Bruce Clarke, the author of the art installation at the Ninth Fort: artist has to give tools to understand
“Knowing history helps us to better understand the present,” says Litvak origin artist Bruce Clarke. From 29th of June till July 20th, 2022, the famous artist is visiting Lithuania: he is beginning to create an artistic installation “ECCE HOMO: Those Who Stayed” at Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum. The presentation of the installation will take place in September, on the commemoration of the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews. In order to learn more about art, painful historical events and the project in Kaunas we invite you to read the interview with Bruce Clarke.
“ECCE HOMO: Those Who Stayed” is a part of the international project, which is organised by Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum and Kaunas European Capital of Culture 2022.
By using art, you are looking for ways of expressing really complex and painful topics such as the Holocaust. What made or inspired you to focus on them?
Beyond this question is another: how I conceive the role of art. I conceive it as something, which plays an active role in society and which says something about the world in which we live or about its history. So, it’s both contemporary and past history. If you are an artist, you exhibit in public, show your work, talk about it. From my point of view, the artist has a responsibility to talk and to be concerned about the way the world is run. I have got my particular approach to how I treat history and other people might find the different ways of dealing with history than I do. I said that art is communication but at the same time it’s a very personal form of communication.
To come more specifically to the answer, I have worked a lot with the genocide in Rwanda. What happened in Rwanda was a crime against humanity. A crime against humanity, if you look at the definition, means a crime against all of us, we all are a part of humanity. That’s why it concerns me. When we talk about the Holocaust, the Second World War and the specific events, this is extremely important to understand and to express through art. An example happening now – Ukraine being invaded by Russia. Of course, it’s not linked to the Holocaust, but it’s linked to 20th-century history and specifically to the Second World War indirectly. So, that’s why history is important for me – because it helps us to understand the present. I work on contemporary history in my artwork, but this contemporary history comes out of the past as well. What interests me is major events, which changed the course of history and which are still changing the way in which we live right now.
When the opportunity to work in Kaunas on a topic which is important to me came out, it was even more important since my grandparents came from Kaunas. At the personal level, it’s a way for me to go into family history, personal history which I know very little about. I’ve never been in Lithuania before this project. My mother talked about things but she was telling me what her grandparents, who were Lithuanians, said about Lithuania. So, for me it’s an excuse to do some sort of a personal journey and to go back into the personal family history as well.
Such events the Holocaust and genocide are often difficult for people to comprehend, especially emotionally. What helps you, as an artist, to remain spiritually and psychologically strong, in order to speak and develop these topics?
My first approach to producing art isn’t an emotional approach. It’s an intellectual approach. Of course, it does touch our emotions. But I don’t want to think that I’m the artist working for an emotional response. What I’m trying to do, is to understand the situation. We must try to understand situations, otherwise situations can be repeated. And yes, sometimes it’s horrible. In Rwanda for the first time I saw human bodies, and not just one or two, I saw bits of human bodies. I saw hundreds, thousands of bodies. Of course, it does do something to you. But I don’t want my artistic response just to came out of that. You don’t work on something just because it touches you deeply. Otherwise, you stay in the emotional thing, the humanitarian thing, you don’t understand any better. I wasn’t going to paint bodies, bones and things like that. It’s no good just showing people what you saw or what happened. You have got to give tools to understand. When I work on the subject, I keep the distance. I’m not going to put my personal emotions into the work.
If we talk about the project in Kaunas, as I said, my grandparents came from Kaunas. The rest of my family never survived. It happened. I’m not going to do an artwork where I cry about that. These people are no different from hundreds of thousands of other people, who were assassinated. I can’t concentrate on these people, who are my people, rather than on the others.
Let’s talk about the project in Kaunas. In September, during the implementation of the project “Ecce Homo: Those Who Stayed” at Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum you will present a two-part art installation “Ecce Homo: Those Who Stayed” and “The Survivors in Suspension”, created specifically for the fort spaces, dedicated to the events of the Holocaust. Why did you choose this title for the installation? What does it mean?
“Ecce homo” is a generic title of the exhibition firstly chosen for Luxembourg [for the National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights]. It’s Latin, used in the Bible, which means “this is the man.” It came out of the fact that in Luxembourg, the part of ESCH 2022, I am talking about different aspects of migration, exile, deportation and extermination as well. In Kaunas it’s more concentrated on specifically the Holocaust. So, the generic title “Ecce homo” was dealing with negative factors of deportation, migration etc., but also positive factors such as resistance to these.
“Those Who Stayed,” which is a specifically work in the Ninth Fort, came from the thought that I’m here, working in Kaunas, simply because a part of my family left. Then you got “Those Who Left” and “Those Who Stayed”. Those who stayed are still here, under the ground. What is interesting is that some people either had foresight or luck to move at the right time. And this coincidence or luck, or whatever it was, of course, changed their world, my world because I wouldn’t be here if my grandparents hadn’t left. So, the title “Those Who Stayed, Those Who Left” might seem like a simple, banal title, but in a very simple and banal gesture – leaving or not leaving – there are life and death questions, basically.
The title “Survivors in suspension” came from talking, in particular, with survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. I think it applies to survivors of the Holocaust too. To be honest, I don’t know any Holocaust survivors but I have heard testimonials. Talking with survivors in Rwanda, people said to me, “Look at me – I’m okay, I didn’t get cut up. Physically I’m okay, but everything stopped in 1994.” They are physically present but suspended in the past. That’s why I called it “The Survivors in Suspension” – because we’re talking about psychological state of survival, which isn’t visible. I wanted to give some sort of presence or visibility to the psychological state of survivors. Physical survival isn’t all. You’ve got to have psychological and emotional survival as well.And it’s not there in most people who’ve lived through these huge tragedies.
As you mentioned, the project goes beyond Kaunas and Lithuania. In 2022, Kaunas became the European Capital of Culture together with Esch (Luxembourg). The National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights, which is located in Esch, is a partner of the project implemented in Kaunas. How did you come up with the idea to develop the project between two different locations? Why were the two cities chosen?
I was contacted by the people in the museum in Esch who knew my work. It wasn’t me who chose. I was chosen. When I was invited to Luxembourg the very first time, people explained to me what the European Capital of Culture is. I knew about it because cultural events are in my life but I didn’t know the details. They told me that there are two towns each year which are given this status. They said to me, “The other town you don’t know and probably you have never heard about it because it’s a small town in Lithuania, it’s called Kaunas.” My reaction to that was, “Of course I’ve heard of it, that’s where my grandparents came from.” To be honest, I’d never heard about Esch before they called me… We talked about this coincidence, about my grandparents coming from Kaunas. Then Frank, the director of the museum [Frank Schroeder, the director of the National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights], contacted Kaunas 2022 to talk about this coincidence. Kaunas 2022 invited me and we met Marius [Marius Pečiulis, the director of Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum]. That’s how it all started. In both situations I didn’t choose, I was chosen.
Could you please tell us more about the installation that will be exhibited at Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum?
The installation consists of two parts, which aren’t necessarily connected, but I feel that there’s a lot of connection. One part “The Survivors in Suspension”, as I said, is representing the psychological state in which survivors, who lived through a traumatic event, are experiencing. I thought it was a complementary thing to the other part, which I was doing.
In the other part I wanted to talk about what happened in Kaunas in general and in the Ninth Fort in particular. It was a similar challenge to what I came up while working in Rwanda – what can you represent? what can you show as an artwork? I went back to the definition of the Holocaust. The word Holocaust means “the annihilation by fire.” That’s the general meaning. Holocaust is Greek word: “hólos” means “everything” and “kaustós” means “burnt”. I thought, that it’s a good metaphor. At the moment, in the world we’re talking about climate change too and we’re looking at these forest fires in the Amazon, in Australia and in Siberia even. Nothing can stand in the way of fire. Fire destroys everything.
For me it became a visual metaphor. Of course, what we see sometimes on television now – the forest fires, which are terrifying, it’s not the same thing as the gas chambers and the crematorium. But it’s so horrifying that when you try to apply what we see in forest fires to human bodies and think that if each tree is a human body, then the violence and the horror of the act is enormous. Beyond that there is also the fact that trees are very important in Jewish culture. If trees are important in Jewish culture, then a tree could be a metaphor, a symbol for a human being burned. So, the idea was quite simply – to give a visual representation in a metaphorical sense of a real action, which happened to people and which could happen to us all in different circumstances.
Also, there are some other aspects. I read “Kovno Ghetto Diary” of Avraham Tory. He describes in this and in the other historical accounts the way in which in the Ninth Fort the Nazis wanted to get rid of the evidence. They dug up the bodies and had them burned. There are a few photos where you see people putting logs: one layer of logs, one layer of bodies, one layer of logs, etc. This is like the final stage of the elimination. This happened in the Ninth Fort – the elimination of the evidence of what happened. When something is burnt, when the forest is burnt or when people are burnt, there’s nothing left, literally, nothing. So, it comes back to the original definition “totally consumed by fire.” Finishing on this aspect, since I have been studying the Holocaust, the ghetto diaries of Avraham Tory, I want to have some quotations which will come to reinforce the artwork.
During the preparation of the project, you have already visited the Ninth Fort. What impression did you have on the place of the art installation?
First of all, the place itself is very impressive. I’ve never seen anything like that before. I mean, it’s impressive when you’ve got all the history of what happened from the late 19th century, early 20th century there, in the way which it was transformed and became a museum now. To me it’s a site, which is very heavy with memory. So much happened in a short period, about 100 years, of its history. The Ninth Fort was witness to so many major events of the 20th century. You can’t transform it into some sort of banal thing. I’m very honored to be able to work there.
Then, of course, came the problem how I can make work which fits in with what’s already there, the historical part, and which integrates, I wouldn’t say seamlessly into it, but can be almost a part of something, which puts more light on history. When we talk about a museum, which the Ninth Fort is now, you collect historical objects and texts and things like that and put them on display. Now you’re asking me to invent a contemporary object which is going to inform the public about history. So, it’s almost the opposite of what you’re doing: I create something, which talks about history, you exhibit objects, which were part of history. That’s the positive aspect. The negative aspect of it – it’s a hard place to work in: the space available and the type of modifications we can do to it and things like that. That’s a challenge. If you just hang paintings up, then that’s easy. When you’ve got to think of a work, which integrates into space, it’s more challenging but also to certain extent more rewarding in the end, if you manage to do it: the work is made for the space, but it looks as though the space is made for the work as well.
During the presentation of the visual installation at the Ninth Fort, a choreographic performance “The Wreckage of My Flesh” will be performed by the dancer and choreographer Tebby W. T. Ramasike from South Africa. You and Tebby represent different types of art: you represent visual art, Tebby – contemporary dance. What brought you two together? How was the idea of cooperation born?
We didn’t choose. We were chosen, again. My parents come from South Africa and I’ve worked a lot in South Africa. When I talked to the people in Luxembourg, they said to me, “Look, we work with a choreographer from South Africa who lives in Belgium, not far from the Luxembourg border. Do you think you could meet him and maybe think of something together?” That’s how it happened. I didn’t know Tebby before. Of course, his work is his work, my work is my work. But there’ll be parts where they meet.
I think that when you work as an artist with somebody from another artistic discipline it gives another angle to your own work. So, people will see my work differently. I didn’t talk to Tebby when I was making up my project. I talked to him when it was already conceived and said, “What can you do with this? Can we change this and that?” We discussed about it. There was no interference in my work from Tebby’s point of view. Tebby is going to use my work as he wants. We have now made some modifications for him taking into account this aspect, but when people see my work with Tebby performing around it they’re going to see my work differently. I think it’s really interesting to work with other artistic disciplines.
Finally, a few questions about history and why is it important to preserve and to remember it. At the beginning of the interview you talked a lot about art and maybe these questions will summarize all your speech. In your opinion, what helps to preserve historical memory? How can we encourage more people to be interested in the past events? Can art be one of the tools that can help to do this?
I think I’ve partly answered these questions at the beginning. I just add something in relation to it. If you watch television or listen to the radio now, probably in Lithuania, but in France also, you’ve got the events happening in Ukraine and there are a lot of programs about the history of Ukraine, history of Russia and why this is happening. Suddenly people realize that we can’t quite understand the situation because we haven’t got all the historical tools. So, that’s why it links back to what I said at the beginning: knowing history helps us to better understand the present. That’s one of the reasons why I do it.
The first major reason is that all this interests me. Secondly, when I put it into an intellectual envelope, I could say that it’s to help other people understand and also sometimes an excuse to do slightly provocative things. I don’t want to undermine historical facts, but when you do something slightly provocative, you can have a debate around it. For example, when we talk about the project in the Ninth Fort, I wasn’t sure, if the metaphor of fire, burning wood would be accepted by everybody. But I don’t think it’s offending anybody. I think it opens up a debate. And when you create debate on the subject it’s sort of like you feed into other aspects of the same historical event and it makes the understanding of the event even richer. Often, I talk of my artwork or an artwork in general as a trampoline: I give something and you can bounce ideas or people off this trampoline, which is my artwork, to go somewhere else. So, I open up a debate and you can start talking about one subject. Then maybe you move on to another subject, linked to the first one, to get a better understanding of the context of the world in which we live.
For me it’s important not to give a complete answer. It’s not a book I’m writing on a subject. I just want to give some sort of informed reflection on the situation, to be able to open up the debate even wider. I think it’s very important to understand the world in which we live so that we’re not manipulated in this world, quite simply. We, basically, people in the West at least, live in a privileged position where material things are pretty okay. So, we’ve got to use this material comfort to better understand the world, to make it better for other people as well.
The art installation “Ecce Homo: Those Who Stayed” by Bruce Clarke will be exhibited at Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum from the 23rd of September, 2022. The project is a part of Kaunas European Capital of Culture 2022 programme.
The project is implemented by Kaunas Ninth Fort Museum and Kaunas 2022
Information partners: LRT, “Kauno diena”, KB “Katos grupė” | ACM
Partners: National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights (Luxembourg), Esch 2022