically: dazzlement, enthusiasm, exaltation, mad projection of a fulfilled future: I am devoured by desire, the impulse to be happy): I say yes to everything (blinding myself). There follows a long tunnel: my first yes is riddled by doubts, love’s value is ceaselessly threatened by depreciation: this is the moment of melancholy of passion, the rising resentment and of oblation. Yet I can emerge from this tunnel; I can “surmount,” without liquidating; what I have affirmed a first time, I can once again affirm, without repeating it, for then what I affirm is the affirmation, not its contingency: I affirm the first encounter in its difference. I desire its return, not its repetition. I say to the other (old or new): in War and Love Let us begin again.[13]

 

 

 


[1] Ernesto Pujol, “Vulnerability as Methodology,” in Sited Body, Public Visions (New York: McNally Jackson Books, New York) 98.

[2] Vaclav Havel, “Words on Words,” New York Review of Books, January 18, 1990, p. 6. Quoted in Langer, 169‐70.

[3] Quoted in Lawrence L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 163.

[4] Chaim E. in Langer, 163.

[5] Derrida’s term différance simultaneously denotes the displacement and deferral which impedes clarity of signification…. Derrida contends that the meaning of each sign is ‘displaced’ precisely because the sign is not self –contained in its own autonomous space.” Derrida’s différance alludes to Fernand de Saussure’s notion of différence but posits that signs always already contain the trace of the excluded term in language. What is important here is the temporal dimension Derrida adds to language as a system, that “the meaning of each sign is ‘displaced’ precisely because the sign is not self-contained in its own autonomous space.” http://www/rlwelarke.net/courses/LITS33o4/2002-2003/SN06Deconstruction.htm

[6] With fiction and poetry this is less true.

[7] Agnes Janich, artist’s statement.

[8] Testimony of Max and Lorna B. Tape T-94.  Langer, 134.

[9] From the “Testimony of Philip K. (T‐1300),” Langer, 205.

[10] Pujol, 94.

[11] The last line of The Sun Also Rises. “Yes,” I said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

[12] Pujol, 97.

[13] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1978; © Editions du Seuil, 1997), 24. It is fitting this essay ends with the exhilatory language of Barthes —a writer for whom absence and presence, memory and affect, is what language is about.

© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich