Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Problem With India Zegan: Schmatte

India Zegan gave me two things to read: Marguerite Duras’s ‘The Cutter-Off of Water’ and a short story by Aleksandar Hemon. Here is some of Hemon’s story ‘Szmura’s Room’:
‘As small as the room was, it echoed with emptiness. Bogdan parked his suitcases flat in the windowless corner, took a sheet and blanket out of the unroped one, and spread them under the murky window – unequipped with mattress or duvet, this was where he would sleep. The room resembled an installation in a vacuous art gallery: the reflection of the ceiling bulb on the wood floor signifying the false surface of existence, the felled suitcases embodying the transitory nature of life – or, more specifically, the life of the subject, shrimped up in the corner against a bare, mispainted wall. Naturally it was very funny. During another poker game at Szmura’s…everyone filed into Bogdan’s chamber and found the installation uproariously amusing: they guffawed to the verge of retching and fell to the existential floor, while Bogdan sat in his corner, perplexed by all the wisecracks about his artsy-fartsiness.’
Bogdan is an immigrant clinging to the fringes of his new world. The poker players laugh because his room is exactly what it looks to be. It suggests artifice but is devoid of any. Bogdan’s room is just coincidentally a mannered tableau, a memento-mori of his tenuous existence.
Szmura is Bogdan’s landlord and flatmate. Szmura’s own room, he tells Bogdan, mustn’t be entered, even with an invitation. He suggests Bogdan think of the room as a minefield. Bogdan collects the notes Szmura leaves out for him: “Rent due Tuesday” and “The fireplace is not real.” Later, inexplicably, the notes are written in verse form:
“The door is either / Open or locked/ I like / Locked.”

Bogdan’s voice has been left back in the Bosnian conflict, where as a Ukrainian national, he was an oddity of a different sort. He is locked out of where he is, as well as where he was. Bogdan’s silence is bound up in place. His room is silent even though it simulates speech.
Marguerite Duras’s short piece ‘The Cutter-Off of Water’ tells the story of a young family also on the fringe of existence. A man, doing his job, cuts off their unpaid for water supply and tragedy ensues. Of the woman who dies without publicly protesting, Duras writes, ‘If she had explained herself she wouldn’t have interested me.’ For Duras it is a story of silence: missing and forgotten speech, absent protests. Duras considers the lost words:
‘Those three words, the last before the implementation of death, were the equivalent of those people’s silences all their lives. But no one has remembered what those words were.’
It is the missing words that India Zegan is interested in too.
India Zegan makes mementoes for places in which trauma has occurred. In a 2001 installation in the grim cells of Sydney’s Old Children’s Court, Zegan exhibited a pencil the size of a child. Another work, site/unseen, consisted of concrete cast into maps of Adelaide beats where a series of gruesome murders occurred in the 1970s and 80s. It is silenced voices and the places in which they were silenced that Zegan returns to again and again. Zegan speculates on the missing words and insists on doing so in the face of art’s inability to alter what has occurred. More than that, Zegan’s artworks directly engage with art’s own silent and muffled responses to other people’s trauma. Zegan asks what art can do beyond memorialising. The problem with India Zegan is that she doesn’t make it easy for us, or for herself. She asks if art fails: if the methods and mannerisms of art get in the way of our seeing of Bogdan’s room. 
‘schmatte’ is named after the Polish and Yiddish word for rag. Guantanamo-orange schmatty are rolled up like bandages and lined up above a makeshift residence. Zegan has staged for us a meeting of art and a life where the water has been cut off. 
Marguerite Duras, ‘The Cutter-Off of Water’ from Practicalities, trans. B. Blay, Harper Collins, London, 1991, pp 90-94
Aleksandar Hemon, ‘Szmura’s Room’, The New Yorker, New York, June 14 & 21, 2004, pp 96-107

Schmatte (Szmura's room), 2004, First Draft Gallery, Sydney
Photography: Ian Hobbs

Lynne Barwick
Sydney, Firstdraft Gallery, August 2004 

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