Filling the Spaces of the Dead LABAJournal by Maya Ciarrocchi

March 11, 2019
By Amy Handelsman
LABAJournal

Who honors the spaces left by the dead? This question is the guiding principle and raison d’être for Maya Ciarocchi, who brings honor to the lost spaces and the dead of Ożarów, Poland in her stirring multi-media art installation Site: Yizkor, recently shown in the lobby of the 14 Street Y as part of her LABA Fellowship. 

Ożarów (pronounced oh-ZHA-roof) is a small town in southeast Poland, a former shtetl burned to the ground by the Imperial Russian Army in 1915 and the home of Ciarrocchi’s maternal grandmother. A concrete plant is now its main source of income, and the remnants of the synagogue resemble a scrap-metal heap. Attempts have been made to restore the Jewish cemetery, but most of what remains of Ożarów can be found in Yizkor books, archival material written by Holocaust survivors—records of births, marriages and deaths, religious schools, businesses and other community structures, some told matter-of-factly, some in purple prose.

In Site: Yizkor, Maya Ciarrocchi “explores the physical and emotional documentation of loss” through a series of graphite and charcoal drawings taken from maps and photographs of Ożarów. In these drawings, Ciarrocchi lays street grids and town squares over synagogues and peoples them with figures, as if to animate the shtetl once again. 

This palimpsestic technique creates a sense of movement in Ciarrocchi’s drawings, which perhaps stems from her former life as a dancer. She studied classical ballet at the American Ballet Theater School and the School of the American Ballet and was a scholarship student at Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Indeed, Ciarrocchi describes her drawings as kinesthetic maps, movement scores that seek to discover what can be found in these empty spaces—spatial subtexts of memory and meaning.

The genesis of Site: Yizkor was the death of both Ciarrocchi’s neighbor, who had been a 1930’s radio star, and the death of Ciarrocchi’s mother-in-law. These losses coincided with the artist moving out of the building she grew up in and had lived in for nearly thirty years.

Site: Yizkor evolved into a performance piece narrated by Ciarrocchi, including video projections of extant texts from Yizkor books, poetry, maps and drawings. A second component is interactive: Ciarrocchi asks the audience to answer prompts, some of which she includes in future iterations of the work. One prompt: Describe a space that belonged to someone close to you who died. Another: Describe a place important to you that no longer exists

[For sample responses, and to see more of Ciarrocchi’s drawings, click here.]

Ciarrocchi estimates she has forty such writings. They are Yizkor-books-in-the-making, living, dynamic objects that hold future space for memory and mourning. 

As a multi-disciplinary artist, video figures prominently in Ciarrocchi’s work. (And the work she does with others: she collaborates frequently with director David Cromer, for example, and was the projection designer for the Tony-award-winning Broadway show, The Band’s Visit.) She hopes that the projections work like live cinema, that the juxtaposition between text and visuals, the connections between bodies and space, pictures and sound combine in a non-linear way to create a narrative in each viewer’s brain. 

Ciarrocchi will be adding an aural component to Site: Yizkor, collaborating with California-based composer Andrew Conklin, whom she met at the Millay Colony last summer, to create a soundscape for the project. Ciarrocchi says they plan to create an evening-length performance for singers in an immersive projected and sonic environment, with audiences again invited to create their own Yizkorpages “as a way to commemorate and mourn lost people and places.”

In April, Ciarrocchi travels to Poland at the invitation of the Sichów Educational Foundation, an organization convening a new center and guest house at the restored manor of exiled Polish aristocracy not far from Krakow. The retreat brings together Israeli, American and Polish artists.

While in Sichów, Ciarrocchi plans to gather video and audio recordings, and to source first-hand what remains in former Polish shtetl towns like Ożarów. She also hopes to be inspired by the mix of artists as often happens at artistic retreats.

The act of remembering the dead—the definition of yizkor—is a primary tenet of Jewish life. In Site: Yizkor, Ciarrocchi bears witness to those who cannot speak, exemplifying what is often said to comfort the mourners: May their memory be for a blessing.



Writing for Site by Maya Ciarrocchi

Below is text that may or may not be included in a new project titled Site. This work mines the history and mythology of my family history and traces the impact of loss and displacement over three generations. This is a beginning.

ONE
Mrs. Rose née Elia Braca died in her apartment some time in the winter of 2015. She was 98 or 99, a radio star of the 1930’s.

Her stage name was Lynne Howard. I knew her as a frail figure who walked the hallways for exercise. One time we found her sitting by the window in a smoke filled hallway. She said, “I turned the oven on for heat, as you do, and my nurse had left a chicken in there.” It was the middle of July.

They came and cleaned out her apartment. First her children, then the neighbors, then the professionals. This is what happens with death. People come and touch your things. They keep them or throw them in the fire. Why have things at all? Is your spirit held in these objects? When they are burned, buried or crushed, is your spirit released?

Who honors the spaces left by the dead? Mrs. Rose occupied a space. She filled it with her history and the history of her ancestors and the canvasses of her dead husband Herman. Elia Braca Rose, a Jewess who adopted a gentile name, as you do.

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop  

But there is no water      

T.S Elliot, that cranky anti-Semite.

I lived in the apartment next to Mrs. Rose. Number 820H. I too have left. It stands empty. Probably gutted by now. They’ve knocked down the dry wall and pulled up the floors. My DNA and the DNA of the others who came before me sucked up in a shop vac.

Bleecker Street candy store.  Sweaty bottles of Yoo-hoo, dusty baseball cards, ship wrecked floorboards.

Unreal city. I had not thought death had undone so many.

TWO
It’s recommended I go for a BRCA test. Variant of unknown significance. I look up Founder Effect, a loss of genetic variation, limited gene pool. Forced ghettoization = cellular trauma. Silence = Death.

Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.

Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.

THREE
Ozarow.

Drive in a blue car down or up a dusty red road. Horse pen. Pile of wood, and white bones, compost. Hay and dry weeds. Cactus.

They met in art school. Two runaways. Their marriage forbidden. Were garments torn? Prayers of mourning uttered?  

I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

“Tell your mother to stop being so anxious”, my father says, jabbing his finger at the air. It’s a cold wind that blows straight from Winnipeg.

She went home for my birth. I say for the free hospital - but truth is less clear. They didn’t want to let her go.

“Your daughter was born with a wound”, says the astrologer. Chiron in the 8th House. Fear death by water. I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.

FOUR
“the witness is forced to testify

Dov Bear Davidoff, my great, great, grandfather lived in Kovno, Lithuania. The northern tip of the Pale. After conscription to the Russian army, his son, Abraham took the name of a dead man and became Dov Caplan. So it is said. History, fantasy - the jury is out. There’s a photo of him. Handsome, long dark coat, a cane rests between his legs, cap, payos and full beard, Slavic cheekbones. In front of a painted backdrop, his feet rest on dirt.

You know there were pogroms. I say this causally. Riots, massacres, mass graves, extermination.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

They left for Liverpool, then Canada. $250 bought the passage. The women came later.

What would they have done differently if they had the choice?

My great grandfather owned a coat company, Stall & Sons. Winnipeg Manitoba. A garment district in the Canadian prairies. This is documented and part of the historical record. It began as a sweatshop

Here is no water but only rock.

My grandmother was tiny, under 5 feet. She grew up in Ozarow, Poland. Her family survived by hiding in the cellar. I remember she kept her food in paper bags wrapped with rubber bands. Chocolate was stored in drawers with the jewelry. Hidden but easily accessed in case quick flight was necessary. “I have no luck”, she would say, perched at the edge of her chair, in the kitchen by the phone. Ready to go.

How do we know if this history is real?  “the witness is forced to testify”.

My wife’s brother comes to visit. It’s Easter Sunday and we go uptown. We stop at Barney’s for the bathroom but it’s closed. He feigns surprise, “aren’t they all Jews? he says. I say nothing and walk away.

    Da, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata
   Shantih.   shantih.  shantih.