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Art and the Holocaust

by Eugenia Xenos

Memory, identity, growth, resolution and anger: these are some of the recurring themes in Loren Lerner's new work in progress, which she presented as part of a series called Culture and Community: New Directions in Research.

Professor Lerner, an art historian and Fine Arts Associate Dean, presented slides and her observations to more than a dozen audience members at a lunchtime seminar called "The Shadow of the Holocaust in Contemporary Canadian Art," organized by the Centre for Community and Ethnic Studies.

Although the 30-odd slides she showed of about 15 contemporary Canadian artists varied greatly in style and media, what struck her was that many had no, or few, personal memories passed on by their families, often because those who escaped the Holocaust mourned their losses silently.

"Yet the Holocaust is an important part of these artists' conceptual thinking and ethical formation, an attack on Nazi ideology and people's acquiescence," Lerner, who interviewed them, said.

"These artists identify with the Holocaust through reconstructed memories and identity. They are appealing to individual moral responsibility to prevent genocide." She said that for many, the exploration was but a "season" in their art work, but for others, it was more longstanding.

Many of the slides featured self-portraits or representations of survivors not smiling, not frowning, but looking straight out of the artwork in silence and expectation. Other pieces used landscape, or concentration camps, or old photos as subject matter. Not surprisingly, many are gloomy, bleak, or anxious.

Lerner said, "Some art work is very traditional, and survivors of the Holocaust find it resonates with them. But they are baffled and perplexed by contemporary art because they do not understand this new 'language.'"

As her work progresses, Lerner will continue to look at Canadian artists who use the Holocaust as a theme in their work, and among other issues, analyze what makes them specifically Canadian, what "globalizing" forces are at play, and the extent to which this work ties into more broad human rights issues.

Professors Marion Wagschal and Mindy Yan Miller (both Studio Arts), graduates Herzl Kashetsky and Sorel Cohen, as well as current PhD student Katja MacLeod, were the Concordians who had their work featured in the presentation.

The Centre for Community and Ethnic Studies, under the direction of Professor Efie Gavaki, has sponsored other talks, including last term's "Globally Connected, Interpersonally Divided: Reaching across Cyprus's Green Line."

Copyright 1998 Concordia's Thursday Report.