“What would you do?” was a question we would often ask in Israel when discussing The Holocaust. Would you flee? Fight? Hide? Would you die? These questions implied the victims stood a choice. Miroslaw Balka’s work has always focused on Polish life under the Nazis in World War Two, Catholic guilt, and ideas of memory and ritual in these contexts. Guilt, much like fantastic escapes, implies choice. In 2017 I visited Balka’s CROSSOVER/S (Curated by Vicente Todolí) in Hangar Biccoca in Milan with guilt and its victims in mind.
When thinking about The Holocaust, reconstructing stories and testimonies, one repeating detail is the survivors’ olfactory memory. Smelling burnt flesh. The smell of burnt flesh. These words resonate in my head in a mix of awe, horror, and misunderstanding. Misunderstanding as I am anosmic and have no sense of smell, no memory of smell. Unlike sight or taste, smell is uncontrollable and appears to be a major factor in people’s formation of memories. And so the concept of Holocaust victims’ smell memory always seems so overwhelming. They did not choose to smell it or remember it, but the smell became part of who they are.
My anosmia was the delivery device of CROSSOVER/S strongest moment. Each of the installations spread around the large dark hangar toyed with a different aspect of perception. 196 x 230 x 141 (2007) was a deep corridor which got so dark inside that for a moment you forget what seeing is like, 400 x 250 x 30 (2005) was a horizontal board inviting to walk across it while it wobbled, effectively taking away one’s sense of balance. But it was Soap Corridor (1995), a corridor (one of three installed in the space) and its walls are covered with layers of soap, that really interested me. It interested and confused me primarily due to my inability to experience it. For the first time I was locked out of an artist’s choice of expression. But another fascination arose due to the soap, an item I’ve seen used in the context of The Holocaust only in dark humour.
Why did I feel I had to walk through the corridor again and again? I must have stepped through six or seven times. Perhaps it was the eagerness to sense it, perhaps the understanding that smell can be more tangible than any other sense, forever creating a link for a non-anosmic audience between soap and guilt. Soap, the cleaning apparatus; soap, the horrid Nazi practice. I envy other visitors for being able to experience this piece to its full flowery scented intensity. I don’t envy what probably was a moment of horrific realisation when pausing to think of why it smells so nice, the dawning of the context. I walked through, touching the ground and the walls, at first in disbelief that there’s actual soap rubbed onto the walls. I walked through again trying to imagine smelling scented air. I walked through once again and couldn’t help thinking of burnt flesh. And guilt.
Featured Image sourced from the Pirelli HangarBiccoca exhibition page