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Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant” at the Spertus Institute

By Arts & Culture, Featured

Detail of Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant.” Courtesy Spertus Institute. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.

One could argue that the first success of Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant” is casting the visitor as an outsider from the start so that they might enter the space with an empathetic sense of not belonging, of wondering if they deserve to be included, and of whether they will be allowed access.

Going in, I knew that the exhibition had been inspired by objects in the Spertus Institute’s collection and included Rothenberg’s own photography — images of objects encountered during her research of the collection, and her photographs of the Tempelhof refugee shelter taken while living in Berlin.

Glass walls angled out into the open gallery space of the institute, preserving a visual sense of openness while creating a clear division. I scanned the large, sometimes blurry, photographs on the wall, images of passports, coins, and other personal effects of Jewish people over multiple decades who had journeyed to freedom, safety, and opportunity before such ephemera was lost, found, and ultimately donated to Spertus. Images of fences, surveillance cameras, and boxy, trailer-like buildings in Berlin’s Tempelhof Field, where refugees are held to await processing, offered a stark external view of the environment with few signs of the refugees themselves. The Tempelhof refugee shelter originally served as an airport built by the Nazis during World War II, and this fact adds a chill to the room, despite the knowledge that the facility is now used to receive families who are seeking refuge.

Some of the housing units used for the shelter were made of shipping containers, so it occurred to me that the markings on the floor might indicate the size of living spaces. Photographs of lockers and units mounted on temporary wooden walls heightened this notion. Photos installed near the floor resonated, such as one photo of a pipe venting at ground level, making it easier to envision being at the Tempelhof site. Various images at eye level and floor level conveyed an eerie sense of restriction, surveillance, and the mathematical categorization of humans caught within a state system.

Detail of Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant.” Courtesy Spertus Institute. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.

An abstracted sense of the bigotry and aggression that many refugees face upon arrival in their host countries emanated from vintage “Li’l Abner” cartoons affixed to the makeshift walls with speech bubbles that said, “Le’s git a mob together!! An run ’em outa town!!” I couldn’t help wondering if a visitor might feel lost in a cacophony of time and location spanning decades and multiple geographical regions. Would the various dates and notations revealed throughout the documents used in the exhibition leave visitors to ask, “Is this exhibition about the Holocaust? About the global immigration of Jews? Refugees? Is it about building a wall at our southern border?”

This, arguably, could be another point of success of the exhibition, the dawning realization that all such conflicts are related, if not interrelated. That specificity does not matter, because the crisis of losing one’s home is a universal concern. When that concern is multiplied by millions of people, the tension holds the potential for devastating consequences if ignored — and transformative change if we respond.

I spoke with the exhibition’s curator, Ionit Behar, by phone, and sat down separately with Rothenberg in person to learn more about how the project was conceived and made and to hear their thoughts on audience and access with regard to “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant.” Aside from knowing that she wanted the exhibition to be research-based, Behar explained, “I wanted to think about what it means to do research in a place like Spertus and to present contemporary art in that context.”

“Ionit approached me Fall of 2016, around the time of the election, and we began talking about what intentions and concerns we had,” said Rothenberg. “We were concerned about the resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric, overt racism, and anti-Semitism that came into public view post-election. We were thinking about the way in which, in a charged and fearful atmosphere, people turn inward. We were hoping the exhibition would be a place where people could come together around ideas and experiences, especially at the programs.”

“The programs are not add-ons,” she emphasized. “They are part of the exhibition.”

Rothenberg began research at Spertus in the winter of 2017 and came to see the collection many times. With the help of Director of Collections, Kathy Bloch, and Collections Assistant, Tom Gengler, the artist began sifting through objects and information for inspiration and material.

“They were very generous with me,” said Rothenberg. “They spent a long time initially trying to help me understand how to negotiate the databases and what was in their collection.”

Rothenberg bristled when asked whether her intended audience was the art world, the general public, or both. “The intention was to bring as diverse a public to the exhibition, from all communities locally and internationally,” she said.

Regarding the lack of wall labels, which Behar had confirmed were the choice of the artist, Rothenberg explained that she often doesn’t use wall labels in her exhibitions: “The intention is to promote accessibility, but I think it often precludes people having their own experience. So you see people reading wall labels and not looking at the work.”

Detail of Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant.” Courtesy Spertus Institute. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.

When asked if she was concerned about whether some visitors might be confused, Rothenberg explained: “What difference does it make how you figure it out, as long as you figure it out … as long as you’re asking yourself questions and having an experience?” I persisted. Might wall labels help visitors figure it out? The artist shook her head. “Very view people read first, people are naturally curious.”

Behar explained that Spertus had added an online component to accompany the exhibition, including both objects in the show and objects that have inspired Rothenberg, with entries that include information and descriptions in lieu of wall labels.

“There is a trust or a hope with an active viewer, that the experience will spark curiosity, questions,” she added. “Though the exhibition may be a bit confusing, in a way it’s on purpose, as it’s meant to be a global message that is not about a specific migration — not about Jews in Palestine or refugees in Germany — it’s something that is happening everywhere. … [Rothenberg’s] not saying the history before is the same as now … but in a way, that history repeats itself.”

“It definitely puts into play multiple locations, multiple temporalities. It asks you to make sense of this constellation of works and objects from other locations and time periods…The work does not focus on individual histories, it focuses on systems, whether they are systems of housing, systems of containment, systems of documentation–state-sanctioned systems that control mobility and access,” said Rothenberg.

Hence, the exhibition’s title: ISO codes are a standardized global system of organizing and tracking shipping containers carrying freight around the world. “Ineluctable” means unavoidable. Refugees are an unavoidable consequence of violence perpetrated around the world, and ignoring a refugee crisis would result in equally unavoidable consequences.

“I don’t think about it as someone else’s concern; it is all of our concern. It’s not something happening somewhere else,” said Rothenberg.

If the intent of an exhibition is to draw on a universal human experience — to evoke empathy and understanding that can resonate across cultural and educational boundaries — then a symmetrical logic applies: To gain access, one must grant access.

“ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant” is on view through April 22, 2018 at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave. On Wednesday, April 4, 6–7:30 p.m., Spertus Institute will welcome Cecilia Vicuña, a Chilean writer and activist, for the program “Performance on Migration and Movement.”

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