Dialogue / Gérard Wajcman and Pascale Kaparis

pk - This tortoise shell is engraved: I can
make out grooves, scratches, probably markings.
gw - You also work using scratches and markings.
pk - I’ve had to scratch and groove into the material, so
that I can get on the inside. Then it becomes like a set
of features, or of letters - but not straight away. It’s as if
I’ve rediscovered signs which could be a form of writing:
whether it starts at the beginning, in the middle or is
back to front, it doesn’t really matter.
gw - I feel highly susceptible to these sort of traces.
The first novel I ever published was made up entirely
of notes at the bottom of the pages. The upper part of
the pages were blank, and at the bottom there were the
notes in black, like the trace of an absent text. It was
the story of someone who stopped talking while on a
long trip abroad, in Italy. Reading the notes, one could
reconstitute the missing story. It was a novel which
had been there, but which had been rubbed out, or
lost. Which, I feel, resembles somewhat your concerns.
The novel told the story of someone who could no
longer talk in French, and could no longer talk in the
language of his parents, Yiddish, quite simply because
he didn’t know how to speak it. When he was a child,
his parents, as often happens in bilingual families, spoke
Yiddish between themselves so that he wouldn’t be
able to understand. Yiddish was his mother tongue and
yet he was completely excluded by it. When you don’t
understand the language your parents are speaking,
you become convinced they’re talking about you. The
most intimate and important things are being said in
an unknown and incomprehensible language. Yiddish
is in itself a trace left over from the millions of people
who spoke it in the past. Within such tracing, one has
to search for traces of oneself. The novel is the story of
a child looking at a dead language and asking himself
where he stands in relation to it - he’s searching for
traces of himself within a lost language.
The question of trace is what fi rst led me to fi ne art.
Artists seems to be much more interested in it as a
concept than writers.
pk - Trace for me is to be found in what is blank.
I have really felt that I was getting somewhere in my
work, an area without form, and then, without any
particular sense of transition, I was inside, in the part
that is mute, not known, inside this blankness. The
paintings you saw in the studio are the ones which
made me understand this. I mean, at one point I was in
a frame of mind where I felt I was nothing. One is no
longer anything, one writes with this nothingness and
I can assure you that when I stood before what I’d done,
after I’d fi nished, I was physically in a kind of nauseous
state. What was it? I alarmed myself with these illegible
traces I’d made which seemed capable of erasing the
legible, or recognizable. That is what I seemed
to be told, that I had to reach this particular limit,
with its scratches and gashes, in order to speak.
gw - I completely understand. Scratching leads to
speech. Language is in itself a form of scratching.
Words trace what is absent. I would say there is a sense
of the hollow, but a sort of positive hollowness. It took
me a while to understand how it is that emptiness or
nothingness can in fact be an object, something positive,
and not a pure negative. Which is how one can begin
to understand the problem of anorexia for example.
If those young girls can starve themselves to death,
it’s not because they don’t want to eat anything
anymore, it’s because they eat nothingness. They are
mortally attached to this object, their mouths are
indeed full of it. It’s the only way one can understand
the extraordinary strength of will of an anorexic: they fi ll
themselves with nothing, and sometimes they die of it.
This notion of a positive side to nothing took me a long
time to grasp, but it’s something that’s quite common
for artists. They work with this nothingness. What is
missing, the absent I’m talking about, obviously has a
more tragic dimension when it’s referring to the millions
of Jews who died in the gas chambers. But nothingness
is not tragic in itself. I was very taken by Bruce Nauman’s
work, an imprint of the emptiness under my chair,
because this imprint of emptiness or of nothingness does
in fact say everything. Here is a nothing that one can
put on the mantelpiece, and which is worth a fortune
in a gallery. Nothingness is without doubt one of
the principal objects in art.
pk - Maybe it’s not always so very tragic, but for me
getting nearer to such areas has meant entering into
what one can not actually see or hear. I took the
blindfold off my eyes and began to hear clearly: I could
enter into what is most alive. To be fully alive, one has to
go past bodies which are absent, mutilated;one has to go
through fear and amnesia. How can one breathe? Using
shriveled or blown up alveolar bags which are red or
colourless? Can one penetrate into such areas?
gw - That’s the most diffi cult part. One can’t actually
reach such a place. At best one can get close. There
is no end. With the Holocaust, i.e: the disappearance
of so many in the gas chambers, we are incapable of
reconstituting anything, except to say that it happened.
We have no images of what happened. Of course
during the Renaissance, painting’s capacity to reveal
what cannot the seen was greatly questioned. How can
one portray the wind, the soul, Paradise or Hell? It’s a
common concern for artists, which has taken a more
tragic turn nowadays. But previously it had a more
religious value. Painters were required to show the
invisible to the faithful, to reveal what was beyond the
apparent, beyond terrestrial life. Religious values are
no longer attached to such concepts. What one cannot
see, one will not be able to see later. One can knock but
there’s no answer - there’s nothing behind. That’s what
Rothko’s saying. Before one would show the curtains and
say: behind here are the most incredible things, another
world, just wait and see, when you die, then you’ll see
what’s there! Rothko came along and said: I’m going
to take down the curtains, it’s not even worth having a
look at what’s behind: you see, there’s nothing, nothing
left. He also reveals nothingness. I’m thinking of the
“Seagram building” series in London. I’m amazed that so
little is made of the fact that Rothko only began making
abstract art after the war, and that he was Jewish. For
me it’s such an important element for the understanding
of his work.
Your work is of course not at all like that, but I do believe
there’s a link relating the two, which I’d call the notion
of the real in art. I wouldn’t say I’m looking for it, but I
realize that if I can’t fi nd it then the work doesn’t interest
me. Art must confront it as a question in some way or
another, as it must the notions of absence and want.
pk - At a certain point I came across a path I felt
obliged to take. I made a picture which was at the end
in a show I did: Interruption. I’d started writing a bit,
and reworking the signs. I was drawn towards this
process, forming letters, m’s for example, making m’s,
and then round shapes such as o’s. The painting released
something particular. I’d made it despite this feeling of
fear of fi nishing, of a brutal end. And I dreamt about
it. So there you have it; the rounds were open mouths,
which made me think of screams which hadn’t been
able to come to the surface. Screams which couldn’t
get out. With a little distance I understood it better and
it immediately became evident the link to a catalogue
I found not long after: “Memory of the Camps”. I was
confronted by those images and saw the same silence
within them, something suspended: open mouths
and no sound.
This whole story is part of my life and yet has never
been told or explained. There have never been the words
to describe something so enormous, the disappearance
of bodies, mourning without bodies. What right do we
have to go on living? Do we have the right to live?
I had nothing around me to help me understand except
the reserve and the way words were kept from me. The
eyes and mouth of a same face, disconnected. I used
bits of faces in my paintings. The only thing that kept
resounding in me was this same silence, mouths open
yet without sound, like a transparent wall one can’t
overcome. One can see the mouth speaking but one is
powerless because the words are prisoners behind the
wall. The eyes strain to understand, one can see the
words but can’t hear them. One has no sound, one’s
hearing has gone, one can no longer speak. It is stifl ed
- and one is just left with the knot. I had big identity
problems, not knowing where I was from, what land,
what territory, what history, what I should answer when
asked whether I was French? What was I supposed to
say? I’d been in France since I was 6 and yet I didn’t
know anything.
gw - Did painting bring any solutions?
pk - Afterwards... with each painting, perhaps, and also
with the photos. Photos are all about reality, identifying
bodies, parts of arms, hands, which I could see and then
insert into my pictures. And then I discovered the fl ow
- for writing. It was within me already, this creative fl ow
which encouraged me to paint, forcing whatever was
inside me, what I didn’t know, to fi nd a way out. But this
creative fl ow for writing was new, these words which
I had never heard. At the same time as I was painting,
I discovered this fl ow, the fl ow of words. I began to write
on large white paper, words coming out as if suddenly
liberated, a spontaneous stream of writing which didn’t
stop. At some moment I thought I’d take out a painting and start
writing on it. It’s the one called “Fragments”, made up of little
juxtaposed sequences on which there’s some writing, collages of things
which came to me: arms or samples of skin. That was what seemed so
completely unbearable for me to face up to: the fact that someone could
actually take a sample of a certain portion of skin from the body... It’s
absolutely horrifi c, this tattooed number which was incised or almost
excised on the bodies of the dead. I wrote it on again and again,
repeating the gesture, this gesture which cut into the matter of the
painting as if it was an accident, because it was impossible to actually
perform such an act.
gw - yesterday I saw a fi lm about that famous mathematician who I
believe won the Nobel prize for Economics, called Nash. He had a very
strange hallucination: he believed he’d been tattooed on his arm by the
Secret Services, like those who’d been tattooed at Auschwitz. During a
sudden burst of madness, he took a knife and tried to cut the number out
of his arm. He was mad, of course, but I thought there was something in
it: whether we like it or not, we have all been marked by the Holocaust.
Our era’s still being affected by the crime. It’s not something which just
affects you and I because it happens to be a subject which is close to
the bone for us; it affects all of our contemporary world. I believe it has
changed our notions of representation, and even the way we see the world.
pk - Something happened which has somehow changed the way
we behave.
gw - I am convinced that things have changed more in art than in
anything else; more than in literature, philosophy or even history. We
made our history. It’s easy to see that something brought history to
a halt: it was the horror of the whole thing. History can take facts
into account, it can provide numbers or names; it can even make
comparisons, but the moment one starts making comparisons one loses
one’s grip of what made the event so singular and extremely violent.
Where can one look to grasp such an event? One would imagine that
the Holocaust would have produced literature. The Soviet camps and the
Gulag produced literature, but not the extermination camps. There are
books, and writing, but no literature from the camps.
pk - We know, though. There are witness accounts.
gw - This isn’t a question of witness accounts. There are
plenty of books providing witness accounts, indeed we
now have a sort of universal memory of the event, as
with Spielberg who wanted to fi lm all the survivors. One
can have all the memory one wants of what happened,
but the essential is always missing. The actual facts are
not what will provide us with the answer. Where can
we look? Literature could maybe have got closer
to an answer, but didn’t.
The only book, the only real book which touches
on the subject, is Perec’s book, La Disparition. (The
Disappearance) It’s a novel of 300 and something
pages in which the letter “e” is never once used; not
a single word with “e” in it is to be found. It’s very easy
to read as a novel. It’s a near-impossible exercise to do.
I tried writing just one page without an “e” but didn’t
succeed. La Disparition is a beautiful title because in
La Disparition there are no “e’s”, the “e” has disappeared.
“E” is the most frequently used letter in French. But
there is also a link with the author. He’s called Perec,
and the only two vowels in his name are “e’s”. Above
all his name isn’t pronounced Perec, like a Breton name,
but ‘Peretz’, with the Slav ‘c’. It’s a Jewish name, which
is written in Yiddish - in other words in a language of
consonants, like Hebrew, one doesn’t write the vowels.
So there are no “e’s”, as in his novel. People thought it
was some kind of absurd exercise in style, a mad form
of constraint he imposed in order to write a whole novel
without using the letter “e”. In reality, not only is La
Disparition created using the actual disappearance of
a letter; it’s also a book which is fundamentally about
disappearance, about the Holocaust. On top of that,
it’s a book implying the disappearance of its author’s
own name. It’s a fascinating and yet terrifying book.
An important book about the missing. Disappearance
in this case is a positive absence since when one sees
the book, with its missing “e’s”, the notion of disappearance comes
immediately to mind. What is strange is that its editor didn’t see this
when he fi rst read the manuscript.
pk - The “e” is missing. The “e” is missing from Perec, it has a whole
other form of existence, it is evaporation, something which is vanishing.
The “e” almost becomes a symbol for disappearance.
gw - it’s not symbolic. I often ask myself these kind of questions about
symbols because the moment one begins to attach symbols to things,
one kills them off and they disappear. Symbolizing absence is making
absence itself disappear so that it becomes absent. And yet the question
is how can one make such an absence become present? That is the great
issue for me.
It becomes particularly pertinent when one wants to build a monument.
How can one build a monument to the Holocaust? I’ve been drawn to
Jochen Gerz as a direct result of this issue and the Invisible Monument
he created. There is a castle in Sarrebruck, Germany. To get there
one has to cross a great walkway of paving stones. He began working
secretly. He would arrive there at nighttime, lifting up the paving stones
and taking them away. On each one he would engrave the name of one
of the Jewish cemeteries which existed in Germany in 1939. In the early
hours of the morning he would go back, put the paving stones back in
their place, but with the name engraved underneath, buried face down.
There are 2146 engraved paving stones beneath our feet. The authorities
said: we’re shouldn’t allow people to walk on them! Do you realize
that at nighttime people are going to go and pee on them? It would
be disgusting to let people deface a monument against racism, which
is supposed to remind people of the Jewish dead! And he answered
them: let them piss and get drunk, it’s OK, life goes on! Our life, it’s
true, involves walking on cemeteries. One can’t actually see anything of
this monument. Just that an open space in front of the castle has been
renamed “Invisible Monument Square”. If someone came along in the
night and took away the plaque, then the monument would disappear.
History can quite easily be just like that: if someone rips away the
plaque, then everything can start all over again. It’s an extraordinarily
fragile work, like our own history. Anything could still happen.
pk - That is what is most beautiful in a work: its fragility.
gw - How can one reconstitute such negativity in a work? In some ways
you are asking the same questions. One can’t commemorate such an
event. We all know what commemorations are like: they’re forgetting
machines. If people commemorate, it’s to forget, not to remember.
Every year one goes to the same place and says: I remember, I remember,
which means the rest of the year one’s time is spent not remembering.
You make paintings, Gerz has made a walkway. Your paintings are visible
every day, every day one has to walk across the paving stones. The duty
of memory is what serves forgetfulness. Monuments are made for that,
to say: I am the monument and I remember, so that you can go home
and sleep in peace.
You have both looked at this same question, yet through totally different
approaches: how does one make the negative become present, how can
one make an object out of something that is not, that is no longer, that
is hollowed. How can one make an object out of what is missing? And
also how can one make what it is that has affected those bodies, the
mangled bodies, present? How can one build a monument to mangled
bodies? The 1914 World War mangled up all those bodies, and they put
nice little pretty monuments everywhere.
pk - Little monuments made up of whole people, when they’re really
pieces of bodies.
I’ve worked a lot on the immaterial side of the people. I mean, although
I take something from the photographs of all of these people, at the
same time I only use their immaterial side.
I don’t count each missing person; I focus, almost forcing one to see an
immateriality at the heart of these faces or parts of bodies. I mean that
in the paintings, there are points like centres which are faces with a part
which comes off in relation to the interior, and is then diffused. These
people are living.
gw - Unfortunately, there is no longer anything living in the dead.
Which is exactly what Claude Lanzmann said about his fi lm Shoah:
that it is the voice of the dead. Not to make them live again, nor
commemorate. He talks only about the dead and yet not once does
one see a dead person in his fi lm. He touches on the very same issue
you’re dealing with, how to reconstitute, not through giving life again,
but putting it all into a presence, so that there may be a presence, the
presence. Art is all about presence.
pk - When I was about 4 or 5, in the evening before I went to sleep,
my eyes wide open, I would see faces come streaming past in front of
me. It was just air, but I would see the matter of blackness, a screen lit
up with these faces that came marching past one after the other. They
weren’t faces made out of fl esh and bone. They were of a transparent
matter, I could see through them, they overlapped each other, presented
themselves, several pressed up against each another, changing shape
before my eyes. It happened several times. I remember feeling I knew
when it was going to start again, and that then it would. The faces
frightened me yet I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They became
inscribed; the parade of faces is inscribed within me. I could reach my
hand out at them and try to rub them out, but they kept on forming.
These crowding faces came back to me in the coloured super-positioning
of my fi rst paintings: I felt their presence once again and was confronted
with fear, my own fear, and that of all these other people who were
unknown and yet so familiar. How to cope with such fear?
I made these paintings: fi gures internes 1/2 (‘internal fi gures 1/2’),
fragments (‘fragments’), amnésie 1/2 (‘amnesia’ 1/2), exactions
(‘exactions’), amnisty (‘amnesty’), voile rouge (‘red veil’). I transcribed
the fragmentation of bodies which had become disordered by fear onto
the paintings.
And then the 11th September happened. The immense towers crumbling
down and caving in. All that dust and no bodies. There is no immediate
connection between the event and what I have just been telling you,
and yet it happened at a time when my work was evolving in a certain
way. With each painting I was attempting to make absence visible -
with words which were rubbed out, with smoke and evaporated breath.
Here was a new and unimaginable catastrophe, and yet again the bodies
couldn’t be found. What happens to all the dust? One saw these people
covered in dust. They were motionless, stopped in their tracks.
And then there are the blanks again. If one looks at this woman on
the left of 11 novembre 2001, (11th November 2001), then one can
understand. She becomes amnesiac; her eyes no longer bring information
to her brain; she is dumb; the words are blank, each letter is rubbed out,
and the fragmented parts of her psychic state are represented in the bare
space above her.
Her face is covered in a thick coat of dust. The dust of bodies. On her
face is the dust of unfound bodies; the loss on her skin emprisons her.
Each particle of dust is both a multitude and a desert.
The air is home to this multitude and to evaporation, disappearance.
In my most recent paintings, it is dust which is obstructing the living and
which I am clearing away. I strip away the dust-shadow from the skin,
tearing it from its bearer.
I also reassemble those parched segments which are impossible to
classify and hardly identifi able. I isolate them. There is no link between
them. They’re often colourless, almost translucent. They can be seen
through the lining of a pocket. Each one in it’s own air-pocket. The
vision of a fragment which has been fi ltrated both through the air and
through a lining, like a sample taken from the air.
And so it is that it becomes the next chapter of the same story.

Gérard Wajcman - September 2003
Psychoanalyst and writer

L'Oubli des Mots / The Missing Words -
Exhibition and catalog - Odapark, Venray, The Netherlands