Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Karl Nussbaum's "Days on End"


Karl Nussbaum recently presented his new video installation, Days on End in the VCCA Studio Barn. A visual accounting of a five-year period, the installation is a dreamlike and lyrical montage of images drawn from nature and Karl’s personal family history.

As the sun goes down, the audience waits outside the barn and then the big wooden doors roll open to reveal a huge, translucent screen slowly billowing in the wind as video footage is projected on it. Below the title, Days on End, fades into a subtitle: Europe 1938-1944 and then dissolves to read: New York 2010 - 2015A glowing orb is vaguely visible behind the translucent plastic screen. Moving through the huge doors and past the screen into the dark barn, the audience enters a strange, glowing dream scape and realizes that the 10’ orb that seems to magically float in mid-air is actually a giant, white weather balloon slowly turning as multiple videos are projected onto it. The installation piece is composed of two separate videos: one for the huge rectangular plastic screen (“I think of it as a window” says Karl) and three versions of the same film projected onto the globe, staggered so different images overlap in random ways. 

At first, we first see images of ordinary family life: newborn babies, toddlers learning to walk, an older family member in a wheelchair, and family portraits used to “mark specific days important to all families: birthdays, graduations, weddings, illness, death” explains Karl. Intertwined with the modern family timeline, New York  2010-2015, are ethereal, disparate and cosmic images: NASA photographs of world wind patterns, blood pumping in veins, two languorous swimmers who seem to circle the earth, a boy’s hand with electricity surging around it.

Interwoven with the modern day is another timeline: Europe 1938-1943, which marks days in the life of Karl’s German/Jewish family: Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when his uncle Erwin, age 17, was arrested and deported to the Bergen-Belson concentration camp; the day his father and sister (age 14 and 16) escaped Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport train to Belgium; the date his grandparents were deported including the specific train transport number. 

His father and aunt would eventually escape into Switzerland towards the end of the war, but his uncle and grandparents were not so lucky. All three were murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Studio portraits of this winsome and tragic trio, full of hope and vitality float across the surface of the globe and the translucent screen. Forever young, their unrealized potential pulsates out towards the viewer. As the family events of the present drift by, they are “interrupted by black spaces and the specific dates concerning my other family. We see their portraits and then they slowly fade away into blackand we’re back to today’s mundane events. It’s a hole, which signifies a break in time and a break in the family,” says Karl.

The piece is loosely organized so that in one timeline, babies, toddlers and children are projected on the orb, while the elderly, adults and young adults are projected on the plastic screen. One timeline goes forward as the other timeline goes backward, drawing a connection between Karl’s family life and his father’s family life.

The soundtrack features a haunting, almost ominous swelling sound that seems to suggest something both otherworldly and natural. This short musical phrase repeats over and over as it slowly, imperceptibly breaks down over time, like days on end. This is occasionally punctuated by the opening bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a reference to his mother’s favorite film and the escape to another world. 

“I’ve been drawing pictures and dreaming about this project for over a year," says Karl. "This is the first time I’ve been able to set it all up in such a huge space. It really worked the way I had hoped and the things that didn’t work were even better than I could ever have imagined.“ Karl loves all the serendipitous interferences: the wind rippling the plastic sheeting, distorting the image and even causing it to cover the projector momentarily, people walking in front of the projected image so their shadows are cast onto the globe and appear amid the images, etc. These subtly alter the piece while inserting a bit of real life into it. “The audience becomes part of the piece”.

“After a friend recently died, there was a short obit. Their entire life was condensed into four or five sentences. You think about their life and the memories and how much life actually went on between that period and the beginning of the next sentence—it’s a tiny little space on the page, but in reality, it's years. It made me think of the highlights of one’s life, the events, the things, the people, the arc of life. What stands out; your first step, first word, little things that you remember.”

Karl says, “There is no one to remember my uncle Erwin. His entire Holocaust history was unknown to us until recently….While I was in my father’s hometown in Germany to do a performance, I went to the local archive…and I found new information about Erwin that helped me to finally put the entire story of my German family together. The first time I saw my uncle Erwin projected on the globe,” he continues. “I started to cry… I felt like “you’re back on the planet. Someone is remembering you.“

I don’t know whether it was the glowing orb in the black void and the “music of the spheres” soundtrack, but I had the sensation of being in outer space. This was reinforced by what looked like a sprinkling of stars on the orb, which turned out to be a by-product of Karl’s aging projector. "It's an old projector
the pixels are dying out," he explains. But I wonder if there is something to this extraterrestrial association. They say that if you could travel faster than the speed of light you could go into deep space and see images of the past as they were happeningin a sense, catch up with time. This seems to perfectly embody the yearning to reach out and connect with the past—with one’s lost family—that radiates forth from Days on End.

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