An Artist's Dialogue With the Holocaust
Survivors and resisters of the Holocaust have been a recurring subject for multidisciplinary artist Edward Hillel. Hillel spoke about his artistic process as part of St. Francis College’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day observation on April 19, 2012 in the College’s Maroney Forum for Arts, Culture & Education. (Watch the Edward Hillel lecture)
The presentation, An Artist’s Dialogue with the Holocaust, began with a video segment from his installation “The Birds are Back,” originally presented in 1999 at the Weimer Museum of Modern Art near the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
In the video, viewers see a large, dark stone floor with a blinding light at the forefront that casts long shadows on stones scattered atop the surface. The calls of birds are heard in the distance.
Hillel was inspired by the writings of Jorge Semprún, a member of the French Resistance who survived being imprisoned at Buchenwald. Semprún penned that smoke from the crematoriums at Buchenwald had chased away the birds, “Never again will there be birds in the forest…”
Since the project was commissioned as part of the celebration of Weimer being named the European Capital of Culture for 1999, Hillel decided to offer some good news announcing that “the birds have returned to Buchenwald.”
Hillel set up his installation in an underground cavern of the Weimer Museum. “You didn’t know where you were. It was a sense of destabilization, the way one would feel from the stories that I heard of people who were sent to the camps, who spent several days in closed trains and the doors were opened and there was this bright light coming at them.”
The rocks on the floor of the exhibit were dug up from the road leading to Buchenwald that had been laid by prisoners of the camp more than 50 years earlier.
Earlier works by Hillel were based on photographs and one-on-one interviews with Holocaust survivors and members of the resistance. These works saw an evolution over time that went from standard portraits with audio recordings to multimedia displays built into portable installations.
Hillel said his goal is to make sure the viewer knows, “This is your story too. You have a role in keeping it alive.” He added that some of the structures he built to hold his artwork seem to lean on each other to keep them upright because, “Memory needs us for support.” His overall mission was to figure out how to keep alive a story that is disappearing.
About Edward Hillel
Edward Hillel was born in Baghdad, Iraq and grew up in Montreal, Canada. He studied political science and philosophy at McGill University and spent several years as a community organizer before entering the art world. After working as an artist in Montreal and Paris, since 2000 he has been based in New York. His work is widely published and exhibited. He has received the German Critics Visual Arts Prize (Berlin), The Golden Sheaf Film Award (Canada), the Prix Alain de Rothschild (France), and the Spiro Institute Award (UK).
Attached photo courtesy Edward Hillel, The Birds Are Back.