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Despite some eccentricities in his presentation on the phone and his ardent refusal to use any technology, the elderly gentleman asks nothing and offers to help so today I go meet him in a restaurant in a suburb north of the City.

I anticipate that my art is ill-suited for his services, which mostly consist of lining up restaurants and businesses to display art with ungainly price tags. And when I see the Italian restaurant’s orange stucco walls with a range of some-accomplishment to beginner pieces, I remind myself to just see what the man has to offer.

He is sitting in the corner, with a feminine, white, bob haircut coiffed neatly, a large Nordic nose over a receding chin. He is incredibly tall even hinging on his aged frame. He looks straight at me with a pale, wrinkled face holding ice blue eyes. He hands me a form listing the opportunities he gives to artists. I politely decline all of them and tell him that my work in my experience has not been palatable for the average “civilian” (his term not mine). In turn, he explains that society needs art and that an artist does no service hiding out making art privately. Art’s service is to move and connect to other people. I retort saying art is about solitude and that the optimum experience is to stand guard over someone else’s solitude. I am not interested in converting people to a state of interest. Besides my art would be taken as freaky (my word) in the milieu in which he works. He asks why. I explain that lately my work consists of 6-foot, yellow watercolor portraits that are hard to look at. I explain how these works are about my ancestors, being haunted by them but the impossibility of knowing them. And of course it is also about their death, but I admit I have more questions than answers about that part, and art is the place for unanswerable questions. It is not of the stuff that people want to fill their homes with.

Then he argues simply, “But you have the knowledge of who your ancestors are inside you.” And I say, no, the mystery is more important. He agrees and asks if I have time for a story.

He tells me that he was born on a dining table in Copenhagen to a gypsy-blooded mother. He said he was five years old when he was first interrogated by the Gestapo. That year his family under pressure set out to leave Copenhagen to stay with his grandparents who lived in the countryside outside the city. All Danes at that time ride bicycles, he disdains. And they would have to pass on bicycle an SS checkpoint with machine guns pointed over the road.

I said I don’t like where this is going. He paused for me but continued.

He said his father told him he would go first, then his sister, his mother, then finally his father, all in one line. His father told them all to keep bicycling past the checkpoint at least 50 meters before stopping. His voice starts to shake and I realize my hope of a happy ending is dead. My eyes immediately well up. He apologizes. He says this is very difficult to talk about. I say it is very difficult to hear. He slowly continues. He utters that he rode across, then he chokes again and clears his throat. He heard gunfire behind him and he kept going. He is sniffling now and I am weeping openly. He says he rode to his grandparents’ house, familiar with it from previous visits, and arrived to what he calls his friendly oak tree. One, he adds, that has a chimney. I nod in complete recognition, ungracefully smudging tears off my face. He says he stayed for a longtime there at the oak tree until at some point he received a message. He was told that he is now on his own, an orphan of the universe, and that he was also now a genetic placeholder for his ancestors.

Encumbered lately by the difficult poems of Paul Celan, I sense in his poetry the excruciating search for the impossible understanding to his parents murder, their lives cut off not far from the place and time of my own storyteller. Celan’s life’s work (and resultant suicide) was the existential failure to make sense of life mediated by language, using that same language in a means to what he describes as becoming silent. Silent like all those he survived. He was tormented, like Hegel, by the fact that words have a way of removing themselves from their meanings. That one day someone could utter genocide and it would be far from what he experienced. His collection of poems is therefore entitled, The Last Poems.

Back in this beautiful Italian restaurant adorned with the hopes of artists wanting to touch others and be touched, our artwork — an offering for his family — hung in a silence that was awkward to all but us. He finally breaks it and says to me gently, humbly: I lived it — I know what war means. And at that moment, I glimpsed the entirety of the word myself.

Still Frame from Ancestors on Rice Video, Summer Lee
(A still from a recent video, A family portrait projected on falling rice. 2013. See the whole video here. http://youtu.be/IoGln7tNyGo

“Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” – James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist.

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