Writing in the journal History and Memory in 2016, art historian Rachel Perry of the University of Haifa’s Holocaust Studies Program considers the impact and implications of Living Landscape, the entrance art installation created by Michal Rovner at Yad Vashem’s new Holocaust History museum. Perry discusses the message and thematic expression of Living Landscape as embodying the message of the new Holocaust History museum, with reference to the concept of hospitality as conveyed by Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida.
Perry opens with the question: How does one greet the Holocaust, and how should a Holocaust History museum welcome its visitors in to face the history that it presents? Michal Rovner’s huge permanent installation in the entrance foyer of Yad Vashem’s new museum answers this question in a particular way. Rovner covers the entirety of one wall with a projected loop of film gleaned from footage shot before the Holocaust that depicts ordinary European Jewish life in all its variety, without any signs of Nazism, ghettos, death or humiliation. Perry cites Henri Raczymov’s description of ‘pre-history’ for Rovner’s choice of material for visitors about to plunge into the history of the Holocaust.
Perry comments on the radical nature of Rovner’s artwork. Yad Vashem’s other large iconic art pieces follow the trope of the downtrodden, passive ‘ghetto Jews’ set alongside the self-actualized, proud and fulfilled Jews of Israel, for example Nathan Rapoport’s 1948 Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In contrast, Rovner’s work shows European Jews as living full, contented lives in the Diaspora as their home, without dejection or passivity.
Living Landscape uses only ‘found footage’ – that is, restored footage that was shot by Jews, in place of film that was created by either the liberators (such as US army cameramen) or perpetrators (Nazi cinematography). Perry emphasizes how Rovner’s intimate use of Jewish-created film celebrates the living, not the dead, welcoming you into their lives. She notes that the welcoming nature of Living Landscape epitomizes the new museum’s approach to Holocaust history, presenting it from point of view of the vanquished. She terms it ‘repersonalization’. The old museum told story of ‘them’, six million anonymous and faceless victims, from a neutral perspective, but the new museum tells the story of the individual. Repersonalization, Perry notes, does not mean that the visitor is absorbed to become them but rather is encouraged to empathize with them.
Rovner’s work shows the leitmotif of waving and hands stretched out towards the visitor, expressing a theme of welcome and hospitality. It is here that Perry references Levinas’ philosophy of hospitality. Levinas and Derrida expounded on the home as the beginning of all memory and the locus of hospitality, and the subjects of Rovner’s work welcome you in and greet you from this place where memory begins, before you step into their memories. Levinas conceptualized of greeting another as the foundation of ethical interaction. The welcome of hospitality demands recognizing the face of the Other and permitting them to enter one’s home and one’s life. Similarly, the visitor is here welcomed in and made to feel at home at the beginning of this foray into the lives and homes of another.
Waving connotes a relationship, bridging a distance between two people who have a connection. But waving can also express farewell. The ominous mournful score and the visitor’s knowledge of what is to come overshadows the welcome in Living Landscape, even though there is no hint of it in the footage. Perry concludes that this is one of the ways that Rovner’s installation crosses the binary lines usually present in a Holocaust history museum – between outside and inside, between dark and light, between mourning the loss or celebrating the victory of ongoing life – forcing the visitor to reflect on his own responsibility to memory and to ethical behavior today.
Rachel Perry is a Professor of Art History at the University of Haifa
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