Escheat, Magda Franczak

Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column

—T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

In 2017, the Archeology of Photography Foundation (FAF) had the opportunity to work with an extraordinary collection of photographic portraits in the possession of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute (JHI). Nearly 500 glass negatives from the 1930s were restored and catalogued by the two cooperating institutions, both based in Warsaw, and then made available online via the Virtual Museum of Photography (FAF) and Central Jewish Library (JHI) web portals. Little is known about the photographs or their provenance, including the names of those portrayed or of the images’ author. The negatives were dropped off at the Jewish Historical Institute many years back, their destination likely purposely chosen, for the individual donating them was surely aware that in the Institute’s care were the Ringelblum Archive as well as a plethora of testimonials and other documentary material pertaining to Jewish life in Poland. The chosen repository for the collection thus guided its interpretation—we can surmise that at least a significant portion of those portrayed had Jewish origins (the images themselves contain visual clues as well); and, inescapably, that many of those photographed in the 1930s would not have survived the next decade.

Concurrently in the spring of 2017, as in Warsaw a FAF conservator removed dust and soil from the negatives, trying to piece together and make whole fragments of shattered glass, the artist Magdalena Franczak, in Jerusalem, where the exhibition The Day When Nothing Happened was set to open, assembled her Broken Column, a “collaborative” sculpture consisting of a teetering tower of ceramic dishes which, at the artist’s request, had been brought to the gallery, including by complete strangers, and left to be included in the Column. When the exhibition closed, the individual components of the sculpture—bowls, mugs, vases—were packed up, wrapped in newspaper and cushioned by bubble wrap. They were also assigned numbers, like artifacts unearthed during an archaeological dig. Then, from September 2017 to May 2018, the sculpture, in pieces and literally piece by piece, was transported from Israel to Poland. This was accomplished with the help of the many individuals who volunteered to carry elements of the Column onto airplanes in their suitcases and hand luggage. Only three pieces were lost in the process.

When we invited Magdalena Franczak to participate in FAF’s ongoing Living Archives project—an attempt to reanimate historical archives by commissioning living artists to interpret conserved material through active practice—she told us about the Broken Column. The symbolic meaning and resonance of a shorn column, appearing most often in the context of gravestones—be they Christian, Jewish, or anciently polytheistic—and symbolizing an interrupted life cut short unexpectedly, struck us with acute intensity when considered against the context of the JHI’s anonymous portraits of prewar Polish Jews. The artist reassembling in FAF’s gallery a “column” that serves not as an architectonic source of support but rather, through its assemblage out of shatterable ceramic, as a metaphor for impermanence, centered attention on the spire’s precarious material structure. The materiality of objects is additionally emphasized by the display of brittle glass-plate negatives swaddled, post-conservation, in protective envelopes of cotton paper. She also sculpts porcelain archival envelopes, decorative micro-forms, which patiently await the undiscovered positive prints that may exist somewhere else.

Franczak’s exhibition is, however, concentrated primarily upon individuals—those who carried to Poland the dishes and vases from her Jerusalem exhibition; and the anonymous subjects whose prewar portraits found refuge in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute. “In this symbolic way,” Franczak says, “the living bequeathed dishes to the deceased, setting them in the material world and placing the people around an invisible table in the tenement house at ulica Chłodna, a customary meeting place for looking at photography albums and family photos.” However, this is not a table to which one can pull up a chair, and these photographs are separated from their “families.” They have no descendants. They are, in a sense, like an estate without a legal heir, subject to escheat, although the JHI serves as the archive’s foster protector. Notes literary theorist Roma Sendyka, puścizna, the Polish equivalent of the archaic “escheat,” definitionally doubles as a description for emptiness as in empty, barren expanses—as well as, for example, the “voidness” of an abandoned residence left in a state of neglect and legal limbo after the death of an heirless inhabitant. Such anachronistic juridical terms, Sendyka writes, “allow us to reconstruct the cultural and legal tradition behind both nationalized campaigns of expropriating estates from wartime deceased and individual acts of dispossession. The appropriation of something by ‘someone who is not entitled to it’ is not a spontaneous act but one that is regulated—by practice and institutions.”

Magdalena Franczak avoids exploiting the JHI collection; she does not appropriate the material, nor does she claim, by artistic escheat, authorship of it. She embraces its emptiness—a void of corroboratory data—filling it, like a vessel, with the potentiality of a living and breathing contemporaneity. The images she chose to frame and hang, printed from the glass negatives, appear as if they were snapshots of the artist’s long-lost friends and acquaintances, with her collages resembling photo-booth strips. A lack of biographical information about those depicted requires us to scour the images for germane details; and every last speck of information that allows us to “find out more about” is at a premium. We take note of badges, Hashomer Hatzair scout uniforms, summer outfits and winter outerwear. We seek out the “familiar” faces of reappearing subjects, who, in a short time, become almost like old friends to us (as they perhaps were to the photographer). In the process, we also consider the conventions of portraiture; in this case, the portraits always en face, suggesting that many of them were made for the purposes of identification documents. The artist frees the material from solely historical interpretations, leading us away from such analytical limitations through her works: a column, collages, porcelain forms, and a table. It is thanks to these complementary creations that we do not merely regard the portrait collection as fossilized. Instead, we focus on its rediscovered beauty. And the potentiality of its void.

—Karolina Puchała-Rojek

(trans. Stefan Lorenzutti and Joanna Osiewicz-Lorenzutti)

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