Hedy Ritterman: ‘My motivation was to confront mortality, identity and loss, with memory’
Ritterman talks about how her current exhibition, which includes more than 700 of her late husband’s possessions, helped her come to terms with his death, and how she has conflated traditional Jewish mourning with her own personal version
by JANET McKENZIE
Hedy Ritterman: One man in his time, at the Jewish Museum of Australia, is a memorialisation of the life of her husband Henry Ritterman, who died in 2010, and an exploration of time and memory. His untimely death prompted her to create a haunting, labyrinthine installation of his possessions in her studio, a work that departed from a gallery or museum aesthetic and served as the palette of readymades for her subsequent work. The spiritual and the material interact through the use of hundreds of personal items, including clothing, sporting medals, newspapers and letters. They conjure the everyday minutiae of Henry’s life and, in turn, they create a conduit for an interaction with the unknowable aspects of life, with infinite loss.
The first iteration was an intensely personal work, which negotiated the tensions that exist in grief between private and personal, between the widow’s experience and that of her children, the different generations within the family and the community. A unity between the intimate and the monumental is achieved with the addition of two new works that are quiet celebrations of Henry’s life but also of Henry’s mother Rezi Ritterman, who survived Auschwitz, settled in Australia and provided a wonderful complete life for her children. Everyday Counts (2016) references the traditional museological indexing system of tagging artefacts to give physical and kinetic form to the sum of Henry’s life – there are 22,740, tags representing each day of his life. The Memory of Dancing (2016) uses the ancient Jewish ritual of mourning, where candles are lit every day for seven days, and then once a year thereafter, as the pivot for a minimalist work created on narrow shelves. At the opening, there were 2,415 candles representing the days since Henry’s death. On each day thereafter, another candle has been added; the ritual will cease on 28 January 2017, to mark the seven years since his passing with 2,549 candles. The number seven, Ritterman points out, is significant biblically and in secular terms. In the Bible, seven is identified with something being “complete … a divine mandate is fulfilled”. Ritterman’s installation departs from the orthodox one-year mark to include every day since Henry’s death. The wall of candles acknowledges that death and grief are surrounded by complex protocols that can alleviate, but also intensify, the isolation of loss.
In exploring the delicate interface between loss and resolution, the artist achieves an understated universality and, by extension, provides a positive marker for her own children. Instead of being defined for losing a husband or father prematurely, Hedy, whose upbringing was deeply connected to the reality of the Holocaust pays tribute to the Jewish community’s receptivity to the fullness of life. One man in his time follows on from the exhibition she curated with the Contemporary Collective, We Are Here: An Exploration of contemporary portraiture as a response to hatred and hope, at the Glen Eira Council Gallery, Melbourne, in May 2016, which addressed the impact of the Holocaust.
The relationships between memory and memorialisation, survival and loss and the manner in which these issues have been expressed through art historically underpin Ritterman’s work.
Janet McKenzie: You have used more than 700 of your late husband’s possessions as readymades to conjure the memory of your life together, the significance of his life and the grief that all humans experience. Can you describe the process?
Hedy Ritterman: The process began subconsciously through observing the way Henry meticulously collected and stored his life’s memorabilia. That, combined with my methodology of using the readymade, was the departure point for a two-year journey of collecting, storing, packing, transporting, unpacking, touching, reminiscing, displaying and sharing. The seven-minute video work Dancing with Memory, which is projected on the floor of the exhibition space, has become a public portrayal of that private process; my personal ritual of grieving.
JMcK: What is the significance of the spiral you have created with the readymades? Is the configuration of the items important?
HR: It was particularly significant for me to display the objects on the floor in both iterations. In the first iteration at my studio, which will become my new home, I wanted the symbolism of Henry’s essence to be part of the foundation of my new life, in a new home. With that in mind, I was researching spiritual customs of varying cultures and found the idea of the labyrinth poignant – the idea that you journey slowly around a maze – like a spiral, with the intent of alleviating oneself of any burden of life using the symbolic placement of an item, such as a stone, in the centre of the labyrinth and then journeying back along the same path freed of that weight, unburdened.
The configuration of the objects that formed the path of the labyrinth was as important as a line is in a drawing – display considerations of chronology, aesthetics and taxonomy were significant, but there was the usual trial and error and subconscious intervention that constituted the final “portrait” in the memory landscape.
JMcK: Art can be very cathartic, yet absent from your poignant works are both anger and guilt: guilt at having survived Henry, anger at being abandoned through his untimely death. Can you explain?
HR: Interesting question. I believe the passage of time from death to making the work gave me space to address these feelings. I also believe the idea of a “good death” helps, whereby Henry was able to express his own feelings about confronting his end and we were able to review our lives and appreciate our time together and take pride in his and our achievements before he died. He expressed one desire and that was not to be forgotten, and he died knowing I had the passion and the language of art to ensure that would not happen. The cathartic effect of the process of making, and collaborating with Henry, enabled me to make a work that is a celebration of his life and a tribute to life itself. I see the work helping me to understand loss and love and to live in harmony with the presence of absence.
JMcK: Can you describe the work Everyday Counts?
HR: Everyday Counts is a work that addresses my question: “What does the duration of a life look like?” I needed to make something concrete, with form, out of something intangible, namely, a lifetime. In contemplating the objects collected over that lifetime, I recognised them as universal memory markers: of events, of an era, the community and culture in which the life was lived, and therefore they were akin to archaeological relics that are archived for future reference. This idea led me to museum archives and the one common element used to date the objects there was the swing tag. This was the seed of “everyday counts”, coupled with Henry’s particular skill of recalling dates, and, of course, as mentioned previously, the idea of celebrating a life. There are 22,740 tags, each of which bears my handwritten inscription of every day of Henry’s 61 years. The installation of the “office works” tags, threaded by shark fishing wire, covering a huge wall, row after row became a dynamic, kinetic wall sculpture that used the medium of time (the months of labour) to represent time itself, which I found intensely satisfying.
JMcK: The Memory of Dancing uses the traditional Jewish stages of mourning as a departure point. Can you explain these stages and the manner in which you have responded?
HR: The Memory of Dancing is the complimentary work to Everyday Counts. As I have explained, I needed to make something structural that could help me understand the formless sense of infinite loss. Jewish mourning rituals use time to distinguish the stages of grieving, which is also aligned to some contemporary psychological understanding of bereavement.
In the first seven days after death – shiva – the mourner sits at the home of the deceased and openly laments in the company of visiting family and friends. For seven days, the mourner does not change clothing or bathe, and food is brought to them; they just think of the dead and not their own needs. After shiva, the mourner starts to tend to themselves until the 30-day mark – shloshim – the next phase of transition back to the normal life that includes work and social activity, but with restraint and without music or dancing. To mark one year from death – yortzeit – a memorial candle is lit and a special prayer is sung. Yizchor means to remember. The one-year date is a marker to resume life fully, to rejoice in it and to move on. Each year thereafter, on that date, a memorial candle is lit, the prayer said and the dead remembered – one day a year dedicated to the memory of the deceased.
In a sense, I have responded to this tradition in defiance. I have acknowledged the tradition by burning down the candles that represent the first seven days, the 30-day and the yearly yortzeits, but have used my own ritual of marking every day since Henry’s passing with a candle – conflating the traditional with the personal, and extending the periods of remembering.
JMcK: The Colombian artist Doris Salcedo (b1958) explores memory and memorialisation. Has she been an influence on your practice?
HR: Yes, Doris Salcedo has influenced my practice, particularly with respect to her philosophical ideas. She espouses that it is the responsibility of the artist to rupture the natural course of forgetting: to privilege memory. I also respond strongly to her minimal aesthetic, her use of the readymade and the poetic poignancy of loss in her installations.
JMcK: Are you freezing time through art, defying death through the memorialisation of Henry’s life?
HR: Even though the work is personal and served as a cathartic experience for me, the intent and motivation was to confront those elements of the human condition: mortality, identity and loss, with memory. I look at artists such as Christian Boltanski (b1944), who use the personal belongings of the “nameless” to “extend” the lives of the forgotten, in contrast to say Andy Warhol (1928-87), who collected all his belongings with the sole purpose of ensuring he lived on after his death. Similarly, Song Dong (b1966), by displaying all the belongings of his family, albeit to comment on Chinese times and material waste, enabled the objects to facilitate contemplation of their owners long after they died. These works, to me, act as a representation of the person through their archive, material, poetry and associations, and so they live on. So, yes, I am trying, too, to challenge time and create a “poetic archive” so that a life can be transformed into a tangible form for all to see, taking it out of my headspace into an actual physical space of memory.
JMcK: In the context of your venue, the Jewish Museum of Australia, One man in his time has achieved exceptional engagement and respect, following on as it does, from the exhibition you curated with The Contemporary Collective: We Are Here, and your photographic work, Richard (2014) that won the Human Justice Award of the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Can you explain the connectivity between Jewish history and the memorialisation to Henry?
HR: Jewish history underscores my work on an innate level, it informs my identity. I reflect on issues of community, of belonging and Jewish traditions, but particularly the history of survival and resilience and the valuing of life. The ideas of yiskor – to remember – are what all my work is about, although I believe this is universal to all cultures.
JMcK: One man in his time has enabled you to reaffirm your life together, and the process has clearly achieved a greater harmony in artistic terms, as the work is elegant, minimal and haunting. What are you working on now?
HR: Thank you. I feel I still have something to say when I de-install the exhibition in March next year. There will be elements of a new ritual in the packing up and divesting of the objects.
The process of the making of the book that accompanies this exhibition – where I photographed each item in the studio against a white background – has produced sufficiently large files to make new large-scale prints. Framed photographs of certain objects that are at once familiar but no longer confined to their original context can be considered as something else. This new work will constitute a photographic exhibition in the future.
My work is about memory, identity and loss, and my palette is formed from the belongings left behind when someone has died. I want to transform these objects from their history into something contemporary, of the present and to preserve them for the future. I have shifted from photography to installation – back to photography and video – and am now also working three-dimensionally in sculpture created from found objects. Watch this space!
• Hedy Ritterman: One man in his time is at the Jewish Museum of Australia, Melbourne, until 12 February 2017.