Agnes Janich's Task,
in:Agnes Janich, Body Memory,
MCCA Elektrownia, PL,
Fotohof Edition, AT,
Agnes Janich is the difficult one, the artist who makes it her mission to remind us of things we would prefer to forget or we would choose to ignore as simply part of the way things are. Her two themes are violence and constraint, and she often unites them in the image of her body. Her goal is liberation, a goal with profound implications not only for individuals, especially women, but for Europe and its history. Her work harks back to pioneering work done in the 1970s and 80s by Sanja Iveković. What does the artist do in the face of war and the deliberate campaigns of denial of the other’s humanness? How can the artist use images to overcome the limits of memory, and to assert with Emanuel Levinas that the face of the other is the sign of our responsibility? Janich’s many projects embody a variety of committed strategies. In just a brief space, I want to examine how she does this and whether these counter-memories are effective.
First, we must acknowledge that Janich is far too young to have experienced the events of the Holocaust, but she represents a generation that has been profoundly discomforting to their Polish and European elders – to their remaining grandparents (and sometimes great grandparents) who may feel they have suffered enough for that time, and to their parents, who may have come to the position that the debt to the past has been paid in full. And who has the right to collect it in any case? But Janich‘s work insists that the debt cannot be paid, not because so many specific crimes have gone unpunished but because the nature of human society, its need for scapegoats, has not been exorcised. Her aim is not to remember but to prevent forgetting, to evoke the conditions of suffering and examine the consequences of ignorance.
Like Christian Boltanski, Janich has used vernacular objects, especially clothing, to characterize and evoke historic trauma, in works such as Bits and Pieces. Boltanski is of an older generation, and his appropriation of clothing arises out of a profound awareness of how the gathering of second-hand material – the ordered piling up and division of these goods -- has become assimilated into an iconography of trauma and betrayal–holocaust trauma, Jewish trauma, National Socialist trauma, German trauma, French trauma. Janich is more straightforward. She chooses to re-identify the specific sites of betrayal and directly advertise their particular roles. So the buildings in Lodz whose walls she covers with children’s clothing were sites of child labor, organized as a system of extermination. Janich restigmatizes the buildings, depriving them of their memorial innocence. Thinking of Boltanski again, she mobilizes a wider set of associations to connect this manufacture to contemporary forms of slave labor in countries far beyond Poland.
Behind all forms of slave labor, behind the success of the Holocaust lies the coercion of violence. The video piece Man to Man makes the point bluntly. It is so narrowly focused on a single visual element that it is easy to miss its broader significance to the body of Janich’s work. Man to Man is a series of videos of penned dogs, staged in a darkened corridor. It progressively transforms viewers into prisoners and potential victims, and the dogs themselves from imprisoned victims to instruments of violence. Although I have not seen this work first hand, it strikes me a on a level with certain works by Alfredo Jaar in acknowledging the both the terror and aggression of political violence and in its concern for reversing roles for the observer. At the same time, it sees threat and coercion as a fundamental experience of modern life.
As extreme as the video is, this notion of constraint backed by violence links Janich’s overtly political work with her personal photographic projects, including I Hate My Body When You’re Gone. This work, along with several others from the same period, narrate the imposition of constraint and its continuing consequences for a woman’s sense of identity. The theme is materialized in images of the artist’s body. Constraint must be internalized to be effective, but it is always focused on the body. I Hate My Body is an admission of and, it seems to me, an implicit protest against the internalization of constraint: the artist here enacts gestures of violence against her body in the absence of the other who would normally confirm it. The sudden recognition of the illegitimacy of these acts is a double-edged sword because it carries the admission of inauthenticity and alienation. Identity is compromised and pleasure is seen as an ultimate form of bondage. Yet the torture of loss is also an exorcism and a step toward recovery of self, or so I interpret the final image in the series, of the artist confronting her mirror image.
This is contemporary feminism that many artists from the 1970s would acknowledge as their legacy, but Janich has broadened its implications through the disturbing series That You Have Someone. Here photographs of the artist making love are captioned with stories of people in wartime situations forced to make impossible choices in the face of violence and death. At first glance the connection between the anecdotes and the images appears fortuitous or even ironic, as if lovemaking is trivial in the face of these terrible situations. But Janich’s point seems to be much more emotionally complex than that. First of all, the events of the last century and its crimes, from the Holocaust through the Balkan wars and beyond, have made an imprint on the consciousness of everyone, so that the body and its pleasure cannot be a form of forgetting. Pleasure has a setting, a background, and for anyone these days the background is full of shadows.
At the same time, of course, it is precisely such moments of physical and emotional connection that enable people to survive the most horrendous situations, make choices that involve supreme sacrifices, and consecrate their lives to remembrance and faith. Janich’s greatest strength is that she locates this capacity for love and the vulnerability to violence in the same place: the body. There are no abstractions in her work; everything has to be lived before it can be known and remembered. Only then – with the help of art as part of the process of living – can liberation begin.