History Redux: 2010 Nuit Blanche

The mind of Toronto-based composer and sound artist E C Woodley is rampant with memory. For seven weeks this spring, that memory materialized inside the Kiever Synagogue as part of the Koffler Gallery Off-Site series. In Auguststrasse 25, Woodley created the living room of a Jewish apartment as it would have looked in Berlin in 1928, and cast an actor to inhabit the domestic space, performing the small rituals inside the room that a woman would have done at the time.

The impulse to make the installation came out of his attempts to account for the absence today of the German-Jewish culture that had flourished in Berlin during the decades between the two World Wars. More personally, he wondered at the same disappearance in Vilnius, the Lithuanian city where his family had lived. Ninety-five per cent of the almost 300,000 Jews in Vilnius were murdered. “There had been something like 100 prayer houses and a number of synagogues and all of those were gone, and all the traces of the domestic life that had been lived were not there. They weren’t commemorated by anything other than one small plaque.”

This combination of the domestic and the devotional became the focus of Auguststrasse 25. Originally, Woodley was concerned that the combination would be “in extreme opposition,” high German culture colliding with the immigrant culture from Kiev that built the synagogue. Instead, he found the two things, “were strangely at home with one another. I realized we were dealing with, if not ritual, then at least sacred impulses which are founded on a sense of being and presence, and absence of being and mortality.”

What is most striking about the installation is the scrupulous authenticity Woodley has exercised in its recreation. The 1920s vintage couch looks like it came from Wertheim’s Department Store; there is a copy of Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama in the bookshelf; and six hours of Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, is actually being broadcast on the radio through an AM transmitter. “I think it had to have the same kind of attention that one takes with one’s life. The detail was a desire to be physically and psychically present before this world.”

Woodley’s project is about retrieval and remembrance. The installation deals with a period that has been forgotten because it was the smaller part of a history that was overtaken by a much larger history: the War and the Holocaust. Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, who plays Lottie Schlüchterer, a composite character Woodley has cast from his reading of period memoirs, stays in character six hours a day in an apartment filled, not with brutality and a sense of menace, but with books and a sense of belonging. “It’s surprising how gentle the piece can seem at times,” Woodley says. “One day I visited the installation and Lottie was sitting graciously on the couch, reading a beautiful early 1920s illustrated edition of The Divine Comedy in this most extraordinary stained glass light that was shifting with the clouds and the day.” In character, the actress is oblivious of the synagogue and the present moment; she lives in Berlin in 1928, a time before awareness that her world could collapse. “Walter Benjamin said that Jewish worship is a theatre of remembrance, and in our way, that’s what we are doing. It’s a very delicate memorial to a culture that has been entirely erased and at the same time doesn’t last itself. If it does last, it’s only in the memory of the people who have seen it.”

Auguststrasse 25 *was presented by the Koffler Gallery Off-Site at the Kiever Synagogue in Toronto from April 22 to May 30, 2010.