by Kate Sutton
Last year, as part of the Vienna Biennale’s exhibition “Mapping Bucharest: Art, Memory, and Revolution 1916–2016,” in one of the galleries at the MAK, visitors encountered a large wooden crate, reminiscent in size and shape to a coffin, but filled with musty old books. A surrogate corpse, these books were the soul survivors of an entire community, whose systematic deportation (if not execution) has been written out of history books, as part of modern Romania’s attempt to reposition its national narrative.
The books had been brought into the exhibition space by Ştefan Sava, a Bucharest-based artist who suspends his actions, objects and installations between silence and testimony. By prying out presences that signal absence, or absences that wield a presence, Sava conducts a kind of alternative archaeology of the collective memory. When this play of presence and absence is applied to bodies, it automatically extends to the histories inscribed upon those bodies, allowing the artist to question the limits to which any body can hold its own history, or, for that matter, the extent to which any history – trauma, in particular – can ever be articulated, in any form. With this last line of inquiry, Sava finds himself testing the limits of representation inherent in the technology of art, measuring out the irreconcilable difference between an event and its representation, be it a photograph, an archival document or even a poem.
“My artistic approach is predicated on the idea that any attempt at historical reconstruction must incorporate a sense of rupture,” Sava writes. “Our knowledge of the past is interspersed with absences and omissions and one could argue, following in Walter Benjamin’s footsteps, that the vanishing point of history should not be sought in a distant past, but rather in the present.” In other words, the artist scours what still remains for traces of what has slipped away, interrogating vacated landscapes in search of the coordinates to this “vanishing point of history.”
One such vanishing point becomes glaringly apparent when surveying the recent history of Romania. After World War I, Romania renewed its former claim on the borderlands of Bessarabia and Bukovina, only to promptly lose these territories in the fallout from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Soviet-Nazi non-aggression treaty. This blow to the country’s pride (not to mention its geographical contours) was not enough to keep Romania from later throwing in with Germany, whose brand of anti-Semitism Romania found expedient to its own needs in unifying its population and preventing future land loss. Conflating its Jewish population with Communism, the Romanian government, under the command of Marshall Ion Antonescu, embarked on a chillingly spirited quest to drive all Jews from the territory. Or perhaps that should be reworded, as in the end, the Jewish population wasn’t so much driven from the territory, as it was permanently inscribed within it: death squads ensured these citizens would never leave, their bodies consigned to mass graves, marked with concrete slabs (if at all.)
In researching this history, Sava came across a coffin-like crate full of old books (some dating as far back as 1820) in the Jewish Cemetery at Dorohoi. Under Jewish tradition, the name of God is sacred, even in printed form. For this reason, printed materials that bear this name cannot simply be discarded alongside common garbage; instead they must be subjected to a ritual burial. The books found in Dorohoi had been denied this formality by the extreme circumstances of their disposal. Many of these volumes had been left behind by the deported Jews of Transnistria, whose forced relocation was part of the program to clear “volatile” segments of the population from the borderlands. As there had been no time for the ritual disposal of these pages, the books piled up in the synagogue, awaiting a burial that would elude them for more than half a century.
By placing these books within the exhibition context, what the artist was putting on display ultimately was not the fetishized object – the coffin of books – but rather the last vestiges of a lost community. With no proper graves and no possessions to mark this population’s presence (and sudden absence), these forgotten relics preserved a history entirely other than those contained within their pages. The cost of this preservation was the denial of the book’s burial, a minor act of sacrilege which in turn bore witness to a larger trauma.
By drawing attention to this recovered history, Sava attempts to counter a willful amnesia, tricking the collective memory into retrieving these suppressed traumas. In doing so, he counters the “gaps and omissions” Benjamin observed by introducing a set of new omissions, which he leaves to the viewer to negotiate.
Parts of this text have appeared in the essay “An Archaeology of Omissions,” which is included in the artist’s forthcoming self-titled monograph. Stefan Sava is a Bucharest-based artist, who will appear with critic Bharti Lalwani, artist Shubigi Rao and linguist Kevin Kenjar as part of the panel, “Public Speech: Grounds for Contestation,” at 3pm on Friday, September 23, 2016, as part of the Keys to the Contemporary Talks Program at viennacontemporary. The talk will be followed by an informal book launch. For more information, check the website.