Faces from the Past
1974, Glazed ceramic, 86 x 70 x 45 cm
The sculpture Twarze z prześłosci prompted us to talk about practices of remembrance, about temporality and about the role and function of art in connection with (experiences of) violence. In the following, we discuss our associations and deliberations and offer a few potential interpretations.
DESCRIPTION OF OBJECT
M: The first thing that can be identified is a human face, and there might be a helmet on the head. A structure that seems organic swirls around the face, and the face is either pushing out of it or being impressed into it. The face, like the entire sculpture, is slightly tilted to the side. The tapering shape of the work creates the effect of a torso, like a bust. This establishes a link to memory and memorial culture, since busts are part of remembrance and commemoration in the sense that they are a permament expression of esteem for someone.
F: I was reminded of a gravestone.
M: The surface structure is angular, rough, rutted, raised, but also crushed or smeared. There are parts that look completely black because of the arrangement of the folds. It recalls earth, clay, wood, mud—elements from nature, organically developed structures.
L: There are two very different interpretations of the work. One comes from Pociłowska herself, who said that this work was a way of processing the death of a friend who died in a car accident.
F: The other interpretation views the sculpture as a depiction of a soldier. We already mentioned the association with a helmet. With this interpretation, I wonder about the extent to which the sculpture makes a statement against war in general. Pociłowska was active in the resistance herself before being arrested and deported, and she continued this resistance in Ravensbrück.
M: The strength of the work is that it allows for such different approaches to it.
MEMORY AND COMMEMORATION
F: Both interpretations touch on questions of memory. Pociłowska’s own comments refer to personal memory, a personal grief that she processed in an artistic way. The second reading foregrounds political commemoration, and perhaps even commemoration of specific resistance groups.
L: I don’t think the anti-war message is very explicit. It’s not so clear to me which soldier is being depicted here. An abstract soldier in a general sense? Or is Pociłowska very explicitly referencing her own experience and showing a German soldier? In that case, he would symbolize the perpetrators. Or is it actually a person associated with liberation? I think there are a lot of unanswered questions here.
F: In connection with this, I’m interested in how the eye is depicted. If you look carefully, you can see that the figure is missing its left eye. Was it torn out? Who is actually looking at us? Considering that an eye is missing, are we being observed at all as viewers? Or is the sculpture powerful because we, as viewers, are confronted with the fact that we are viewing, but we cannot be viewed in return? I’m fascinated by this question of what it means to look at someone who cannot actively look back—particularly in the context of commemoration and in connection with a personal or historical past, and in this place that is steeped in history and violence.
L: I think it’s important to go back to the title here: Faces from the Past. Which past does Pociłowska mean? Which faces, and how can we determine the connection between the artist and the object, as well as between the viewer and the past?
F: There’s a quote from Edna Brocke that fits very well here: ‘Some commemorate their dead for the sake of the dead, but above all in the knowledge of the unity of history and the past, while others commemorate not so much the people but rather what happened, for the sake of a better future.’ These two facets are inherent in the figure.
PUBLIC V. PRIVATE COMMEMORATION
M: On the other hand, public commemoration or commemoration of a war is always political. The form of the bust fits with this. Monuments often work with portrayals of individual people in order to commemorate a collective. The individual represents many and thus becomes invisible in a certain way. Singular and plural are united, and as regards this sculpture, one might say that it merges a single face with many faces from the past.
F: This ambiguity, in turn, is inherent in the title of the work, because it is faces from the past, in the plural.
POCILOWSKA AS A SURVIVOR/ARTIST
L: I see this dual level as well. And what does it mean for this work to be displayed here in Ravensbrück? Who are we commemorating with this exhibition? Are we commemorating Pociłowska as a survivor or an artist or both? Does she represent a group? If so, which one? And how can her singularity as a person and artist be maintained if we also say that she represents something bigger than her?
L: Right, exactly. The term multi-layered comes to mind. Both very visually in the sculpture itself, which has these streaks, this shape that has something layered about it […]
M: It could be layers of stone, like from rock that has been deposited over years or millennia—
L: […] Exactly: deposits, strata. So there are multi-layered interpretations, but also layers of remembering and forgetting. It just occurred to me that there are deep fissures between the layers that look very dark, you can’t even see into them. That could symbolize the fact that the past is not entirely accessible, there are depths we can’t reach, we can’t look into.
F: Besides the cavities, there are also tracks. Maybe the layers of stone or streaks are actually tracks—tracks in the mud, tire tracks in the sand? This reading harks back to the interpretation of the car accident. But memories also follow tracks, and I think this raises a question for us, as viewers: Which tracks are we following, whose tracks, and how? And where might we be unable to follow?
L: I’m just thinking about how it looks like a different material than it actually is. It seems to be made of wood, like bark, for instance. These earthy colours and this surface remind me of something that has grown. It’s as if the work came into being of its own accord. But it’s actually glazed ceramic which was shaped in a very deliberate artistic process of creation. I’m intrigued by this question of the production process in connection with memory. Memories also don’t just grow. Remembering is an active process, as is forgetting.
Marie Holthaus, Felicitas Pfuhl and Loui Schlecht, Gender Studies students