October 2014 issue of Szombat, Budapest, Hungary
Szombat (Shabbat) is a Hungarian Jewish Magazine
BLIND FLYING INTO THE FUTURE – VAK REPÜLÉS A JÖVÖBE
“Memories are not etched out of granite: words don’t travel well in time.”
Zsuzsanna Szarka speaks with the director Pier Marton
Your father, the artist-photographer Ervin Marton, was a sculptor and a painter who in 1937, in the footsteps of his relative, the painter Lajos Tihanyi, emigrated to Paris. He took part in the French resistance and in the 50’s and 60’s became famous for his sensitive portraiture. Your openly artistic and psychological video piece “Say I’m a Jew” explores the Holocaust through body language and the power of the human face.
You were 18 years old when your father died, how does he live in your memory?
– My father understood how esthetics and ethics are not separate concerns. Certainly he produced works that go after beauty, but the majority, even when depicting daily activities, manage to valorize life. Not too long ago I found out that my father was associated to a so-called “French humanist photography” grouping.
I think there are two things I find important in my father’s work.
First, he admired Eugène Atget, a French photographer who observed the empty streets of Paris in the 1900’s – his photographs demonstrate that without human beings life is still present.
The second is that we need to fight for something. Of course we can wonder what constitutes today’s “resistance” – what we should do, where it is located and what kind of struggle it is.
The message behind my father working with drawing, painting, sculpture and photography is that one’s medium must be flexible and adaptable. I try to use what is right by my hand and communicates well.
It seems like a determining factor that you did not have grandparents. For you the Holocaust is a legacy, a teaching, a recollection. For a Second Generation like you, how was life for you in Paris? Did you encounter anti-Semitism?
– The fact that I did not have grandparents was a huge difference.While I lived that absence in a deep way, it was without words; as if silence could convey the most intense suffering. The word “Holocaust” did not exist in our heads. We only spoke of the war. They were not part of a “conscious community” but clearly they did not speak in front of the children. We lived amongst refugees: foreigners with foreign accents, Jews, and a black family as neighbors/friends. In my parents’ circle, French sounding names were rare. The fact that someone did not come back from the war was only referred to in silence.
And yes for me, there were anti-Semitic incidents in France. Once parts of a drunken neighboring family chased after me while ninety nine percent of the neighbors just gawked through their windows. This happened when one of my neighbors made it known that I was Jewish. As a result I ended up discovering that the history of French Jews was quite different than the official version, something only revealed many years later when president Chirac addressed the responsibility of the French government.
How did you end up in the U.S. in your twenties?
– After that incident I decided that I would go to the U.S. where my mother and my younger brother already lived.
The older generation lived their Jewish identity in ways that did not make sense to the Children of Survivors. Your “Say I’m a Jew” piece shows them to assume a heartfelt responsibility that includes psychotherapy and, as you present it, identity politics. That process reveals many of the participants’ distresses and repressed feelings: they struggle with their survivor parents’ problems and with the surrounding anti-Semitism.
Did the film influence the role of an individual’s identity in society?
– I cannot say that the film had any big influence. Instead my sense is that after a while identity politics became meaningless: everyone could see that the situation was more complicated than what we had thought.
Every generation has to make gains. My generation struggled with revolt, sexuality and identity. Issues like the elimination of racism and women’s lib remain today primarily as slogans and we are forced to live without having resolved many things around us. Even if politicians like to dangle those dreams to distract us, the concept of a golden future is an illusion. Every problem is tied to another problem. As the French sociologist Edgar Morin often repeats, “complexity is here to stay.” It is better to think that problems will not disappear and that we need to live with them.
Your piece has an interactive component, JEW, a wall installation with a cattle-car: an artistic space for dialogue with the audience writing on its walls. All of this was part of a touring exhibit that traveled throughout the U.S.
What is the actuality of this 1985 complex project today?
– Yes, this wall installation included a room resembling an Auschwitz-type cattle-car where one could view the video piece.
These days, as I see on this European trip, there are still many Jews who don’t seem very comfortable “being Jews” – which does not mean that they should be religious, but instead, as per my piece’s title, simply that they be able to state that they are Jewish. As it was for me for some time, many of them need to understand why it is this way, why this people went through an infinite number of sacrifices and yet retained their religion and their knowledge. What has changed a lot since my piece was finished is the belief that through assuming one’s identity everything would be easier. Sadly the answers always come later.
After many locations, the installation JEW is now with the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
I could also answer that after the “negative” video “Say I’m a Jew” where I deal with the Shoah, I needed to investigate another perspective. That is why I started another video piece – its original title was “Time To Be (Jews in PaRaDiSe)” – now instead the title will be “Jews Talk.”
You often ask what it means to remember. You are a video-artist, a writer and a dreamer.
In your public presentation “The Holocaust in 1000 Years” how does the past casts its shadow?
– I could respond that we exist “beyond our skins.” Every boundary – be it time or space – is only a human concept. It is easy to think that everything has a beginning and an end, and that there are railings, but it is much harder to live as per Socrates’ words that “if I know anything, it is that I don’t know anything.”
To remember is to act: that is part of the change.
If there are countries like Iran which, for political reasons, deny that the Holocaust took place, in the West there are many remembrances: museums, books, films, sculptures, memorials… But these in themselves are not sufficient. A worthwhile memory, one that is serious and deep, that type must disturb. It is Kafka that said that “we need the books that affect us like a disaster… like a suicide.”
The present is that unsafe balance between past and future. It is only in that way that we can “fly” toward the future, if we are weighted down by the past and our history. Rabbi Zalman Schachter used to say that the kite only flies because it is grounded in truth.
It is part of memory that everything is always in flux: “the war” meant something very different in 1944 than what is means seventy years later. Memory is not etched into granite: words have to travel through time.
We have to be careful: can history be transmitted across time? That someone saw a survivor or survived the Shoah that is not the issue. What is key is whether this will “travel” well – in that effort semiotics can help – otherwise we will end up being too comfortable.
We move towards the future as if we were blind. There have been many other times that we have confronted “a past,” yet like death, we cannot truly face it.
What is your sense of your individual self?
– I am nobody. Naturally I feel things and if someone steps over my foot, it will hurt and I am going to push that person off, and it is possible that, if there is some resonance inside, some writing or some work will emerge out of it. I use myself as a seismogram but what is important is that I am no one, only in that way do I reach anything deeper.
In 2010 [Hungarian text mistakenly states “2005”] you put together a series of panels highlighting the Jewish resistance in which there were photographs of your parents because they were there.
Can you tell me more about this work?
– As in many (U.S.) cities every year in St. Louis, Missouri, there is a Yom HaShoah commemoration. In 2005, the Jewish resistance was to be featured and so I was asked to speak and to create visual panels around some of the notable people involved. The Washington D.C. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum provided me with many photographs and I added short texts to these. There are conventional and spiritual weapons: my father fought in the French resistance, my mother hid in Budapest; for me both were part of the Jewish resistance.
A few years ago you recovered from a major illness. The value of life changed in a major way.
What do you work on since then?
– Following a brain hemorrhage I was in an Intensive Care unit for three weeks, and I could neither speak nor move, I was awakened every two hours so they would check on my vital signs.This is why I often mention nothingness and to the fact that I am nobody. I have a blog around that experience. To complete a film/video requires a sustained effort and a piece of writing takes less time – what troubles me though is that people believe in words and I don’t anymore, the same as with images.
Let’s speak of your most recent work, The School of No Media…
– “Substance is what remains when everything you can think of has gone.” — Eli Siegel.
As if we everyone were afraid of silence and needed to flee from nothingness (or death), our lives are surrounded by much noise.
I have taught video production at the university level for more than 30 years, but when I came back from the hospital I noticed that a key element in my teaching was to compel the audience to watch the screen – and nothing else – through the use of particular techniques, i.e., the importance of working with colors, lighting and movement. It was as if I were teaching particular tricks on how to wiggle strings in front of cats.
The questions remain what should we be doing, what should we learn and teach.
What is vital to me is not what I know but more importantly what I don’t know. What we don’t know is millions of times larger, yet universities teach what we know. I would prefer that students become aware (like Socrates) that we know very little.
We can only learn something out of discomfort. We are looking at life as if through binoculars, and everything is so close as if we were all blind. Of course this is not only about the visible world but applicable to every field.
Strength appears when we are at our weakest and that’s where we should all meet. Much of my work goes after blind spots. Only what deeply disturbs me interests me – and beauty is part of that.
Photographers and image-makers treasure the moments they capture, filmmakers treasure the movements they capture; both create forms of fetishism that recall the infamous golden calf worship. As life escapes through our fingers, the spectacle reigns. Our stories have made us picture-perfect like wedding photographs. Rimbaud wrote that “life is elsewhere.”
What interests me is what I don’t know, that’s what I would like to teach and that’s the direction of The School of No Media.
In April 2014, the Bálint Ház (Budapest’s Jewish Community Center), the sociologist András Kovács had as a guest, Pier Marton, a US-Hungarian & French video-artist and writer who, for decades, taught with major US universities. Part of the presentation included the screening of Say I’m a Jew, a video piece he produced in 1985. The film covers his experience and that of others and seems to get right under our skin. (from a first draft introduction).
From SZOMBAT’s English pages:
SZOMBAT („Shabbat”) is a Jewish political and cultural magazine. After the first issue came out in November 1989, it has been published without interruption, ten times a year. When starting the magazine, the editors decided to deal with all facets of Jewish life, presenting all trends of Jewry (religious, popular, cultural, national-Zionist) to the Hungarian Jewish community that had lived in isolation, being separated from the main centers of Jewish life.
Right from the beginning, the editorial board of SZOMBAT has had the aim to dissipate the lack of information, which can be seen everywhere: the wider Hungarian public does not know the Jewish community, its opinions are often shackled by ancient fallacies, once dormant, but “resurrected” by an anti-Semitism reborn after 1990. This is the reason why our magazine is also meant for the wider Hungarian public. We not only try to present the Jewish community living in this country, but also show how individual events in Hungary and the world are being seen with local Jewish eyes.
At the same time, we make continuous efforts to describe the developments in the Jewish world to the Jews living in Hungary – who often look at these with suspicion –, to publish various points of view and to make room for disputes. Our objective is to become an information center, allowing both the members of the community and the outsiders to get acquainted with wildly differing views and opinions that arise in the subject.
Our magazine, publishes two or three supplements every year, trying to deal with certain subjects in depth. The titles of such supplements were, among others: Jewish communities in central Europe; The past decade of Hungarian Jewish education; Women, Jews, feminists; Fifty years of Israel; Jewish literature in central-eastern Europe; Jewish publications in Hungary; Jews and communism; Jews and conservatism.
In order to fulfill the manifold tasks outlined above, SZOMBAT from time to time oversteps the narrow borders of a magazine, and ventures into other areas like the organization of symposiums or sociological research work, or the publication of its own books. For example, we published a volume, both in Hungarian and German, on our 1996 series of scientific lectures titled The forms of existence of Hungarian Jewish literature. In 1998, we organized a three-day conference with the title Jewish destinies in Hungarian films, where movies were performed and lectures were held, the content of which was summarized in a book titled Minarik, Sonnenschein and the others…. Using the same method a year later we organized a symposium on the history of Hungarian theater. We also published a special issue titled Young Hungarian writers on Jewry, and organized an evening debate in the Hall of Arts, one of the greatest exhibition halls in Budapest and a conference on New Anti-Semitism.
SZOMBAT has also conducted several sociological surveys. The first research work dealt with Jewish schools. Within the framework of further research work conducted by SZOMBAT, the one decade long history of the largest domestic alternative Jewish organization, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association was examined. At present, our sociological work focuses on a third subject, namely the later career of the graduates of Jewish schools: how can they „use” the skills and knowledge they have acquired, what is their relationship as young adults to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.