Art Review: ‘(Un)Civil Histories’ at Rockford Art Museum explores human rights

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117087873214079.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Twenty-four actual Army cots extend in two rows in a sterile, white room.‘);

In art, content is everything. Without it, a painting becomes decorative—too easy to live with, too easy to come to ignore.

Sometimes, content can be funny, ironic or about making art, but at times it must deal with difficult ideas, very difficult ideas.

This is the realm of Chicago artist Gerda Meyer Bernstein’s installations on display at Rockford Art Museum.

In “(Un)Civil Histories,” Bernstein explores human rights abuses. How can a Jewish woman, who came to this country from Germany in 1940 at age 17, spend her artistic life delving into the never-ending stories of man’s inhumanity to man? This is a question I always wanted to ask artists like her. In her gallery walk, prior to the show’s opening, Bernstein excitedly enlightened us. This is her way of exposing hidden atrocities, interpreting other atrocities with her own experiences, and educating the public about them all.

Of course, she has looked at the Holocaust in many ways. In this exhibition, “Tribunal” features a darkened room with black wooden chairs that represent witnesses who can no longer bear witness. While the chairs are of many different styles, they are lined in rigid rows, each with a dim lightbulb hanging at the height of a phantom witness’ head. The table at the front of the room is covered with books, many of them by her favorite author, a Holocaust survivor who, at age 66, could not come to grips with his experiences and committed suicide. According to the legend on the gallery wall, Hitler burned 20,000 books in 1933. Sixty-six years later, 120,000 books have been published examining the Nazis’ evil. (When you go to the exhibit, ask them to turn on the lights in this room. This is a powerful installation not to be missed.)

“Army of the Disappeared” is a memorial to the men, women and children missing in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. Ninety photos of the missing are framed in black and erected on black poles.

On the back of each photo is the date, in Spanish, that person was taken. The photos stand like a crowd of people of varying heights and stature. How did she come to get these pictures? This is part of Bernstein’s story. She came to know the mothers and wives of the kidnapped people through an organization she was able to help. In return, they sent her the negatives for these photos.

Locating and scrounging the materials that give birth to her ideas is an exciting part of her creative experience. Buying 24 pillows and 48 sheets at Kmart for “The Untold Story” is a tale she told with relish. The wonderful, abused doors used in “Exit Only”sat in her studio for two years before they revealed their purpose to her.

For another Holocaust installation, shown in a photograph, she collected 600 pre-1940s suitcases. Seventy-five percent of these carry the names and birth and death names of actual Holocaust victims, while 25 percent of the suitcases carry the names of friends and family members whom “Hitler didn’t get.”

But back to “The Untold Story.” Debuting here in Rockford, this installation is about a human rights abuse of another stripe. According to a journalist who lost a hand tossing a grenade out of his vehicle in Iraq, C17 transport jets bring the wounded back from Iraq after midnight so they won’t be photographed. The journalist returned on this flight, along with many others, and ended up in Ward 17, the amputee ward. Ward 17 is not to be talked about.

But Gerda Myer Bernstein talks about this in her own way. Twenty-four actual Army cots extend in two rows in a sterile, white room. She precisely made them with white sheets (this is where Kmart comes in), small pillows and an Army-style rough blanket at the foot of each cot. The effect is cold, vast and impersonal. Where is the compassion and recognition for these 50,000 wounded? Bernstein encourages gallery visitors to walk into her installations, feeling their presence and footprints are instrumental in developing and internalizing each work.

Friday, Feb. 9, Gerda Meyer Bernstein will speak about her work at the museum at noon. Not only will her explanation be especially informative, but her presence and personality is also enlightening. I highly recommend meeting her. The lecture is $10, and reservations are suggested.

“(Un)Civil Histories: An Inside View” is on view at Rockford Art Museum, 711 N. Main St., until March 18. The museum is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and free for children, students and members. Tuesdays are free for everyone.

From the Feb. 7-13, 2007, issue

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