Suffering, Once Removed 

Using poem and image, Margaret Rutherford explores her experience as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor

Using poem and image, Margaret Rutherford explores her experience as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor

"I Grew Up With the Dead"

Works by Margaret Rutherford

Through June 19 at

Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center

I Grew Up With the Dead," the current show at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center, chronicles Margaret Rutherford's experience growing up as the daughter of a woman who escaped the Holocaust; her mother who was one of six in a family of 63 who survived the Nazi invasions during World War II. Recounting her burden for living and her mother's unbearable loss, the New Mexico-based artist uses framed pages from an unbound narrative poem to recount and reveal a very personal story filled with poignancy. She also incorporates small iris prints into the linear progression as an added visual factor in her retelling. The repetition of format, wording and imagery is the overriding theme in the artist's attempt at letting the viewer into her own removed survival of her family's tragic history.

As the few remaining survivors of Nazi concentration camps continue to age, we are embarking on a time when the atrocities of World War II become increasingly distant. As our ideologies and the documentation of "history" go under attack in the postmodern world, the accounts of these camps can seem as mythical as dinosaurs: Culture begins to view this occurrence more as "story" and less as factual event. This is the arena in which Rutherford's work exists. It is an attempt at distinguishing past and present realities, as the artist negotiates her mother's vague and extreme memories of the Nazi occupation of Budapest, Hungary. This sense of multiphrenia is found at times in the poem, when Rutherford speaks simultaneously to her grandfather, her mother and also the audience. Adding to the perplexity, these character distinctions are not always clear, as she sometimes refers to the "mother" character as "your wife," and her grandfather is directly spoken to as "you" or mentioned in the third person as "Marcel." The tone of the work is provocative in its schizophrenic confusion of time and its layering of identities; at one point, she writes, "...and I reassure myself it happened to her." The stanza format further supports this multiplicity, as Rutherford jumps in and out of tones ranging from sentimental to violently graphic ("I memorized the three beauty marks between my mothers breasts. They raped her.") and then switching again to the universally poignant: "I cannot say I'm thirsty or hungry. Those words are yours."

The iris prints consist of allocated images of landscapes, architecture, violent situations and the human body. Rutherford states that the war photographs are what "I absorbed as a child," while the landscapes denote "places where the war and my mother's stories came alive for me—where the speaker's story emerged." The prints were made with Polaroid slide film that was digitally scanned and then printed onto paper. At times, the pieces are heavily romanticized, showing large snowflakes falling onto the ground or a lone darkened house standing in a massive field. They seem to serve more as emotional counterpoints to the shocking images of public hangings and executions, and their obviousness takes away from the sophistication found in Rutherford's writing. The use of borrowed images and scanned slides is questionable in such a personal piece, but it reflects the entire work's analysis of the originality of experience—the once-removed generation of the artist reliving her mother's past. The prints evoke a questioning of the validity of the degenerate or borrowed experience.

All 51 pages from the book are framed in the exact same size and color. The presentation is nondescript, placing more attention on the impact of the ideas than the objects themselves. The exhibit has a modesty that speaks to the humility of an artist trying to give voice to the unspeakable. Repetition is apparent in the 24 iris prints that reuse the same 10 images. It's also present in the words that begin many of her phrases ("She will come back. She won't come back. She won't come back. She will come back."), and in describing the personal ritual of reciting her dead aunts' names to pacify herself while lying awake. The constant repetition speaks to the idea of rhythmic syncopation, or the emphasis of the lost or weakened, which further suggests, as the title dictates, the malady of one who is nurtured by the dead.

Rutherford's remarkable writing in "I Grew Up With the Dead" is what engages the audience, leading us into the artist's mind not only through direct context, but even more through the style and format. As an artist, Rutherford is to be commended for taking the altruistic leap into addressing the universal by means of the very personal. The show's success lies in its utilization of both visual and lingual components to help the viewer not only reinstate a dark period in our human history, but also to investigate how contemporary humanity defines reality and identity through the uncertainties of the present past.


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