12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’

12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup was my name!

Steve McQueen’s magisterial film Twelve Years a Slave opens with Solomon Northup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, whittling a stick into a makeshift pen and attempting to write a plea for freedom in self made ink.  This powerful image prefaces the story of a man who endures unspeakable hardship and brutality, just barely managing to hold on to the faith that his own words put down on paper, and the words inscribed in the American constitution, can free him.

As Northup falteringly scratches his words on paper we are reminded also that, eventually freed after twelve years from a system founded on the implacable belief that he was not a human but an animal, Northup would write one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, a bestseller when it appeared in 1853.

Solomon Northrup's signature

Solomon Northrup’s signature

There are reckoned to have been at least a hundred American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with even more following after the end of the civil war. The Life of William Grimes, published in 1825, was the earliest full length autobiography by an American slave. Grimes concludes his narrative on a note of sarcasm:

If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America.

In his own book, Northup adopted a similar tone, recalling how his kidnappers had hauled him:

Handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Fiddle player Chiwetel Ejiofor as NorthupFiddle player: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup

In Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story, the ironies and iniquities residing in the words of American law are emphasized repeatedly. The constitution might speak of inalienable rights, but the law of the southern states made slave-owning a question of property. The system was upheld by perverted religious belief and blind racial hatred, but its fundamental bulwark lay in the fact that the law deemed Northup not a man, but chattel which could be bought and sold like a bale of cotton.

12 Years a Slave Brad Pitt

12 Years a Slave: Brad Pitt as the Canadian ‘with noble and generous emotions’There’s a key scene (lifted straight from the book) in which a Canadian carpenter, ‘a man whose true heart overflowed with noble and generous emotions’, debates with Northup’s brutal plantation owner who advances the well-worn justification for slavery: that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation Furthermore, he argues, ‘There is no sin. A man does as he pleases with his property’.

The response from the man whose actions would lead ultimately to Northup’s freedom goes right to the hypocritical heart of the white slaver’s argument:

These niggers are human beings.  if they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers and can go where you please, and can gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it.  There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet … there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. …Talk about black skin, and black blood … what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel.

At the end of the film an epilogue informs us that,when liberated, Northup managed to bring to trial the men who had sold him into slavery.  But the action failed because, as a black man, Solomon Northup could not testify in his own defence – anywhere in the United States.In interviews around the release of his film, Steve McQueen has said that he had wanted for some time to make a film about a free black American kidnapped into slavery. Then, a friend suggested he base the film on the true story recounted in Northup’s 19th century best-seller Twelve Years a Slave. In 1841 Northup, the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter.

After seeing McQueen’s film I’ve been reading Northup’s original text -in Kindle format. (Go to the Kindle store and you will find multiple editions have been rushed out to capitalise on the film’s release.  If you want one, make sure you choose the one edited by Dr Sue Eakin who, whilst at Louisiana State University, completed painstaking research into Northup’s life, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement.  This new Kindle edition has copious footnotes by Eakin that confirm or explain points in Northup’s narrative: for less than £1 it is superb value.)

I mention all this in order to make the point that McQueen’s film is absolutely faithful to the book – except in one regard.  At the beginning of the film Northup is presented as a model of prosperous bourgeois respectability, living in the elegant spa town of Saratoga Springs with his wife and children in a rather elegant house, well dressed and conversing at ease with his white neighbours.  It wasn’t quite like that, as Eakin explains in her notes.  Northup picked up seasonal work in the hotels at Saratoga, and odd jobs as as a carpenter and fiddle player at dances and other social occasions, while his wife worked as a cook at a Saratoga hotel moving 20 miles away in the ‘off season’ to work in a coffee house.  In his narrative, Northup honestly admits that:

Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.

I can only assume that McQueen sought, by depicting Northup living in bourgeois respectability and with seemingly secure employment, to dramatise the rupture in his circumstances brought about by the kidnapping.  With that one exception, however, the film renders Northup’s story with great integrity. As Peter Bradshaw put it in his Guardian review, there is ‘passion and moral force’ here, coupled with a ‘powerful visual sense’ and the ‘determination to look at ugly realities head-on’. While in the Independent, Rupert Cornwell wrote:

Everything about it feels authentic, right down to the language, the antiquated cadences and biblical rhythms of which are pitch perfect. Its historical accuracy has been vouched for by none other than Henry Louis Gates, the leading and occasionally prickly scholar on black America and its culture, and a consultant for the film. ‘It was much like studying… and I didn’t have to make any corrections’, he has said, calling it ‘the best film about slavery ever made from the point of view of a slave’.

McQueen tells Northup’s story with clarity and attention to period detail, and not a scintilla of standard Hollywood sentimentality. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s central performance is truly outstanding, brilliantly capturing Northup’s sense of bewilderment at his plight, his initial despair, his resilience and his battle to keep his dignity and self-respect. Advised how best to ensure his survival by a fellow captive, Northup retorts: ‘I don’t want to survive. I want to live’.  McQueen’s camera lingers in closeup for long moments on Ejiofor’s face. With precise, wordless expression, Ejiofor acts with his eyes, as a clench of his jaw and the slightest parting of his lips speaks volumes.

By this time he is no longer Solomon Northup, having been stripped of his birth name (ironically the surname of his father, a freed slave who in his early life had been so named by his owners, the Northup family), sold in a slave auction and taken to a plantation in Louisiana and renamed Platt – after one of the local slave owners.

Having been  approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show, Northup had travelled to Washington DC with them, where he had been drugged before waking in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen, ‘within the very shadow of the Capitol where patriotic representatives boast of freedom and equality’, as Northup observes.

Protesting that he is a free man, Northup was beaten to within an inch of his life in the first of the film’s unbearable, but totally necessary, scenes. A slave now, with no rights, Northup described being marched through the nation’s capital in chains:

So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!

Sold at auction, Northup is transported to a plantations in the Louisiana bayou country. For the next twelve years, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week for a series of increasingly brutal masters. He is finally sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who runs the plantation where Northup will work until he being finally rescued. Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, it’s and a measure of his skill as an actor that he is able to hint at the insecurities in a sadistic man who has nothing remotely sympathetic about him.  The most unbearably shocking scene in the film comes when the young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who has been repeatedly raped by Epps, is whipped on a pretext urged on by his wife. It is a scene that drips with the self-loathing and sexual guilt that lay at the heart of the system of slavery.

Michael Fassbender stars with Lupita Nyong'o

Michael Fassbender with Lupita Nyong’o

There has been much discussion of the unbearable scenes of violence in 12 Years a Slave.  But how could there not be such scenes?  Steve McQueen made this point in an interview:

If you read the book, we pulled back a lot. There are only, I think, five acts of violence in the whole film – a film which last two hours and 11 minutes. That’s five acts of violence. You know, any thriller, or any horror movie, has someone being shot in the head at least every 15 minutes, or cut up or whatever. So as far as violence is concerned in our film, it’s kind of minimal, to be quite honest. But maybe in the context of the truth it becomes quite different, I suppose.

McQueen spoke, too, of how he drew upon images from the history of art to guide him in his presentation:

Think about Goya, for example, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, “Look – look at this.” So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image. It’s about looking. Looking at the image, because it’s important. That’s what Goya is saying. And this [film] is something that’s kind of gone through art history, in a way – the frame, the image; it’s what we’ve been dealing with for hundreds and hundreds of years.

12 Years a Slave is not an easy watch and nor should it be.  There is one long, uninterrupted long shot in which Northup is left hanging from a noose for several hours, his toes desperately scrabbling in the mud as he tries desperately to preserve his life. It is uncomfortable and becomes increasingly difficult to watch:

Yes, it does. Again, I don’t, it’s not a trick to use the long shot – it’s what’s necessary for the scene. Cinema is 120-odd years old, and, therefore, the whole idea of me using film language, however I use it – there no right or wrong way of doing anything, it’s just if it works or not. For example, the hanging scene, for me, was “how do you talk about two things, even three things, in one shot?” Sometimes people do six shots to say one thing and I’m interested, in this situation, in one shot to show not just physical abuse, but mental abuse. Solomon is hanging in the tree struggling, but, at the same time, you had these slaves creeping out of their hut and going about their daily chores. And [they’re] noticing Solomon, but not reacting to him because they know that if they get involved in it, they’ll be strung up beside him. So, there’s that kind of mental abuse and mental torture. And you have the kids running behind and playing while Solomon is suspended. The whole idea of normalizing that particular situation, it was very necessary for those scenes to hold the shot. And time passing as well, because he’s hung up there for most of the day.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)

A drunken, sadistic bully: Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps (notice how he rests his elbow)

There has been much discussion, too, of whether there is any relevance in making a film about slavery today.  For white Americans (and Europeans) it’s something in the past that we can put behind us.  Some black American critics have argued that the last thing young black Americans need is to be continually be reminded of slavery days.  McQueen’s response is that Northup’s story is, essentially, a narrative about today: ‘It’s not a black movie. It’s an American movie. It’s a narrative about human respect, more than anything’.

Look at the prison population. Look at the mental health issues, the poverty, the unemployment. You could go on and on and on. The evidence of slavery is all around. This is not a coincidence. There’s a cause and there’s an effect. It’s one of those things; someone asked me the other day, “What was it like when you first discovered slavery?” And I couldn’t remember when I first discovered slavery. It’s like asking me, “What was it like when you first discovered your name?” It’s one of those things where I thought about it, and I thought about the question, and the only answer you can give was a sense of shame and a sense of embarrassment – and that’s how a young person, as a kid, one starts off their life, because you’re embarrassed about that part of your history.

The repercussions of slavery are still seen today. The high numbers of black people in prison, mental health issues within our community, drug abuse, single parent families – these are the repercussions of slavery and we have to acknowledge that.

We have to recognise our past in the same way that other ethnic groups like the Jewish community have. They believe in the saying ‘never forget’ when it comes to the Holocaust and I think we should be the same when it comes to slavery.

McQueen has also made the point (explored in this article from the Independent) that there has hardly been a superfluity of films about slavery. As McQueen points out, the Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust. Slavery lasted 400 years and yet there are less than two dozen films about slavery in the United States:

Some people just don’t like to look at this chapter of our history because it makes them feel ashamed. But in order to get over it, in order to understand who you are mentally and spiritually, you have to understand slavery.

McQueen, whose great-grandparents were slaves in Grenada and Trinidad, believes it’s also important to note that slavery was not just an American thing.

This wasn’t just North American history, this was global. I’m from the diaspora of slavery. My parents are from the West Indies. My mother was born in Trinidad, my father was born in Grenada. Malcolm X’s mother came from Grenada, Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase ‘black power’, came from Trinidad. Colin Powell was born to Jamaican parents, as was Harry Belafonte.

For myself, I think. like Mark Kermode, writing in the Observer, that ‘if you have any interest in cinema – or, for that matter, in art, economics, politics, drama, literature or history – then you need to watch 12 Years a Slave’.

12 Years A Slave featurette

Saratoga Springs honours Solomon Northup in 1999

Saratoga Springs honoured Solomon Northup in 1999

See also

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Contemporary Art and War at IWM North

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 4

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

It wasn’t intentional, but at 11am, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I was at Imperial War Museum North, taking a look at their brilliant and provocative new show Catalyst: Contemporary Art and War which contains exhibits that range from the wittily satirical to those that are disturbing or deeply moving.

The exhibition – which consists entirely of works from IWM’s collection of twentieth and twenty-first century British art –  explores various artistic responses to war since the first Gulf War in 1990, and sets out to find answers to an interesting question:  what do artists contribute to our perceptions of war and conflict in a time when our general understanding of conflict is increasingly shaped by the media and the internet?

Many of the works displayed here are by artists who were commissioned by the IWM to respond to recent conflicts.  The first British official War Artists’ Scheme was set up by the government in 1916, during the First World War (Paul Nash and Christopher RW Nevinson were among those commissioned then). A larger scheme was established under the War Artists Advisory Committee during the Second World War, resulting in over 3,000 commissioned works being given to the Imperial War Museum (by artists such as Laura Knight, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer and Graham Sutherland). Building on this tradition, IWM has been commissioning contemporary artists  since the early 1970s, at first to create documentary work, but more recently shifting towards encouraging more personal artistic responses to conflict.

The IWM suggests that, ‘working outside the pressures of journalism, artists can propose ideas, urging the viewer to think deeply about what war is, about its immediate impact, its long term repercussions and how we remember it’.  Viewing the response of the artists displayed here, there’s a clear critique of the way in which war and conflict is presented in the media.  While at the time of the Vietnam war it seemed that TV news crews and photo journalists had opened up a new space for critical argument and debate about the war’s objectives and the means by which it was being pursued, now the media are more tightly controlled in conflict situations, and there is a growing emphasis on the media spectacle and instant coverage of events as they unfold.  This leaves little room for more critical or thoughtful perspectives.

This exhibition looks at how artists have questioned and confronted the way in which the media tends to cover conflict in the last 25 years or so.  Some mock the style and methods of the media, while others produce art that rejects the mainstream media’s need for spectacle.

Camp Boundary by Paul Seawright

Paul Seawright, ‘Camp Boundary’, 2002

In 2002 the IWM commissioned Paul Seawright to respond to the war in Afghanistan. Seawright was particularly interested in how an artist might engage with the conflict in a way that was different to the dramatic spectacles of photojournalism, and the photographs he made of minefields are radically opposed to that tradition.  They show a seemingly empty landscape, which in reality is both lethal and inaccessible. Seawright says that he had ‘always been fascinated by the invisible, the unseen, the subject matter that doesn’t easily present itself to the camera’. The Museum suggests that Seawright’s work ‘highlights the changing nature of contemporary warfare with its increasing emphasis on remote technology and hidden enemies’.

John Timberlake, Another Country XV

John Timberlake, Another Country XV, 2001

In his series Another Country, John Timberlake  combines well-known Romantic landscapes by Turner or Constable with nuclear mushroom clouds, taken from sources in IWM’s archives. He’s interested in exploring the idea of the ‘sublime’, used by the Romantics to describe scenes both terrifying and awe-inspiring, in a modern context. These qualities of scale, drama, shock and spectacle are features, he implies, that are increasingly a feature of the contemporary media’s portrayal of conflict. The Museum caption suggests that ‘the cloud is both toxic and fascinating, almost beautiful. The multiple layers in the work remove us from the event, leaving us as passive spectators, simultaneously seduced and disturbed’.  I thought of how we all watched those planes smashing into the towers on a September morning, the sky a beautiful blue.

Trio, Olympic Games Sarajevo, 1994

Trio, ‘Olympic Games Sarajevo 1994’

Trio is a graphic design group made up of husband and wife Bojan and Dada Hadžihalilović with Lela Mulabegović Hatt.  Trapped in the four year siege of Sarajevo and disheartened by the lack of worldwide interest in the conflict, the group produced darkly humorous postcards (later remade into posters) satirising icons of pop culture such as the Coca Cola logo or (as here) the famous image of US soldiers raising the US flag at Iwo Jima to raise awareness.  Their image references the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, which drew huge numbers of visitors to the city. A decade later the city’s residents felt abandoned by the world.

Tartakover, United Colours of Netanyahu

David Tartakover, ‘United Colours of Netanyahu’, 1998

Another example of this satirical approach is provided by David Tartakover’s poster, United Colours of Netanyahu. Tartakover is an Israeli artist and political activist who uses the medium of the poster, often satirising or re-appropriating visual symbols to present a politically provocative perspective on Israel. Here he uses an image of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, posing for a press call with his family, in a re-make of a United Colours of Benetton poster. It is a clear criticism of Netanyahu, and his resistance to the peace process with the Palestinians. The poster suggests an Israel, security-conscious and militarised, maintaining the illusion of a united, happy family.

Taysir Batniji

Taysir Batniji, ‘GH0809: Houses #3, #9, #20’, 2009

Taysir Batniji offers another example of this satirical approach.  He is a Palestinian artist, born in Gaza, but currently living in Paris. His work reflects on the situation in Palestine, but avoids the dramatic, drawing our attention instead to irrational aspects of the situation. GH0809 is a tongue-in-cheek comment on the situation in Gaza, portraying houses bombed by the Israelis in 2008-9 in the form of estate agent information sheets that present the home-seeker with desirable residences, offering the usual mundane details such as square footage and the number of rooms. But the sheets also also quietly state the number of former residents for each house. We do not know what has happened to these people, but the ruined homes shown hardly need a commentary.

John Keane, Death Squad, 1991

John Keane, ‘Death Squad’, 1991

In 1990 John Keane was commissioned as the IWM’s official recorder in the Gulf , just before the first Gulf War began in January 1991.  What could an artist add to our understanding of a conflict given extensive coverage in the media? Free from the responsibility of producing an official record of the war, Keane responded to events in a more personal and subjective way.Keane writes on his website:

I am interested in the process of painting, and I am interested in why human beings want to kill one another for political ends. These two apparently diverse preoccupations I attempt to reconcile by smearing pigment around on canvas in an effort to achieve a result whose success can be measured by how well it disguises the sheer absurdity of the attempt.

The first thing that crossed my mind looking at the ambiguously titled Death Squad, depicting a group of soldiers carrying a body bag, their sunglasses and masks concealing any emotion or expression, was the story of the Royal Marine found guilty by a military court only a few days previously of murdering an injured Afghan insurgent.  But you can read this image in an entirely different way: a group of foot soldiers doing an unpleasant job, clearing the dead from the field of battle.  It’s pertinent that Keane offers this quote on his website from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Then I reach what is perhaps the iconic image of war, and the revulsion felt by millions at the decision of the British government, led by Tony Blair, to go to war in Iraq in 2003, in the face of widespread public protest: Photo-Op by kennardphillipp.

kennardphillips, Photo-Op, 2007

kennardphillips, ‘Photo-Op’, 2007

Peter Kennard and Cat Picton-Phillipps have worked together since 2002, initially to make art in response to the invasion of Iraq. Their work has been shown online, in galleries and on protest marches. They describe their work as a direct means of communication: ‘the visual arm of protest’. Photo-Op, a collage depicting Tony Blair taking a ‘selfie’ in front of a huge explosion was produced in response to the personal anger the two artists felt, and to create something that reflected and validated the enormous public opposition to the war, which they felt had not been reflected in the media.

For me, though, the most moving and powerful works in this exhibition are those in which the artist seeks to explore the legacy of violence and the meaning of memory and loss. Much of this work looks at the links between violent events and the landscape in which they have occurred – and the memory that still resides there. Something of that sort would not lead you to immediately think of the homely landscapes of Britain.

Chris Harrison, 'Sites of Memory Sheerness'

Chris Harrison, ‘Sites of Memory: Sheerness’

But that is exactly what Chris Harrison’s project, Sites of Memory sets out to explore. It’s a series of photographs of First World War memorials that Harrison took as he travelled across Britain. They have a non-committal  and unsentimental appearance, frequently (as is the case with the Tesco store in ‘Sheerness’ on display here) highlighting the incongruity of the juxtaposition between past and present.  The monuments are surrounded by more recent buildings, overgrown greenery and street furniture – all emphasising the passage of time. Often the banality of the surroundings sits uncomfortably with the gravity of the events memorialised, suggesting the fading of collective memory and dwindling recognition of these once-resonant structures.

There were two works on display in the Museum which I had seen once before – on television, in a documentary about the art of war presented by Jon Snow.  One was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country, a work that commemorates the British service personnel who died during the Iraq War.

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen, Queen and Country, 2006

Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.

An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals.  The stamps would focus on individual experience without euphemism. It would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.

While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, McQueen made the Queen and Country installation – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin.  The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.  You engage directly with this work, sliding out panels that bear the sheets from the wooden cabinet, and contemplating the endlessly repeating images of the dead.  There is something here that questions ideas of sacrifice, community and nationhood.

Deller 1

Jeremy Deller, ‘Baghdad, 5 March 2007’

The other exhibit – not in the exhibition, but in the main gallery space – was a piece by Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller entitled Baghdad, 5 March 2007. It consists of the wreckage of a car salvaged after suicide bomber detonated a truck packed with explosives, devastating Mutanabbi Street, a historic street of book stores and coffee shops in a mixed Shia-Sunni area of Baghdad.

World Trade Centre steelwork

World Trade Centre steelwork

Perhaps deliberately, the Museum’s organizers have place nearby a piece of twisted steelwork that once formed part of a window section in the World Trade Centre, destroyed in the attack of 11 September 2001 and extracted from the ruins at Ground Zero.  To one side a poem by Simon Armitage is displayed that follows the structure of a poem by Thomas Hardy with the same name:

The Convergence of the Twain

I

Here is an architecture of air.
Where dust has cleared,
nothing stands but free sky, unlimited and sheer.

II

Smoke’s dark bruise
has paled, soothed
by wind, dabbed at and eased by rain, exposing the wound.

III

Over the spoil of junk,
rescuers prod and pick,
shout into tangled holes. What answers back is aftershock.

IV

All land lines are down.
Reports of mobile phones
are false. One half-excoriated Apple Mac still quotes the Dow Jones.

V

Shop windows are papered
with faces of the disappeared.
As if they might walk from the ruins – chosen, spared.

VI

With hindsight now we track
the vapour-trail of each flight-path
arcing through blue morning, like a curved thought.

VII

And in retrospect plot
the weird prospect
of a passenger plane beading an office-block.

VIII

But long before that dawn,
with those towers drawing
in worth and name to their full height, an opposite was forming,

IX

a force
still years and miles off,
yet moving headlong forwards, locked on a collision course.

X

Then time and space
contracted, so whatever distance
held those worlds apart thinned to an instant.

XI

During which, cameras framed
moments of grace
before the furious contact wherein earth and heaven fused.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 1

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 2

Ori Gersht, ‘Will You Dance For Me’

For me, there was no doubt which was the most moving and most powerful work in this exhibition. Ori Gersht’s film Will You Dance For Me is projected on two screens.  On the left we see Yehudit Arnon, now aged 85, rocking in and out of the light. Arnon was a prisoner in Auschwitz who, when ordered to dance at an SS officer’s Christmas party, refused and was was forced to stand outside, barefoot in the snow for hours. She swore to herself that if she survived she would devote her life to dance. As she rocks, a windswept snowscape – a field of stubble reminiscent of simple wooden crosses in a graveyard, a distant line of trees – appears on the right hand screen, alluding to the place of her memories.

Ori Gersht’s Will You Dance With Me 3

Yehudit Arnon did survive. She went on to become an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer, and in 1962 founded the Kibbutzim Dance Company. Aged 85 when Gersht filmed her, she had limited mobility, but in the rocking chair she was able to dance one more time.  She died last August, aged 87.

My own personal liberation – it was as like death.  We were made to stand in the courtyard. Suddenly we saw there were machine-guns there. And the Germans… It was clear to us that this was the end. We did not know the date. We did not know that in reality this was the last day. Instead we stood there and waited for the end. It was so extreme, the change, from the moment when I thought to myself “this is the end” – and then suddenly freedom… I could not even grasp it.

When the Germans … asked that I amuse them over Christmas – that was the first time in my life when I could say “No”. And at that moment I didn’t care if they would have shot me, because the conditions were so difficult, that it would not have mattered.

I was not shot. I was punished, and made to stand in the snow, I do not know for how long.  And then I decided, that if I survived, I would spend my whole life working with dance.

Will You Dance With Me: 90 second clip from the 13 minute video

Stepping outside after viewing Gersht’s film of Yehudit Arnon, I recollected that the IWM North building was designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Jewish architect whose parents were Holocaust survivors.  He designed it to resemble a globe shattered by the violence of war, from which a few fragments have been put back together rather chaotically. Once shattered by war, though things might be pieced together, nothing is ever quite whole again.

Gallery: Daniel Libeskind’s IWM

See also