Powerful new Amitai work rooted in family and world history
There's almost nothing that can transport you back in time like the now-and-then photo duo. For the child of immigrants, like Milwaukee artist and musician Paul Amitai – now based in Brooklyn – the chance to take a fresh look at storied places has an even more profound meaning.
In his new book, "In Between States: Field Notes and Speculations on Postwar Landscapes" – and a related exhibition, soundtrack and video work at New York's Eyebeam Art and Technology Center – Amitai presents photographs taken by his grandfather in a post-World War II refugee camp outside Frankfurt, Germany, with images he took of the same places six decades later.
That row of colorful houses looks more sinister with the "off limits" sign that once stood out front. You can buy a Lotto ticket in the cafe seen in another photo. Look closely at the image a few pages back of a postwar march – the protesters carry a banner that reads, "We request an immediate liberation from the camps" – and you'll see the building that now houses the cafe.
"I am standing in the same location taking the exact same photograph sixty years later," Amitai writes. "I wonder if he took as much time framing each shot or if I am making clinical what had been incidental. Of course, it isn't the same. Those people all long gone, posing as they did, not to mention the light as it cut through in that instant creating volume, depth, texture, blocking, masking in shadow, defining and simplifying, creating shape, contrast. That moment would never happen again. I am merely restaging the set, attempting to mentally stitch together a place I had only previously navigated through visual fragments and anecdotal information."
Amitai's mother and her family lived, alongside 3,000 other Jews, in a camp set up by the U.S. Army in Zeilsheim, on the periphery of Frankfurt for more than three years. The occupants of the camp were Holocaust survivors and war refugees waiting to begin the next phase of their lives.
"I grew up with the photos and my mom's own childhood memories, so this family history occupied a strange, fragmented place in my mind," Amitai says. "In 2007, I visited Zeilsheim for the first time, curious to see what was still there, and to piece together the fragments into one coherent space. It was odd to discover how ordinary the place seemed – it really looked like Wauwatosa.
"Imagine if a refugee camp had once been located right off Vliet Street, and after the camp was leveled and all evidence removed, it was turned into a park – perhaps Wick Field? – but with the exact same boundaries as the refugee camp. The ghostly trace was palpable."
Amitai's grandfather, Ephraim "Misha" Robinson was an amateur photo enthusiast who took ID photos and pictures for a camp newspaper. The early part of Amitai's book is loaded with his grandfather Misha's images: that march, photographs of buildings, portraits, men at work, groups gathered together for a variety of reasons.
"The photos are an insider's view of a temporary community," Amitai writes, "the vitality, hope, heartbreak and frustration in the midst of recovery and transition. No other visual record of this magnitude capturing this time and place seems to exist."
Misha kept a journal, and Amitai learned on a 2007 visit to Zeilsheim that the journal was published in Germany.
Amitai follows the path of that conglomerate and its offspring, which occupy an industrial park near the site of the camp, and shoots them off into space.
"I returned in 2011 to do an artist residency at the Frankfurter Kunstverein, and was there for six weeks," he says. "I met with local historians, researched, shot photos and video of various locations, including the former camp and factory sites.
"It took another year or so to write something coherent and edit the images to complete the book. It shifts between historical, personal and science fiction elements in unexpected ways, but somehow, at least in my mind, all makes sense."
For the exhibition at Eyebeam – which ran for two weeks in November – Amitai drew on the section of latter section of the book.
"(This) is the science fiction part," says Amitai. "In this section, the refugee camp is a space station orbiting Earth, devised through collaboration between the Allies and Hoechst.
"The installation is comprised of four videos, which are intended to appear like 'lost footage' from the orbital refugee camp. It includes audio recordings of my grandfather, who appears in animated form as one of the residents of the camp."
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