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Reach | Fall 2011

Conducting Peace

And then there was one

Making art that honors the survivors of genocide. By William Randall Beard

David Feinberg and Joe Grosnacht.
David Feinberg, associate professor of art, with Joe Grosnacht (seated), sole surviving brother from when playing trains was a game
Photo by Darin Back

By William Randall Beard

Joe Grosnacht liked to play “trains” with his five little brothers, the dining room chairs standing in for railroad cars. He was the oldest -- which meant he was the one who got to sit in front and be the engineer. That was in Poland* before the war. By the time he was liberated from Auschwitz in 1945, Joe, 23, was the only brother left, selected by the physician Joseph Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” for hard labor instead of the showers.

Decades later, Joe’s simple line-drawing of six chairs, five of them empty, became the starting point of “Six Playing Train and Then There Was One,” a collage he created with art professor David Feinberg that also includes photographs of trains full of soldiers and deportees.

“It was devastating” to listen to Grosnacht tell his story, says Feinberg. “The collage looks as grisly as I felt.”

“We don’t illustrate history”

In addition to teaching, Feinberg directs Voice to Vision, a project of the interdisciplinary Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The center has the largest website in the world on genocide.

Voice to Vision pairs survivors or their children with professional artists and Feinberg’s students, who collaborate on making works of art. “I sometimes have trouble getting my students to think as artists, but not the survivors,” Feinberg says.

He began the project in 2002, working with Holocaust survivors; today it embraces people from other cultures as well. He has worked with survivors of genocide in Cambodia and Laos, Rwanda and Sudan, Bosnia and even the greatgrandchildren of survivors of the Armenian genocide of 1914 to 1918. “The Holocaust doesn’t disappear,” he says. “The story continues.”

Art: Six Playing Train and Then There Was One.
Courtesy of David Feinberg

Each piece of art begins with many hours of dialogue. Feinberg uses colors or words, or objects on a table, or even odors to elicit stories and restore memories. Then he goes deeper, searching for visual elements to include in the collage. For example, for “Six Playing Train and Then There Was One,” Grosnacht provided 20 drawings, three of which were used in the final work.

“We don’t illustrate history,” Feinberg says. “We try to find visual information -- symbols or metaphors -- to create feelings. You’d be surprised what goes together to create a new whole.” The collages are made up of diverse fragments in juxtaposition--drawings, paintings, shards of paper, architectural elements, in one case a paint-stained floor mat.

Perhaps surprisingly, the collages are nonrepresentational, and that’s the survivors’ doing, not Feinberg’s. As one participant put it: “We don’t want to look at photos. We lived the photos.”

In one piece, an image of an escalator is reversed to a negative -- abstracted to represent the moving of people; for the survivor it it stands for “the bodies I had to pile up.” In another, drips of paint representing the river they had to cross to get to the work camp moved one woman to say to her husband, “Max, I feel like I’m there again!”

For the majority of participants, the project broke their silence about the horrors they experienced. Two sisters from Rwanda had never before told their stories, even to each other. “Their tragedy was so great, they didn’t need to talk about it. They understood instinctively,” Feinberg says.

Disclosing deep, emotional truths

But while creating the art can be therapeutic, the goal is not. Feinberg insists that its purpose is to influence by creating “new visual images that communicate with people who have no personal connection to the Holocaust and other genocides. We use a lot of mirrors, allowing viewers to see themselves and become a part of the artwork.”

He likens the collages to messages in a bottle, written to disclose deep, emotional truths. “The communication is not from logic. Metaphor is more powerful than illustration. If you respond to it more viscerally, it stays in your unconscious. It gets permanently saved and comes back.”

He also compares them to the best poems: “not the ones you understand immediately, but the ones that make an impression on you and make you struggle with them. Instant communication, like a poster or an infomercial, has an immediacy that is completely separate from works of art. It’s the difference between art and decoration.”

Since beginning Voice to Vision, Feinberg has stopped showing in commercial galleries. He says, “Galleries, with their white walls, are antiseptic. I love showing in non-sterile spaces, where you can relate to art because it’s emotional.”

He says the images require viewers to “recall their own experience of injustice, no matter how large or small. When that happens, they become part of an extension of the original experience” -- this is the “responsibility of the audience” -- and the project “answers to our own problems in the future. It doesn’t tell us what to do, but sets us up to be as big as we can be.”

Ultimately, Feinberg says, the artworks honor their creators. “We don’t think of them as victims, but heroes.”

See more Voice to Vision art and a public television documentary about the project.

William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater and classical music for the Star Tribune and is the theater writer for Mpls/St Paul Magazine.

* Editor’s note: The print edition of Reach erroneously identifies Germany as Joe Grosnacht’s pre-war home; Mr. Grosnacht was living in Poland at the time.

December 2nd, 2011
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