It’s a very fine thing to encounter, right here in Chestertown, an art exhibit that unapologetically addresses profound states of human experience while fusing traditional and contemporary art media into a powerful aesthetic and emotional experience. On view at Washington College’s Kohl Gallery through April 15, “Sustenazo, Lament II” is bold, dramatic and elegant in its scale and stark presentation, but there’s nothing here that is hard to fathom. WC’s Assistant Professor of Art Monika Weiss is presenting a multi-media installation that you don’t need an MFA in contemporary art to understand or to be touched by. Its one demand is that you spend time with it.
Weiss uses such primary imagery and sound that the exhibit is deeply affecting even with only the most basic knowledge of the story it references. Her drawings are straightforward, emotive images; her video is a simple but richly composed unfolding of gestures of lamentation and evocative juxtapositions of images connected with war and healing, overlaid with shimmering layers of spoken voices and song.
Stepping into the enveloping darkness and murmuring voices of “Sustenazo” feels like looking into the unquiet depths of one’s mind. Walls painted black, sound saturating the air, this exhibit puts you immediately into an alternative plane.
A small anteroom introduces Weiss’s theme with two large drawings, each of a bent and shrouded figure plastered uncomfortably with flesh-toned latex. On the side wall, a 19th century copy of Goethe’s Collected Works is displayed dismembered, its pages and cover lined up soldier-style, the beautiful typography of the printed pages overlaid with ghostly sketches of more shrouded figures, amid smudges and gouges of charcoal and graphite. From the next room, the uneasy sounds of voices or singing reverberate, signaling the visitor to enter and experience the video waiting there.
Text on the wall leading to the video gallery tells the story that inspired “Sustenazo,” a title taken from the Greek, meaning to lament together, to whisper inaudibly. Weiss conceived the piece during her 2010 residency at the Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, a former military hospital in her native Warsaw. A sudden evacuation by Nazi forces of 1800 patients and staff from the hospital during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising brought Weiss to consider the traditionally feminine act of lamentation in response to the tragedies of war.
The central focus of the exhibit is the video, organized in three parts and projected on a huge white rectangle on one wall of a nearly empty black room. In the first section, a woman appears, arching up from below, her thick, curling hair loose down her back. A ghostly double also rises, superimposed behind her, hair bound in a black scarf. As both figures move with meditative slowness through a series of universal gestures of lamentation, one shedding the scarf, the other slipping it on, voices speaking in Polish and German weave in and out. The cyclical pattern recalls breathing but also intimates the unfortunate recurring nature of war and the concomitant return of lamentation.
In the second section, vintage medical instruments and diagrams, tools of healing that paradoxically transmit instant anxiety, share the screen with a 1930s map of Europe, as a hand in a medical glove appears, slowly smearing a black cloud across the image. Gradually emerging through the dark stain, a medical illustration of lines diagramming surgical procedures marked directly on a woman’s torso eerily recalls the lines of troop movements on a map of battle. The equation of body and nation is immediate and spine tingling.
The woman returns in the video’s final segment, this time facing forward, hands covering her face. There is an intense sense of intimacy as she slowly lowers her hands, revealing first her closed eyes, then nose and mouth. Here, lament seems like a pause resting on the stillness within before gradually baring itself to the outer world. One is reminded of the moment that comes in the face of any catastrophe when you realize everything has changed. In the next moment, you long for the time before that change.
Weiss’s is an art of multiple layers and multiple means. It is a seamless collaboration between the drawing and singing (both ancient art forms created directly by the human body), language in the forms of both printed and spoken words, and current technology of video and sound manipulation. Not only does she layer multiple visual images in her videos, as gradually shifting apparitions, she also layers sound and the printed word. Much of her work employs cultural artifacts painstakingly researched, collected and reworked. Weiss began her studies in music before moving into visual art and continues to compose the soundtracks for her works, extracting sound from interviews, readings and musical compositions. These sources transmit richness and depth to her work, acting as a kind of shorthand for centuries of philosophical and artistic development.
Following on the Nazi preoccupation with exalting or burning books according to the politics of their messages, Weiss’s use of Geothe’s work to signify the laudable aspirations and terminal dangers of the search for knowledge traces Western culture’s urge toward perfection. In seeking to better life through science and critical thinking, we have developed a tendency to separate mind from body. Weiss infers that when it comes down to it, the two are indivisible. It is the body that takes joy in life and senses pain, suffers and dies in wartime.
Phenomenology holds that the direct experience of the senses is the ultimate basis for our understanding of the world, an idea very much in line with Buddhism’s concept of mindful awareness. War is fundamentally an attack on the physical body, with lamentation as the spontaneous, wordless reaction to the tragedy that ensues. Through the direct marks of her drawing style, the enveloping waves of voices in speech and song, and the spare, meditative images of the videoed process of lamentation, Weiss underscores the fundamental quality of the bodily experience.
Experiencing this exhibition is disquieting, mesmerizing and strangely uplifting. The original work, first exhibited in Ujazdowski Castle was larger and more involved. While this condensed version preserves the essentials of the work, to experience it here in the relative peace and shelter of this small college town must necessarily be a diminished version of the experience of the full installation in the castle itself, where memories of the actual event still cling.
War, as an aggressive act, is seen as masculine; lamentation is customarily the province of women. But both genders can and do engage in both acts. Although Weiss is exploring the feminine tradition of lamentation, this is not a feminist work of art. Instead, it calls for a search for balance. The time-based structure of the video leads the viewer to develop a catalog of sensations and emotions. In using poetic forms, rather than documentary facts, to provoke contemplation of these acts, this exhibit instigates a gut-level consideration of the traces of their history and the dangers of their future repetition.
Mary McCoy is a former art critic for the Washington Post and artist