We enter an installation by Ellen Rothenberg and are overwhelmed: not by the heaviness of the history (we came, perhaps, with that expectation), nor by the profusion of elements (that comes on us, gradually), but by a space whose first impression is one of immaculate topography, of pristine, if disquieting, elegance. Rothenberg’s signature space is largely open, punctuated by discrete displays: propaganda photos of radiant Aryan women in Nazi work camps cradling babies, baby chicks, or blond bundles of wheat; wallpaper whose rosy motif is actually multitudes of lice; casts of human fingers, fists, and hands filling the surface of a wooden table; the hugely magnified forensic samples of the diarist’s script looming like hieroglyphs from a lost civilization. Each display stops us in our tracks; yet even as we stare, transfixed, we’re aware of disturbance in our peripheral vision, causing a certain restlessness, a need to move on. As we make our way from one display to another, associations accumulate, images cross, and our attempts to synthesize get increasingly complicated. In a Rothenberg environment, we are impelled to wander, but there is no directed path. We must choose our progress.
One of the artist’s most beautiful sites beckons with a softly glowing, gently swaying shower of delicate objects whose definition at any remove is impossible to name. Bare light bulbs hanging at different heights create constellations above our heads and silvery pools on the smooth wooden floor. We approach, only to lose ourselves in the midst of thousands of slender rulers, scores of silvery watches suspended from the ceiling by waxed string. We recall from the Diary that, as their time was running out, the children in the “Secret Annex”—Anne, Margot, and Peter—were periodically measured against a wall by Otto Frank. Rothenberg invites us to measure ourselves against the walls of her installation: arrayed in shiny tin cups at regular intervals are clusters of pencils with which to make our mark. Do we? It is a classic Rothenberg moment, a dilemma. We are forced to wonder, What is the object of these objects? And what do they impel us to do?
We are suddenly self-conscious, acutely aware of other people in the room. At varying heights, there are marks on the wall, some faint, some more assertive. This is no help at all. Are they part of the exhibit? Were they made by other viewers? It feels obscene to, even Actively, inject ourselves into this vignette of Anne Frank’s life in hiding. No one seems quite certain how to act, and soon enough those gathered at this spot move off in different directions. Though we find ourselves in a shared physical environment, the space is atomizing. In this haunting, ethereal-looking piece, Rothenberg causes the myth of Anne Frank—manufactured to efface our self-consciousness in relation to her history—to implode
The myth—concocted in the 1950s by editors, translators, and theatre artists, and embraced all over the world—induced collective identification with an eternally optimistic, eternally forgiving young girl: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” In the presence of this Anne Frank, there is little to make one feel awkward, guilty, or perplexed. We are not asked to recall how sickeningly late in the war the group from the Annex perished, nor given any suggestion that had the Allies mobilized earlier, had there been serious resolve to rescue the Jews… They were deported, on September 3, 1944, on the last transport to leave Westerbork; Peter van Pels died in Auschwitz on May 5, 1945, three days before the camp was liberated; Peter’s father, Hermann, was gassed in Auschwitz shortly before the gas chambers were de-activated; Edith, Margot, and Anne Frank died in the winter and early spring of 1945.
The uncomfortably specific parts of Anne Frank’s story—that she was Jewish, that following two years of hiding her family was betrayed (for the equivalent of a couple dollars a head), that, after watching her mother die of starvation, and her sister be consumed by lice, she herself died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen—were all but effaced in the rapturous praise of her “universality,” “love of life,” “indomitable spirit.” The Broadway version of her story, which premiered in 1955, was a hit all over the world (particularly in Germany); Anne Frank’s face became an icon of uplift, pride, the success of civilization. As Cynthia Ozick detailed in a recent essay, “Anne Frank” became an all-purpose role model for girls struggling with the domestic vicissitudes of growing up in relative peace and prosperity; in Japan, “Anne Frank” became a code word among teenage girls for “menstruation” (about which the diarist had written).-’
The Diary of a Young Girl was edited for publication, in 1947, by Otto Frank, the family’s sole survivor and tireless custodian of his daughter’s memory, which he tendered to the world as a redeeming gift. His editing threw into high relief the hopeful, humorous, plucky sides of the adolescent author, who was also studious, disciplined, ambitious, and sophisticated beyond her years. In her father’s edit, Anne comes across as uncommonly intelligent, talented and luminous, but her “edges” have been smoothed, her complexity diluted. Otto Frank omitted passages where she railed against her mother, described her own intimate body, and expressed her burgeoning sexuality. He and numerous translators also cut or softened her cold-eyed observations of the deadly hatred that had sent her family into hiding. The unexpurgated Critical Edition of the Diary (which Anne had originally titled Het Achterhuis, or “the house behind,” in reference to their hiding place) was published in 1989 by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, and comprises about thirty per cent more material, including passages like these: “We’ve been strongly reminded that we are Jews in chains, chained to one spot, without any rights, but with a thousand obligations.”‘ “The world’s been turned upside down. The most decent people are being sent to concentration camps, prisons and lonely cells, while the lowest of the low rule over young and old, rich and poor…Unless you’re a Nazi, you don’t know what’s going to happen to you from one day to the next.”‘ And, “Fine specimens of humanity, those Germans…there are no greater enemies on earth than the Germans and the Jews…[In the Annex] only the language of civilized people may be spoken, thus no German.’”‘ Peeking out at night from an Annex window, Frank saw families beaten and taken away.” From listening to the BBC, she knew that, in the concentration camps, Jews were being gassed: “Perhaps that’s the quickest way to die.”‘ The last entry of her original diary (written soon after her fifteenth birthday) is weary, ground-down, and abashed at “turning my heart inside out, the bad part on the outside and the good part on the inside, [in an effort] to become what I’d like to be and what I could be if…if only there were no other people in the world.”8 When taken together with these perceptions, Frank’s struggle to believe in human goodness is the opposite of a platitude: it is lacerating.
Rothenberg’s Anne Frank Project developed over the decade of the 1990s, and began with her reading of the Critical Edition of the Diary, which she approached through the scrim of her own memory of reading the edition of the 1950s. “Like many women of my generation, I was ‘raised’ on Anne Frank,” Rothenberg recounted in a recent conversation. “I read the book, saw the play, saw the movie. She was held up as a role model, which was confusing, frustrating and, of course, impossible—how was I, growing up in suburbia, going to radiate courage and brilliance in the face of terror? Anne never gets to grow up, to realize all that potential. And the reasons for that were left, at least initially, largely unexplained. You knew she’d been arrested but, after that, there was a void, a looming horror, which went unnamed. “‘As an adult reader, Rothenberg was poised in the space between the two editions of the Diary; as an artist, she was driven to explore that disjunction, give visual form to the history that was constructed to fill the void left by the diarist’s absence.
Rothenberg was initially “pulled in” to the Critical Edition by the forensic analysis of Anne Frank’s handwriting, carried out under the auspices of The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in response to Neo-Nazi claims that the work was a fake perpetrated to continue the “hoax” of the Holocaust. From the outset, the Critical Edition was charged with establishing not just the definitive text of the Diary, but also the authenticity of the author. Rothenberg was provoked by this climate of denial—of the work itself, of the very existence of Anne Frank, and of the history that devoured her. She was also drawn to the graphic, gestural quality of the letters—separated, magnified, made strange and, ultimately, found to be true within the forensic frame. To be more exact, the constraints of forensic science could only establish “a probability bordering on certainty.” This too was provocative for the artist, who appropriated the phrase, and used it for the title for an exhibit in 1993. Among Rothenberg’s first creations for this work were radical enlargements of Anne Frank’s script, photocopied onto diaphanous sheets of silk, whose tone, texture, and subtle wrinkling make us think of human skin.10 These panels are at once assertive and exquisite, defensive and fragile, and altogether chilling in their implications.
The concept of “a probability bordering on certainty” gave Rothenberg pause, impelled her to meditate on the very enterprise of documentation, on the difficulties of stabilizing evidence (even for a human life), on the problem of representation. “When we see exposed the limits of science, we can’t help but be aware of the effort to construct history, elaborate systems of knowledge, impose narrative,” says Rothenberg. “I undertook this work as an investigative project; confronting the Diary, and the ways it came down to us, was primary research.” The original manuscript was not what Rothenberg expected. “I thought it would be a schoolgirl’s notebook,” she recounted. “But it was more like an artist’s book, with her notes glued on to the edges of pages and folded in. You need to unfold things, peel back layers of different kinds of papers to find more writings and revisions. I was struck by the mixture of visual and textual languages from high culture to low, and how, when her supply of paper ran out, she inserted magazine pages and other scraps and wrote on those…She was clearly intending to publish, her edits are everywhere. Physically, the book is a sculptural object. And I found that very important, very inspiring.”
Rothenberg’s researches, which took her to Amsterdam, Berlin, and other European and American cities, unfolded in phases, yielding three distinct exhibits, seen together for the first time at Gallery 312. Partial Index, shown in 1991 at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, took for its point of departure the problematics of artifacts, documentation, and evidence. The room, arranged to call up an enormous filing cabinet, was the repository for hanging panels of text that had been edited out of Anne’s Diary, images of the forensic analyses of her script, reproductions of authentic documents from the period in which Frank lived, as well as created “artifacts” with a dramatic charge: a handkerchief embroidered with Anne’s initials; a girl’s undershirt; a radio (a precious link to the world for those in the Secret Annex). The questions at the heart of this work are deeply disconcerting: how do we know what is “real,” “authentic,” “a veritable clue to history”? Who decides? To what (social, political, gender-inflected) ends? How do we gauge our own visceral reactions to certain objects: what does it mean if we quicken at the sight, or touch, of a piercingly evocative “historical” object that turns out to have been made by the artist? What if we fail to recognize “the genuine article”? What if, as in the case of the Diary, we don’t know what we’ve been missing? It is around these very uncertainties that much of history—which can only ever be a “partial index”—is constructed. And that, precisely, is what Rothenberg wants us to see.
A Probability Bordering on Certainty, first shown at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute, where Rothenberg was a Fellow in 1992-93, is concerned with issues of representation and display. With her husband, filmmaker Dan Eisenberg, Rothenberg had spent most of 1991 in Berlin, a city consumed with the physical traces, obliterations, and memorializations of its own history. During this time, she did research at the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam and the National Forensic Science Laboratory in Rijswik. “When we visited the Anne Frank Museum, I was struck by the degree to which the Annex had been reconstructed. There was even a dollhouse model made by a family friend. I was extremely aware of the signage, directing me to “Anne’s room,” showing me the way “to the toilet,” guiding my every step. There was plexiglass screwed over the wallpaper where Otto Frank had measured the children. The care with which the Museum had been made presentable caused me to question what the house had been like before.” Once again (as with the various versions of the Diary) Rothenberg found herself working in the space between the original thing and its representation.
The Conditions for Growth, the 1994 installation shown at Tufts, complicated the earlier inquiries through its industrial scale, sharp juxtapositions, and archival style of display. There were numerous instruments for weighing and measuring, steel shelving, cabinets, and other accoutrements of classification. The size and tone of the installation at first called up (then challenged) objective, encyclopedic approaches to reckoning with the world. We could not but remember the Nazi obsession with collecting and labeling, the (failed) Nazi ambition to build the defining Museum of the Extinct Race. The lovely, unnerving piece with rulers played off of “artifacts” in imposing vitrines which, on further inspection, we saw were mounted on dollies, casting doubt on the concept of archival permanence. Particularly searing in this installation was Rothenberg’s way of intercutting the domestic with the abstract. Bread was a recurring motif—large, solid, crusty loaves: staff of life, stuff of contentment, symbol of community. Also found in profusion were (re-created) ration tickets, which the Reich all but denied to the Jews. A display case held white gloves embroidered and stamped with the titles of the stories and essays Anne wrote in the Secret Annex. To the Diary, she had confided her ambitions of becoming a famous author, traveling the world in elegant clothes.
Rothenberg’s excavation of the Diary, and of the history constructed around it, has its counterpart in our own interrogations of her environments. Though she may go to great lengths to retrieve period elements, lost crafts, and obsolete manufactures, it is not out of a drive for “authenticity” or a need to “provide documentation.” Her installations are explorations not of historical events in themselves, but of the ways in which we receive, process, and construct history. And so she uses objects, not as relics but, as several critics have observed, as mnemonic devices. The artist’s hand is everywhere apparent: every element, surface, and material is finely wrought. Rothenberg provides no story-line. Rather, she frames details and isolates fragments (garments and body parts; bandages, erasers, and writing tools). It is our job to mentally assemble these pieces, to create narrative, to make meaning of their juxtapositions. The severe elegance of a Rothenberg installation is intended to achieve historical distancing, to abet the viewer’s analytical task. At the same time, the objects themselves (calling up flesh and hair and injury) exert a tactile power. We cannot be merely “viewers;” what we see gets under our skin, we are part of the story we strain to see unfolding.
Through the associations they produce, the objects both embody and provoke experience. Some of the most striking elements have extraordinary histories of their own. The makers of these objects—and the often-circuitous process by which Rothenberg found and worked with these individuals—comprise a potent layer of meaning. Her work with fabricators, suppliers, and manufacturers enlarges the community created by her enterprise. The emphasis on workmanship, on lives intersecting through craft, and the joining of distant geographies is extremely revealing. “I don’t subscribe to the romantic notion of the artist isolated in a garret,” says Rothenberg. “My work requires participation. I never would have been able to touch the original Diary if David Barnouw, of The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, had not literally placed it in my hands. And Barnouw put me in touch with loop Hardy, the forensic scientist who spent five years, working nights, to authenticate Anne Frank’s script. When I brought Hardy the first pieces I’d made from his studies, he examined them closely, brought the sheets right up to his eyes, and then simply gave me all of his research to use in whatever way I wanted. Were it not for other people, this work could never have happened.”
While living in Berlin, Rothenberg got the idea to make a set of business cards for Anne Frank. “There was a small, artisanal print shop in our neighborhood of Charlottenburg,” she recalled. “Everything was letter press, finely executed. The printer, who was about my age, was clearly an artist himself. I studied the samples in the window about ten times before I dared go in. My German is rudimentary, and the prospect of explaining what I wanted, in any language, but particularly German, was daunting. I had no idea how he would react. This was, of course, a business transaction; I paid him as I would for any print job. But there was definitely an edge to things, a tacit acknowledgement between us, the exact nature of which I couldn’t exactly define. I began with one set of cards: ‘Anne Frank’ and, on the line below, ‘Author.’ I think I chose something discreet, classic ladylike script. I hadn’t intended to do more than one set, but then it seemed arbitrary. Why imagine only one future [for Anne Frank]? One style? I ended up doing ten sets of cards. The printer and I had many conversations (more visual than verbal) about paper, typeface, inks, and the choice of languages (Dutch, German, and English). While of course I take responsibility for the cards, there was collaboration between myself and the printer. His ideas about Anne Frank definitely came into play, his own history went into the process of making the cards. And I had to acknowledge my own assumptions about Germans—he had studied in India, for example, had a trajectory that went far beyond his small shop in Charlottenburg.” The cards were first exhibited in A Probability Bordering on Certainty.
During her research in Germany, Rothenberg likened herself to “someone always looking, not speaking.” She believes that “invisibility” was important for her process. At the wholesale produce market at the far edge of Berlin, she bought wooden vegetable scoops which she later labeled “Israel” and “Sarah,” the Reich’s official generic names for male and female Jews. For Rothenberg, they became elements in a piece she called “Family Portrait.”
One of the strongest, most devastating pieces Rothenberg has ever made is “The Combing Shawl,” made for A Probability Bordering on Certainty. In Anne Frank’s time, women of the refined classes shielded their clothing when they combed their hair by donning a special shawl. After the residents of the Secret Annex were arrested and the Dutch Secret Police removed everything they considered to have value, Mies Gies, the family’s protector, later recovered Anne’s shawl (as well as the Diary). From a distance, Rothenberg’s creation cascades down the wall and curls onto the floor, like long, luxuriant, shining tresses. As we draw near, we see that under the “curls” are piles of combs—most of them broken, missing teeth. The cascading “tresses” are strips of vellum, braced with aluminum, and imprinted with the entire text of the Diary. Rothenberg made this piece after visiting Sachsenhausen, which she found “deserted, silent, in disrepair. Nothing was whole, everything was fragments.” She saw “little tiny pieces of tin, garbage,” which turned out to be combs the prisoners had made for themselves. “They measured no more than one or two inches, they were symbols of combs, made to preserve some last shred of dignity.” Back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Rothenberg searched for a foundry, finding, by total serendipity, a father-son shop near the border with Somerville. “As soon as I walked in, I saw a collection of cast bells that the father had salvaged, a kind of museum of his craft. Somehow, I’d happened on this very special place. He used the primitive technique of sandcasting, in which molten metal is poured into greasy black sand. There is a literal passage through fire. Before they are “finished,” the cast objects are very rough-looking, full of sand. That was exactly the quality I wanted for the combs. The combs were not “distressed” afterward; they looked the way they did because they had gone through fire. The first batch, the foundrymen cleaned and smoothed, making them too neutral. I wanted the roughness, the mistakes, the grains of sand, the variation in materials (aluminum, bronze, magnesium-bronze). The process took months. Not knowing the craft, I wasn’t sure how to get what I wanted so, for me, it was a long learning process. We eventually ended up with 335 combs.” Both father and son went to see the exhibit.
For the same show (A Probability Bordering on Certainty), Rothenberg went to a crafts store for leather belts on which to inscribe Anne’s exacting description of her vulva, vagina, and clitoris. (Rothenberg wound these stacked belts around a support pillar in the gallery of the Bunting Institute; in order to read the text, only recently made available in the Critical Edition, one slowly circled the pillar, as the discovery of the passage, and realization of its excision, gradually sunk in.) While shopping, Rothenberg noticed some tanned cow bellies displayed on a table. “They were spread out,” she recalled, “cut off the animal where the legs used to be. They were very individuated, very disturbing. So I bought them, not knowing what I’d ever use them for.” In her next exhibit, The Conditions for Growth, Rothenberg displayed the five hides rolled up in a display case, their outer surfaces covered with library stamps. The largest hide was stamped with every date on which Anne Frank made a diary entry. “This was the only place I referred explicitly to her mortality,” said Rothenberg, “using the literal skin of an animal. But I couldn’t bring myself to show these cow bellies flat on a table. It was just too blatant; it felt, somehow, forbidden.”
A Rothenberg installation is a troubling experience. We do not merely “visit.” or “view,” nor do we wish to “inhabit” the space. Yet when we leave, the separation does not feel permanent. We have confronted a profound achievement, and that sensation stays with us. A Rothenberg installation continually asks us to ask ourselves: What, exactly, do I see? What connections can I articulate? What narrative(s) attempt to construct? What meaning can I create? There is such a profusion of objects, so many elements and images, that we can answer only very incompletely. Our field of perception overflows, our visual memory is overwhelmed. We cannot fully grasp the totality of what is put before us. That sense of missing what is right before our eyes is an essential part of a Rothenberg experience. So too is the struggle against that loss, the determination to see more, to see better, to see more lastingly. For each of us, certain images remain indelible, and these, I would suggest, induce the complicated experience that is our own inward memorial: the after-image we articulate to ourselves and attempt to share with others.
In these days of controversy over ways to “remember,” “commemorate,” “memorialize” the Holocaust, we naturally wonder: How is Rothenberg’s work different from a permanent memorial to Anne Frank? By way of an attempt at response, there is no anchored site for this monumental work. With each exhibit, the installation is created anew: elements are created, re-assembled, re-arranged, and re-framed. The piece declines to offer the stability, the guidance, the narrative frame we associate with memorials. Nor does it give us the sense of “doing the right thing” by coming to gaze. No boundary marks off the events in question; history, we are made to see, is continually being constructed. And we should be agents in that process.
If we, as viewers, are inspired to see better, more deeply, more lastingly, it is because this, precisely, is what Rothenberg endeavors to do.
It is six years since Rothenberg has had a large-scale presentation of this work. Yet the present show is in no wise a memorial to the enterprise, or to its history. The culmination of over a decade of work, Rothenberg calls it The Anne Frank Project suggesting a fresh approach, a new beginning, an essai. For the artist, the work is in part created by the “dilemma of the space.” And so this show at Gallery 312— formerly the boiler room of a warehouse, it has been called “a cathedral in a cave”—is unique. Each of the previous installations was discrete. “Now,” says Rothenberg, “there is leakage. There is no reason to keep things separate. The series, and the space, come together to make a single whole.” Before long, the installation will be dismantled, this particular “site of memory” will not exist.
But Rothenberg has set aside a space for writing and contemplation. Viewers may withdraw, repair to a relatively private place. And there begin, who knows, the complicated process some might call a diary.