Thursday, August 22, 2002
Photo: Ghostly Forest-Robin Kandel turned the camera on herself to dizzying effect.
It''s not pleasant to stand in Robin Kandel''s installation at the Hartnell College Gallery. But then, she didn''t intend it to be-the history it references wasn''t pleasant, either.
In "Story 1.run," opening Aug. 26, the Santa Cruz artist uses videotapes, audiotapes and mixed media, including earth and human hair, to recount what her father''s family endured in World War II Ukraine, including time spent in a labor camp and two years living in the woods on the run from Nazi occupiers.
"I had no intention of doing this project," says Kandel, adding that she is a painter rather than an installation or video artist. When gallery director Eric Bosler offered her the small seminar room as space for an exhibit, she only knew she wanted to work with earth and hair. Then her father sent her a taped interview he''d given to a graduate student 19 years ago in which he recounted his harrowing tale of wartime persecution. Fred Kandel was barely nine when the Nazis entered his hometown of Berezno, and rounded up all the Jews into a makeshift ghetto. Soon afterwards, he, his mother, grandfather and some uncles and cousins were sent to a labor camp, where they worked cutting and stacking bags of peat moss. His grandmother and three aunts with small children stayed behind in the ghetto, where they were killed. Robin''s father and his family later escaped from the camp and spent the rest of the war hiding out in the woods. They lived in holes dug in the earth, they wore "shoes" made of tree bark wrapped around their feet, and several times had to run for their lives from soldiers.
"When I first heard the tapes I was struck by accounts of literally running for one''s life, not once or twice but many times," Kandel says. "What could this be like?"
The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she wanted to use her family''s history as the basis for her installation. The earth she''d felt drawn to now suggested the forest dirt that was both haven and tragedy to her family-they slept in the earth, but they also buried their dead in it. The hair she''d collected now suggested a more gruesome relic.
Kandel decided to take a video camera into the woods near her home and recreate her family''s experience of running through the trees. She kept the camera going as she ran, so the scene appears as if through the runner''s eyes.
"Day after day I went to the woods and ran with the camera," she says. "It was 10, 12 times before I got it right. It put me, as much as it could, into the space they were in."
It takes a while after walking into Kandel''s tiny installation room for one''s eyes to adjust to the darkness. On the far wall, her video is running-a dizzying scene of dark, leafless trees coming at the viewer from all directions, then receding haphazardly. It does indeed feel as if the viewer is running through the forest.
Slowly, as the eyes adjust, the viewer is able to make out eight tall tubes leaning against a second wall. The light from the video causes them to cast eerie shadows, their stillness juxtaposed against the frantic movement on the screen. In a third corner, a pile of sandbags suggests the peat Kandel''s family was forced to stack. The floor is covered with papers on which Kandel transcribed her father''s tapes; the tapes themselves are running on a cassette player, but turned at low volume and distorted, so all one hears is a constant, low mutter. And covering the transcripts on the floor, so very few words are visible, are piles of dirt and human hair.
Her original concept was to cover the transcripts entirely with dirt and hair, so none of it was visible. "That''s the reality, if you walk in those woods today. I don''t think there are any markers."
Kandel''s is a terribly disturbing, sobering exhibition. Even though there are no words to guide the viewer''s understanding, except for the transcript fragments, the artist has managed to convey the desperation and breathlessness of running for one''s life.
Although her family suffered their particular tragedy during the Second World War, Kandel doesn''t think of her installation as "Holocaust art." It''s about her own family''s history, she says, and if there''s a message beyond that, it has to do with broader themes of freedom and oppression. "For me to be interested in it, it has to be beyond this specific point in history; it has to be about being human," she says. "Many people feel themselves caught up in fear, in a position where they have to run for their lives, literally or not."
Robin Kandel''s installation, and "It Lifts My Heart," an exhibit of photographs by Ruth Mayerson Gilbert, open Aug. 16 at 6pm in the Hartnell College Gallery, 156 Homestead Ave., Salinas, in the Visual Arts Facility. Kandel is represented by the Andrea Schwartz Gallery in San Francisco.