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Rigid Mobility



Clay Figures

Heaven & Earth


Sleeping on the Past © Gabrielle Rossmer

Kitchen at Villa Dessauer © Gabrielle Rossmer

Revenants © Gabrielle Rossmer

                                     Page 3 of 3 pages

When I translated the poem, I discovered that Stephen had entrusted me with the task of doing this work. I had somehow known this all along. This knowledge reinforced my sense that I must guard and understand the transmitted memories. I set about another part of the installation called "Sleeping on the Past". Only recently have I learnt that Jews living in Germany after the War spoke for 35 or 40 years of "sitting on packed suitcases". "Sleeping on the Past" is a mattress lying on the floor, with copies of the documents pouring out of a seam. In Bamberg, this piece was placed in front of a cabinet in the original kitchen of the mansion. In the cabinet were placed domestic objects that I had brought with me from the U.S. They were all objects that my family had fled with; sheets and towels and knives and forks and clothing and dishes and furniture. This was known in the late '30s in Germany as a “lift van”—a large crate of personal belongings packed to go overseas—and it was used as a confirmation to the Nazis that the family was really leaving. It was paid for with all the money and valuables that a family owned. This was a time several years before the "final solution," when the Germans still wanted Jews to pack up and leave. The packing-up assumed enormous import, almost as a diversion from the reality people were confronting. I live with many of these household objects of my parents and maternal grandparents. I decided to bring some back to Bamberg, hoping that there would be power in the physical return.


Taken as a whole, the installation is called "In Search of the Lost Object." The title is derived from a discussion by the psychoanalyst and artist, Joanna Field, in which she asks (I paraphrase): does the artist seek to "preserve and re-create the lost object or does she create what has never been?"

What is the lost object? Field referred to the idealized memories of childhood. The lost object, longed for, is unattainable. The lost object, in this case, is the family in an idealized past, cut off from its historical roots by the events of the Holocaust. The artist cannot re-create this history. The primary role of the artist, according to Field, "is the `creating' of objects, not the recreating of them... [The artist] is concerned with the achieving that very `otherness' from oneself which alone makes any subsequent sadness at loss possible...the essential point is the new thing that she has created, the new bit of the external world that she has made significant and `real', through endowing it with form."



As a sculptor, my artistic pursuit involves formal object making, a process that often requires analysis. The content or meaning of these objects, however, derives from my imagination. Writing in Sculpture Magazine, Michael Brenson, himself a son of Holocaust survivors, took note of the relationship between the object and imagination:

Consciousness and imagination are not the same...while consciousness is the faculty of analysis, imagination is the faculty of integration. It is the faculty that respects passion and makes a home for responses like tenderness, fear, awe, and love, which it values for themselves. The imagination is essential to every artistic endeavor that touches people and enables them to feel and see more deeply. The sculptural object has the ability to plant in the heart of the sculptural field basic, irrefutable evidence of why the imagination matters.

I find Brenson's statement compelling because it mirrors my own experience. I do not pretend to understand the Holocaust, but following the lead of my imagination, I believe my "objects" offer non-verbal knowledge that reaches the viewers’ feelings. While the form of art frequently calls for rational analysis, the content usually rises from the imagination. I think this is what Keats meant when he said, "I am certain of nothing but the heart's affections and the truth of imagination." Or, to paraphrase Pascal, "The imagination has reasons which reason does not know."


After Bamberg, I was not finished. In Boston, Massachusetts I exhibited another version of "In Search of the Lost Object" for a different audience. I was able to pay more attention to formal and visual issues. I was concerned about how to reach a contemporary audience that may have been ignorant of my historical realities. Questions that concerned me were—how much to spell out in words, how to balance documentation with imagination.

One year later, the most complete version of "In Search" was exhibited in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The Cathedral is in upper Manhattan, not far from Washington Heights, the neighborhood of my childhood years. I felt that the narrative needed to be expanded to cover the immigrant experience, that is, my experience and that of others. How do I address an audience in an Episcopal Cathedral? How do I address an audience of children, who will be visiting this show?

I arranged to visit the grammar school that I had attended from Kindergarten through grade 8, in order to encounter the present generation of students. I found that Public School 187 now educates a new group of immigrants. The children come from many countries, but predominantly from Central America. I decided to photograph several classes of children from the 2nd and 5th grades. We went outdoors and they posed for me in front of the George Washington Bridge. This landmark is an unchanging symbol of the neighborhood. Some of these photo-images were transferred to plaster tablets. "Tablets" is one of the pieces in my installation at the Cathedral. The contemporary images of the children are interspersed with family photos and other landmarks to comprise a wall of 96 tablets—randomly composed like memory itself.

Tablets © Gabrielle Rossmer

Tablet Detail © Gabrielle Rossmer

Showing this work at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was a significant experience. This very ecumenical institution sits on a crossroads between Harlem and Columbia University. It views itself to be like a medieval Cathedral, as a meeting place and forum for the whole community. Showing the work there heightened for me the part of the story that concerns Jews living in a Christian world. We are influenced by and subject to Christianity and Christian imagery. Two wall pieces installed at St. John's were entitled "Crossroads I" and "Crossroads II". They are in the form of altered crosses, off-kilter, not at a right angle. Crossroads. The new set of "Revenants" that were made for this show were uniform, with drapery showing the influence of the statues in the Bamberg Cathedral.

Crossroads © Gabrielle Rossmer

Garment © Gabrielle Rossmer


There was, in the first phase of the installation, a video created by an American filmmaker, Luther Price, about the initial process of creating this installation. At the time we viewed this as a collaboration. It is more appropriate, as it happened, to think of the video as Luther's work, and the installation as mine, as we each reflect our own vision, concerns and histories. Luther views my process, is moved by my story, and chooses images that matter to him. It was a side-by-side process of creation and the works continue to be linked.

A scaled down version of "In Search of..." is being seen as part of the group show, "Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust" which traveled in the U.S. from 1995 to 2002. It is gratifying to have this work on view in diverse places over many years, hopefully helping viewers understand the traumatic events as they occurred to a specific family. It is most gratifying when the work is a catalyst for people to look at and think about their own histories, whether Holocaust-related or not. The Holocaust, half a century later, is a lesson for history, not just about the groups it affected, but about human behavior in general.

Susan Stern, "Jews in Germany Today". Inter Nationes, Kennedyallee 91-103, Bonn, April, 1995. p.1."The Jews who found themselves in Germany in the postwar era...for decades...clung to the illusion that they were in transit, on their way to somewhere else. "Sitting on packed suitcases" was the name given to the syndrome."

Joanna Field, "On Not Being Able to Paint." forward by Anna Freud. Jeremy Tarcher, L.A., 1957.
p. xiv,xv,150–160. The Lost Object is discussed by Freud in the introduction, as well as by Field.

ibid. p. 160.

Sculpture Magazine, v.15, #9, Washington, D.C.
November, 1996. p. 33.