Artist and lecturer Gary Spicer works at the intersection of writing, drawing, and photography to explore his Jewish heritage through post-witness responses to the Holocaust.
The concept of physical and temporal distance… in terms of our proximity to the ‘event’ is central to my work.
Spicer’s genealogical approach encompasses both historical sources and personal reflection, melding the creative and the critical in work gathered in sketchbooks and photography on regular research trips to sites of Holocaust memory in Poland.
‘My research is timely, in an era of Holocaust history without living survivors. What does this history mean for me and for who I am? Is it only through the mediation of art that a response to such events can be articulated, making marks and gestures to evoke something that isn’t there anymore?’
The stone, a monument as if collapsed from the sky, from somewhere otherworldly, marks a place and a time that is always beyond and out of reach. This is where the journey ends. It is your first and your last memory, so compelling that it is neither near nor far but it is inevitable and it will follow its path in spite of our intentions to denote or describe it. We are for Adler set on our own stage.
‘There as elsewhere, we are not forsaken, we are never forsaken’ (Adler 2008: 6)
And this place is a stage isn’t it? Where memory is slowly poured like concrete into a mould, filling the gaps that form to reach the edge of my thinking and my knowing. In the distance, closer to The Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts, is where I am being led. It has a deep jagged fault that rips and tears across the chests of five figures that are bent almost double under the weight of stone from which they are hewn. One for each of the five countries from where the victims who were last seen here began their journey. The fault symbolises how they were torn not once but twice, signifying also the rupture in time and space that the Holocaust itself has now come to represent. And confronted, paused and stilled, like them, I am forced up, up into the sky, way above the bristled hem of the birch trees and I am beyond, out and away, far, far from here.
from ‘Necessitating My Alliance’, Gary Spicer
When did you first start looking into your family history?
My genealogical history has intrigued me for many years. I have been particularly absorbed by my Eastern European heritage and this accelerated when I first visited Kraków about six years ago.
I felt an uncanny connection with the city and soon afterwards found out that Isaac and Rosa (my paternal great-grandparents) had left there for England in the late 19th Century.
They travelled on the Kraków and Lower Silesian Railway, which was only completed in 1847. It is ironic that the railway, whilst providing my great grandparents with ‘a flight of emancipation’, was also central to the ability of the Nazis to escalate and mechanise their killing of European Jews in 1942.
It is clear that many of my own extended family would not have made the passage undertaken by my great-grandparents, and would have taken the alternative journey.
It is these intersecting narratives that I am exploring in the experimental writing of The Red Heart. The notion of the journey itself is an important part of why I return.
How do you approach themes of memory, fragmentation, belonging and not belonging in your work?
These themes are central to my enquiries: ‘encounters’ with memory and notions of belonging are juxtaposed with feelings of being an outsider. I approach this in terms of my mixed heritage, never belonging to the Jewish faith, always outside. My mother was denied the opportunity to convert to Judaism – this caused a schism in the family that was never truly healed.
I encounter real and imagined spaces in Poland and sites of early Jewish settlement in North Manchester, in relation to the past and to personal experiences.
There is often an anxiety about representing or exploring that encounter to its fullest.
How this is transformed becomes the object of my research. I am interested in how memory migrates from the physical site and through writing and drawing is always moving closer or further away… this links to thoughts of the absence of presence and its corollary, the presence of absence.
Wandering and scoping the space become increasingly important in the process, although I would resist a psychogeographical context. These encounters yield quite abstract and raw data (words or marks) that remain to be translated or diluted later in the studio.
Drawing becomes a conduit for our knowing, our guessing, but through time we forget. Events recede and get pushed further back, our memory becomes unreliable, frayed.
The sense of outrage recedes, becomes diluted, and regret forms at our inability to hold onto feelings and keep them prime. It is this anxiety that I refer to when I am shaping responses to these spaces with my writing and drawing. I am assessing the “distance between the knowing and not knowing.”
How can creative writing augment and inform research in artistic practice?
The rationale for the recent New Modes of Art Writing conference was that creative writing could be an adjunct to visual practice and augment the critical underpinning that the traditional thesis represents.
Ultimately, I believe that the drawing, the photograph, or the novel necessitates criticality in and of itself and does not always need to be justified academically. Writing by artists offers a specific type of knowledge or a way of thinking about artistic practice that is different from the writing of academics.
For artists, writing necessarily does something that the artworks don’t. What is formed is a symbiotic relationship between text and image, each offering an adjunct to the other.
Looking at artists and writers who have engaged either with the Holocaust and whose work involves text, text-image, or practice-text:
- Myth, Mourning and Memory examines how the art of Anselm Kiefer is informed by the poetry of Paul Celan
- Amnesia and Anamnesis is an extended essay by art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh in which the historical and creative contexts that inform Gerhard Richter’s Birkenau paintings are explored.
An abundance of Holocaust fiction creates additional narratives that derive and intersect the event:
- The Journey HG Adler
- The Shawl Cynthia Ozick
- The Iron Tracks Aharon Appelfield
- The Rings of Saturn WG Sebald
Sebald’s Austerlitz is a juxtaposition of the real and the imagined in his account of the devastation wrought on the Jews of Prague. It is not specified what derives from his own experience and the extent to which the narrative is imagined.
He also uses pictures to punctuate the text, which are deliberately uncaptioned as a way of generating his meandering narrative.
I was experimenting with this in the draft publication of my essay Necessitating my Alliance.
Can you describe the process and ultimate aims in your melding of the critical and the creative?
There is potentially a less explored middle space, a lacuna, where creating or experiencing art meets and converges with writing.
The idea that critical and creative modes of writing and art-making can coalesce in order for new forms to emerge now defines the trajectory of my practice as I progress towards PhD. I want to continue to examine how distance and temporality inform my project and how I respond to the receptive experience.
My project is about the Holocaust and intersecting genealogical narratives, expressed through a means of engagement with the past through practice, a sort of New Impressionism.
Both writing and drawing are responsive to mood and evocation, thoughts, feelings and behaviours. My mode is direct and immediate, intuitive. Narratives previously concealed are exposed through the immersive process of making and writing.
Photography and artworks © Gary Spicer