‘To the last we will have learned nothing.
In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable.’
J. M. Coetzee[i]
Poenam non sentio mortis;
poena fuit vita
The event commemorated in Lesia Maruschak’s work Transfiguration goes beyond traditional ways of representation. There are no appropriate terms or mediums to address the topic. Millions who died due to inhuman conditions inflicted by a regime of terror pose questions: Who has the right to commemorate and design memory? Whose memory? Why do we need to remember? These are burdensome questions and they carry a precarious ethical load. Nevertheless, the artist aims to find the medium and appropriates photographs to manipulate them into a prosthetic memory.[ii] Is there a moral and ethical purpose to this kind of witnessing?
We can ask similar questions in most commemorative processes such as those related to creating monuments and memorials dedicated to tragic events. As a result, memorial spaces, both in urban context and landscapes, emerge as symbolic spatial narratives, meant to address the complexity of the task. Reinforced by two extensively commemorated world wars and to some extent confirmed by academic research, a commonly accepted assumption is that a memorial can help victims and survivors cope, by offering a material framework that is expected to positively influence the processes of mourning and recovering.
The importance of materiality in the process of mourning, for example the materiality of the body in burial ceremonies, has been underlined time and again.[iii] Without the material component, the bereaved ‘witness that loss again and again as our minds construct the absent presence of bodies we can no longer hold through images we are unable to touch.’[iv] This is precisely where we need to look to understand the memorial intent of Transfiguration – evocation of the persistent absence.
In antiquity, commemoration and burial were extremely important rituals. If performed successfully, they would ensure the well-being of the community and bring peace to the deceased person in the afterlife. It was strongly believed that ill fortune could come upon a community if the ritual was not performed well enough. Since ancient times, death and its commemoration were inextricable from community life and typically set in a religious context. The performance of the commemorative ritual was also intended to tame the feeling of loss and render it as a natural transition to the other world. In this way, the public ritual of ‘taming death’ created a sense of control, allowing its participants to overcome loss. Each individual was part of the community, and death was simply a transitional phase towards eternal life. Through the specific stages of these rituals, the community involved itself in the process of mourning. Individual and personal as it may be, the framework of the mourning process is defined by constant revoking and revisiting.
Maruschak intuitively recognizes the importance of the ritual and this is where we can find her moral intent: collecting authentic photographs, processing them to reveal their context and allowing us to experience and revisit. Approaching them as portals into the particular period of famine in 1932-33 Soviet Ukraine, the artist recognizes that photographs have an independent existence on their own. At the same time, she realizes that this existence is not sufficient for the work of memory. The artist brings them to light by craft. The fixed character of the photograph is animated to become a suggestion that, I would argue, is more engaging than documentation. Exploring what it really means to create memorials in the age of photography, Maruschak focuses on the very process of making. In this way, the palimpsest nature of Transfiguration becomes a demonstration of the process of mourning.
Fascinated by the human resilience, Maruschak looks back to the ancient counting systems to understand the scale of loss. While aware that counting of the dead is absurd, she employs counting as a way of transformation toward an awareness of who and what are we counting. The process demonstrated in Transfiguration leans on the anthropological notion of liminality, a transitional period through which a mourner has to pass, before he or she is able to return to society. The work creates an immaterial transitional space - a space of elucidated experience for the viewers. It is a powerful medium that creates considerable potential for learning through experience. It is a space that exists around historical memory evoked and its purpose is to encourage the feeling of connection between two realities, personal (both ours and the one of the artist) and factual.
Commemorating the tragic disappearance of the body (and at the same time grappling to preserve its meaning), Transfiguration is a sinister memorial to the victims’ souls. This portable living memorial is poignant because it is personal. Because we are acquainted with a girl Maria and because the artist infuses a part of her biography too. It is tangible because we are able to experience interspersed memorial fragments of the harrowing experience. The drama of the event is brought back to us through the uniqueness of the process. Because Maruschak wants to tell us how it felt (or how she feels it felt), the work relates to the human need to grieve and brings back the notion of materiality as the essential component.
In Ethics of Memory, Avishai Margalit discusses what constitutes a moral witness and asserts that although ‘all sufferers of evil are equal in being qualified to attest to their suffering, they are far from equal in their ability to elucidate their experience of evil to us who were not there.’[v] Although Maruschak does not abide to the definition of the moral witness since she lacks the experience of the suffering inflicted by the evil, she does create a form of ‘an elucidatory description of what took place so that we can link the experience of the victims to our own meager experience.’[vi] What we need to acknowledge is the author’s moral intent and her artistic ability to create a memorial that will be transformative to the ways we remember this tragedy but also to the ways we relate to similar tragedies happening now.
© SABINA TANOVIĆ, 2018
[i] J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, Vintage Books London (2004), p. 157.
[ii] I refer here to the notion used by Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (Columbia University Press, 2004).
[iii] See for example: Ricarda Bianco Vidal and Maria-José (eds.), The Power of Death: Contemporary Reflections on Death in Western Society (Berghahn Books, 2014).
[iv] Laura E. Tanner, Lost bodies: Inhabiting the borders of life and death (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), p.13.
[v] Avishai Margalit, Ethics of Memory (Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 181/182.
[vi] Ibid, p. 169.