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Helen Schamroth Dr Leonard Bell


Leonard Bell, "What can we know? - Helen Schamroth's Tracings', in New Work by Helen Schamroth, Tracing, Northart Gallery & Jewish Museum of Australia, 2011.

Poland 1938: the shape of Poland on a map, made from buttons, with red dots for crucial locations, such as Warsaw, Cracow, Lvov (now Lviv in Ukraine), where Schamroth’s parents and grandparents lived and worked, Zloczow, where her mother was born, and Janowska, the concentration camp, from which her father escaped. Without that title, the shape, if unrecognized, would look arbitrary, the edges random, meaningless as a form. As ‘Poland’, though, it is full of echoes and connotations; the buttons, reds and borders reverberate.

British writer, Lisa Appignanesi, was born just after the War in Lodz and grew up in Canada. In her Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir (1999) she tries to find out more about the lives in Poland of her secretive, though no longer alive parents, and their families, before and during World War II. She unearths little, just a few fragments of information and traces of former presence. Otherwise, houses and graves are gone, addresses changed, stories and memories prove unreliable.

American cultural historian, Marianne Hirsch, has also explored the pasts of her parents, in pre-War and Nazi-devastated Eastern Europe - also lucky survivors. How do or can we represent that past, she asks? What parts do memories play in any reconstruction of family history? Hirsch coined the term, ‘post-memory’, for the ‘recollection’ of events, times and places by the children of survivors, and later generations, who had not experienced those events and places themselves, but knew something about them through anecdotes, photographs, objects, books, their own investigations.1 The bits and pieces retrieved from here and there typically are reshaped, through intense emotional investment and imaginative reconstruction, as memoirs or novels (Polish-born, former Melburnian, Lily Brett’s Too Many Men (1999), for instance) or art works.

Photo-historian, Annette Kuhn, has characterized ‘memory work’ as a form of inquiry like detective work or archeology, which involves looking backwards and searching for clues, deciphering signs and fragments, making deductions, patching together images of, or objects, representing a past from the scattered bits and pieces of evidence.2

That is a productive way to engage with Helen Schamroth’s Tracings. These are made up of works in various media and materials, that allude to, and evoke, aspects of her familial past in Poland – of her parents (also Shoah survivors), grandparents (not so fortunate), and herself, born in Cracow soon after the War ended.

Buttons and Poland: they go back a long way. The buttons are triggers of memory, both voluntary and involuntary. They marked and stand for her parents’ and her grand-parents’ occupations in the clothing industry in pre-World War II Poland. As a post-War immigrant, Schamroth’s father, Feliks Ash, started a clothing factory in Melbourne and worked there for the rest of his life. And her artist mother, Martha Ash, taught her stitching and sewing, as her mother had before her. Helen sewed buttons onto a handkerchief, which her mother unpicked at night, so that they could be sewed on again the next.  Such a process is, on one hand, a Sisyphean absurdity, on the other, a method of etching in the mind a practice that had crucially helped to sustain generations in often difficult times. Those buttons, then, index persistence – both of memory and in adversity.

A small cluster of five similarly-sized pieces belongs to Schamroth’s series, Coda, one of which was part of Your documents please, an international multi-artist traveling exhibition, New York and Tokyo among its venues.  It is made from an irregular piece of fine silk, burnt at the edges, bound with red thread, slipped between layers of moulded polyester sheet. With ‘CANCELLED’ stamped and punched down one side, this piece connotes a useless passport, a document to nowhere, papers which have become meaningless, an identity expunged.

Another group of works feature silk shapes upon a ‘sheet’ of silk organza mounted on paper and set in box frames about 55 x 75 cm in size. The shapes in some, titled Imperfect Echoes, are footstep-like, the silk also singed at the edges with a candle. Black-tinged white on grey, immediately these might seem formless, arbitrary, but they can suggest shoes, or rather the marks that shoes may make, like footsteps on a beach, traces of human presence and absence. Here their ephemerality is stilled, solidified. Other ‘imperfect echoes’, Impromptus with titles such as Mazurka and Polka, are made from seemingly random milliner’s fragments, dressmaker’s small off-cuts, silk organza and glass beads, six to ten or so in each piece. These orchestrations of fragments ‘dance’ or hover along a fault-line between order and disorder, pattern and disintegration. The shapes, some like tiny bits of screwed-up paper, and their arrangements are ambiguous, both prettily meaningless and latent with disturbing emotional edges. The small pieces are finger-curled, so they bring to mind dropped leaves, drying and dying from the edges. The colours evoke those of foliage in Poland in summer and spring, redolent of seasonal change and passage between death and life.

The six works, Bloodlines from the milliner and Bloodlines from the shoemaker, shift into the sculptural with the use of larger polyester forms placed directly onto the wall. The polyester is shaped by hand when hot after having been immersed in boiling water, and the hand-made hearkens back to the trades of Schamroth’s forbears, as the titles indicate. The forms, 18 in each piece, echo fugitively, rather than mimic, those of hats, shoes and cobblers’ lasts, as well as referencing a wall of headstone fragments, locked together, in the Remu Synagogue cemetery in Cracow. Not coincidentally, within Hebrew numerology 18 means ‘life’. The Bloodlines pieces’ connotations, that is, are multiple, and the shadow play that the polyester forms generate against the light is central to that. Shadows are transitory. Thus in art they can symbolize what is fleeting, as well as make it last. Shadows are the same as, and different from, what they are shadows of – like memories, touching what lies beyond literal recall.

A further dimension to these works is the way that the transparent plastic, molded and folded, is thus overlaid so that perceptual distortions are generated. What we see, when we look through them, is both the same and different. A single ‘reality’ slips away. Then there is the use of textile and stitching again.  The red threads through the polyester could be trickles of blood, hints of danger, or remnants of passion. It is not determined.  Rather, the working process, using water and heat, and the finished works’ ambiguities betoken transformation, shifting states, the coexistence of death and life.  Fire, of course, has both creative and destructive forces. See these works, then, and the exhibition overall as a kind of answering back - ‘We are still here’ - to the destroyers.

Four photo-image pieces originate in photographs taken by Schamroth and Michael Smythe in Poland and Ukraine in 2009 and 2010. Their photographs were of generic places and spaces, which had familial resonances: a courtyard, an apartment’s balcony, a shoe business interior with shelves crowded with lasts, a bench with cobbler’s tools (Schamroth’s paternal grandfather ran a shoe factory in Lvov). These photographs were photo-shopped and reworked, so that they seem more like dream images. Bits of crochet extrude from a couple, while footsteps, heading in different directions have dropped from the shelves of shoemaker’s components. As if at the edge of memory, these shelves suggest too those historic photographs of stacked bunks of emaciated concentration camp inmates, just liberated.

The various pieces, a collection of scraps, if you like, are overhung by the lozenge-shaped Darkening Cloud, about 1.5 by 2 metres in size, and about 50cm at it’s deepest. It comprises swathes of silk, stitched and ironed, with the layers about 2cm apart from one another. Suspended from the ceiling, its edges too are singed to a burnt brown-orange, and so defined like lines. Darkening Cloud is made from light silk, so that it allows slight movements, tremors, whether generated by viewers’ passages round the gallery or breezes from open doors. It, then, is like a sensor, responding to us and the world beyond. ‘Clouds’, the early 19th century English painter, John Constable, opined, ‘are another word for feeling’. That would be an apt characterization of Schamroth’s Darkening Cloud too, with its dusky boundary and plural suggestiveness; lowering, cast over, an index of change in the weather, both literal and metaphorical, for instance.

What are the relationships between the images and objects and pastactualities? The installation overall interweaves memorialisation and oblivion. What is unsaid, not represented, is as crucial as what is said and represented. Tracings does not explain, but intimates, elusively. Such a past cannot be captured. A ‘post-memory’ construction, in which parts of lives are imagined, Tracings is as partial as memory is.  Like broken bits and pieces from an archeological ‘dig’, whether they can be put together to make sense depends as much on the viewer as the artist; viewers who are empathetic and imaginative.

Often a lengthy elapse of time is needed before particularly traumatic experiences and social catastrophes can be adequately addressed. In her Children of the Holocaust (1979), Helen Epstein, born in Prague in 1947, raised in America, and herself a child of Czech-Jewish Holocaust survivors, eloquently describes how difficult the children, born after the War, found it to face their parents’ experiences and history. That was particularly so when  many parents, like Helen Schamroth’s, said little or nothing about their pre-War and wartime lives, at least until the mid to late 1970s. And it is really only since the 1980s, and increasingly in the 1990s through to this decade, that art works which engage with that traumatic past have been made in Europe, the Americas, Israel and Australasia by children and grandchildren of survivors. Typically, such art that really ‘works’ and compels us is more than double-edged, and marked by ambiguities and ambivalences. It is an art, like Schamroth’s, of glimpses, slips, gaps, fragments and traces. This art is inevitably incomplete and does not attempt to represent what is really beyond representation.

  1. See Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Post Memory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997, and Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz and Jewish Memory, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010.
  2. Annette Kuhn, Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, London: Verso, new edition 2002, p. 4.

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