WHITE OUT, installation shot, 2002

Esther Shalev-Gerz, WHITE OUT, 2002, installation view

If you haven’t been already, why not make your way up the hill of the UBC campus to see the enthralling journeys and harrowing pictures presented at the Belkin Gallery? In this solo exhibition, the artist Esther Shalev-Gerz, challenges both the representation of cultural identity and conventions of photography.

For instance, the installation WHITE OUT (documented above), is the result of Shalev-Gerz’s interview with a woman who identifies as Sami (an indigenous people mostly inhabiting Northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia), and the artist’s discovery that there is no word for ‘war’ in the Sami language. On one screen, the interviewee talks about the difficulties of growing up on a remote Sami island and cultural affinities she felt with Finns and Norwegian because of the military prominence of Sweden historically, and on another screen, she listens to the answers she provided to the artist’s questions, therefore acting as both audience and actor, witnessing and performing her cultural identity.

Esther Shalev-Gerz, Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz, 1945-2005, 2005, Photo: Nora Rapp

Between Listening and Telling: Last Witnesses, Auschwitz, 1945-2005, 2005, Photo: Nora Rapp

In Between Listening and Telling (2005), Shalev-Gerz explores cultural memory and the difficulty – or even impossibility – of putting into words its most difficult manifestations. The work is an empathetic sequence of portraits taken of survivors from German concentration camps in the Second World War, and it was created on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.The work – especially as it is presented at the Belkin gallery, with its rows of portraits slowly replacing one another – is powerful precisely because of what isn’t said. Each individual in the work was asked questions about their life before, during and after the Second World War, but the artist edited the footage to simply keep segments where the interviewees gather their thoughts and prepare to speak.

One can only guess what more records of the camps can still emerge, as the number of survivors gets closer and closer to zero every year, and the gasps, sighs and pauses marking first-hand, lived experiences slowly disappear.

Following Shalev-Gerz’s form of expression through omission, how can we think of expressing absence as a way to acknowledge and pay respect to the gravity of a historical event? Can you think of a way of expressing the importance of an event by not referencing it directly? By highlighting its absence?