The Arts: Multimedia Ghosts
|Kabbala and the shtetl, numbers and tattoos, dolls and embroidery merge
in the first major New York exhibition of Argentinean artist Mirta Kupferminc.Mirta Kupferminc’s wandering figures meander up and down the digits of a scarlet hand, travel up a blood-red arm and survive the licking flames of a swirling inferno. a Circus-like in an endless parade of outlandish hats and hairdos, acrobatic stances and deformed and winged bodies, they haunt the shadowy roofs of a deserted ghetto, border a pomegranate-shaped doll, carry roots and encircle branches and limbs. They
are the spectral lineage of a family tree spreading anew.
Wanderings,” the appropriately titled 10-year retrospective of Kupferminc’s work on display at the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York through June 25 (212-824-2293; www.huc.edu/museum), bears witness to Kupferminc’s own road. Born in Buenos Aires in 1955, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Kupferminc employs the fine-art style of magical realism to illustrate loss, dislocation and renewal and explores kabbalistic symbolism as a path to her own healing. Completely “pierced” by her parents’ history, she says her art traces a legacy of pain, a searing brand on her own identity.
“The characters come to me, again and again, the same ones, in my imagination. My ghosts come and visit me,” says Kupferminc, who works in a variety of media including prints, collage and wood sculpture (see more of her pieces atwww.mirtakupferminc.net). “When they come, I draw them. They are in a constant state of pilgrimage and exile.” Her surreal figures prickle burnt-red bodies, outline hands, march up chests, necks and profiles in Travel fantasies I, Travel fantasy II,From the Skin and The lines of life. They even probe the carnal (During a kiss).
For curator Laura Kruger, the finely detailed Lilliputian figures in many of Kupferminc’s works evoke the universal dance of death and summon Latin American charms believed to reinforce prayer or give thanks. Her repeating motifs, deepened by Jewish symbolism, respond to intensely personal yet universal oppositions: heaven and hell, birth and death, angels and demons, explains Kruger. This fusion is one of the hallmarks of Kupferminc’s work. She reaffirms life while mirroring its fragility.
Though she has exhibited in many international shows, “Wanderings” is Kupferminc’s first major exhibit in New York. Her work is in the collections of the Israel Museum, Hechal Shlomo Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan, among others.
Mostly made up of etchings, “Wanderings” also includes handmade artist books, transformed chairs, a mural installation and video. To be a witness/Ser testigo, the large mural of glass, paper and wood, spreads across an entire wall with more than 300 images of a young man covering his eyes, the classic gesture of introspection when reciting the Shema. The accompanying wall text is by Saul Sosnowski, a professor of Latin American literature and culture at the University of Maryland in College Park and a fellow Argentinean who has collaborated with Kupferminc on several projects:
To be a witness who/ loves unconditionally;/ daring to judge God over Auschwitz and/
find Him guilty;/ and pray to Him still;/ even there/ even in Auschwitz…To be a witness to His actions/ and also to His inaction…
Below the images hang 25 crystals, alluding to the number of words in the first line of the Shema. Only two are carved; one bears the Hebrew letter ayin; the other, dalet. Together, they spell ed, witness, a traditional interpretation of the last letters ofshema and ehad.
Chairs and wings are among Kupferminc’s repeated motifs. In her sculpture The Circular ruins—the name is based on a short story by renowned Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges—she hinges wooden wings onto a chair, its back layered with a burnt photograph formed into a rose. On the supporting bars on the underside of the chair, two miniature people sit across from each other as on a seesaw, a crystal globe at the fulcrum. “I am always looking for a place to rest and establish myself,” says Kupferminc. “But as a daughter of immigrants, I was raised with wings, always flying. Many places are my own place. Argentina is my place, but also Hungary, where my mother was born, and Poland, where my father was born. Israel is another comfortable chair for me.”
In That place (an etching), Kupferminc depicts her mother sitting in a winged chair against a red rectangle, as teardrops and torn pages of Hebrew books float behind her. Nowhere shows an image of a winged but empty red chair against a sepia-toned, upside-down city and an inverted chair. A rush of air behind the chair almost propels it off the ground that is pebbled with rubble-like drops, symbols of the stones traditionally placed on graves.
In her art, squares also signify alef. The library of Babel centers a red alef against scrolls and mythological half-man, half-animal figures. The words todos, (everything, in Spanish) and sodot (Hebrew for secrets) repeat in crossword style.
The chair back of In His image, reflected, is carved of pieces of wood, torched so they become coal and engraved with the letters alef and shin, which together spell esh, fire. Adding the letter yod to the alef and shin creates the word ish, man, Kupferminc explains. Adding a hay creates ishah, woman. Yod and hay also spell Yah, a shortened form of God’s name. God created man and woman b’tzalmo, in His image, so the chair merges the spiritual and the sensual. A wooden flame spews out of a metal tube that has an anamorphic reflection of a man and woman kissing. Kupferminc creates the image by looking at what the viewer will see on the mirrored tube; she has to draw upside down on the vein of wood because the image is inverted when it is reflected.
Kupferminc shares a fascination for kabbala with the non-Jewish Borges. Over the past five years, she and Sosnowski have created an edition of 25 handmade books, “Borges and the Kabbalah: paths to the Word,” each with 29 original images, texts by Sosnowski and selections from Borges. One is featured in the exhibition. The black-and-white texts and images are splashed with red, which she uses for aesthetic purposes, not necessarily to evoke the color of blood or sacrifice. Only the last image, Four entered Paradise, blooms multicolored. “Only when you reach real knowledge, pardes or paradise, will you find all the colors,” says Kupferminc. Limited editions of other books on display include “Jewish Highlights,” “Exodus,” “Sepharad, a man standing on his dream” and another portfolio of seven digital prints and texts from “Borges and the Kabbalah.”
Kruger notes that magical realism “attaches spiritual values to ordinary objects, bringing these objects into sharp focus, clearly outlined and arrested in motion. Magical realism is marked by a cool, detached sense of dislocation combining naturalistic details with dream images. It always incorporates a hidden agenda, forcing the viewer or reader to delve for the deeper meanings.”
Kupferminc’s work is a process of transmission both for herself and for viewers. What she imparts exists on many levels of knowledge, comprehension and empathy. “Nothing is secret—but also not evident at first sight,” she says. “The root of kabbala, l’kabel, means to receive in order to give; therefore, the word is translated as tradition.”
In Written on my body, Kupferminc places herself literally in the picture: She sits easily yet without a chair, arms crossed, looking to her right at a man in a winged chair, his bare arms raised as in surrender, his entire body—in fact the entire etching—tattooed with words. A huge eye above them looks ahead, a tear forming in its duct. The piece is part of “The Skin of Memory,” a continuing series that explores the relationship between ornamental tattoos and Holocaust tattoos. Kupferminc often uses her mother Agnes’s number from Auschwitz in her work (no one remembers her father’s number; he died in 1982, before she began these works). In Your Embrace, Mom highlights the number 80264 above a single, thorned red rose and a patchwork of identity cards. The same background recurs in Memory: A self-portrait stares out above six wilting blue roses with thorned stems, symbols of the impossibility of the Holocaust.
The Track, a study in hands and stripes, echoes both the striped concentration camp uniform and the talit. A hand stitches a tzitzit strand into another hand, and fringes dangle from the lower corners of the etching. Kupferminc wraps a bare-chested young boy in talit and tefilin in On your Arm and on your front. Read closely the pages of the Passover Haggada that form the background and Kupferminc’s message is clear: In every generation we are obligated to feel as if we ourselves had left Egypt; “And you shall tell your children….”
The etching relates to an improbable story in Kupferminc’s own life. Her eldest son was born three years after her father died. Because she liked the name, she called him Daniel, not knowing that her father, Aron, had had an infant son with his first wife, Salla, named Daniel. The family was deported from the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz, where mother and child perished. Aron and Agnes met at a hospital in Hungary after the war and immigrated to Argentina in 1948.
Agnes and her brother were the sole survivors of Sarosd, their village in Hungary. When Kupferminc was 6, her mother took her new family to meet her brother, who had remained in Hungary. Kupferminc’s uncle gave her a doll, which years later Kupferminc turned into a portrait of the survivor. Nineteenfourtyfour depicts a balding doll with a cracked face against a floral background, the ever-present tears below its flaring scarlet skirt. My doll, the only one teems with figures in an ominous circular march bearing suitcases, trees—even a hopscotch drawing. One figure kicks a chair. Kupferminc “manipulates the artifacts of childhood and Jewish tradition to serve as memorials to a vanished past…,” writes Rosensaft in the catalog.
The dolls offer a foretaste of the artist’s current focus on embroidery. “Embroidery is a way of healing for me and the expression of transmission from woman to woman,” she says. Last year, Kupferminc won a grant from the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture to develop a video, The Name and the Number, which relates tattoos to her mother’s number and embroidery.
Kupferminc uses her repertoire of images in more recent works as well. Two doll faces, one white, the other overlaid with sloping cursive writing, cut into a red globe in Made of letter and stroke. “I conceive my art like a road in life,” she says, “so everything has a direct relationship with what I’ve previously done and what will come.” An empty winged chair on a chessboard looks over a rendering of the city of Prague in The secret miracle (the title of a Borges story).
The chessboard is another trademark image, notes Kruger, one that “depicts life as a game of chance and skill, frequently exploding in flames, powerfully contrasting red and black, religion and state, intellect and passion, order and chaos.”
Kupferminc explores the image of the tree of life in many pieces that tell the story of the regenerative Jewish spirit.Encendido (Lightened) shows a tree-shaped hanukkiya from which whimsical symbols spring forth: menora, matza, spice box, dreidel, Kiddush cup, candles, Torah scroll—even Moses holding the Ten Commandments. In Our Trees, six immigrants clinging to uprooted trees march forward. Only the last figure, encircling the largest tree, looks back. A seventh figure, without a tree, hunches over from the weight of a city on his back. A chaotic canopy of branches fills two upper panels—the growth in the new places in which the immigrants have settled.
In Out of Eden, crafted from three separate pieces that fit together seamlessly, the ubiquitous figures surround a gnarled and wave-like tree. “We can live by ourselves,” says Kupferminc, “but each of us—whether in New York or Buenos Aires—has a precise place in the totality of the global Jewish community.”
The post-Eden vision that emerges from Kupferminc’s works is one that replants the trees of life and knowledge in a pageant of invention and metaphor. She gathers sparks from the spinning flame guarding the garden’s entrance to illuminate the mysteries of life and death, identity and survival.