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Please Do Not Touch the Ceiling
Claire Waffel

By Steven Williams

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”
- George Santayana

“When architecture falls silent, fine arts become its conscience”
- Grzergorz Piątek

In psychology, defence mechanisms act to protect us from the shock of memories and traumas. These remain submerged in the subconscious and occasionally manifest themselves as dreams, sensations and disturbances of the mind. In historical terms, owing to the number of shockwaves that have traumatised European civilisation in the last 20th century, the political and psychological processes of memory have become similar. In the Czech and Slovak lands anti-Semitism was used as a convenient excuse, post World War I, to persecute anyone not conforming to the identity of the new republic. In the Czech region, Jews were targeted for adhering to the German language – in Slovakia for being too Hungarian. In the show trials, which took place in Soviet-ruled Europe, including Czechoslovakia, after the Second World War, Jewish party members were arrested, tried and executed (Rudolf Slansky among them). Their ashes were mixed with material used to fill the roads on the outer edges of Prague. Anti-Semitism continued even after Stalin´s death - even if the methods were changed and no longer resorted to physical violence.

In mapping psychological processes onto the progression of history we see that mechanical and physical defence mechanisms have been erected, to protect us from the memory of these traumas. The process of assimilating these memories from a historical, collective subconscious begin as elements, fragments of these histories, which emerge or are discovered, or are invoked when they are ready to be, or when a person, in the shape of an artist or historian, is ready to explore them.

Claire Waffel is one such artist. Her work is concerned with the past and its impact on the present. Through exploring past and present in her work, she uncovers their mutable nature and how they form a non-linear relationship between past, present, time and space, political and personal. In doing so, she compels us to confront our own collective and individual histories.

If it is true that the human race no longer finds salvation in religion, but instead in history, then in ‘Please Do Not Touch the Ceiling’, Waffel engages with this process. Her practice of uncovering fragments of history puts us in touch with those elements outmoded and discarded by the march of time. It connects us with a disregarded past – a process, which is both redemptive and restorative.

In breaking time down to its basic components, and writing them out, she engages with it, and confronts it, physically, and psychologically, by putting herself through an almost spiritual and meditative process. From this process of fragmentation emerges a form of accelerated history - the passage of time is slowed down and examined, every second is physically felt and reconstructed. The process is evolutionary and contains elements of Dialectical Materialism: invention, necessitated by pain, also leads to the negation of the artist - the print block replacing the hand. A historical whole is formed – from conception, through progress, until the end of time.

By filming the process Waffel creates a dialogue with a different form of historical recollection. It is observed, documented and empirical, yet it is also edited and selective. It sets simultaneously into conflict two alternative documents of the past, one which is directive, in which the artist chooses which elements one sees, and the other open to interpretation from the viewer.

The discovery of the old synagogue roof, which had been obscured during a process of Communist reconstruction, can be seen as a fragment of history, now ready to be uncovered and which has offered itself up to be revealed. Previously, architecture of any elaboration and ornamentation was considered elitist, it was for the upper classes - the poor had no architecture. In the dictatorship of the proletariat, decoration was not just a question of aesthetics; it was also moral and political. Communist architecture emerged as a dogmatic version of the International Style, incorporating elements of Constructivism and Stalinism, with the aim of improving people´s lives. In this sense it was a didactic architecture, a secular improving architecture. Disregarding ornamentation, especially religious forms, was not due to the fact that Communism was simply anti-Semitic, but that it was anti-religious. Orthodox churches were torn down by the Soviets. They understood the power of religious iconography.

Communism demanded a cultural homogeneity – in the process of ‘engineering souls’ there could be no other religion than the ideology itself. In masking this element of history, the Communist authorities simultaneously denied its right to exist and be remembered. In uncovering it, Waffel begins the ‘mining of cultural memory’. It represents a literal tear in the fabric of history, where its workings are exposed, and physically opens up a dialogue between past and present.

Does the installation in ‘Please Do Not Touch the Ceiling’ present the viewer with the challenge of imagining the construction of something new from those discarded elements, or simply to reconstruct something familiar and stable? In any case, it forces the viewer to confront a hidden past in the present time and space, in which they find themselves. It works as a kind of anti-architecture, speaking of traumatic experience and acting as ‘tropes of the memory discourse’. The collective traumatic memory refuses to engage with the practices of, or literally refuse to touch, elements of architecture. By moving the lowered ceiling away, the artist is able to begin a multi-layered dialogue in which history, the reliability of memory and the nature of authority are brought into question in the realms of the physical, the psychological, the historical and the personal.

Steven Williams is a freelance art historian and writer. He is interested in Modernism, Surrealism and European cinema and visual arts in a social and historical context. He is a features writer for the online cinema salon kamera.co.uk and blogs for Collective gallery based in Edinburgh.