Since the early 1970’s Gerda Meyer Bernstein has produced work that tweaks the genetic material of sculpture, installation, and even performance art, more recently in tandem with the late gallerist and friend Ingrid Fassbender, who continued to represent the artist after closing her gallery in 2003. Meyer Bernstein worked in 2 and 3 dimensions but is more widely known for her combinative work that interrogated the history of antisemitism and repression narratives of ethnicity and gender. Her work on the Holocaust is exceptionally resolute and laudable.
Apart from political and historical subjects she incorporates a principal thrust of late modernism, manifested in negation. Often this is expressed with common debased materials, found objects, and text to verify that official culture, which tends to be clad in refined garments, is often culpable for social adversity. Meyer Bernstein’s work is vigorously anti-elitist – a multi-layered, sometimes startling precursor of the moral, psychological, and sociological scope of social practice artists. Her reflection on the extended casualties of warfare captured in “Tribunal,” is an acknowledgement of the dim formality of justice for missing victims.
Meyer Bernstein’s personal history and her subject are inseparable. Those familiar with her work also know her history, her reasons for becoming an artist, her selection of humanitarian subjects, her energy and enthusiasm for living in the face of crises.
The artist just turned 100. At the age of 16, she was driven from the horror of World War II Germany. She witnessed Kristallnacht, escaped on one of the last Kindertransports to London and vowed that if she made it out alive, she would commit her work to speaking out about fascism and human rights transgressions. Her daughter Carolyn shared that, “She has kept her childhood vow – in America she discovered art and for 72 years has been addressing global injustice through her work.”
While Meyer Bernstein has presented difficult work on Hiroshima, Apartheid, the Vietnam War, Bangladesh, and assembled multiple memorials to refugees, asylum seekers, and victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, some of her most trenchant works replicate the fetid debris of Nazi death camps, subjects of brutality and amorality never quite absorbed into the rest of the technologically assisted, atrocity-laden history that regrettably accompanies modernism.
Installations like “Block 11” revealed the fatigued banality of place that threatens our gaze much differently than atrocities we know from cinematic spectacle. One of Bernstein’s most powerful works, it was constructed of a cordoned pile of suitcases with the names of those being tortured in the designated title chamber. The realization that a place so equated with brutality had a separate room dedicated for supplementary torture is crushing.
Films about the Holocaust are numerous but in a medium so dense with the objectification of history, one can become distanced from the complexity of the subject and the understanding that fascism is still an existential threat. Meyer Bernstein’s installations don’t imitate reality and don’t have conclusions or expiration dates. They fill a room with uncertainty – a subversive act based on living memory that becomes a frank discussion in real space.
If a primary thrust of late modernism manifests itself through negation, with the attendant debased materials and ruptured surfaces that recovered the critique of social values through Dada, then what of Meyer Bernstein’s use of their dark profiles repeatedly embedded in her installations? The use of an imperfect neo-avant-garde entablature makes sense as the Holocaust led philosophers to proclaim it as the end of history. Her informal language is in synch with the questioning of unchecked progressive change and the exposing of oppressive narratives embedded in an otherwise positive civil age.
Remarkably, Meyer Bernstein bridges the authority of art theory with basic public intelligence about the staggering paradoxes of 20th Century history, (generally touted as liberating and victorious) ones that still resonate today, while touching a nerve regarding private tragedies of her viewers. In a 2000 Fassbender Gallery catalog, Dean of Columbia University School of the Arts Carol Becker laid out complex objectives in Bernstein’s work. “Gerda Meyer Bernstein seeks to represent this “other world” – a world of moral outrage and moral obligation – a place of “experience,” as William Blake might call it, a psychic state in desperate need of redemption. In her work we are forced to acknowledge those acts of unbearable pain that the species has inflicted on itself. We must inevitably ask: What is our responsibility as humans to each other? How do we break the silence surrounding massive injustice? How can artists recreate or give form to profound historical disaster? Can it be accomplished so the viewer does not turn away, does not flee from the enormity of the trauma?”
Becker’s comments assert that apart from the language of critical theory absorbed by contemporary art Meyer Bernstein speaks to those on the periphery, clearly valuing the estimation of culture by “ordinary humans.” The vividness of Meyer Bernstein’s installations are certainly symbolic, given the profundity of her subjects, but ordinary narrative is fragmented and adrift in her spaces. While it would be coarse to provide a critique of her work based on form, content is expanded persuasively by the restrained nature of her craft and by adopting a near vernacular arrangement of objects and space that speaks to the uninitiated.
The moral outrage Becker refers to that threatens to “push viewers away” is likely channeled by a strategy of virtual reliquaries. Through them Meyer Bernstein moves the catastrophic from an official public discourse to an intimate space that includes narratives on the perimeter of the artworld. This commemorative context allows one to consider the subject of the Holocaust, human trafficking, or Apartheid for an extended public, not unlike the goals of contemporary social practice artists. She highlights the increasing anxiety about further threats to democracies in publics that already imagine a future submerged in global climate change, the effects of which will deeply task both vulnerable and affluent populations.
Meyer Bernstein’s work congers ghosts of the 20th century, which are still at play in the present. A wall piece that displays her adept print history and penchant for paradox is “Hommage à Raoul Wallenberg.” Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat and humanitarian, who intervened in the deportation of almost 100,000 Hungarian Jews slated to be shipped to Poland later in the war. Misshapen black and white photographs of Nazi rallies, refugees, and an x-ray portrait of the teenage artist are distributed across the fabric bordered at the bottom by scores of leather gloves and at the top, curiously, a row of peacock feathers. The collage of dimly silhouetted photographs on a tattered electric blanket speaks to his inexplicable internment in a Soviet labor camp and subsequent disappearance. The Wallenberg incident is a particularly mystifying chapter of the Holocaust, given his capture by the allied Soviet troops as they arrived to liberate Budapest. Viewers are faced with a double-edged symbol of the War in a particularly vivid champion whose life was not only extinguished, but never accounted for.
Rather than alarming or numbing viewers, the collaged textile encourages one to think hard. It articulates how aberrance can mature under ordinary objects and even in reasonable circumstances. It says that the commonplace is easily corrupted and such corruption is difficult to flesh out, even over time. Meyer Bernstein continues to exploit ordinary images and objects like tables, chairs, books, chains, straw – basically 3-dimensional fragments of classic collage images – in solemn arrangements that employ the fragmented, multi-view, labor intensive, internal and external experiences that disrupt memory in the pursuit of truth.
As Meyer Bernstein expanded the range of historical and political subjects in her career, the nature of her installations and the contours of her compositions became less periodized and more critical (even diagnostic). Such is the austere 2006 installation “Untold Story” that consists of 24 hospital cots in stark minimalist alignment, prepared to process an anonymous stream of wounded and dead in non-stop conflicts that just aren’t sensational enough for media coverage.
“Gaza Tunnel,” a more recent work is pertinent to the current headlines on the West Bank. The decades-old Gaza Strip’s network of tunnels are designed to provide basic needs like construction materials, fuel, and medical supplies. Harsh trade and travel restrictions have led to the proliferation of tunnels on the border, which then also enable retribution by Hamas.
The installation responds to a generation of ethnic strife and antipathy that defines the region. The tunnel walls are constructed of hundreds of bundled books on various subjects that the artist found inspirational. With them she challenges the idea that the historic clash of identities and claims of territory can only result in a cultural impasse. On one hand the bundled books seem to represent a conversation about civil society that cannot take root. Meyer Bernstein suggests, however, that open access to communication and education is the only way to forestall another generation of ethnic and economic disaster. The presence of a library in this context is a radical sign that taps vital humanist and aesthetic discourses. It’s contemplative and it’s activist, a mixture of instinct and intellect deferred in sectarian politics but borderless and migratory in art.