Transmissions of Dispersion: Daniel Blaufuks
Since the early 1990s, Daniel Blaufuks has been making photographic works hinging on (and off of) the written word, a practice that evolved to video by the late 1990s and eventually into books. These three main elements of Blaufuks' multi-disciplinary practice were apparent in All The Memory of the World, Part One, his second solo show at Chiado's Contemporary Art Museum in Lisbon, on view from December 2014 through March 2015.
The show began on the second floor with a large table of Blaufuks' inspirations, including volumes by Perec, Sebald, Warburg, and Richter. Surrounding this table were photographs of objects. The history of objects is a significant point of departure for Blaufuks, who photographs his grandparents' belongings as a method of distilling history and the unique passages of a buried culture of exile.
Born in Lisbon, Blaufuks grew up in the same building as his grandparents: Polish-German Jews who settled in Lisbon after fleeing Germany in 1936. As many as 200,000 refugees passed through the port capital during WWII, and Blaufuks’ grandparents are among the 50 who stayed in Lisbon.
Blaufuks situates his grandparents’ history at the center of a model that questions the chaotic nature of archives. The transmission of information within shared objects alludes to the experiences of dispersion. He photographs both everyday items such as an agenda or a spoon as well as recognizable artifacts of an economy of horror—eye glasses, watches—scavenged from prisoners. There is another reference to this is a collage that includes a photograph of a pile of gold teeth and soap.
A Steady Presence
Jewish culture has been an inextricable component of Iberian diversity, notably in Majorca where the presence of prosperous Jews is found as far back as the third century BC.1 Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first monarch, established a tradition of Jewish treasurers to the royal court that lasted for centuries, beginning with Yahia Ben Yahi III in 1139, who was also First Chief Rabbi of Portugal.
Although there are records of pogroms in Portugal in the 1300s, the Alhambra Decree2, signed in 1492, officialized the expulsion of Jews from Spain. Belmonte, a historic hillside Portuguese parish, became a central point of refuge. Belmonte traces its Jewish heritage to 1297 and is the largest Portuguese community of Crypto-Jews, who preserved their Judaism in secrecy for more than 400 years.3
Shortly after the invasion of Poland, Salazar declared Portugal neutral territory in 1939, but forbid entry to all refugees, especially “stateless Jews.” Foreigners were allowed to enter Portugal only with visas to another country, and with boat or plane tickets pre-purchased for final destinations. Immediately after the Nazi invasion of Paris on June 14, 1940, Jewish citizens wasted no time seeking an escape south, via the only available southern port: Lisbon. The largest numbers of Jewish refugees entered Portugal legally on the Sud Express, at its first stop in Portugal—Vilar Formoso, then a quiet rural village close to the Spanish border.
Within a week, Aristide Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, violated orders and approved thousands of visas for refugees who entered Portugal at Vilar Formoso.4 Sousa Mendes was promptly relieved of his post, but the 38,000 people who made it to Portugal before his visas became invalid escaped France.5
It is against this complex matrix of contradiction and survival that Blaufuks' grandparents found themselves in Portugal, within a culture in which Jewish customs had, only a century before, survived rurally and in secrecy. Emerging from this background of exile, Blaufuks attempts to stabilize a system of meaning culled from family objects, historical sources, and cultural fragments.
“The photograph is a vault of many cabinets, each with its own key. As these keys are lost or eventually found again, the value of the photograph changes.” —Daniel Blaufuks
The most compelling work in the exhibition is a four and a half hour video titled As If, 2014. For As If, Blaufuks shot contemporary footage of the Terezín ghetto in the Czech Republic, and interspersed this with several sources: a 1944 Nazi propaganda film, Alfred Radok's Distant Journey (1949), and Zbynek Brynych's Transport from Paradise (1962). There are other, smaller inclusions, but these four visual sources were edited and intercut to four and a half hours—roughly the amount of time that it took the Red Cross to visit Terezín in 1944 and leave convinced that Jewish mistreatment was not a reality at the Terezín holding station.
Blaufuks presents the speed of his original footage6 as a languid dispruption of the contemporary experience of a site where guides lead tourists and school groups through its remnants. His footage is padded with the sounds of birds, passing cars, and the refrain of wordless human movement.
This sense of the everyday is strategically infiltrated by the voice of an audio guide, detailing some of the events at Terezín, using neutral words and descriptions of exactitude without referencing horror. I wonder if the audio tours at Terezín mention how people still found the courage to form small acts of resistance:
“In the Theresienstadt Ghetto, to which more than 140,000 Jews were deported, a group of teenage boys produced, in greatest secrecy, a weekly magazine: each issue had to be copied out by hand in an attic. Younger children were encouraged to draw and paint: most of them were later deported to their deaths at Auschwitz, but the art classes and the stage plays and the musical compositions that marked their short, tormented lives in the ghetto were in themselves acts of resistance: the resistance of the human spirit, its refusal to allow itself to be reduced to the level of beasts or slaves.” —Martin Gilbert 7
Interspersed with real-time footage are clips of the staged Nazi film’s “dream ghetto:” happy Jews in a fictional village, receiving expert care in outdoor hospital beds filled with sun. Others flirt harmlessly at a café, while others window shop in the street. Subliminally, the visual presentation of people in this “model ghetto” was in contrast to Nazi standards of physical beauty and perfection. Notably absent are the stoic, physically fit bodies of fascist ideals and eros, eyes full of promise.
Instead, people look disheveled despite smiling, elegance is betrayed by physical gauntness, and the film focuses on faces whose gazes are unstable, lending an air of untrustworthiness. Blaufuks makes complete use of these subliminal messages, juxtapositioning them with the physical indifference of tourist bodies, and the cold descriptions of events by the audio guide—an assortment of thoroughly disinfected rememorizations.
The exhibition also includes framed photo collages, grouped according to themes: The Victim's Fingernails, The Way to Auschwitz, Piles of Gold Teeth and Poor-Quality Soap, The Voyage of Gaspard Winckler [Perec], and Austerlitz IV [Sebald]. It is in these collages made from photographs culled from a variety of sources that Blaufuks confronts the impossibility of the archive. In the sequencing of these arrays, he presents divisible layers of meaning as interchangeable holes in which to lose more of what we think we know.
In a Discreetly Symbolic Place
Chiado’s Contemporary Art Museum is in a converted Franciscan convent, which until the 1960s housed the National Library of Portugal. Nine thousand of its volumes were destroyed in Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake, long before the convent became a museum in 1911.
In all the Borgean references to the accumulation of human knowledge, and even with a blatant shout-out to Alain Resnais’ work about the National Library of France, the Library of Portugal and its loss are omitted from this installation—an occurrence most likely irrelevant to the artist’s goals, though I couldn’t help remembering this well-known fact.
When it comes to the collective loss of documents and objects—either by natural calamity as public as the Library of Portugal, or by architected persecution such as Terezín youth making magazines in obscurity—it is really our capacity for hope that is at stake. Not our memories, nor the archivist’s desire to accumulate without discernment—it is our will and willingness to invest in our own meanings and ideals that are at play. Without forms of preservation, a culture is left spineless.
Clearing a Path
Acknowledging the inherent blurriness of archives, Blaufuks uses photography to showcase an archeology of gaps, skips, and tangents to clear a path. In Tout la Memoire du Monde, Resnais affirms that “an incomplete collection loses its value.” Whereas the incomplete points to a loss of value, Blaufuks’ work asserts value not in completion, but in surveying the inevitable gaps that accompany survival. The political ramifications of exile in Lisbon are merely one way of entering how images make humans subservient to all the trappings and releases of constructing a memorable, tangible future. And there’s no doubt that Blaufuks’ work is entirely focused on a future.