Agnes Janich

Review 4

More light. The first action of the Museum of Modern Art in Krakow
Karolina Kolenda, Wojciech Szymanski
May 5th 2010

One of the first, if not the first, event organized by MOCAK Krakow in cooperation with the Auschwitz Jewish Center was, as we could read in the flyer, a performative installation Lighting the Night by Agnes Janich, a young artist living and working between Poland and the US. Lighting the Night is a series of happenings Winterthur and Barcelona. The MOCAK event took place by the Sola river and the former Auschwitz concentration camp, an invite quote obviously suggesting the historic weight of the site. We were taken by a MOCAK bus from Krakow to Oswiecim. Once the audiences from both Krakow and Oswiecim gathered, the performative installation begun. Its elements were torches lighting our way, floating cups, pieces of paper, matches, pens and candles. The performative part was up to the audience, called to be actors of the performance. We created thus, as the flyer read, an ephemeral memorial of the living. It hadn't happened, though, with the help of the audience, but with the audience, directed by the artist. As the audience, we were asked to imagine that we're in Krakow during WW2, caught in a sperra. The previous versions of the performance had the people write down names of those of their loved ones which didn't survive the war or the camps. In the Auschwitz version, the artist asked us to write down the names of our loved ones and burn them on the water. After the performance had ended, part of the audience left for Krakow.

Upon our return, we were wondering, what had happened? What was the meaning of the whole event? What was our significance in it? What were the emotional reactions it tried to trigger and did it work? What was the reason for the site? Did its context change the action, performed previously in Winterthur and Barcelona?

Answering the question about the audience and its participation, one can state that it has been used as part of the performative installation. The artist tried to convince us that no performance can function without an audience, that art exists in the eye of the beholder. Of course it's true. The audience is the sine qua non requirement for these events, this art can not function without the audience. It comes to life through the art-audience member relation. But in this case, the audience was instrumentalized by the artist. We were only informed on site that we will be responsible for the performance. This, in conjunction with the aesthetics of the artist's request to write down the names of our loved ones, crated a kitch alternative to the partner role in the performance we had expected. If this event created and incomparable atmosphere ( Landbote, Swiss daily, 2008 review of the Winterthur performance ), it was kitchy. What was the role of the artist? We don't know.

Sadly not just the participants, such as the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Mayor of Oswiecim, were treated instrumentally. The same can be said of the use of the space. In close proximity to the camp, by the river which carried the ashes of the victims, one can't help but feel pain. The artist surely understood it. In this case, the emotional value of the performance didn't match that of the place. The action wasn't created for the place. It was the place which was meant to up its emotional value, which created an awkward feeling.

Speaking about anxiety, it was heightened by the fact that the Museum Director, Maria Anna Potocka, stated that KL Auschwitz is very important for the institution she's about to create. Once again the site was supposed to justify - not just the artist's work, also the curator's. We don't, of course, want to devaluate the meaning of the site for Krakow, history and, given the Museum's site in the former Oskar Schindler factory, the Museum itself. The historical burden, however, can not be the only quantifie with which we judge the works on show. Perhaps a longer curatorial statement on why such actions win the museum's support ( Janich's performance isn't alone here, Joanna Rajkowska's Dotleniacz and Miroslaw Balka's Auschwitzwieliczka are also meant to join the museum's collection ). Without that, one feels the artist was left on her own.

As is, one can't help feeling that the only meaning of the work lies in its Annihilation connection. However, a grand theme doesn't automatically justify any work. We think grand themes should be touched upon. But they are not easy, and brushing them off becomes an ethical problem. Which is why we, as critics, request curatorial statements. A precise and informed comment is indispensable ( we don't, for example, have any idea as to what iconography does Lighting the Night touch upon ). Lately there's been a trend to avoid commentaries for the sake of less means more. However it minimizes the risk of saying to much, some works, such as this one, can not do without.

Agnes Janich, Lighting the Night, a performative installation by the Sola river and KL Auschwitz, Oswiecim, April 25th 2010, MOCAK Krakow and Auschwitz Jewish Center, affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York

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