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Architectural Detail as a Symptom

By Ivana Komanická

In „PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE CEILING“ the artist Claire Waffel touches a theme that is conspicuously absent from the contemporary official, but also unofficial, discourse, even if at first sight it might not seem so. Working with visibility and invisibility the artist sheds light on collective trauma and its production of various symptoms in cultural practices and artefacts. Claire Waffel is an artist often working with architecture or landscape in connection with history and ideology. Here, she discovered the symptomatic effect in a particular architectural element – a lowered prefabricated ceiling that hides the ornamental religious cupola in the Jewish synagogue converted into the House of Arts under Communism. This gesture from the end of the 50´s is apparently ideological, however, lowering the ceiling has survived as a popular practice in our culture until today when the ideological aspect of it is no longer visible. The obsession, repetition and a productive drive with which this wide-spread practice appear even in cases when it is not needed, like the popular practice of lowering the ceilings in socialist blocks of flats where the ceilings are low enough and do not hide any history, refers to the repression and traumatic experience of a collective consciousness.

If it is true that trauma will resolve only when the “memory comes”, one might ask, did it awaken in the situations of political and cultural change? To put it simply, did it come after 1989? In the official memory, the Holocaust was taboo until 1989, as Slovak historians acknowledged. Even if there were a few historians doing research on this theme under communism, the results of their work were published only after its end. Their works thus appeared in the new political situation and the context of this situation for these studies has not yet been mentioned.

At the beginning of the 90´s the theme of Holocaust was approached from the perspective of newly established minority studies written from the perspective of a victim and relying on the well-known schema victim-oppressor-conforming majority. In the situation after 1989, symptomatically all the minorities felt compelled to dramatise conventionalized versions of their history, often with the emphasis on their being victims in the past. The influential journal in the post-1989 period, called „Central Europe“ /Střední Evropa/, brings about both in one issue, the letter of a Jew who survived the Holocaust as well as the oral history of violence connected with moving Germans from Czech Lands after the war. The political correctness that accompanies the discourse of diversity has to be seen through an aesthetic preference -as Boris Groys reminds us -as a market-driven practice that sells cultural identity to the market and cultural tourism.

It is clear now, that the discourse on multiculturalism was a cultural agenda of neo-liberalism and spread all over post-communist countries together with neo-liberal principles in economy. It was precisely the idea of multiculturalism and minority studies that were appropriated for a retroactive interpretation of our history, mainly of the pre-Communist society. This in a way prevented us from speaking about both the Holocaust and Communism.

It is true that during the past few years historians opened the theme of a Slovak fascist state, but this happened in the political context of rising nationalism in the 90´s, which Groys calls a hysterical reaction of the Eastern and Central Europeans to the requirements of international cultural markets. The idea of a fascist state was thus connected with nationalism, the Catholic Church and the Slovak majority. The southern parts of Slovakia including Košice, which were not a part of the Slovak state, but of Hungary during the WWII, were somehow saved from the discourse and instead strongly adhered to a popular discourse on Central Europe and multiculturalism upon which they built their post-1989 cultural identity. Actually, just a few days before the opening of the exhibition, Slovak historians publicly declared the Holocaust in Košice and southern Slovakia to be a blind spot of our history. This followed media information that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre announced László Csatáry, a police commander in Košice responsible for the transport of more than 15 000 Jews to be the most wanted living Nazi collaborator in the world.

Thus, it is a special kind of silence in reference to the Holocaust symptomatically accompanied by the abundance of speech in discourse of the minorities and by their appropriation of the position of victim. This has to be seen as a symptomatic sign of the majority that not only refuses to take the responsibility for what has happened but instead exploits the language of the victim for its own purposes. The Institute of Social Sciences of the Slovak Academy of Sciences located in Košice, which deals predominantly with minorities and their perplexed 20th century history follows this logic. During the ten years of its existence, the Academy’s internet journal, which deals with the history of minorities, offered but one academic paper addressing Jewish history. To be more specific, it dealt with the violence that Jewish people had to face after they returned home from the concentration camps, including violent attacks in Košice. While there are plenty of articles on other minorities, including Ruthenian, Hungarian, German, Gypsies and recently also women, the Jews appear in the academic discourse in Slavoj Žižek words only as a symptom. The logo of the journal bears many resemblances with the Star of David- the appropriation of the position of victim is made visible precisely through this visual reference and paradoxically through the absence of Jewish history.

The neutralizing effect of the language on the Holocaust appears not only in the ultra-nationalistic historians speaking of evacuation, instead of deportation of Jews. The artist was confronted with the same neutralizing effect in everyday language in her discussions with local people who spoke of the situation after the Jews “left” and the importance to “save” the synagogue.

However, the story of the local synagogue converted into the House of Arts is both a story of dispossession and of cultural appropriation. While under Communism there were new cultural houses built for the purposes of new forms of proletariat culture, the House of Arts that houses the Košice philharmonic orchestra was appropriated for the middle-class and its idea of high culture. The place in the meantime took on ceremonial purposes for the middle-class as well, including balls that are organized there or graduation ceremonies. The conformity of the middle-class and their practice was revealed just a few years ago in the hysterical reaction of the media when the local branch of a global steel production corporation announced that they want to hold their ball at the site as well, this time directly inside the music hall, the original synagogue building. There was no-one raising his or her voice for the reconstruction of the original ceiling in the very recent renovation work that the House of Arts underwent, which instead concentrated on technological improvements and the new tiling of the original roof from the outside. The arguments concerning keeping-up with the latest technologies are typical for the middle-class and its fascination with the new.

The lowered ceiling as an architectural symbol, thus might as well easily refer to the horizon of middle-class perception of the world. After the Berlin Wall fell, a West German theatre director Stephan Stroux, accompanied by the East Berlin photographer Michael Schroedter, visited over 100 cultural centres in East Germany wondering if it “was only in the GDR that people felt the need to make everything straightforward, smaller, more middle-class, to lower ceilings and thus pen in the coffee table?” [1] At roughly the same time, within a few days after the Velvet Revolution, a Slovak photographer Gabriel Kladek exhibited his photos of the lowered ceilings from the communist buildings in the former space of the official gallery of the Slovak Artist Union in Košice, which for a short revolutionary time turned into the political centre of the opposition called Civic Forum /Občianske forum/. In the revolutionary euphoria, this event touched, for a short time, a collective trauma. Claire Waffel ´s work “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH THE CEILING” does it after twenty years again.

Ivana Komanická is an art theorist and philosopher with a background in “radical philosophy” from Middlesex University in London. She is interested in a post-communist situation with the emphasis on the critique of neoliberalism. Her curatorial work includes the exhibition on social inequalities in a contemporary art world “See you there” for the European Cultural Congress in Wroclaw and the exhibition on the transformational processes of home after 1989 “Home edition” at East and Central Slovak Gallery (together with Gabriela Kisová). She teaches at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Košice and is the editor of a Slovak literary journal Romboid.

[1] Cited from Becker Jochen: „Free Palace, Temporary Use. The Culture and Palaces of the Socialists“. In: Andreas Fogarasi. Kultur und Freizeit. Hungarian Pavilion, Venice 52nd Biennale, Verlage der Buchhandlung Walter Konig, Koln 2007, p.45-46