Eurydice and Pieta, Fire and Water, Rescue and Evacuation: Traces of Trauma in Bracha L. Ettinger’s Art

The possibility of organising Bracha Lichtenber Ettinger’s exhibition occurred unexpectedly during a collaborative project between the Silesian Museum and the University of Silesia, centered around an international conference entitled Vulnerabilities, with Bracha(1 as one of the keynote speakers. The initial objective of the conference – to solicit vulnerability, to try to think of fragility and openness as a condition of being towards the Other, and of creating social bonds, but also to introduce this non-existing category into the Polish language –opened the space for our encounter with Bracha’s art.

To solicit vulnerability as a pre-condition for an encounter with an artwork is germane to Bracha’s thought, and grounded in her theory of the Matrixial.(2 Her art touches upon questions of personal and historical war trauma; women during war, in particular during WWII and the Shoah, as well as memory and oblivion, the unconscious, female subjectivity, and the transition from trauma to healing and from invisibility to visibility. Bracha’s artworks open up what she has named ‘borderspace’ in which the viewer can also be touched by the trauma of the other (known and unknown, past and present). Her psychoanalytical approach to abstraction that evokes colour as light, and tiny lines as strings, also evokes the ambiguity of representation as it is related to a complex process of photocopy, erasure, and the layering of transparent oil paint over a ‘source image’: a fragment of a photograph taken from family archives, press materials or history books, often featuring women, mothers and children facing death, figures she symbolically names ‘Eurydice.’ The process is not, however, about effacing the painful image or covering up the traces. The painting is a gesture of reaching towards it.

Women as the carriers of life, children as the future of life. The Pieta / Eve / Rachel / Hanna character appearing in Bracha’s art stands for a motherly figure lamenting over her child, whose pain is imprinted on the world. The atmosphere of ashes and water brings us in touch with traces of fire and of being drowned (“Ophelia”, “Medusa”). At the same time the sorrowful mother becomes a figure of resistance in the post-catastrophic reality, as seen in the passage of a poem by Paul Celan quoted by Bracha: “The world has gone, I must carry you.”(3 The artist has been working with these photographs not so much as images but as holders of acts of violence that need to be healed. While the representative, figurative dimension dissipates, the artist works with their prosodic aspect which is exposed to the working of the aesthetic process: line, light and colour; gesture, rhythm, movement, pulsation – the throbbing immanence of life. Many of Bracha’s works were based on obstructing and jamming the process of copying; she stopped the photocopier machine half-way so that the toner’s ‘dust’ could only cast a shadow and suggest ephemeral spectres of the original image. These elusive, evanescent female figures are her Eurydices. Eurydice, just like the mythical Eurydice, is a woman suspended between two deaths – one death is the dark one she is doomed to in the underworld, the other is the death she experiences when she is led towards light, death by the viewer’s gaze, being exposed and reduced to its power. Bracha generously invites us to the space of a momentary Augenblick, a flickering aporia, in which we might perhaps sense Eurydice without killing her. The ‘being-toward-birth’ is a ‘love’ that art, according to the artist, can offer.(4
Her unique abstract ‘morphing’ arrives from a different artistic horizon where the objective is to ‘be-with’ them and ‘co-inhabit’ the pictorial space. Glows, veils, halos, flickering – the memory of forgetting. Touching the traces, and resonating with what is trembling yet elusive, without formating the intangible glows and reverberations into a figurative representation. Bracha as a painter sees the process as passing “through materiality, with-in the body, both mine and the body of the materials.”(5 The colour and lines, the ashes and pigments do not illustrate, she claims, but do their work through their pulsations and breathing, giving birth to new forms and possibilities of life. Unlike some other painters dealing with the historical archive (for instance Gerhard Richter), Bracha stresses that her work with the historical and autobiographical material is not about blurring or turning the content into abstract work. Her paintings and drawings should not be perceived as a transition from representation to abstraction. She does not work “ON the source images, but rather WITH them,” so that the historical meets the abstract in yet another space of encounter. The endless tiny colour-lines work like a hologram, to reveal different ‘figuralities’ from different angles and distances as we continue to look through the haze.

Series of Bracha’s early drawings are based on archival Luftwaffe aerial photographs of Palestine from 1917. The artist leaves traces of her hand-thought in a minimalist manner, using smooth lines bringing to mind the art of Mark Rothko or Paul Klee. In her artworking process the modern aesthetics of war meets a gesture similar to handwriting, with the Omega, the final letter of the alphabet, as a recurring theme, associated with the apocalypse, but also a play of presence ad absence, infinity, womb and the Matrix, and also encircling. There are roads and passages, but the movement signaled here by the armed gaze of the military photography is revealed to be morbid and dehumanising. Bracha’s paintings and drawings suggest another kind of movement ‘with-in’ the traces – these are tropes of ephemeral resonances-encounters with the Other which reach for me as I ‘re-spond.’
The 1990s saw the artist turn to a classical means of art: oil painting, with the insights gained from the work on paper; using the transparency and translucency of the medium with a rhythmicity of the gesture of layering oil paint over the canvas and / or paper with remainders or fragments of photographic images on it. The very palpable feeling and tactile sensation of the surface, related to the gesture, touch and rhythm inscribed in its process, is as important as the visual effect of her work. The viewer experiences the painting as a radiance of luminosity refracted by its layers. Those are striated over the years with gentle, stroking movements in a process that remembers the wounds.

A vital section of the exhibition includes Bracha’s notebooks. Original artworks themselves, they contain drawings and document the tropes and residuals of her artworking process and daily life along with her philosophical and psychoanalytical thinking fragments.

With the Eurydice-Pieta exhibition in Katowice, Bracha brings together transgenerational traces of trauma and historical trauma with her own personal history. It is the first time, however, that the artist directly relates to the shipwreck motif, the death in the sea, the death by fire in the water, water as life and water as death, implying both the agonizing family history – the wandering, the escape, the emigration – and the context of her own shell-shock that originated while she was wounded while in command of an evacuation-and-rescue life-saving operation. In retrospect, her earlier works shown in the exhibition seem prophetic, in a gesture that is so painfully relevant today when so many lives of those escaping war are taken by the sea. The artist, like her ‘figuralities’ always looks from the most vulnerable perspective: of the mother and the child.
In the three videos: Mamemento Fluidus – MaMedusa, Ein Raham – Eurydice, and Ein Raham – Crazy Woman, in parallel to her recent period in oil painting, Bracha relates to the abovementioned motifs.. Often the water is calm, red or violet. This turn is already visible in the Ophelia paintings (2009), and becomes more insistent with the oil paintings directly related to Medusa (2012). The tropes appearing in Mamemento Fluidus – MaMedusa – studying the mother’s face, indicating the resistance to being petrified by Medusa’s face and directly confronting the loss of memory in relation to the watery element – can now be perceived as visionary, entangled with the surfacing of the recurring trauma of war and the images of drowning, evacuation, and rescue. The distortion and flickering of water surface in Bracha’s video films can also be read through the light-movement trope, as “her conversation with the later work of Monet and his dedicated study of water at the very moment that colour can be seen as light and light as the movement of the world.”(6 There is what the artist refers to as “the morphing of colours in a movement of covering, uncovering and discovering.”(7

In Bracha’s art, water is both a source of life (the amniotic fluids, the source from which all life comes) and the place of death. If the prevailing philosophical models of ontology render fluids unrepresentable, it is only through the “seas and mothers”(8 that we can confront the “watermark”(9 etched forever on our lives by ‘matrixial borderspacing and borderlinking.’ Here another aspect of Medusa is disclosed: the lunar creature of the depths, signifying the mother and death, but evading the threatening images of „sinking irretrievably into the mother.”(10 According to Zygmunt Bauman, unlike solids which are cast once and for all and resist “separation of the atoms,” fluids in their quality “neither fix space nor bind time.”(11 It is through the watery element, in all its traumatic potential, that new ‘borderlinks’ are formed, ‘transsubjectively’ and also transhistorically.
Death by the water, death by the sea, death from the fire in the water – these are the tropes this exhibition is exploring. Processing them through ‘uncanny beauty’ and ‘uncanny sublime’ is the challenge this work brings us to face.(12

Beauty ceases to be a purely aesthetic category, and becomes a carrier for the possibility of opening for the ethical dimension of the work, often even beyond the conscious intention of the artist. Bracha’s beauty has nothing to do with the ornamental or decorative aspect, but is connected with the affective possibility to move the vulnerable potential within ourselves (what she calls ‘self-fragilization’), and, consequently, to mobilise our ‘response-ability’ to the humanity of the Other with its vulnerability and frailty, but also to our own fragility, so that we can tenderly attend to the other while not sacrificing ourselves when we are patiently labouring to not-sacrificing the other.

Sharing and carrying the trauma of the other, the ‘worry-caring,’ is inscribed into our humanness as much as the separation and policing of our boundaries, but – as ‘feminine’ – it is ignored. Bracha’s art and writing constantly brings this dimension to the surface, the ‘depth-surface.’ Her art reminds us of the necessary risk that we need to take – to care for the Other, to carry the Other, to ‘tremble with the pain and the beauty of the world.’ This is where boundaries become thresholds.

1) The artist chose her first name as the artist’s name, with all the implications of ‘Bracha’ meaning ‘blessing’ in Hebrew.

2) See: Bracha Ettinger, The Matrixial Borderspace, ed. Brian Massumi (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, London 2006).

3) Original: „Die Welt ist fort, ich muß dir tragen.” Paul Celan, „Grosse Glühende Wölbung (Vast Glowing Vault)” from Atemwende (1967) quoted after Bracha L. Ettinger, „And My Heart, Wound-Space With-In Me. The Space of Carriance,” in: Bracha L. Ettinger, And My Heart Wound-Space (The White Pansy Press – University of Leeds: Leeds 2015), p. 353.

4) See the two recent interviews with Bracha L. Ettinger: “To Feel the World’s Pain and Its Beauty: Brad Evans interviews Bracha L. Ettinger” in: Los Angeles Review of Books, February 27, 2017: https://www.lareviewofbooks.org/article/feel-worlds-pain-beauty/ and Brad Evans and Bracha L. Ettinger, “Art in a Time of Atrocity” in New York Times, December 16, 2016: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/16/opinion/art-in-a-time-of-atrocity.html, as well as her article “The Laius Complex. Abraham, Laius, Moses — Father, Trauma, and Carrying” in: Los Angeles Review of Books , November 8, 2015: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-laius-complex-abraham-laius-moses-father-trauma-and-carrying/

5) Source: email conversation with the artist.

6) Griselda Pollock, “Aesthetic Wit(h)nessing in the Era of Trauma”, in: EurAmerica: A Journal of European and American Studies, December 2010, 40.4, p. 870.

7) Source: email conversation with the artist.

8) See: Hélène Cixous, “Sorties: Out and Out: Attacks/Ways’ Out/Forays,” in: The Newly Born Woman, ed. H. Cixous and C. Clement (I.B. Tauris: London, New York 1996), pp. 88-89.

9) For the discussion of Merleau-Ponty’s notion watermark etched upon the subject’s body in Luce Irigaray’s writing, see: Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Indiana University Press: Bloomington 1994), p. 104.

10) Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (Columbia University Press: New York 1982), p. 64.

11) Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Polity Press: Cambridge 2000), p. 2.

12) Bracha L. Ettinger, “Uncanny Awe, Uncanny Compassion and Matrixial Transjectivity beyond Uncanny Anxiety”, in: FLS 2011, Vol. XXXVIII.

dr Anna Chromik
Institute of English Cultures and Literatures, University of Silesia in Katowice