The Forbidden Library of Haim Maor

A childhood memory:
Holon in the 1950s. A boy guides his blind grandfather on his daily walk, and as a reward for his good deed, Grandfather presented him with him a new book. This is how Haim Maor's first library came into being. The boy, one can only presume, was too young to understand the real kindness that the old man performed: the grandfather, no longer able to see, opened up a whole world for his grandson.
"Forbidden Library" - that's what Haim Maor called the exhibition at Massuah. It began as a temporary event, but over time it became a permanent display that many of Israel's youth visited while attending seminars at The Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak.
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke describes readers in a library as people who are immersed in a half-drowsy, half-alert state as they scan the pages of their books as though scrolling among windows. In the case of Haim Maor, it would be correct to say that he and his viewers scroll among nightmares. What a charged title, the "Forbidden Library," in a place where they burn books....
Maor is a consistent artist who has spent more than two decades heading down one road. His materials are demanding: childhood in the shadow of the Holocaust and a profound but agonizing friendship with Susanna, a German woman and the daughter of the executioners, who became his model over many years. Maor probes the kernel of racism embedded in the human psyche and raises the Mark of Cain that the victims and the murders carry-each on his own side of the divide of terror. Maor tackles what other people prefer to forget or repress. He always stations the effort to remember, against the sources of denial, at the focus. His works follow a serpentine course, resulting in a multimedia production of sorts that reminds one of how a computer functions: a general menu, subcategories, sub-libraries, references. An intermingling of the overt and the covert.
The objects that make up the whole - real things such as Ark curtains, a girl's blouse, a desk, a figurine of the young Goethe, family photos of Germans and Jews, sketches, drawings, portraits on planks that became coffin lids, scrolls and codes -converge to form a visual substantiation of the grueling craft of remembering. A chain links the conscious and the subconscious; a flash of memory emerges from the right cubbyhole but at the wrong moment or is shoved into a dark corner until it can be dumped into the well of oblivion. Memory is a trap, Haim Maor declares. You evade it, but it catches up to you in odd ways, since life without memory is an undifferentiated and meaningless string of events.
The viewer who confronts each of the works is led toward a different memory task. In fact, his mind conducts an electrical charge, unifying fields of verbal and visual images and mounting his autobiography on them.
Haim Maor deconstructs the multi-tiered filing system powerfully and spatters the walls and tables with a barrage composed concurrently of an objective library-the product of a topical scientific method-and an untamed library, one that threatens to sweep away and drown the viewer.
Haim Maor says, "I want to make you feel that even if I seem to have revealed almost everything, I really haven't revealed a thing. The information deluge is part of a tactic-to stretch the cord until the whole system verges on collapse. I have a tendency to embrace the entire world, but I also try to arrive at the one word that expresses the gist of the matter with crisp precision."
Alongside irregular and information-packed works, there are succinctly phrased voids that add up to a bottom line of sorts-codes that function as pauses for the mind and the soul, which have become fatigued from digesting the inundation of information: a dog, scissors, a skull and crossbones, gallows, a loaf of bread, a knife and fork, a watchtower, a valise. Viewers are asked to embed the mark in their autobiographies and create personal narratives. There is an association that viewers respond to at once; concurrently there is an experiential unfolding that carries no familiar meaning. Even if the viewer lacks the requisite level of familiarity with the clutch of associations revealed by the artist, he receives an open invitation to add his or her own crisscross strands.
Other pictograms are used in familiar and accepted ways. The painting of a shower that denotes a public bathhouse becomes the identifying mark of a gas chamber in Haim Maor's taunting lexicon. The roster of words also seems to create a purposeful and systematic continuity: a train, life, fear, silence, nakedness, a number. Haim Maor continues almost compulsively to insert the number, tattooed on his father's forearm, into his works. The tattoo protrudes demonstratively from the camouflage of beauty and aesthetics, providing a stubborn reminder that even if the century has turned and the survivors of the Holocaust are passing on, the atrocity that they experienced still reverberates in their offspring.
In "Number of Light," the viewer faces a copper plaque in which an Auschwitz number has been perforated. Dazzling light bursts through the tiny holes. The number is projected onto the forehead of the viewer whose reflection appears in the plaque, and anyone who is tempted to touch the metal risks being burned by the heat that its conducts. Maor reduces memory to the most highly charged concepts by inviting the viewer of the "Forbidden Library" to an intimate partnership, a troubling exploration in the recesses of both personal and public memory. Thus he scratches wounds of Job that have never fully healed but that begin to heal by the very act of exploration.
The author Saul Bellow feared for the wellbeing of people who read in libraries. They may lose their lives, he wrote; they ought to be warned. If the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges likens a library to Paradise, for Haim Maor it is more reminiscent of hell. The pair of words "train" and "camp" embody the most refined form of terror. For an Israeli-Jewish artist, they will never be innocent words. Haim Maor warns us to beware of the cerebral and affective fixation that, as it distances itself from the experience of the atrocity itself, poses a rising threat to memory. His work forces the viewer to face his own reflection and be traumatized all over again. Haim Maor's forbidden library is free to everyone.

Published in Haim Maor's Catalogue, Massuah - The Institute for Holocaust Studies, 2001.
Haim Maor, Nava Semel portrait, Oil on Wood 1986



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