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DETROIT — “In Detroit, you can do things — and you must do things — that are different than anywhere else,” said Gary Wasserman, the founder of Wasserman Projects, one of Detroit’s newest galleries. He was addressing a full house at an artist talk for the current exhibition Space Between Time, a career survey of eight major artworks by Lithuanian-born and internationally based contemporary artist Esther Shalev-Gerz. Wasserman Projects spared no effort in the rearrangement of their typically wide-open floor plan, creating darkened zones for intimate encounters for some of Shalev-Gerz’s video works, and mirrored, museum-like display kiosks for delicate glass sculpture pieces, all of which strive to reinforce Wasserman’s vision for a Kunsthalle effect.
The extra effort greatly compliments Shalev-Gerz’s far-ranging and deeply searching practice, with the entire host of works over the course of her career created by commission from private collectors, tourism bureaus, museums, and public art funds — a support process that she characterized in her artist talk as “the oldest form of how an artist relates to society and society relates to an artist.” These commissions vary widely in media and subject, but they tend to be philosophical in nature, with Shalev-Gerz bringing a nuanced and surprising perspective in her examinations of museum collections, factory work, labor, and acts of remembrance.
An encounter with her work begins before entering the building; just outside the main entrance, Shalev-Gerz has piped an audio feed of churning mechanical equipment, perhaps planting the subconscious expectation of finding a factory setting within the formerly industrial space now housing the gallery. Instead, the viewer is greeted by a clean, quiet room full of artworks, the first being the video and multi-media counterpart to the audio track, “Sound Machine” (2008). This work was developed in Sweden, inspired by a “quiet place that was once a factory” with many loud machines. This space drew Shalev-Gerz into contemplation on the nature of memory, and she sought out a cohort of former workers at the factory, specifically female workers who had been pregnant while working there. The video depicts these women and their now adult daughters listening to the same recorded audio of factory machines; in the background are a series of machines that she ordered fabricated from an incomplete set of found blueprints. The machines have no function, but run ceaselessly. The piece collectively examines the nature of memory, and like much of Shalev-Gerz’s work, is interested more in the process of remembering and reconstructing than the specific outcomes of that process.
This idea is crystallized in “Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz, 1945–2005” (2005), a large-scale three-channel video installation produced from Shalev-Gerz’s interviews of 60 Holocaust survivors. Shalev-Gerz posed three questions to each interviewee — What did you do before the war? What did you do during the war? What did you do after the war? — and then edited down all of her video footage to include only the gaps where each person considered the question and formulated an answer, or as Shalev-Gerz put it, “Where they have to put their experience in these little boxes called words.” Shalev-Gerz shows this work nearly every time she has an exhibition.
Some of her best-known works deal with political memory, including the “Monument Against Fascism” in Hamburg, Germany, created in collaboration with her husband, Jochen Gerz. This nearly 40-foot column of galvanized steel has a soft lead coating, enabling visitors to carve their names directly into the monument, as though signing a petition against Fascism. As people signed the available space, the column was lowered into the ground to provide access to fresh surface area, slowly sinking the entire monument between the inauguration on October 10, 1986, and its final disappearance on November 10, 1993, after collecting 70,000 signatures. In this way, Shalev-Gerz conceived of a negative monument, an apt memorial for something like Fascism, that she had no wish to preserve.
These are just a few of the works on display at Wasserman; Shalev-Gerz is extremely conceptually dense and meticulous at every turn in her process. There are photo-documentation projects, such as “The Open Page” (2009) for Vancouver Public Library, which chronicles one spread from each of 15 rare books in the library’s exclusive special collection (six are on display at Wasserman). Another project, “Describing Labor” (2012) assembles 41 objects, including found images of workers, and labor propaganda from the collection of the Wolfsonian-FIU, some of which were selected and repositioned by a group of 24 individuals, who then explained their reasons for choosing and arranging the objects in this way. The finished piece includes video, archival photographs of the new arrangement, and a series of glass hammers and gloves in mirrored display cases. Shalev-Gerz sees labor as a great social unifier. “We all have labor in our memories,” she said. In both of these projects, Shalev-Gerz uses extremely large-format analog cameras, creating a sense of hyper-documentation of objects that are already documenting something.
“Potential Trust” (2014) stands out as the only piece rendered in neon: a kinetic sign replicating that of the moving hammer and nail imagery of the Carpenter Labor Union’s sign in downtown Detroit. In Shalev-Gerz’s piece, a dividing line creates a mirror image, so that each time a hammer drives a nail home in one direction, it pops out of the wall in the other. “Every time you have an idea, there is doubt,” said Shalev-Gerz. “There is the other, the potentiality, and the opportunity for trust.”
Overhead, throughout her talk, hung one of the most eye-catching pieces in the exhibition: two conjoined clocks, mirroring opposite times in “Les Inseparables” (2000–2010), which is one piece of a larger work, Inseparable Angels: The Imaginary House for Walter Benjamin. The clocks as standalone objects send a simple enough message about the rejection of linear time and plural experiences, while double-exposed, off-focus photographs of local scenery — for instance a nondescript landscape that was, as one taxi driver put it to the artist, “Where the train station for a nearby concentration camp used to be”— again pick up Shalev-Gerz’s overarching interest in capturing a sense of what was in the past and what remains in the present and their two-way relationship. These are, of course, deeply existential questions, and over time, Shalev-Gerz has become adept at articulating them in the most human and ordinary of contexts.
Esther Shalev-Gerz: Space Between Time continues at Wasserman Projects (3434 Russell St #502, Detroit) through July 9.