During my visit to the 59th Venice Biennale, I found myself in the Venetian ghetto twice. The first was to celebrate Shabbat with an international group of Jews. The second was to tour Jewish memorials as part of Places of Resistance, a series of guided tours organized by artist Maria Eichhorn for her project Relocating a Structure in the German Pavilion. The tours lead visitors to the monuments and sites that commemorate the activities of the anti-fascist resistance and the deportation of Venice’s Jewish population. While on one of these tours, I was struck by a double consciousness; I was the sole Jewish participant in an artwork about Jewish trauma in which the majority of attendees were German. Yet my experience in the same location only days earlier, was one of belonging—singing niggunim, repetitive Hebrew chants with other Jewish congregants on Shabbat. Walking along Eichhorn’s tour of the ghetto, I felt a familiar longing for the ad-hoc community that emerges from Shabbat services, and I sensed that I was in the wrong group, perversely playing a role of the exemplary Jew. No one did anything in particular to evoke these feelings in me, but it was clear by the questions that I asked and the discussions that followed, that the tour had a very different meaning for me than for the Germans.
Eichhorn’s intervention inside the German Pavilion examines where the original Bavarian building design converges with its Nazi reconstruction. In bi-weekly guided tours outside the Giardini, she leaves the structure of the national pavilion behind to more directly address the legacy of Nazi atrocities. While Eichhorn’s conceptual artwork left me questioning the underlying presence of historical violence at the Biennale, a quite different pavilion elucidated how that violence is reinforced by an exhibition format rooted in the power of the nation-state. The Yiddishland Pavilion is an independent constellation of online and offline artworks, performances, and discussions taking place in dialogue and collaboration with pavilions of countries that share a history of Yiddish-speaking Jewish migration. Instead of a focus on Jewish death, which I experienced with Eichhorn’s project, a vibrant Jewish diaspora is on display at the Yiddishland Pavilion. The term Yiddishland was coined by the twentieth-century anarchist and literary critic Boruch Rivkin to describe an imaginary space connected through language, history, and culture, rather than territory and state. The idea captivated Ashkenazi Jewry during the interwar period, and by reviving it, the curators Maria Veits and Yevgeniy Fiks have invited contemporary art audiences to cross the static boundaries of nationhood that have defined the Biennale since 1895.
Memory is located in the imagination, rather than at a monument or physical site, for the artists of the Yiddishland Pavilion. As a landless project, the Yiddishland Pavilion easily circumvents the material weight and volume of historical structures––something artists of national pavilions cannot escape (even though Eichhorn takes a stab at both acknowledging and eluding it). What this means as a visitor to the exhibition, is that I could just as easily experience an artwork of the Yiddishland Pavilion from inside the Giardini, or wherever I happen to be in the moment. Take for example, the audio walking tour, Yonia Fain’s Map of Refugee Modernism, by the artist and curator Fiks that is available to stream on the pavilion’s website. Though the project is designed to follow a path of pavilions that include the countries of Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Japan, China, Mexico and the U.S., its migratory and speculative narrative transports the listener to a borderless space. Yonia Fain was a modernist poet and painter whose migration journey encapsulates the experience of a 20th-century Jewish refugee escaping violence; except that in Fiks’s first-person narrative of Fain’s life, World War II never happened. Instead, each time Fain arrives in a new country, he successfully establishes himself as a nationally recognized artist in an open and diverse society in which modern Yiddish culture still thrives. Multi-lingual, diasporic, and revolutionary, Fain is the quintessential Yiddishland artist; as the semi-fictional autobiographical narrator explains, “I dream in Yiddish, I paint in Ukrainian, I draw in Polish, I sculpt in Russian.”
Because I could technically listen to Fiks’s tour anywhere, I continued listening after leaving Venice and arriving in Berlin. Away from the crowds of Venice and the pretense of the Biennale, the weight of ancestral trauma that I carry with me as an Ashkenazi Jew was lifted. Walking along the river Spree, Fain’s narrative momentarily catapulted me into a fantasy world free of extermination camps, mass burials, and cultural genocide. While I knew the freedom of such thinking was temporary, I was entranced by the invitation to imagine what if.
Speculative fiction can serve as a healing balm and offer hopeful visions for the future, but it cannot erase what came before. Debates about demolishing the architecture of the German pavilion have persisted for decades, with many arguing that the building should stand as a preservation of history. Eichhorn’s initial proposal for the Biennale was to temporarily relocate the pavilion outside of the Giardini for the duration of the exhibition, and then carefully reassemble it on its original site. No reasons were given about why this reconstruction did not happen, though it seems safe to assume that the required resources (and authorization) proved elusive. Instead, the artist conducted a less ambitious plan; she had the building’s foundation excavated, layers of plaster removed from its walls, and the outlines of the original 1909 window openings and doorways exposed.
The effect is underwhelming, though that may be the point, to contrast Eichhorn’s subtle modifications with the imposing architectural features of the 1938 Nazi renovations. These renovations include additions to the side and main rooms, the raising of the roof, the installation of the marble floor, and the filling-in of doorways and windows; all changes that exaggerate the immensity of the interior space. Eichhorn did not touch certain exterior features, like the squared columns which the Nazis added in place of the original ionic ones.
Previous iterations of the German Pavilion have dealt with the ideological implications of the 1938 architecture—Hans Haacke smashed the marble floors in 1993; curators knocked out large openings in the walls in 2016. And while it is hard to imagine that a brick by brick disassembly of the building was ever anything but an idea for Eichhorn, contemplating the empty space that the temporary relocation would have created is compelling, particularly considering the spatial void the Nazis left after burning and destroying hundreds of synagogues across Europe. But hypothetically imagining the void and somatically experiencing it are two very different encounters; Eichhorn’s intervention in the pavilion lacks the embodied impact that her original proposal would have likely produced.
For Jews in the diaspora, the destruction of certain structures in Europe are tangibly felt, and two contributors to the Yiddishland Pavilion more aptly dealt with that void. Artist Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson and scholar Anna Elena Torres created a soft intervention in the German Pavilion, using augmented reality to evoke the vibrancy and fluidity of the Yiddish culture that existed in Europe for centuries before the Holocaust. Through a QR code, a digital sculpture appears as a rotating conglomeration of orange letters that seemingly float in a boundaryless space. When viewed inside the vacant interior of the pavilion, the indecipherable forms rise above the excavated marble floor like a glowing fire. Over time, the blockish letters slowly separate, and the title of the artwork Pseudo-Territory, becomes legible in English, Yiddish, and a Proto-Canaanite Alphabet, considered to be the origin of the Alphabetic writing system. In Yiddish, the term kmoy-teritorye (כּמו-טעריטאָריע) describes a spiritual landscape activated by the human imagination and artistic creation. Set within the spatial realm of augmented reality, the textual interposition of Pseudo-Territory is like the eternal burning bush. Accessible anywhere, with or without the German Pavilion, and beyond the timeframe of the Biennale, the artwork will continue to exist.
My experience with, and admiration of the Yiddishland Pavilion’s recontextualization of Yiddish culture in the face of historical violence in Europe helped me understand the ambivalence I felt during my second visit to the Venetian ghetto, for Eichhorn’s tour. On my first visit, I spent an evening in the main piazza gathered together with eighty other Jews to welcome the beginning of Shabbat. An impromptu circle of Orthodox men danced around the bima (altar) as congregants sang and clapped. The familiar tunes that I learned as a child were fluidly transported here, and our singing felt particularly resonant given the history of the site; this was the original 16th century ghetto where Jews were forced to live. A few goggling tourists buzzed around us, enamored by the vision of actual Jews praying and dancing.
My return there days later was not as joyous, though Eichhorn’s tour was informative if only for the purpose of differentiating how Jewish loss is memorialized. The professional tour guide, Luisella Romeo, explained that Eichhorn collaborated with the Venetian Institute for the History of the Resistance and local historian Giulio Bobbo to design the tours. We began in front of the Levantine Synagogue, built in 1689 by Sephardic Jews who migrated from Spain and Portugal, fleeing the Inquisition. A plaque was installed on the building’s facade in 1923 to commemorate the Italian Jewish veterans of World War I, and reaffirm Jewish allegiance to Italy a year after Mussolini and the National Fascist Party came to power. Romeo mentioned a Hebrew typo on the plaque, and though she did not explain what it was, I held that knowledge quietly to myself, feeling that the loss in translation would diminish its meaning.
As we proceeded through the ghetto to view the multiple plaques memorializing the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, l noticed that one of the participants was transfixed by a short-bearded man, dressed in a long black coat on a hot summer day, as he exited a small doorway and entered another. I imagined the tour attendee thinking, “There, a real Jew!” Later I learned from Romeo that the majority of Eichhorn’s tours are attended by Germans, reaffirming my suspicion that I was not the intended audience. Though I was excited to return to the ghetto to participate in a conceptual artwork, and impressed by the guide’s professionalism and knowledge, something about the experience did not feel right.
Weeks later, I found a theoretical framework for my ambiguous feelings during an online panel hosted by the Yiddishland Pavilion. The German Jewish author Max Czollek, known for his provocative writing challenging Germany’s reckoning with its past in the face of rising antisemitism, racism, and xenophobia, spoke about the “theater of memory.” It’s a term used by sociologist Michal Y. Bodemann to describe the role that Jewish culture plays in Germany’s post-war national narrative to distance itself from its horrific past. In other words, by performing memory, Germans relieve themselves from the continued impact of historical violence. It struck me that the curatorial narrative of the German Pavilion emphatically cited Eichhorn’s original proposal to relocate the building; but if it was never going to happen, why continue to emphasize it? In lieu of an actual relocation, the tour of the Jewish ghetto acted as a performative gesture to acknowledge Germany’s Nazi past.
While the text of the German Pavilion plays up the potential conversation that would have occurred had the building been temporarily moved, the Yiddishland Pavilion is actually having this provocative dialogue—analyzing the ongoing impacts of such violence, and the current iterations of involuntary displacement and systematic exclusion at the hands of European powers. Relocation was never just an idea for Nazi Germany; countless Jews were deported to ghettos and extermination camps during their reign, and the 16th century Venetian ghetto was the first of its kind to forcibly relocate Europe’s Jewish population in 1516. There is no performance of memory when the trauma of the memory itself is embodied, and the structure within which that trauma occurred continues to persist.