I wrote notes furiously during visual artist Myron Polenberg‘s talk–but now I can’t locate them. So, apropos of the subject, I’m going to have to rely on memory to tell his story.
An off-site event planned during my week at the Oral History Summer School last month in Hudson, New York was visiting Polenberg’s studio. Up Warren Street we trudged, in the 100 degree heat, stopping first to break bread outside his door, ever-cautious about spilling crumbs on canvasses.
Here’s a photo I took of Jenny Kane, fellow student, and Suzanne Snider, workshop facilitator, settling down to eat their sandwiches. Jenny is the sun-hatted woman on the left. She works in Manhattan as an electrician on film sights and has great stories of her own.
Myron Polenberg’s art project, “Indelible History,” involves linking up holocaust survivors with young people, having the survivor spend several hours telling their life story to this person then asking her or him to tattoo their Auschwitz numbers onto their own forearm.
With his project, he intends keeping the person’s memories alive and flowing forward with each retelling, long after the survivor’s death.
It’s disturbing to think about some kid at a bar, grabbing a beer or two with work friends, slinging his arm out to collect his glass or hand over $20 and revealing a long line of numbers threading up alongside his rolled sleeve.
But is it the right kind of disturbing?
Perhaps it depends on many factors such as, most importantly, who wears the tattoo and why; what words this person chooses to tell and to whom; how far the voices carry and how the words might change in the retelling.
When Suzanne Snider first told us about this art project I was immediately sceptical. Later, when I met the artist, I was relieved to discover he was in his 60s and not his 20s.
Polenberg described the shame and sorrow with which his parents and their friends lived their lives with these tattoos and what it was like for him to view them. Sometimes, but usually not, learning their stories from the war.
At one point during his talk he appeared to search the room for a face, found one, and said to my colleague Alex–who was probably the youngest and most beautiful woman in the room: “You! I’d like to ask you to wear a tattoo.”
After the talk he encouraged Alex to move away from the others with him, so he could strengthen his pitch. I became suspicious about this project and this man.
I am not prepared to diss the art project entirely but I would like to learn some answers before fully supporting it.
See those up-ended women’s legs leaning haphazardly against the wall behind me as I write? These kinds of artifacts—women’s body parts, to be precise, including a woman’s breasts stung with a dozen arrows, and a Barbie Doll surrounded by guns, her crotch exposed, were abundant in the room. They might well have been art meant to unsettle in a way I support. I’m just not sure yet…
My friends and I returned to the classroom to discuss trauma, ethics, oral history, objectification, sexism, and art.