Thoughts on VICTIMS, a work in progress from Ramesch Daha
Vienna, May 2004: There are 40 long cartons standing around Ramesch Daha’s atelier. According to what’s written on them, they each contain 12 already stretched and primed canvases in the format of 30 x 24cm. The artist opens one of the cartons and hangs some of the already finished works on the wall: the pictures are portraits that Daha painted from photos, which were put into the internet by the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. The cycle was started just a few weeks after the September 11th attack. People who no longer exist, reduced to faces, all other information that one could have gleaned from the internet have been left out. They are far too many now already, who have been brought together by their fate - the fate of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. More cartons are standing around which are still enclosed in their original packaging, they contain empty canvases which await their own specification.
Prior to her studies at the Academy of Arts in Vienna, Ramesch Daha studied with the Austrian painter Georg Eisler. In September 1962 Georg Eisler painted a portrait of his father in his Viennese atelier. It shows the composer Hanns Eisler in odd discomposure while dissipating in the background. He started on the painting right after he heard that his father had passed away on September 6th in East Berlin. The paths of father and son had gone their separate ways much earlier on. In 1933 Hanns Eisler was forced to flee from the National Socialists due to the political character of his work. Hanns Eisler went to Spain via Prague, Paris, London and Vienna. In 1938 he imigrated to the United States where he had already been in the 20’s and had successfully worked together with Bertold Brecht. After being ousted due to “communist intrigues” he initially returned to Vienna in 1948 but then continued on to East Berlin in 1950 where, among other things, he wrote the musical score for the East German National Anthem. In 1936, the 8 year old Georg Eisler also had to emigrate. He and his mother, the singer Charlotte Eisler travelled first from Vienna to Moscow, then over Prague to England where he attended art school. In 1946 he returned to Vienna with his mother. The portrait, done posthumously, serves the memory as well as the consciousness. The father appears to the son in a different place, on the canvas he takes on form again after his final disappearance.
In the year 1888, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie discovered a large cemetery, which dated back to Roman Times and under a protective layer of sand, approximately 800 portraits. These were part of a death cult that came into fashion in Egypt in the middle of the first century after Christ and remained so for another 200 years thereafter. The portraits were painted on little wooden boards with the approximate dimensions of 50cm high by 30cm wide. The images were laid upon the face of the mummies and fastened about the head with a type of swaddling band. Until this day it is still unclear whether they were made during their lifetime or after they had already passed. In the 60’s of the last century, Hilde Zaloscer, an Austrian art historian had a thesis on these pictures and how the then transforming conception of beliefs were manifested. The thesis still seems plausible today: starting-point for these mummy-portraits were profane portraits similar to those found in the Greek-roman Oasis Fayun colony. Although practically none were preserved they were typical from that time on. Influenced by the new religious tendencies within Judaism as well as Early-Christianity where there was a change in which the local Egyptian customs and beliefs played a part. Attached to the mummy, the painted portrait primarily replaced the original three-dimensional death mask, which according to the old Egyptian religious beliefs made life after death possible. As new mysterien-religions and cults emerged, so did an alteration in the conception of what was on the other side – concepts that were partially taken over by Christianity. The visio dei, the direct and personal relationship to a deity that could reveal itself in an ecstatic vision, or, and especially could fall to a martyrs share in their moment of passion, became increasingly important. Death was no longer considered the transition to another existence but rather a moment to see and perceive God. In the course of this transition the portraits of mummies changed: the mimetic character was put more and more in the background, the personal became generalized and the picture, while immaterialized, evolved into the bearer of the deity. From this stage on it was only a small step to cult-imagery, the Ikon.
Ramesch Daha lets the victims of September 11th retain their individuality. Nonetheless they are forced into a standardized stereotype. The confined cut-out , the almost entirely monochrome background barely let the viewer imagine the various forms of presentation, whether they were private snapshots, set studio-shots or passport-photos. The first portraits appear relatively distanced through their heightened flatness. Only as Daha worked more intensely with her “models” was she able to bring them to life, giving them greater substance and space. By underlining the individuality, the aspiration to change the form of presentation becomes apparent. In Spring 2003, 200 finished portraits were hung in a block at the Sammlung Essl in Klosterneuburg as part of the Exhibition entitled conflicts/resolution. They were hung in a block of nine over one another by 25 next to one another. All individuality was lost in this mass. Today, Daha dreams of having the portraits hang one next to the other in an ever-longer line, which would make the dimension of the catastrophe more assessable. Without any space between the canvases, 100 portraits of victims would form a 24-meter long band. In the internet there are photos of 2800 people who were completely torn out of their everyday lives on that very day.
Individual destinies can add up to collective shock at certain times. In order to make such catastrophes more graspable one must reduce them to one understandable unit. A massive disaster must be connected to a single factor in order to help the individual feel affected by it and to make it at least partially understood. The topic of the French artist Christian Boltanski’s work brings together persecution, loss, death and remembrance manifested in the horrors of the holocaust. In order to make these images visibly understood he goes from the general to the more specific and gives the horrors individual faces. Although he alters these in order to inform about the historical experiences and beyond those to an appreciation of life and death. The concrete portraits taken from class photos of Jewish students that were taken in the 30’s are enlarged on a grand scale and then reduced to anonymity so that all individuality disappears. The tangible fate of each individual student remains untold.
Calamity can hit anyone at anytime.