The main theme of much of my work has so far been the Holocaust and in particular its sites, such as those at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec and Babi Yar. I’ve also been studying memory and how memories within objects and buildings might allow us a glimpse of the past; a theme which has fascinated me ever since I was a child. It was through reading Bill Viola’s writings a few months back that I was reminded of the mnemonic techniques practiced by the ancient Greeks:
“The idea of art as a kind of diagram has for the most part not made it down from the Middle Ages into modern European Consciousness. The Renaissance was the turning point… The structural aspect of art, and the idea of a ‘data-space’ was preserved through the Renaissance however in the continued relations between image and architecture. Painting became an architectural, spatial form which the viewer experienced by physically walking through it. The older concept of an idea and an image architecture, a memory ‘place’ like the mnemonic temples of the Greeks is carried through in the great European cathedrals and palaces, as is the relation between memory, spatial movement and storage (recording) of ideas.”
When I first read this quote, I was at the time researching The University Parks in Oxford, and in particular examining the plaques on the benches. I realised then, that my act of walking and ‘remembering’ those who have passed away, was in a broad and rather loose sense, like walking through one of those ‘mnemonic temples’ albeit in a physical sense. I was constructing a bigger picture of the place.
More recently, walking has started to play an important role in my work on the Holocaust (one of the themes which has struck me through my research has been that of walking. Many photos of the Holocaust show people walking, usually, and tragically, to their deaths). I’ve started to look at the Operation Reinhard camps and in particular Belzec. Laurence Rees, in his book, ‘Auschwitz’, describes the unimaginable scale of death and contrasts it with the disproportionately tiny size of Belzec Death Camp, which measured less less than 300m x 300m. I knew this was a small size, but it wasn’t until I walked around some familiar spaces in Oxford – including the University Parks – that I realised just how small it was.
Since then I’ve started looking for more evidence of the size of Belzec (and other camps) so that I might walk specific distances around the city, and have since discovered a number of maps drawn by survivors, SS men and archaeologists. These roughly sketched maps, these ‘memories,’ are a poignant reminder of the camp’s existence and might help me in my attempts to bring people closer to the Holocaust, which should never be forgotten.
“All things fade away in time, but time itself is made fadeless and undying by recollection.” Apollonius of Tyana
“We have to describe and to explain a building the upper story of which was erected in the nineteenth century; the ground-floor dates from the sixteenth century, and a careful examination of the masonry discloses the fact that it was reconstructed from a dwelling-tower of the eleventh century. In the cellar we discover Roman foundation walls, and under the cellar a filled-in cave, in the floor of which stone tool are found and remnants of glacial fauna is the layers below… Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are ‘housed’.” C.G. Jung
“Memory, whether individual or generational, political or public is always more than the prison house of the past.” Andreas Huyssen
Here I must return to the ancient Greeks and their mnenomic temples. With a place or loci, such as a house, fixed in the mind, the person remembering would place various objects in its rooms (“…what I have spoken of as being done in a house can also be done in public buildings, or on a long journey, or going through a city…”), objects which by association would remind them of part of the whole thing – such as a speech – to be remembered. Here I saw at once a correlation with my work on Belzec. The ancient Greeks were walking as a means of remembering, of not forgetting; their memory loci were in effect maps which one could sketch, maps of the mind. Therefore, the maps drawn by survivors, are in effect maps of their minds and bring us closer to the horrors of the time – closer to the individuals who suffered.
The fact that objects were used to create associations, and therefore build (through ‘walking’) a bigger ‘picture’ of something also fits in with the recent work I’ve been doing on Auschwitz, looking at the possessions left by the victims and trying to build a picture of the individuals before the Holocaust, to see them not only as victims, but people who lived lives before its horror.
Through walking distances which I’ve taken from descriptions of the camp, I have found myself walking back into my own past and the past of the city in general; for example, walking the route of Cuckoo Lane and the Old London Road at Shotover. My own past confirms my individuality and the past of the city confirms my place as a small part in the mass of memories associated with this place (this also correlates with my work on Auschwitz, trying to find the individuals amongst the huge number of dead, individual possessions from amongst the mountains, names rather than inconceivable numbers). The fact these walks have been derived from a map or a description of Belzec, helps me to identify further with the individuals who suffered there; not because I can in anyway conceive of their suffering – no-one could ever imagine the horrors they endured – but because I can imagine their own pasts and that of the places they knew so well, places from which they were taken to their deaths.