"Warsaw," a 35-minute video, is part of the "Letters to Afar" exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, on view through May 24. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York
"Once upon a time" is a phrase we use for fairy tales and fables. Yet most Jews carry with them another time, another land, another city. It could be the Pale of Settlement or Vilnius, Krakow or Lvov or, in more recent times, the Lower East Side, the Bronx, Tehran, Moscow, Buenos Aires or even the Tel Aviv that once was. Perhaps in the future we will say the same for Paris, Manchester or Copenhagen. Quien Sabe?
That feeling of being in two places, two time periods, at once, is part of the experience of "Letters to Afar," a remarkable exhibit on view through May 24 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco (CJM), a video and sound installation by Hungarian artist Péter Forgács that combines Polish/Jewish "found footage" (home movies, travelogues) made between 1918 and 1939 with music by the Klezmatics.
"Letters to Afar" is installed in the upper-floor galleries of the CJM's Daniel Libeskind-designed building. Films, for the most part taken by American Jews on return visits to Poland, each from different Polish cities, including Warsaw, Krakow, Grodek, Lodz and Vilna, are projected onto the walls of the darkened galleries, or onto multiple scrims, which endow the imagery with a ghostly presence, sometimes doubling the films horizontally, so that the same film is shown twice but not always showing the same images at the same time, or in different magnifications; or three films stacked vertically -- forcing us to compare, contrast and take in the complex multiple details of each lost world.
The installation is austere, the effect contemplative, reverential -- the effect is not "we are there" so much as to create the feeling that we, in the here and now, are drifting through some limbo of past Jewish experience. There are benches and pinpoints of light where one can stand and listen -- at times to klezmer strains, at others to atonal, ambient, classical or dissonant sounds. Occasionally, we hear narration of the travelogues on view. Some of the films include identifying text, most do not.
The exhibition has no set unfolding. Rather, visitors are meant to wander about freely and see what they can (to see all the film being projected would take an estimated six hours). The entire installation is one artwork, "a composition ... one total installation where all elements of different films are in interaction with each other," Forgács said. "We wanted to create this immense richness of life that was crushed."
We look at the faces, some of which look contemporary, others from the past, and still others appear as if unchanged from shtetl life centuries ago. We don't know these people, and yet we feel we do. For example, I experienced a "Back to the Future" time-travel shock in seeing on film Max Weinreich, the YIVO's founder in 1935 at its headquarters in Vilna -- a person and a place I had read about but never in my wildest dreams imagined being able to see. It was surreal.
As Forgács explained in an interview, "The hidden history is on the films." As these are home movies or educational or travel films, the images are pedestrian, of everyday life. "There are no home movies about divorce or heart attacks," he said. His work is not meant as "an informative documentary." Instead, Forgács is trying to create an encounter with "the gestures, the winking, the smile, the movements ... the silent emotions that we read and [that make us] aware of these beautiful things." In his work, Forgács creates the context and the drama. "I like operas, not documentaries," he said, describing his films as attempts to "slow down time."
"My work," Forgács said, "is much more than my words."
Forgács was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1950. Since 1978 he has made more than 30 films and is best known for his series "Private Hungary," which recontextualized Hungarian home movies from the 1930s and '60s -- showing private lives that we know will be subsumed by the tsunami of European history, one that occurs, as Forgács put it, "off screen."
In 1983, Forgács established the Private Photo & Film Archives (PPFA), a collection of amateur film footage from the 1920s. Angelenos may recall the artist from his 2002 multimedia installation at the Getty Research Institute, "The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River." That project, made in collaboration with Marcia Kinder and the Labyrinth Project at USC, contrasted film of Slovakian Jews aboard a ship trying to escape to Palestine with a later ship of Bessarabian Germans trying to flee the Soviets.
"Letters to Afar" came about, Forgács recounted, by a confluence of fortunate circumstances. He received a phone call from Frank London of the Klezmatics suggesting they collaborate on a project involving a collection of films at YIVO, the aforementioned Jewish cultural preservation society now housed in New York (and where London's fellow Klezmatic Lorin Sklamberg has worked since 1987). Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation funded the collection's digitization. The next stroke of luck was when the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews agreed to commission the work, focusing on Polish Jews during Poland's Second Republic from 1918 to 1938, the period during which a Polish democratic state was created, and Jews, who were granted civil rights, flourished until the Nazi invasion on Sept. 1, 1939.
The Galicia Museum is responsible for a related exhibit presently on view at the CJM, "Poland and Palestine: Two Lands and Two Skies," a collection of 50 images from a discovered trove of 15,000 images made in the 1930s by Ze'ev Aleksandrowicz, which is displayed just outside the entrance to "Letters to Afar." Its presence adds to the feeling of being in two places (or more) at once.
In "Letters to Afar," Forgács has created a memory play. The past, ours and that of the Jews in "Afar," are but threads in the tapestries of our collective consciousness reminding us that, as the Jewish partisans used to say, "Amchu." The Jewish people are one and will always be, although not always in the places we used to be.
"Letters to Afar" continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through May 24. For more information, contact THECJM.orgor 415.655-7800.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles