L’histoire, c’est la passion des fils qui voudraient comprendre les pères.
History, it’s the passion of those sons who would like to understand the fathers. — Pasolini
Much of what I have to say and do, lies in the shadow of my parents’ lives – they had barely made it, but not their parents* – my relatives and friends (among whom Judith Doneson, the late historian), as well as the writings of Jean Améry and Primo Levi.
My childhood’s Paris apartment – with its wartime discretely sawed-off window bars, an escape route onto the rooftop – was where my father, the artist-photographer Ervin Marton, had spent much of his time in the Resistance.
In spite of the fact that one of my grandfathers was a rabbi from an established rabbinical line, my progressive family had raised me as a secular French person. Still, when I was about ten, for the very fist time I was told both that I was Jewish, and that it was nobody else’s business.
Ten years later, my family having left France, I found myself alone in Paris when chased after by anti-Semitic drunken neighbors.
– Until then my life paralleled those of the crypto-Jews or “escondidos“ (hidden Jews of Spain and Portugal), but now I had been found out, I too had become “a Jew.”
– Until then I knew only the official whitewashed history; what had been hidden to me and other French people – that it was actually the French police that had rounded up the more than 13,000 Parisian Jews to be sent to the camps, and that without the involvement of even one single German soldier.
Six months later I was leaving for the U.S. but I had to readjust: there, in Los Angeles, billboards and benches displayed giant Stars of David advertising Jewish cemeteries.
My master’s thesis video project at U.C.L.A.’s Film School, under Shirley Clarke, focused on the representation of violence on television, and on the viewer’s passivity. Back then “the legacy” was still dormant: the Holocaust did not exist for me. All I knew was there had been “the war.” It took becoming involved with a form of ethnotherapy for me to deal with my “roots.”
In 1985, my documentary Say I’m a Jew was shown at the same Berlin film festival as the first presentation of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah – I had not been aware of that work until then. My piece shows the identity struggle for European children of survivors and examines the aftershocks of the genocide. Later I presented in person that documentary at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and other museums.
Afterwards, Say I’m a Jew was integrated into the video installation JEW which was exhibited first at Chicago’s Spertus Museum and Berkeley’s Judah Magnes Museum. Subsequently, JEW became part of the touring show Witness and Legacy that circulated throughout the U.S. It belongs now to the Florida Holocaust Museum’s permanent collection.
After watching Say I’m a Jew at the NY Jewish Museum, John Russell, the chief art critic at the NYTimes, and a critic for more than a half-century at the Sunday Times of London, wrote the following : The most remarkable achievement… Not a moment is wasted, nor a word. The speakers are intelligent, articulate, fearless… Individual identity, individual healing, individual transcendence are his subjects. It deserves a much wider audience.
In 1991, I played the title role of Zevi, a shtetl poet, in Eleanor Antin’s silent Yiddish feature film, The Man Without a World, her tribute to Yiddish theater.
In 1998, Harry James Cargas was to publish an anthology of pieces in Last Thoughts on the Holocaust, including a text and a triptych of mine. Tragically, he suddenly died, and that book remains to be published.
Reacting to Shoah-as-background, after the 2002 Mirroring Evil exhibit at the Jewish Museum, I felt compelled to write “Disaster Art: A Plea against the Peripheral Stuff.” That essay became part of the book Absence/Presence: Critical Essays On The Artistic Memory Of The Holocaust, which was edited by the late Stephen Feinstein and published in 2005 by Syracuse Press. I am extensively quoted in another book, Jewish-American Artists and the Holocaust, by Matthew Baigell (Rutgers U. Press).
More recently I was invited to address the issue of Jewish Resistance at a St. Louis city-wide Yom HaShoah commemoration. In that same context, with the support of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, I produced a great many panels highlighting Jewish resistance fighters (visible on the Pier Marton & the Shoah page).
*As a visual artist, my relation to images reflects three major phases:
A. The accumulation.
As a child in my home, photographs were everywhere… after slowly and carefully emerging in the darkroom – the poet Blaise Cendrars had called my father “the ace of black and white photography” – in the process of drying flat, they covered up every space in our living room.
As a Parisian teenager… for 25 cents per film, the French Cinémathèque allowed me to explore apparently unlimited horizons: Brazil’s Cinema Novo, Satyajit Ray, Italian Neo-Realism, African Cinema…
In Los Angeles and elsewhere, my own video-art work fostered a long engagement with Avant-Garde Video and with Experimental Cinema (the L.A. Vanguard Theater and my friendships with composer Carl Stone, and with Chick Strand, Elfriede Fischinger, Dorit Cypis and others on “the fringes”).
B. The teaching and dissemination.
A university career that included teaching Third World Cinema and Documentary Film, and a great many production courses, all with the assumption that to create successful movies, particular formulas existed and needed to be taught.
Addressing Shoah and Film at Yad Vashem in Israel (and regularly at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center), and often reflecting on what constitutes a responsible use of media – for the past few years, also as a member of the St. Louis International Film Festival Interfaith Jury.
C. And finally a phase which requires some major changes.
The poet-filmmaker Jean Cocteau had wished that mirrors, while mirroring us, would add some actual reflecting; unfortunately, in our universe of unfettered images, his wish has become just another dreamer’s fantasy. Adorned with the equivalent of cheap make-up kits – the myriad of filter apps/software – our flow of images is ever more competitive in its search of attention, of “clients.” It is time to face the (Jungian) shadows: what needs to happen next may not involve images…
In parallel, as a great many survivors are no longer with us, I wonder whether it is time to envision some clear strategies – i.e., do we need to start thinking of “time-capsules”? In that sense I have addressed erosion and co-optation issues in The Holocaust in 1,000 Years, a talk given both at St. Louis University (Media Ecology Association) and at Fordham University (NYC/General Semantics Conference).
While Holocaust scholarship probes the limits of representation, I have reached a level of mistrust regarding most imagery.
An image represents for me that very lure which, through its appeal, is specifically hazardous.
Moreover as pictures often make reference only to preconceived and ready-made ideas, what in French we call des idées toutes faites, they are prone to verify what we already know
About 10 years ago, a brain hemorrhage only consolidated my desire to further this type of unmasking and pushed me towards becoming the Unlearning Specialist at The School of No Media, the endless effort to explore such abstract concepts as non-representation and non-images.
Can one use words to go beyond them? I seem to be caught up in what I could call blindspotting, or fishing for lures.
* One was last seen alive in Auschwitz in the line leading to the gas chamber, two of them died shortly after Hungarian fascists brought Jews to be shot into to the freezing Danube.