Artist Pier Marton works with desktop video and graphics, installation, performance, and sound. His pieces revolve around issues of violence, ethnicity, and spirituality. JEW has been shown at the Spertus Museum in Chicago, the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, and is currently at the Aurora, Illinois Public art Commission, part of the touring exhibition “Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art about the Holocaust” organized by the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Marton can be reached at PierMarton@(AT)gmail.com
Singing at the Ghetto’s Gate
To Michael Kaufman (Dziga Vertov), Sami Rosenstein (Tristan Tzara), Emmanuel Radnitsky (Man Ray), and Eduard Marcus (Ilarie Voronca).
Any definition of the Jew is a ghetto for the Jew. —Henri Meschonnic
I. Hitting bottom, the dirty Jew.
I suppose that if my pieces keep showing up in museums and galleries, I will keep being called an artist. And if those pieces keep displaying Jewish content, I will only become a Jewish artist. But art in itself, does not interest me, I have other pressing issues. I do not want to die, do not want my dear relatives and friends to die, and I want to stop the injustice around me. That is why I work. How did I land with such an agenda? Growing up the son of foreigners in Paris, I knew my parents were strange because of their accents. What I did not expect though was to be chased after, in my early twenties, by my intoxicated neighbors as they vented their not-so-latent antisemitism. Me, the Jew who had tip-toed around all kinds of obstacles by writing “no-religion” when the question came up, I had been found out. Was it too late?
Pier Marton, Postcard invitation to “JEW” Exhibition, 1990-5750 (touring).
My eyes opened fast. Where was I? In France, a country that, thirty years earlier, had rounded up its Jews very efficiently, with only one percent of its population in the Resistance movement. I had not wanted to look, I had been too busy in my efforts to pass, to merge. But, after that personal attack, the echo from the past was too strong. If I did not have grandparents, it was because of that war and the “deportations”. I had tried not to insist on those peculiarities. French education had been effectively assisting in bulldozing itself a History of France, like a freeway with an ignored “roadkill”, my people. St Louis, the “saintly king of France” was presented as the epitomy of justice (Columbia Encyclopedia: “France enjoyed unprecedented prosperity and peace”) – that he had ordered the expulsion of Jews and had burned all the Talmud volumes he could find is not even a footnote.
The awakening was brutal; vigilance replaced nonchalance. In the cultural landscape, I had to learn now how to read between the lines. I would make a specific effort to search out other silenced voices.
II. Dirt and roots. Turning trauma into working strategies.
My parents had survived the extinction plans by working in the French Resistance, and hiding. The following represent some of my own, “peace- time”, resistance tactics:
1. Seeing the blindspots: racism, antisemitism and other exclusionary processes accomplish their ravage in silence. The screams are too often muffled by the status quo walls. The unmasking of the criminal cliches has to be loud and clear. My videotape on men (Like Men), and that on Jews (Say I’m Jew) are such attempts at breaking down stereotypes.
2. No room in a crowded room: the overdebated issues-of-the-day have frequently more in common with entertainment and the notion of spectacle, than with any substantial change-inducing thinking. It is not on the beaten path that growth takes place: This is why I choose the violence of men, Jewish self-hate, or presently, Jewish holidays, not popular topics per se.
3. Trust myself enough to act as a seismograph. Approach most topics by including my own reality, my own scale. I will only fly, as rabbi Zalman Schachter says because what I speak of is grounded, like a kite, into my own being. Leave “voice-of-god” abstractions to T.V. anchorpeople. As Walter Cronkite would not have said: “And that is the way it isn’t, just some views by a few journalists.”
My voice is always present, whether actually heard, or appearing through my projects’ lack of neutrality, my “personal documentary essays”.
4. Give viewers a sense of their own power, fighting passivity and inertia. As anchored in my own identity as I might be, I am just a tiny part of the puzzle. Like a page of Talmud, the larger picture can only appear out of the multiplicity of voices present. Many of my installations include pencils or chalk for the audience to write on the walls.
Pier Marton, JEW Exhibition, 1990-5750.
Installation view at the Spertus Museum.
5. Break any illusions before they break you. In other words, unlike most escapist film and video productions, create a “conscious viewing” experience – Time In vs. Time Out. This is where I value the “estrangement- distanciation” principle (Verfremdung) of Brecht. Why I choose to have a videotape on the Holocaust start with laughing and smiling faces.
6. Issues are not brought up to be closed or buried away, but more to enlarge our grasp of them. Zen koans and Situationist strategies are examples of lively questionning. In my tradition, I interpret the graven image interdiction as the forbidding of any image that would, through its formulaic cliche, lead to the grave, i.e. so much of the religious and Holocaust imagery falling into kitsch, into dead images. My postcard/invitations to my installation JEW, have the word “JEW” in large letters, ready to uncover any false sense of comfort.
7. The soil is rich. Judaism is not where you find the “Old” Testament. The selling of new religions, or technology prevents us from linking to our past, and to see its relevance. Our spirit has shrunk from grasping the multiple options available to us. Past, present, and future, personal and collective, simple and complex, down-to-earth and poetic, all levels are within reach. Most of my pieces are created with this goal mind, especially the upcoming piece on Jewish mysticism, Time to Be (Jews in Paradise) – if it is empty, it is so on your account, because you do not know how to interpret it.” (R. Akiba, Bereshit Rabbah 22:2).
8. With the eye being the chief organ massaged throughout our visual culture, and causing much fragmentation in our lives, it is refreshing and humbling for a visual artist to be reminded that one key prayer of Judaism asks us to “listen Israel”, to bypass the ocular. I find the irritant healthy, and am reminded of the process through which a grain of sand will turn into a pearl after much rubbing (Jacob becomes “Israel” [G-d wrestler in Hebrew] after his struggle with the angel).
III. The roots are branches.
So, not fully different, yet not totally the same . . . Enough to be discriminated or killed, but not enough to enter the multicultural fad. The Jew cannot be cool, and that is fine.
To be an artist is hard enough, to be an artist who deals openly with Jewish issues, just about impossible. It is not an easy proposition: the internalization of antisemitism generates much discomfort even among many Jews, and finding art grants or shows that are not just about the Holocaust is a lasting riddle (dead Jews are relatively OK!).
But if I allow myself the identity, it is also a civilization, a culture that I reach. For me there are no other choices. I want to follow the lead set up, a hundred years ago, by Bernard Lazare, an active Dreyfusard, when he highlighted the fact that “the Hebrew language has twelve verbs to express joy and states of happiness.”
Pier Marton, One Self, 1996-5756. – Video/computer image.