Monika Weiss on art’s poetic and political responsibility to listen and address the archive of events, forgotten narratives and voices
“I believe there is a responsibility that comes with being an artist, which is in part poetic and in part political: to listen and to address the archive of events, paying special attention to the forgotten narratives and voices. The concept of nationalism, of any kind, does not interest me. Rather, I believe we need to pay attention to the global nature of oppressive systems and institutionally designed violence. Such violence is often justified by the ideology of “protection,” which usually veils hidden economic and colonialist agendas.”
From an interview with Julia Herzeberg published in “Monika Weiss: Sustenazo (Lament II)” by Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile, 2012. Full interview here.
Above: Monika Weiss, Two Laments (Canto 10), 2015, charcoal, graphite, dry pigment on paper, 20 x 30 in.
The following text has been written by the artist on the occasion of a private memorial commemorating her mother at Judith Lipton’s home, New York City, June 24, 2017
About Gabriela Weiss
How to face loss, I do not know. How to remember, I hope to know one day, or at least to better understand with each day passing.
My beloved mother, Gabriela Weiss, quietly passed away on April 12, 2017, in Warsaw, Poland. She had been bound to bed, unable to walk and gradually losing her sight, since last December, after a serious fall. Doctors were not hopeful during that period, and her spirit, had never returned since my father’s passing that summer. My mother was a pianist and a piano teacher, and she revealed music to me as the first and most important language through which I try to understand the world. Many, including her former piano students, remember her as someone who changed their lives. I am no exception, as her daughter, as a human being and as an artist.
She was forever scarred by war. As a little child, in her mother’s arms, she barely escaped a hunt that both Soviet and German occupants systematically exercised in Europe. Her father’s name, Leon Knopik, was on both Stalin’s and Hitler’s lists of priority individuals to be found, arrested and killed. His name was alongside Polish patriots, intelligentsia, artists, clergy, activists, officers and university professors. My mother never met her father. He was taken during the famous defense of the Polish post office in Gdansk on the first day of World War II, held in a sequence of concentration camps, and eventually was killed in the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, a concentration camp near Berlin opened in 1936 for the detaining of political prisoners. By 1939, Nazi officers were committing mass killings, doing medical experiments and starving prisoners at the camp practices which would soon be implemented in death camps. My grandmother, with my mother in her arms, was on the run throughout occupied Poland, hiding in various basements, through the five years of the war. After the war she quickly remarried in order to change her name and avoid Soviet persecution.
My mother remained forever fearful of airplane sounds, as if every one of them was carrying a bomb. She never flew once boarded one. She could not stay even for a minute in a confined space, such as an elevator. Yet at the same time, she was the most courageous and determined person I have ever known. She stood by her ethics, even as a little girl who had to wear a red tie to school in Stalin-governed 1950s Poland. She furiously defended all whom she loved. All who loved her experienced similar intensity of feeling. She is mourned by myself and her brother, Andrzej Pionk, andalso by those outside of the family whose lives she touched so powerfully. Among them especially are her former piano students who became her close friends and supporters over the years.
Her family lost everything during the war. I recall standing as a 5 year old on the empty square in Gdansk where the building that had belonged to her family stood until 1939. She survived communism, socialism and then raw version of capitalism in her older age. As is the case with most of the intelligentsia in former Eastern Europe, she lived a modest life and experienced ongoing poverty. I recall from childhood hearing her rehearsals, as I was spending time under the big piano, listening from below. I recall always having many books to read but not always a dinner. Her nationally recognized name as a piano professor would not provide her with any financial gain.
Left: My mother Gabriela Weiss portrait, c. 1963, c-print; Right: My mother Gabriela Weiss rehearsing before the recital, c. 1961, unknown photographer
The intensity of her approach to life, was deeply present in her understanding of music and creativity. She could not have cared less about the idea of a concept in art, unless the work carried a powerful emotional and lyrical charge, beyond words and outside of systems. Her distrust of systems went further then music and art and deeply influenced her attitude towards institutions, such as governments and religious organizations. Any authority was met with her suspicion and critique.
Her instinctive approach towards music allowed her to get, very quickly, the ways in which I use lament in my work. I see lamentation as an expression that goes beyond and exists after language. It is a non-language, replacing our ability to speak in the face of a loss that is impossible to express. When you can’t use words anymore, music happens.
My mother was unable to experience my mature work in person until it was presented in a three-month solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in 2010, the first time my work had been shown in Poland since I left my old country. After hearing the music I composed as part of the Sustenazo exhibition, she would visit the museum every week and scold the guards when the sound was not loud enough, reminding them that she was “the artist’s mother.” I am forever grateful that she was able to experience my work as if in the audience at a concert and actually hear it and connect with it.
Monika Weiss-Sustenazo, view of solo exhibition at Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, March-May 2010
Monika Weiss, Sustenazo (Lament II), 2010-2012, High Definition Video and Sound, 26 min.
She also listened to my most recent work, Canto 9, while her fragile body was already bound to a hospital bed. She said she fest as if she were hearing “the entire world lamenting.” Her ultimate approval as a musician meant everything to me.
Monika Weiss, Canto 9, 2016-2017, 4K Digital Film and Sound, 10 min.
When I was about five, my mother began to teach me piano, before I entered the school of music at the age of 7. I recall her seated on a chair beside me, away from the piano, pressing her fingers into my arm with great heaviness, as if her entire body were resting on each finger, as if my skin were her keyboard. I can still picture the purple marks left on my skin, each tone temporarily engraved on my body. She said we couldn’t make a relevant sound, sound that reaches hearts, if we don’t use the entire body. And not just the body; the entire soul, she told me, must inhabit every pressed key. Today I believe she wanted me to feel how each sound is born and must contain the entire universe. It has to be all, or music has nothing to offer. This notion inspires me still today.
Mama, I hope you can listen to your favorite Bach, Beethoven and Schubert now without the pain of the body which failed you. You never believed in the body anyway. You always thought the spirit is the only thing we have. I hope you see us and feel our love from here, up there, in the blue skies. I hope you are no longer afraid of flying. I hope you can read music now, again, and press your long fingers upon the non-material membrane that divides this and the other world. There are no words to express how I miss you.
For the past twenty years Monika Weiss’ multidisciplinary practice continues to explore relationships between body, history and collective memory. Her work has been exhibited in museums and institutions worldwide and published internationally. The artist often investigates the nature of time and memory and evokes ancient rituals of lamentation in response to issues of recent social and cultural history. Artist, composer and filmmaker, Weiss was educated first as a classical pianist. While drawing has always been the touchstone of her practice, over the years the artist’s practice gradually expanded to include installation, performance, and large-scale video and film projection. She creates site-specific projects, films, and drawings to suggest alternative forms of knowledge, classification and perception. She composes sound for her silent films from testimonies, recitations and musical instruments, including her own piano improvisations, merging diverse narratives into polyphonic scores. Employing her own body as a vehicle of expression she also invites others to participate in her work.
Weiss’ solo museum exhibitions include the 2005 retrospective at the Lehman College Art Gallery, CUNY: Five Rivers, reviewed in The New York Times, as well as Sustenazo, commissioned by the CCA Zamek Ujazdowski in Warsaw, Poland in 2010 and later shown at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile (2012) and the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum, Miami (2014). In 2004 Remy Toledo Gallery, New York, in cooperation with Galerie Samuel Lallouz, Montreal, organized a two-person show of Carolee Schneemann and Monika Weiss.
An important part of the artist works are public projects, which are ephemeral and site-specific environments. Commissioned by The Drawing Center, her Drawing Lethe (2006) took place at the World Financial Center Winter Garden within sight of Ground Zero, where workers were still searching for remains. Passersby lay down and marked their presence onto the enormous canvas covering the floor, which gradually became a drawing-field. In Shrouds-Całuny (2012), Weiss filmed, from an airplane, local women performing silent gestures of lamentation on the abandoned, forgotten site of the former concentration camp Gruenberg, located in Zielona Góra. Weiss’s work was featured in group exhibitions at Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Athens, Greece (international video art survey directed by Robert Storr, 2016); Eyebeam, New York (with Alan Sondheim, 2012), Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation/CIFO, Miami (Forms of Classification, 2006; The Prisoner’s Dilemma, 2008) and was part of Prague’s Muzeum Montanelli (MuMo)’s inaugural show in 2010.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, the artist arrived to NYC in 2001 as a long-term artist in residence at the Experimental Intermedia Foundation. She is currently part of Hyphen Hub, New York, a global community of artists and curators working at the intersection of art and technology, as well as represented by ART 3/SILAS VON MORISSE gallery, New York, Galerie Samuel Lallouz, Montreal, and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis. The artist has been awarded numerous grants and residency fellowships, including NYFA (2009) and YADDO (2005 and 2009), among others. Weiss’ works are included in public and private collections worldwide, including Albertina Museum, Vienna; Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation/CIFO, Miami; Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, Peekskill, NY; Museum of Women in the Arts, Bonn, Germany; CCA Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw, Poland; and Dimas de Melo Pimenta’s collection, Locarno, Switzerland.