The Landscape of our Memory

The Landscape of our Memory is a long-term artistic project that addresses the “dispersed Holocaust” or “Holocaust by Bullets” by commemorating the more than 2 million individuals who were killed in or near their hometowns rather than in concentration camps. Inspired by the work of academics studying the Environmental History of the Holocaust (a relatively new sub-field of Holocaust studies), the artists use multiple strategies, all of which draw directly on the landscape and physical spaces of the dispersed Holocaust.  This new work, created under the auspices of two Fulbright Scholar grants in Poland (2022-2023), is presented here. 

Commemoration of Individuals Lost in the "Dispersed Holocaust"

The centerpiece of the project consists of commemorative portraits of individuals murdered during the dispersed Holocaust. To create these images, the artists used the antique “anthotype” technique, discovered in the 1840s,  in which photographs are created from plant material. Leaves and flowers found at mass killing sites are blended to create an emulsion that is then painted onto art paper. A positive image, identified through painstaking archival research, is printed on acetate (plastic), placed on top of the emulsion, and exposed in the sun. Depending on the specific plant, exposures are completed in minutes, days, or even weeks or months. 

Because the plant material is gathered from the mass grave sites where the bodies of the murdered individuals lie, the final photograph likely contains, at the molecular level, something of his or her remains. The physical trace of these individuals restores their humanity and avoids consigning them to the status of faceless statistics. The prints, which do not contain sharp detail like contemporary photographs, exist in a liminal space, somewhere between being and non-being. If exposed to continued UV light, they will begin to fade away, much like human memory. 

Anthotype printing is a 100 percent sustainable photographic practice that doesn't use any harmful chemicals.


Witness and Living Memorial Trees

In order to ensure proper memorialization of those for whom a photograph does not exist, the artists also worked with the concept of “witness trees” or “trees as living memorials” to Holocaust atrocities. As has been noted by scholars, some trees existed at these sites at the time of the Shoah, and even those that grew later are drawing on the soil at the mass grave and now contain human remains. The artists used a World War II-era camera to create complex, collaged portraits of these trees from single frames of analog film. The resulting images are stark, black and white silhouettes, rising from the darkness into light, as if searching for truth, justice, and ultimately, reconciliation. 

In addition, the artists used a contact microphone to make recordings of the interior sounds of “witness” or “living memorial” trees. It is increasingly recognized that trees have a rich internal life that includes sounds that are not normally heard by humans. According to scientists, these sounds may represent the transfer of water and other nutrients, but they may also signal stress or danger. This project gives witness and living memorial trees a voice for the first time. Because scientists and academics agree that these trees contain human remains, the recordings of their internal sounds represent the closest we can come to receiving “testimony” from them.


Watergrams

The ashes of many Holocaust victims were disposed of in rivers. Near Auschwitz, large quantities of ashes were dumped into both the Soła River and the Wisła River. In the Czech Republic, the ashes of more than 22,000 people who died at the Terezin transit camp were dumped into the Ohře River. In other instances, the local waterways witnessed the atrocities that occurred in ghettos and work camps. For example, in Białystok, the Biała River ran directly through the middle of the ghetto. 

Just as trees and plants growing at mass grave sites contain the remains of victims, these rivers also permanently contain traces of Holocaust victims. The artists collected water from affected rivers and used it to create “watergrams,” a process of capturing water in motion as it is spilled onto analog photo-sensitive paper in a darkroom. Since the water may contain traces of the victims at the molecular level, the final image also bears witness to the atrocities that occured at these sites.


Lumen Prints

The artists also experimented with another manner of commemorating individuals lost in the dispersed Holocaust. They used an antique process known as "lumen printing" to create abstract images that memorialize those for whom no name or photograph exists. In order to fully respect Jewish law and avoid disturbing the soil at killing sites, a small amount of soil was gathered from nearby the mass graves.  It was then placed on analog photographic paper and exposed in the sun. The soil often bonded to an extent with the paper in a manner that may symbolically or literally contain molecular remains. The resulting images, which vary widely in terms of color, shape, and texture, suggest  the diversity and uniqueness of every individual lost in the Holocaust.


Exhibition at the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw

An exhibition titled The Landscape of Our Memory  was on view in Warsaw, Poland at the Academy of Fine Art's Czapski Palace in January and February 2024. The exhibition, which spanned across three rooms of the gallery, included both an opening event and a panel discussion featuring artists, Holocaust scholars, and art historians. You can learn more about the exhibition here

Photo credits: Gabriela Bulišová, Mark Isaac

The exhibition in Warsaw also included a video and sound installation. Matter-of-fact descriptions of mass killing sites were projected from the ceiling onto soil placed on the gallery floor. Visitors also heard sound recorded at more than 45 mass killing sites around Poland. The installation called attention not only to the huge number of killing sites in Poland but also to the contemporary reality in and around these sites today. 

Exhibition at Galerie Slendzinskich in Białystok

The exhibition moved next to Galerie Slendzinskich in Białystok, Poland, where it will be on view until June 23rd, 2024. This more intimate setting includes anthotypes, witness and living memorial trees, watergrams, and lumen prints. It also includes two sound installations, including the interior sounds of witness and living memorial trees, and sounds recorded at more than 45 mass killing sites around Poland. You can find more information here.