Undulating Fabric of Time
The course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experience of a refugee. —Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation
The house stands still; the cottage’s various owners come and go; there’s a refrain describing mundane objects and their costs, despite our knowing that it was the Nazis who stole all those stockings and scarves and teapots, along with the lives of people inside.
An imagined lake house is conjured by German writer, Jenny Erpenbeck, in her 2008 novel, Visitation. Written evocations of eras under siege, like Erpenbeck’s woven across a portion of the 20th century’s conquering and relinquishing, hold a mirror to our contemporary horrors. It’s also a textual reflection shimmering across waters to sound works by American radio-artist Karen Werner. Her latest series is simply called, Haus.
There’s a house that stands witness to its own history (Vienna, in the case of Werner’s artistry; a lake near Berlin, in Erpenbeck’s book). Werner’s sonic evocations, like a writer’s, beseech us to absorb appalling absences in this most haunted territory. We don’t always know, definitively, what’s happening in the written episodes, nor in Werner’s mysterious spirit choruses: an aerial antenna floats down a stairwell; known and unfamiliar languages stutter over time.
In this uncertainty, Werner brings forth a specter into the daylight.
The first iteration of Karen Werner’s Haus (part of a multi-episode series called Strange Radio) whispers into your ear. “Twenty-two letters” is a refrain that hints as much to language as it does to spirited numbers or book chapters or apartments in a Viennese building, even. It’s a work that is keenly felt. Along its narrative periphery is a house that Werner’s family lived in on Novaragasse—a house the Nazis re-fashioned into a deportation center, where 220 Viennese were processed, banished and then killed.
The house survived the war where it’s since been inhabited by people who knew little of its history. Or, rather, they’ve only begun to learn its scope. Stories come alive through Werner’s ornate sound ‘staging.’ The artist began visiting her relative’s Viennese neighborhood in the last decade, traveling there with her aging parents. On her own, via artist residencies, she’s developing Strange Radio, which began airing in 2016. Two episodes comprise Haus.
In the first part, Covenant of the Tongue, there’s a ghostly documenting. Werner uses her body as conduit. Notations of letters ply the tongue. Kabbalah and chance are both at play— not something the artist was fully in control of, she explains of her process. Translations feel oddly scripted, like the words belong in someone else’s mouth—and they do. The piece functions like a medium. It’s a guttural song. A mysterious susurration.
“Twenty-two letters,” intones Werner. “What is a ghost?!” a chorus of Viennese voices chants, like an answer to this curious question of numbered letters.
The other side of the sonic diptych, Zirkus, dives into the stairwells of the house on Novaragasse where Werner collaborated with artists and musicians to stage a performance. The circus functions like a language of its own. It re-materializes an eerie, albeit vivid, circus memory swirling through the apartment’s hallways. Do you hear echoes of the old circus that used to perform nearby on Zirkusgasse? (Maybe you smell the dried straw?)
A telephone high-wire act compels us to eavesdrop. A performer called Reni Hofmüller unfurls her aerial antenna—an undulating fabric—down the stairwell and, in a way, transmitting through time itself. In Apartment 24, a housing scientist defines a house—and explains how, in German, you say ‘to be at home‘ as you would utter ‘to house.’ Words matter and crash and clatter.
We imagine an audience lining the halls, leaning against marble and ornately carved molding and peering over iron banisters. There’s a clown inflating balloon ‘animals’ to the delight of children, with his screechy horn-honking, his over-sized feet too big for the stairs leading to these hushed apartments.
But children would have been deported from this house, too. Performers stand before closed doors, conjuring the liminal space between hallway and home.
But you and even me as listener are not the same as this invisible witness inside the piece. We are hovering somewhere groundless. Are we the ghosts? —Karen Werner
As a Jew, through a Zen prism, Werner has understood that everything is connected, or rather, not separated. In a conversation earlier this year, the artist calls up the Buddhist idea of feeding the hungry ghosts in us all. Werner explains, “ … on behalf of my family and maybe on behalf of the list of people whose names I have that were deported from the house…. is my way of serving.”
Werner acknowledges the crossing of cultures: “In the U.S. some of the Buddhist cultures are actually quite Jewish, too. My Zen teacher was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor herself.”
A caretaker of stories in this house, past and present, Werner, like Erpenbeck, dances in the realm of truth and imagination. It’s curious why we, as consumers, devour these stories, laced with real experiences, despite their inciting us to gasp through them. The world feels like it’s coming apart and so maybe we gravitate to past horrors as a way through the present ones.
Werner says the feeding of someone who is wounded is a way of feeding herself.
Photos featured are from installations of Haus at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna. Images were made collaboratively by Karen Werner, Georg Weckwerth (photo) and Astrid Seme (graphic design).
Karen Werner combines her creative and Buddhist practices and is a sociologist and teacher.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation was published in 2008 and translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky in 2010 by New Directions.
—Joan Schuman, Earlid