Spertus installation focuses on refugees’ timeless challenges

JC Immigrant Exhibit  image
Ellen Rothenberg’s installation “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant,” now showing at Spertus Institute. Courtesy of Spertus Institute. Photo credit: Tom Van Eynde.

As of today, more than half a million Rohingya of Myanmar have crossed the border into Bangladesh to escape persecution and death.

Back in 1979, several million Iranians fled their country following the advent of the Islamic Revolution.

And in the 1930s in Germany and Poland, and during the 15 th century in Spain and Portugal, and in England in the 1200s,  in Egypt during Exodus-as well as in many other places and times in history-countless Jews left their homelands, often with little advance warning, to escape anti-Semitism, targeted violence, and worse.

The plight of refugees, including today's Syrians and Iraqis, is not mentioned specifically in Chicago artist Ellen Rothenberg's installation "ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant," which can be seen at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership's gallery through April 24. That's because, said Rothenberg, in a published interview with Ionit Behar, the Spertus Institute's Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, who organized "ineluctable," there is something eerily timeless and repetitive about the hardships that all refugees have faced throughout time.

"The installation and the images in it suggest a more generalized reading of historical continuities and recurring patterns that we are witnessing again today," said Rothenberg, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has created many politically and socially conscious installations site-specific projects since the 1970s .

Anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, and human rights violations are nothing new, Rothenberg said, in an interview with JUF News . "I'm focusing on systems, not individual histories," she said. "Unfortunately, we are in a period of history" with an unprecedented global refugee crisis and responses that often seem to fall wide of the mark.

To force the issue, Rothenberg, for "ineluctable," culled through Spertus archives to find objects and documents relating to immigration. Included in the installation are a photograph of one of the discovered materials, the Mexican passport of a Russian Jewish seamstress, and copies of cartoonist Al Capp's Li'l Abner , which addressed issues of community tolerance.

"The biggest surprise for me was to revisit the multiple histories in the Spertus collection and [see] how resonant they were with the present [time]," said Rothenberg.

The Spertus materials are commingled "ineluctable" with recent images that Rothenberg took at Tempelhof, a decommissioned airfield in Berlin and the site of the newly constructed Tempohome, a series of shipping container settlements for some of the tens of thousands of refugees who come to that city each year.

Rothenberg, who has spent several months each year in Berlin since the 1990s, and Bettina Klein, Berlin-based curator who wrote an essay accompanying "ineluctable," both acknowledge there is a chilling quality to the creation of Tempohome on a site so closely associated with Nazi oppression.

"It's complicated because of its multiple histories," said Rothenberg, citing Tempelhof's close proximity to one of the Berlin's first concentration camps, KZ Columbia.

Among its most notable detainees were Rabbi Leo Baeck, a leader in the Liberal Judaism movement, and Robert Kempner, who became deputy chief counsel during the postwar Nuremburg trials.

"All of the historic echoes" are still present at Tempelhof, said Rothenberg.

But perhaps a more visible, bitterly ironic reminder, though, is a fence surrounding Tempohome. It was erected, wrote Klein, to protect today's refugees from "xenophobic aggression," since "accommodations for asylum seekers in Germany are attacked almost every day."

The "ISO 6346" of the installation's title is a reference to the "standard for identification and marking of shipping containers, such as those being used to house refugees at Tempelhof," noted Spertus' Behar in her published interview with Rothenberg.

She also observed that the latter half of the title, "ineluctable," meaning "inescapable" or "unavoidable" was initially "used in print in 1623, notably at the same time as the words 'immigrate' and 'migration.'"

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.  

For more information, visit spertus.edu.


Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.