Reconstitution / Nadine Satiat
The first canvas I see, and how could I not see it, it must be two
metres by fi ve, a beam of sunlight which has forced its way between
the slats of the blinds falls right on to it, pointing to it like a fi nger.
At fi rst, I see blood, two rectangles of blood, not very big in relation to
the scale of the canvas, but a bright red which catches the eye, pockets
of red blood, or lungs, tubes which are like drains, catheters, cannulas or
probes, then pieces of gauze, like bandages, holding in place little tubes,
or bundles of copper wires, removed or not, or just half removed from
their sleeves of coloured plastic, but these pieces of gauze are also,
in places, like filters.
I see without seeing, so I start again. To the left of the pockets
of blood, but outside the rectangle of undyed jute fabric marbled with
traces of white which contains them, I see very small white windows on
a black background, lit from inside, as in a burning house, and just below
the windows, stuck to the canvas, the blurred photograph of the face
of a black woman white with dust, and a tube sticking out of it. Partly
superimposed on the left-hand pocket of blood, and largely covered by
pieces of gauze though not entirely stuck to it, is another photograph,
very hard to make out, with a tube sticking out of it. Again my eyes
sweep over the rest of the canvas without seeing. I feel I should be
remembering something, several things, but that scares me a bit, I still
do not know what it is I should be remembering, and I do not want to
go too fast, to get it wrong. Despite the blood, the fi re, the blackness,
the dust, the urgency in this left upper corner, there is something
scrupulous in this canvas, a restraint, and a slowness. In any case
the harm has already been done. You can just start to see how help
could be brought in, how help could be organised. Things, groups of
things are contained in rectangles, at least there is that. But the tubes
do not always manage to link the rectangles to each other. The
relationship between things is not straightforward, it is complex,
problematic, risky, you have to work at it.
There are horizontal things, vertical things,
tilted things. Many of the things are horizontal,
in this horizontal picture, stretched out like a
wounded person, at the very scene of the disaster.
In the middle, for example, where the picture
began, she said, there is a long horizontal sequence
which she herself describes as «mysterious», where
superimposed coats of paint and gauze cover things;
at the end of this sequence, a tangle of blue specks,
then of little beige-grey tabs, partly repainted to
cover something. Words, she said, defaced words, like
undesirable graffiti painted over with white on city walls.
Above this sequence is another one, also horizontal, and
roughly the same length and width, this sequence is red
on a white background, it seems like a wound, oblong in
shape, with a piece of gauze bandage partly stuck on to
it and torn, and a tube, a transfusion, perhaps. The tube
juts out of a photograph to the extreme right of the
sequence, it is hard to make the photograph out, it is not
very big, vertical, a black and white print with traces of
red on it, and more than half-hidden by pieces of gauze/
veil which are not completely stuck to it. On looking
more closely, it is possible to make out a crowd of faces,
women’s faces it would seem, seen straight on. This
photograph seems to echo the little square photograph
on the left hand side of the sequence underneath,
referred to as «mysterious», the three-quarter portrait of
a little girl, in black and white but entirely covered with
a veil of red colour which allows the image to be seen,
but as if through a film of blood.
Above the two horizontal sequences, between the
sequence of the wound and the upper edge of the canvas
though slightly to the left, is a big horizontal rectangle
of undyed canvas splattered with white stains, and
stuck to the middle of it, a third photograph, horizontal,
three times bigger than the photograph of the crowd
of women’s faces, and relatively sharp and clear. In it
a strange ovoid object stands out boldly on a black
background. All round it are red marks, red numbers, red
At mid-height and further away from the two sequences
she appears to be looking at, is a fourth photograph,
the face of a woman seen in profi le, in black and white,
sharp and clear, this time, and with nothing covering
it. There is the impression that these four photographs,
the little girl, the crowd of women, the ovoid object, the
woman in profi le, which seem to date from another time
than that of the black woman white with dust, start to
plot out the boundaries of a semantic territory.
Below this territory, or rather below the sequence
described as «mysterious» and the lower edge of the
canvas, there is another horizontal rectangle, as big
as the one which contains the ovoid object and the
numbers, and it stands out clearly, on a dusty black
background, like all the elements of the canvas.
But it is very different, mainly because the background
here is blue. In this lower blue rectangle, which at fi rst
I could not make out because the photograph is very
blurred, as if it was really very dusty, and also because
it is covered with pieces of gauze/bandage stuck to
it, which hold in place a piece of soft plastic tubing
linked to the rectangle beside it, the same size as the
photograph, in this blue rectangle, then, there is the
photograph of a standing black man, leaning forward
a bit, protecting his mouth and his nostrils
with a piece of cloth. However it is clear
from the trachea represented by the tube
that dirt, heaps of it, is entering his lungs,
represented by the neighbouring white
rectangle where a jumble of copper
filaments can be made out, beneath the gauze/pleura.
On both sides, innumerable tabs overlap and escape from the
blue rectangle, in these tabs and outside them are words written
in red over those the paint had covered. In the tab closest to
the tube which directs the copper splinters inside the man who
is trying not to breathe them in, can be clearly made out, in red
letters, though a couple are back to front, the word «asphyxie»
The black man and the dust bring me back to the black woman
white with dust of the beginning, on the left, and as my glance
passed from the rectangle with the ovoid shape above to the blue
rectangle with the man who is asphyxiating below, I pass from
the black woman white with dust on the left, to the asphyxiating
black woman on the right, which at first I had not seen at all
because the patch of sunlight on it was so bright that it hid it
and also because at first my eyes had been drawn to the red of
the pockets of blood at the upper left, to the white of the ovoid
shape above and to the red of the wound in the centre, and then
to the blue of the rectangle below. This woman, on the right,
whose open mouth, her nose and neck, photographed in close-up
is as large as that of the black man below, I understand right away
what is happening to her, she is full of copper, she is choking,
there are no more words, there is just a red number, she is going
to die. She would need more blood, the blood in those pockets,
on the left, or from the crowd of women. But it is very dark on
that side, there is no blood, the tubes and the blood do not reach
this far, and she cannot cry out, she is too ill for that, there are no
words, no one can hear her.
Round the man, all those words coming out of the blue rectangle,
they must be cries, must they not? Written in red, the words
would make you think of little cuts in the skin, all more or less
the same size, made with a razor blade or something very sharp,
words written in blood, ailing words, half of them written back to
front, which change, the further you move away from the blue,
upwards towards the other territory, appearing gradually
less as words and looking more like cuts and clawing.
The photograph of the little girl, covered with a veil of
red colour, is surrounded with claw marks. And above
the wound, words become strokes or marks : it looks as
if someone has been counting by adding up the marks.
Higher up, as if to confi rm this, around the ovoid shape,
there are red numbers, which seem to have been written
by juxtaposing little red dots. There are signs as well
(incomprehensible ones) on the ovoid shape, but painted
mechanically, all geometric and regular. The smooth
swelling of this thing is menacing. It is silly to ask
questions like this, but after all, this canvas is telling two
stories at the same time, I need help.
- Pascale, what is that ovoid-shaped thing over there?
She does not answer right away.
- A gas cylinder.
- But then, in that case, why are the numbers not blue?
I would like to ask her why the numbers were not blue.
But this slowness, this scrupulousness, this silence in the
canvas make me keep silent.
- What is it called, this picture?
-11 novembre 2001. (11th November 2001).
I can just see the expressions on some people’s faces;
I can hear the indignation in their voices. - No, really,
that is just far too easy, just take a few photographs
of the 11th September, add a few photographs of
deportees, and the results is 11 novembre, a monster, of
let us see, six million, according to the latest accounts,
plus, two thousand six hundred odd souls. What sort
of arithmetic is that? Monstrous! And what right has
she to lump together victims of the Shoah and victims
of 11th September? And to put it to such squalid,
and sacrilegious use. The Shoah, Madam, cannot be
compared, it cannot be represented, it
cannot be imagined. Due memory, places of memory,
commemorations, archives, testimony. Full stop. You
do not identify with it, Madam. The artist is not even
Jewish, if it comes to that.
- Well, as it happens, she is. But no member of her family
ever perished in the camps. - Ah, well, you see. And even
as a child she kept her origins to herself, very much to
herself. It took her a long time to… Maybe she even had
to paint these canvases in order that fi nally… - Ah, well,
you see – But are you not going to ask me if she was
in New York on the 11th September 2001 or if she lost
someone that day? No? Are you not interested? Just as
well: she was not there and lost no one. -So what does
it have to do with her? - But, you see, it has a lot to do
with her; it concerns and affects her deeply.
As deeply as the terrified eye of Amnésie1 (Amnesia1).
Even as a small child it concerned her, and they would
say to her with brutal thoughtlessness, the Jews, you
know, they made soap of them during the war, and from
the showers, instead of water coming out, there was gas.
I imagine at the beginning of the sixties, the little Jewish
girl looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, looking
at the soap, at the incredible void between herself, the
body and the soap on the edge of the basin, who leaves
without washing and thinks to herself that maybe it
would be better not to try to understand, and that it
would be better, in future, not to say, and nor even to
remember that she is Jewish, not to remember the story
of the soap. Let alone to imagine if those responsible
ever decided to start again...
Some mere forty years or so later at the beginning of
the year 2001, an exhibition called Mémoire des camps
(Memory of the Camps) opens at the Hôtel de Sully, in
Paris. Four extremely rare photographs can be seen in
it; they were taken in secret at Auschwitz by members
of the Sonderkommandos, the squads of deportees in
charge of removing the dead from the gas chambers.
You see naked women waiting, bodies being collected
and then burnt, as it happens, outside in the open air.
The just before and the just after, of the unmentionable.
The site of the unmentionable, the place where it all
happened is only a large black shape, the photograph has
been cropped, and the other photos have been retouched
too. A large black shape. But you can see it.
She hears about the exhibition, but she is far too scared
to go to it. She will not go to it. However she goes to a
bookshop, fi nds the catalogue on a table.
She cannot look for long. Several times she goes back to
the bookshop, looks again and again at the reproductions
of the photos, but very little each time. She does not
buy the catalogue, this is not a matter of buying, of
consuming, of possessing. Everybody is talking about the
exhibition, some question its appropriateness. What are
they trying to prove? And to whom? There is nothing
to prove, that should never be shown precisely even if
all you see is a large black form, the threshold of the
gas chamber is the uncrossable threshold, the gulf in
which our soundings are forbidden, and which must
remain that way, so that the Great Catastrophe shall
forever remain absolute and immemorial. In a magazine,
illustrating an article on the exhibition, she comes across
a photograph of a deportee, ill with typhus, whose gaze
locks with her own. In another magazine, it is a crowd of
women with shaven heads, taken out into a camp yard
for the roll call, that gazes back at her.
And after that, it’s like a landslide. In a few weeks, a few
months, transversely she makes up the ground, which
the collective memory had travelled over in several
decades. She goes to see documentary films, but without
really being able to look at them, fi lms of which she
only retains a couple of images, she looks up books, but
stealthily, a little at a time, collecting small items of
harrowing information, such as on the way they tattooed
the prisoner’s number, puncturing the skin, and causing
drops of wet blood to surface, before the ink was dried.
In a book by Gilles Cohen she hears, for the fi rst time,
about the practice of removing the piece of skin with the
prisoner’s number on it, from the corpses of deportees,
to remove every last trace of their identity.
Other faces follow the fi rst, but it is always the fi rst
one which turns up again, the fi rst eye that looked out
at her. In her canvases she will never show the entire
photograph of this picture. That would be obscene. Only
the eye, and just once, and half covered with a piece of
gauze/veil. She will never show the photograph of the
arm of a deportee, nor the photograph of a prisoner’s
number. The horizontal fragment of an arm in Amnésie1
(Amnesia 1), and used again, vertically this time, in
Voile Rouge (Red Veil), is the fragment of the arm of
a puppeteer photographed by Tina Modotti, the Italian
photographer, and it is again the arm of the puppeteer,
which appears in Fragments. But the women in the
camp yard, the little girl, the woman in profi le, that is
something else, they are alive, they are presences, which,
from the start, for her, stood for the will to live, the will
to face that big black shape and survive.
But then (or fi nally, it could be said), she falls ill from
fear, a retrospective fear of all that happened, fear of
facing the past and the struggle to cope with it, fear
that she, that her identity, will disintegrate under the
shock. For a time she struggles with several expressionist
canvases, Figures internes (Interior Figures) in blue/black
and red on a white background which bear witness to
a sort of «first step» towards physical empathy which
disrupts the body, the organs of the body: the heart,
a burning pocket of blood, is forced upwards into the
throat, there is no fl esh, no skin, no face, the spinal
column is visible, the blackened lungs, the tangle of
entrails. Somewhere she read the story of a woman in
the Warsaw ghetto who, with her own hands, had had to
put her husband’s insides back into his body after he had
been disembowelled by a soldier.
Everything is just Fragments (Fragments) inside,
fragments split apart by terror. (With hindsight she thinks
of Eva Hesse.) She wants to hear what the bodies have
to say, what the eye of Amnésie 1 (Amnesia 1) has to say
but the paint covers over the words, the paint just does
the opposite of what she wants, of what she does not yet
know she wants, she is sucked in, she repeats the horror,
she daubs words, she effaces them, with her fi nger she
makes in the pigment the action of removing the part
of skin, she creates nothing, as if she were paralysed,
perhaps she is even censoring herself.
And yet the traces of exactions are still fresh, the blood
is still wet, we are still in the land of the living. And
Exactions (Exactions), which is like an ordered closeup
of Amnésie1/2 (Amnesia 1/2), also seems a means
of escaping this fate of repetition : she continues, her
confi dence returns, I imagine, it is a long slow business,
from canvas to canvas, the months pass. Might there be
a need to put a dressing on these exactions, is she really,
literally, calling for an Amnisty (Amnesty)? Or is it a
way of saying that it is time, time to stop causing those
wounds to bleed eternally, time to place these events
once more in their historical perspective, so that fi nally
they can be mourned?
At the moment when, intuitively, and like so many artists
of the second, and specially the third generation, she
no longer tries to represent, but rather to relate to this
past, which escapes her and from witch, maybe, she was
cut by the overfl ow of collective memory, something
happens, now, on the 11th September 2001. Something
which, obviously, no one would dream of considering
comparable to the extermination of the Jews, but
which, in its own way, contains its own measure of
unmentionable, unphotographable, unrepresentable.
She is sapped by the illness caused by fear, and by
months of work, when into her consciousness the two
unmentionables, the two unrepresentables collide with
each other. The rush of blood pockets to Ground Zero
suddenly echoes, right under her eyes, the will to live
embodied by the women of the camp.
Voile rouge (Red Veil), painted in this momentum, should
perhaps be called quite simply Transfusion. It is, she
says, what the little girl of 11 novembre 2001 sees from
behind her red veil. But what is the use of all that blood
being donated when there are no bodies? The blood
comes out of the bodies of the living, passes through
the tubes, but at the other end, there are no bodies. In
New York, as in Auschwitz, there are no bodies. Before,
the crowd marched down the avenues of New York,
after, there were no bodies, just ash and dust. What are
the people who will never be able to claim those bodies
supposed to do?
It is not ideal, but that is how it is, it needed that,
before her eyes, in the present, in order for the emotions
released by the past to be able fully to resound in her, so
that what was feeling would become knowledge. Now
The canvas entitled 11 novembre 2001 (11th November 2001) is, it seems
to me, the transitional space she has created for her own use to formulate
anew this re-experience, lived as much as it was possible, given the
passage of time. In order to understand, writes Georges Didi-Hubermann
in the catalogue of the exhibition Mémoire des camps (Memories of
the Camps), which she has not read, - in order to understand, you have
to imagine. And to imagine is in no way to forget, quite the opposite.
It is perhaps the only way for artists of today to share in the process of
Of course it was to take her several more months to reach the point at
which this re-experience would allow her to reformulate her own identity.
First of all it was a matter of getting rid of the copper.
Amongst other things that had struck her, she had learned that inside the
gas cylinders there were crystals or fl akes, which, on being heated, gave
off the toxic gas. Inside the lungs, she imagined in 11 novembre (11th
November) they became like splinters, copper splinters which clawed at
everything inside, the way exactions (exactions) clawed the skin. Like the
dust of the charred towers, the ashes in the lungs of the people in New
York. These copper scrapings can be found imprisoned in the traces of
the dead breaths of Souffl es (Breaths) under the little gauze rectangles.
Souffl es (Breaths), which is like a large close-up of the breathing of
the woman who is asphyxiating in the right half of 11 Novembre (11th
November) The copper splinters, the charred ash, it is all over the place,
even in her own Arbre respiratoire, (Respiratory Tree) blackened by
residues of fear.
It would take her several months more, for the mourning for what had
so brutally taken place in her to be able to resolve itself, time for her to
paint the canvases, time for her to rid her lungs of the copper and get
her breath back, time for the fl uids to settle, for the blood to fl ow again,
so that mouth and nose could once more breathe in confi dently, for the
colours to return, for words to appear again, the right way round, and
legible, time for Compassion to irrigate all the way through the recovered
interior territory, for the creamy whites, the green and orange fi bres, the
colours of water and fl esh to confi rm the renewal.
- Do you see this blue? she said, turning towards Amnesie 2 (Amnesia 2).
- It’s Casablanca.
- Casablanca? But what about that blue then, in 11 novembre?
- I know, it’s almost the same blue as the sky of New York, at the time of
the explosions. But it’s Casablanca.
When she was six years old, from one day to the next, they had to leave
And mourn for Casablanca and the orange trees Daddy would never plant.
How could such a catastrophe happen in such a blue sky? wondered the
little girl who preferred not to remember the story of the soap.
Now she remembers everything, and everything is in its place in the large
green geographic map of Célébration (Celebration).
- A celebration of what, in fact?
- Of reconnections, she said. You see the little girl there, smiling? It’s me.
Nadine Satiat - September 2003
Biographer and writer
L'Oubli des Mots / The Missing Words -
Exhibition and catalog - Odapark, Venray, The Netherlands