Rachel Hode Sutin
This collection of portraits are paintings of relatives that I have never met.
One pair is labeled as my great, great grandfather, Moishe Shale Abrookyn and his wife Rachel Hode Sutin of Smilovichi, Belarus. But while the portraits are labeled as my relatives, originally the paintings are of strangers, created by unknown artist(s) and held in the archives of the Center For Jewish History.
And, adding another layer, the paintings hanging in the exhibit are also forgeries that I made based off of the original physical paintings, and then labeled as portraits of my family members.
This exhibit asks, if I’ve never seen a picture of a long dead relative then how can I picture them? If they are only a few stories passed down from their living descendants, or just some names on various documents, can they be represented by representations left behind by a stranger? If they are unattributed, lacking even a signature, how free are we to adapt these characters to stories of our own?
Moishe Shale Abrookyn
All Roads Lead to Albany
As you enter an exhibit, you see a rusty mailbox before you.
You may notice that inside the mailbox are dozens of envelopes written by Augusta Melville addressed to various people. All of them are two dimensional. With only a back and a front, they contain nothing, so what feels and looks like an envelope cannot ever be opened.
They are contentless, but what about the way they connect to each other? One of the envelopes is addressed to Miss Van Rensselaer of Albany, New York. While it makes sense that she would be writing a letter to her cousin, the contents of which is freely available on the NYPL’s website, something wedged in the back of the mailbox questions that. It’s an old copy of Moby Dick, and within its pages is wild marginalia and the notes of a conspiracy theorist. Literally, between the lines of the book, their writer connects the dots to reveal Stephen Van Rensselaer’s scheme to turn the entire world into Albany, New York. And, like most ridiculous conspiracy theory, it goes all the way to the top -- involving an entire gang of Van Rensselaer's descendants, including Melville, Edith Wharton, and suffragette and women’s education advocate, Martha Van Rensselaer.
The idea for the exhibit comes from a joke-theory that my family has. That everyone is actually from Albany. To explain, my Mom’s side of the family has lived in Albany for over a century, and my Mom has a knack at connecting anyone we ever meet back to Albany. For example, I’ll make a new friend, and suddenly my mom will tell me that my aunt went to prom with his uncle.
So, as this and other bits of evidence suggests, clearly everyone is from Albany. Which is, of course, untrue because contrary to popular belief, most people are from China and India -- and not Albany.
The silly conclusion can still fool people because it still sort of makes sense if you ignore most of the world. It operates by taking a few weird stories that stand out, selecting a narrative detail, and then stretching what we have to fit together, picking away what doesn’t fit as we go, and finally presenting evidence to support the claim that everyone is from Albany, New York.
This process is actually a long studied psychological phenomena called “confirmation bias.” Which is the tendency many of us have to take evidence that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, and disregard the overwhelming amount of evidence that contradicts what we want to find. A good conspiracy story, with its cherry picked evidence, is eaten up by believers because it helps put words to an indescribable feeling a lot of people have that something isn’t right. And since conspiracy theorizing relies on wildly rearranging elements of reality, it seems grounded in a reality that can be shared -- as opposed to something that is built entirely on outright hallucinations, which are hard to describe, and so hard to share with others.
In a world filled with wild conspiracy theories, I’d like to show how they work. Because they do work, and we need to understand them, so we can satirize them. And maybe, show people all the bullshit hidden under a tiny bit of topsoil laid down over it.
“Life Itself is a Quotation.”
- Jorge Luis Borges.
On the NYPL’s digital archive, I discovered the work of Lewis Wickes Hine. He is a 20th century photographer who captured a series of a diverse group of emigrants right as they disembarked onto Ellis Island. The images are up-close and personal, and along with the picture he added a short written biography about the subject of his gaze.
The summaries remind me of a poem. And like a poem, the words collage into something that is more than the sum of its parts. Something similar to Hine’s attempt to tell the stories of these immigrants. Through the poems I have written for each image, and added to the borders to look like source code ways, I highlight conflict between biographical history and memoir -- where artifact and memory blend into different narrative structures. With the original image and my collages hanging side by side, someone going through this exhibit can become a part of this discussion. Between the two works, they can write a poem, or whatever they want, using permanent markers hanging nearby, as a response on the wall.
Some poems by famous writers, such as this one, will already be written on the wall, just so visitors won’t have to feel pressured to go first.
“The Three Oddest Words
When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.
When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.
When I pronounce the word nothing,
I make something no nonbeing can hold.”
― Wislawa Szymborska
To Life, to Life, L'Chaim
Since my dad was visiting, and he hadn’t been to the Met in decades, we decided to go. The many artifacts there are keys into the past -- to the people who had visited those objects in the museum, to the people who had one owned (or stole) them, or to people making up the objects themselves." The japanese katana swords pierced the glass of their display and got us talking about Uma Thurman’s sword from Kill Bill Vol. 1. But the one association that only became relevant the next day was a painting that caught my eye in the modern art gallery of the museum.
Marc Chagall is one of our favorite painters because, at least for me, he embeds Jewish history in its wild yet familiar shapes, midrashic imagery, and the battle and coexistence between vibrance colors -- light and darkness. That’s why a visually similar similar painting caught my eye. It was by an artist Chaim Soutine -- a fellow yid, of course, I thought -- so I took a picture of the wall text to use to research him later. I then forgot about Chaim, until I was researching my family tree for another project, and saw that the cousin of my great, great grandmother (Rachel Hode Sutin of Smilovichi, Belarus) had a certain famous artist as a cousin, Chaim Sutin (also, known as Chaim Soutine). The name sounded familiar, so I connected the dots, and was delighted to see that the name matched the wall text from the previous day’s trip to the Met.
This exhibit shows are our circuitous relationship with pairs of drawings and paintings. One is a forgery I made of my cousin’s famous (public domain) paintings, and the other is a loose adaptations I made in the style of his work.
Bruno Shultz lives
Bruno Schulz was a Polish writer, and forefather of modern magical realism. Unfortunately, “Several of Schulz's works were lost in the Holocaust,” the editors of Wikipedia add, “including short stories from the early 1940s and his final, unfinished novel The Messiah. Schulz was shot and killed by a Nazi in 1942 while walking back home toward Drohobycz Ghetto with a loaf of bread.”
Continuing my themes of adaptation of public domain art blown into the wind of the past, my final project is a speculative illustrated short story of what some of Shultz’s stories could’ve been, combined with a researched historical fiction narrative about Schultz’s life and a modern narrative about a character resembling myself trying to write the story that is the story you would read. This self-published story will be bound into a small booklet for people to own.
The story is inspired by the work of Dara Horn, especially her novel, The World to Come, which weaves a modern story about a family and the story of suffering and oddness that accompany a certain Chagall painting, and historical fiction narratives about Marc Chagall and the yiddish writer, Der Nister.