Alan Cohen, Now (Death Camps - Auschwitz-Birkenau), 1994
Smart Museum of Art
I’m Christine Mehring, co-curator of this exhibition. Let’s explore Alan Cohen’s photograph “Now (Death Camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau)” with Hindley Wang, a student in my spring seminar on abstraction.
Crushed gravel lays bare on the ground, it is the ground. The crisp resolution produced from the fixated rendering of the ground, entraps the viewer in a troubled position. Pictorial depth is unsettled, a sense of distance is withheld, making it hard to look. This photograph requires constant refocusing and readjustment precisely because almost every part is in focus.
In 1994, the artist Alan Cohen made the journey to the site of the death camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau. His mission was to surface the earth of our past as a record of memory, not as an act of witness. Returning to the subtle gleam of the silver print, something beyond the gravel seems to be dried and drained under the sun. Deprived of vitality and drenched immortality. The individual gravel pieces stand as tiny monuments to traces of diminished memory, how to reconcile the earth and the world, memory and witness, the now and the past. On the significance of now, Walter Benjamin once reflected on the attitude towards the future in Jewish tradition, that the Torah instructed not to look into the future, so that it does not turn into flat and empty time. In his words, every second was the narrow gate through which the Messiah could enter. The question of now becomes at once historical, spatial, and physical.
Long Image DescriptionLong descriptions are text versions of the information provided in a detailed or complex image, like the image above.
An expanse of gravel fills this vertically-oriented rectangular black-and-white photograph. The rocks appear larger and more crisply defined at the bottom of the photograph and increasingly smaller and blurrier towards the top. Tiny shadows between rocks interrupt the lighter gray of the rocks’ outward-facing surfaces. Certain patches of the gravel expanse, mostly in the left half of the photograph and especially at bottom left, appear darker than others. Four rocks seem to rest on top of the gravel, larger than most of the others and casting larger shadows. The largest, roughly wedge-shaped, stands almost halfway down the photograph, slightly to the right. Another, roughly cylindrical, stands near the top, about halfway across. Just below and to the left of this one, a third rock, its right half in shadow, stands up from the ground more, whereas a fourth, with a very pale surface and a scantier shadow, lies flat.