Artful Musing

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: Roadtrip – a Gatineau artist shows Montreal how to photograph evil

By Paul Gessell

Gessell describes Marie-Jeanne Musiol's images by saying "The black circles are like black holes in space that drain the life force from all those who pass."

Gatineau artist Marie-Jeanne Musiol has created an art installation that invokes the ghosts of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland where thousands of Jews were slaughtered during the Second World War.

Visitors walk into Pierre-Francois Ouellette Gallery in downtown Montreal and immediately see three dozen photographs, each of a round, black hole in a rough, deteriorating cement base. The recorded sound of an eerie whistling wind blows through the room.

The life-sized photographs are of holes, 13 inches in diameter, in large, communal latrines in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, as the desolate, uninhabited scene looks today. The photographs are arranged on the wall in a pattern similar to the repetitive latrine holes in the cement.

The black circles are like black holes in space that drain the life force from all those who pass. In reality, these were holes in a latrine designed to humiliate and to degrade all those forced to use them, up to 100 people at a time, sometimes both men and women together.

Musiol’s exhibition is called Black Holes. She has created photo-based art at Auschwitz before. This body of work, first exhibited last year in Toronto, is definitely the bleakest and the most powerful.

Stand amid these images of black holes, listen to the howling wind, think for a moment about what is before you and feel the energy leave your body. Only sadness and anger remain. This is not an uplifting exhibition. Instead, it is a meditation on evil.

Celina Jeffery, a University of Ottawa art professor, calls the dark circles “a chasm of darkness that suggests the negation of existence.” Jeffery has written an essay about Musiol’s work in the magazine Prefix Photo. The essay is as emotionally draining as Musiol’s work itself.

“It is through these images of the latrines that we are prompted to empathize with the degradation to which all camp inmates were subjected, where basic physical needs were turned into an experience of daily suffering,” Jeffrey wrote.

In an artist’s statement, Musiol compares this work with early photographs she took of trees growing around the camp perimeter in an area where ashes would fall from the crematoria.

“Like planets condensing a formidable amount of dark energy, they (the black holes) suddenly appear as an absolute expression of the cosmic unfolding of evil – the ultimate condensation of humiliation without redemption. Thus, while the trees of the forest growing directly on the ashes of the dead transcend the fields of Birkenau, the latrine pits are its dead end.”

The City of Ottawa has already purchased prints of some of the photographs in Black Holes.

You may need some cheering up after visiting this exhibition, which runs until Nov. 10. So, afterwards, head to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and catch its far more spritely Impressionists exhibition called Once Upon a Time … Impressionism: Great French Paintings from the Clark.