The exhibition What Remains: Traces of Refugees (Fluchtspuren) leaves its mark with a few personal objects
Size isn’t everything, especially when your survival literally depends on the coat on your back. What would you grab if you had just a few minutes to save your life? As revealed by the 15 objects collected for the Wien Museum’s small Fluchtspuren exhibition, what we value in that fearful moment – and years later, as tangible partners to our imperfect memories – has as much to do with sentiment as with practicality.
For Radmilla Erceg, a simple emergency list of essentials to take from her home when the Serbo-Croatian war reached Zvornik, her village in North-Eastern Bosnia, is not just a record of her family’s valued property in 1992 (video cassettes, Sarajevo property deeds, children’s jewelry, transistor radio, her diploma) but things that “show you that you used to live.” Most poignant is the property deed – not many refugees reclaim homes either destroyed or taken out of reach by redrawn borders.
The exhibit has two parts: Being a Refugee: A European Narrative presents 15 personal possessions collected from five Central and Southeast European museums, a visual record of the many tragic European conflicts from WWI to the breakup of Yugoslavia. Without the accompanying texts, the objects seem unremarkable – a child’s trousers, a train ticket, a house key, a tin of breakfast cocoa donated as part of an aid package from an American Jewish group in 1945. The kind of everyday things one sifts through at a flea market.
The second part, An Interrupted Career: Theatre Sketches from Lisa Jalowetz, asks the question “What would this artist’s career have been if she hadn’t had to escape?” Jalowetz, a promising Jewish theatre design student, fled Austria, Czechoslovakia and Holland in quick succession as the Nazi wave swept over Europe. The Coat is part of her video testimonial in the show: Her mother sewed money into Jalowetz’s coat lining, knowing it could be recovered once her child reached safety in Holland. Her mother withheld this information, concerned her daughter would panic as she passed controls along the way.
Things that matter
The curator Gerhard Milchram believes the topic of flight is overlooked by “official cultural memory.” There is a current debate on whether smaller, challenging exhibitions have more cultural value and greater impact on visitors than the “blockbuster” shows with splashy, popular themes favored by cultural institutions since Thomas Hoving presented King Tut at the Met in 1978. The traces this understated, EU-funded exhibition hopes to leave in visitors’ minds are that flight is not just a local, personal story, but, as Milchram argues, “an experience that has been present in European societies for centuries (as) a common narrative.” Exodus is a tie that binds us all, and a highly topical one.
A young, pale Russian attending the exhibition was inspired to reflect on the ex-Soviet population from the Caucasus, now treated terribly in Moscow, where their darker faces stand out in the local crowds. Others discussed the baby in a van of refugees, recently killed by police while attempting to cross a European border, or the 250,000 people calling Bidi Bidi refugee camp home.
The intimate Fluchtspuren is like a quiet chapel tucked away at the back of a popular cathedral, overshadowed by the museum’s far more extensive current shows. Leaving it, one can’t help reflecting on one’s own reasons for escape and flight, and how lucky we are when moving on is less desperate and likelier to lead to a better life. What do we carry with us wherever we go?
Through Jan 13, Wien Museum. 4., Karlsplatz 8. wienmuseum.at