Artist Interview with Agnes Janich,"Lighting the Night" Performance Artist
Published in ART by Staff Writer.
On April 25th of this year, Agnes Janich exhibited her interactive group project at Auschwitz Death Camp. KiptonART spoke with her about the emotional performance and her relationship to one of the most infamous genocides in the history of the world.
Can you give a brief background about yourself?
I was born in Lodz (in Nazi times the city was named Litzmannstadt) but grew up in the Far East and Africa. I started studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and graduated from the School of Visual Arts, New York.
What exactly was your project Lighting the Night?
It was a participatory, performance installation. It happened in Winterthur and Barcelona prior to its premiere in Auschwitz.
We gave every audience member a floating candle, matches, a piece of paper and a pen. I asked them to imagine they were all there, in the death camp, 70 years ago. Imaging how the Nazis sought people to fill their death quotas. The Sola River flows near the camp, and is a place where Nazi’s would dump the ashes of those they killed. I asked the participants to write down the names of their loved ones and burn them in a candle floating on the river. Holocaust means perish by fire. The emotions of the participants were greatly mixed. Some cried, some refused to follow the instructions, some were happy (perhaps feeling fortunate that this wasn’t actual reality), and of course, some were afraid. There’s a testing of one’s limits involved in this project. We only know of us what we were called to try.
What inspired this project?
It came, like all my projects, from my head. There can be references found within the Jewish significance of light, the Far Eastern rituals of putting lotus flowers to the water and the Christian tradition of commemorative candles on La Fete de Toussaints. These are all interpretations I learned of after performing the piece.
What signified the way you dressed during the performance?
I dressed all in white, later being told by the audience that I brought hope to this town, a place struggling daily to move on because of the burden of its’ horrible past. Some people thanked me for making Oswiecim (Auschwitz) a better place to live, some – for bringing good energy to the world.
What is your relationship to Auschwitz? Why this camp?
It’s personal – though I always underline I have no direct Auschwitz story in my family. Only my Grandpa’s uncle came back in a tin box. I was raised by Grandma’s coming from labor camps during World War II, believing till I was 6 that all people die in a camp. Above all, Auschwitz is the symbol of uttermost pain. This, to me, makes it human – to all people alike.
What “type” of artist do you consider yourself?
An honest one. I do what I do with all my heart. For the last  years I’ve been investing most of what I earn in my art. I had days in New York City living, [let's say, very modestly,] with a few thousand dollars in my wallet saved for my art. It is a conscious decision – I have one phenomenal gallery that represents me [(Walter Keller) and one I'm working with (Keumsan Seoul)]. I’ve shunned away from 5 galleries in the past 6 years. I was afraid I’d get corrupted. I’m more relaxed now. I trust more easily. Still, I feel good relationships take time – but they pay off - not just in money, but in many important things. I couldn’t imagine a better (and harder/emotional) life. I’m extremely grateful to everyone that touched me on my artist’s path.
Which artist do you admire?
Vincent Van Gogh. For his honesty and how he worked– with all his heart. And his courage for sacrificing parts of his private life for his passion – a courage that I’m grateful to know. It helps, though today I believe I can have it all - maintain the quality of art that I want as well
as the interesting private life I desire. That, in turn, fuels the art.