WASHINGTON, DC — I was first introduced to the work of local artist Rachel Farbiarz through her “Genizah Project” in 2012, an installation set up like a home office with a desk, chair, lamp, and thousands of overflowing papers — cards, letters, photos, and miscellaneous bits of paper the artist had collected for 30 years. The installation included her own paper hoard as well as those of others who either gave her their contributions in advance or left them at the installation. Visitors were welcome to rifle through and read the letters and cards and rearrange them, leaving them lovingly organized into piles and files or spilling onto the floor.
Farbiarz demonstrates the same, meticulously philosophical fascination with the memories of individuals in her drawings and collages. Her latest show, A Different Country at G Fine Art, features over 30 works, ranging from crowded, five-foot-long pieces to sparse, printer paper-size collages. The overarching theme of the exhibition is the universal impact of war and displacement. In her artist statement, Farbiarz locates her inspiration in news stories of the ISIS takeover of the Syrian town of Kobanî in the fall of 2014. “Kobanî’s residents fled nearby, over the border to Turkey,” she writes, “and, over the next few weeks and months, along with other Turks and Kurds, they watched the city. And we watched them watch.”
This concept of “watching them watch,” a kind of socially acceptable, international voyeurism, pervades Farbiarz’s drawings and collages. We watch people running into the white void of the paper, dancing around a maypole made of scarves, and climbing a mountain. Although the collages don’t necessarily read in a clear, linear manner, they still tell a story, one of outsider observation, in which the empty space speaks volumes about how we understand what happens in the lives of individuals on the other side of the world.
Farbiarz’s large collages may take the most time to observe and comprehend, but her smaller collages and graphite drawings are far more moving. The smaller collages, which the artist considers “chapters” in a larger narrative titled A Table that Goes On for Miles, make emotionally charged use of empty space; her graphite drawings, on the other hand, have an undeniable Expressionist bent. Like Käthe Kollwitz’s heart-wrenching WWI-era prints, Farbiarz’s graphite drawings focus on the universality of individual suffering.
Part of a series titled Documents, the drawings depict subjects that range from Europe during the world wars to the Middle East today — all with handwritten descriptions. Several drawings reference WWII, including a seemingly unfinished work that starts with detailed soldiers trudging in the foreground and ends in a huge, squiggly line snaking through the landscape in the background. On it, Farbiarz writes: “Column of British, N2, + Australian soldiers makes its way across Crete to evacuate to Egypt. Of 32,000 Brit troops on Crete, only 18,000 made it out — others were either captured by Germans.” On another drawing, which shows a woman clutching a child, the artist writes: “German mother evicted from Poland walking. Mother holds son tighter for warmth, then realizes that he has died.”
Farbiarz never elaborates on whether or not the stories she tells are true, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. All these tragic circumstances have happened and continue to happen, and Farbiarz self-consciously captures these moments of “watching them watch” as powerfully as any documentary photographer ever could.