Death Is Muse for Israeli Artist Pesi Girsch

Daughter of Holocaust Survivors Sees Beauty in Morbidity

Kobi Kalmanovitz

By Dalia Karpel

Published April 03, 2014.
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(Haaretz) — Rehabilitated cats live peacefully in Pesi Girsch’s bedroom. All 12 cats were injured when they were collected from the curbs in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, and she took care of them and saved their lives. In her everyday life, as in her art, there are many beautiful dead animals − on condition that “the death is beautiful.” Girsch photographed the cockroaches that she has been collecting for the past four years with their wings spread like fans and their stretched hairs like magnificent horns.

“Pesi Girsch cloaks the cockroach in human garb,” write Naama Haikin in the catalogue. Haikin is the curator of Girsch’s new photography exhibition that opened this week at the Open Museum of Photography at the Tel Hai Industrial Park.

pesi grisch

Another photograph to be displayed at the exhibition features two sleeping geese (dead, of course) with their heads resting on snow-white sheets. A pair of fawns in another photo are shown as a couple whose reunification after death creates a heart shape. Also on display will be a new series, “Photography in Secret,” in which the artist photographs animals that she receives from research laboratories in universities or collects from the street.

Girsch, 60, lives in a two-story building in Neveh Tzedek. Her mother, Rosa Girsch, who lives on the second floor, has been a very dominant figure in Pesi’s life since her childhood in Germany. The family furniture from those days in Munich fills the apartment and is impressively beautiful. The space is crowded and looks like something between an antique shop and a museum area. In the living room there is a collection of miniatures in a glass cupboard next to huge plants and paper flower bouquets and ancient porcelain dishes, and collections of beetles and cockroaches are in the drawers.

“My studio is everywhere, and as you see, the studio is in the house too,” she says.

As in a session with a psychologist she speaks of her life, which was characterized by painful events and was not easy to deal with. There were moments when it looked as though everything intermingles: fact and fiction, the stormy events of her life that gave rise to artistic activity. Her parents were Holocaust survivors who were born in Lithuania and met at the end of the war in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany.

Pesi, the second child, was born in 1954. Her mother dreamed of going to Israel and starting a new life, but her father was opposed. “He visited here several times but said he couldn’t get along with the temperament of the Israeli-born sabras. He said that they’re prickly and tough on the outside, and perhaps soft on the inside − but they don’t let the other person live.”

She says that her nanny in Germany took her and her brother to church without her mother’s knowledge. “I preferred walking to the nearby cemetery. On one of the crosses there was a photograph of a boy my age with blond bangs and a round face, and I didn’t understand how a little boy could die. At home we didn’t watch television and there were no newspapers, so that we wouldn’t be exposed to the cruel reality. But they said that a boy named Timothy disappeared and half a year later they found his body in a cave. I was sure that one day they would kidnap me too.”

When she was little her father called her “dumme Gans” − stupid goose. In the 2006 book “Natures Mortes” Girsch wrote: “Each time the ‘dumme Gans’ grew and spread inside me until I was filled with it. Eventually I met a taxidermist who had caught a pair of geese. I asked his permission to photograph them. I was happy that they had each other. I placed them gently on my pillow and the dumme Gans fell asleep along with them.”

In 1967 her mother decided that the family would move to Israel, arrived with the children for a visit and didn’t return to Munich. Until his death her father visited his family once every three months. “Here in Israel it was wonderful. The children played in the street,” says Girsch, “but I didn’t know Hebrew and it was also hard for me to fit in socially. I felt rejected, foreign and strange. I was shy and had a poor self-image, but I was certain of my Zionist-patriotic identity.”

One of the teachers in the art class in which she participated as a young girl suggested that Girsch go to study with Rudi Lehmann, an artist and sculptor who had taught art already in Berlin and was one of the first to establish modern sculpture in Israel. She studied sculpture with him from the age of 15 to 21, and under his inspiration found her place as a young artist. Afterwards she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich.

“I studied for almost three years, and then when I was 21 Father contracted cancer. He was brought to Israel and underwent surgery and the entire family helped out. I stayed to take care of him and didn’t finish my degree. His death was traumatic.”

The summer of Kaipo

Later she went with her first husband Shlomo Cohen to Zaire, where he established a fishing farm. In December 1978 their daughter Kaipo was born. She became famous at the age of nine when she played the lead role in the film “The Summer of Aviya,” based on the autobiography of actress Gila Almagor. The trip to Africa ended in divorce. As the mother of a toddler Girsch knew that without a profession and a steady job she would have difficulty functioning, and she registered to study at the Art Teachers’ Training College in Ramat Hasharon.

“During the second year in the photography course with Deganit Barsat I had a revelation. I realized that reality changes during the click, but at that moment I realized that reality as it is doesn’t interest me.”

Is that why you stage it?

“I stage it out of difficult things that I experienced, and was inspired by them − disasters that were caused by human beings, such as the Holocaust and World War II, or the murder of the child Nava Elimelech, whose head was found in the sea. Disasters are a kind of trigger for thought and work. I’m sensitive to injustice. Look, I’m a person who is outwardly very happy and everyone enjoys me, but I don’t enjoy myself and I’m stuck all the time in a kind of suffering. I’ve experienced many difficult things.”

Her model at the start of her work as a photographer was her daughter. “Kaipo was 7 years old when I photographed her inside the house and in the garden. From the age of 4 she danced and announced that she wanted to study ballet. Kaipo knew from an early age what she wanted and she liked being photographed.”

Girsch herself is considered an outstanding belly dancer, but she gave up dance at the age of 45 when she contracted kidney cancer, the same disease from which her father had suffered. She underwent surgery and recovered, but stopped performing. Since then she has been teaching in the belly dancing school of her sister, Tania Girsch.

In Girsch’s photography exhibition at the Tel Hai museum she will display works created from 1987 to 2014. Curator Naama Haikin wrote “Terror Games” − the main article in the lovely catalogue designed by Magen Halutz, which also includes an article by Ruth Golan, a clinical psychologist and Lacanian pyschoanalyst “Pesi Girsch’s cosmic-cosmetic theater of terror,” as well as a text by photographer Simcha Shirman, “The sound of delicate glass.”

Golan wrote beautifully about Girsch, explaining that “she constantly felt that she was exceptional in her surroundings, with a special sensitivity to injustice. And despite all that, I dare to write, in the wake of Frost, that happiness is the dominant characteristic in Girsch’s work as a whole, as in her creative process.”

Shirman was a photography teacher in the art teachers’ college, and according to Girsch she owes her career to him. “It was important to Shirman that I continue to photograph. Had he not supported me, I wouldn’t have considered myself an artist. When I had already finished studying at the institute, he said, ‘You’re coming to me in a month from now and showing me new works.’ That’s how it developed until suddenly I was asked to show my works at an exhibition.”

Dead animals in a spoon from the Holocaust

Four months ago Tamar Salzman, a relative, gave Girsch her mother’s spoon from the concentration camp. Salzman, like Pesi’s mother, was sent to the Stutthof concentration camp. “With this spoon Salzman ate the soup, which was moldy water. The spoons in the Holocaust actually didn’t contain anything. These are death spoons,” wrote Girsch in the catalogue.

That spoon appears in photos by Girsch. The dead bodies placed inside it add another morbid dimension, beyond the fact that she survived the Holocaust.

“I realized that the photos from the first series, ‘The Aura of the Photographed,’ (which was photographed from 1987 until the early 1990s) originate in images from World War II that I saw as a child of 8 or 9 in a history book in German that I read secretly in my grandmother’s room,” she says. “The book was full of photos from the Holocaust, which could have been corpses or human skeletons in mass graves. The photos of body parts that look like amputated limbs in ‘The Aura of the Photographed’ − a hand emerging from water, heads, legs and hands without a body − are actually like the photos in Grandmother’s book. It could also be parts of the crucified Jesus that I saw as a child in the church. Simcha Shirman, to whom I dedicated the catalogue, opened my eyes and explained to me what I was photographing, and that it was related to images from the Holocaust. Only in the early 1990s did I begin to work with awareness.”

“The Summer of Aviya” also influenced her. “In the film they shaved Kaipo’s head and that brought me back to the photos of the children in the camps that I saw in Grandmother’s book,” she says. “That shocked me and broke into my photos, of course. The same is true of the spoon from the ghetto. It’s a simple one made of tin and barely weighs anything, and it’s broken, as though it was used for digging. And on the other hand it has a kind of egg shape, as though it could contain something. But this spoon contained only death. That’s why I put the dead baby bird in it. It’s not only the Holocaust. We all know how much animals suffer and we eat meat, so there’s no difference between a piece of chicken in the soup spoon or a baby bird inside a spoon.”

She says that it’s clear to her that people won’t want to buy these photographs. “I’m scoring an own goal, but I can’t help it. I felt that that’s what I have to do. I want to bring you close to the suffering and show you how beautiful these animals are in their death. No, these aren’t works of protest − they’re works of forgiveness. I let such animals say, ‘We’re here too, we wanted to live, we’re also beautiful, we’re also cute.’”

Is death beautiful?

“It’s possible. The Christians allow people to visit the dead for three days. I wanted to show animals that we never see or that disgust us and are actually very beautiful. Every creature is beautiful. Don’t think that I’m dying to sleep in the bedroom with the cats. I would live better without them. I love every creature that exists. A large part of my activity is intuitive. I’m not a rationalist who knows exactly to the end what he’s doing. I often learn about myself after doing something. A large part of the activity is to give the weak a platform.”

Another interesting series is the 2006 exhibition “Rooms,” in which she photographed the houses of people who are mentally ill, and “Revealed in her Death,” from 2006, in which she photographed the interior of the home of a Holocaust survivor who had passed away.

In the series “Kinderstube” (children’s room, or children’s education) from 2008, she collected volumes of the Encyclopedia Hebraica in the street and placed them on the floor in a rented house in Neveh Tzedek alongside corpses, a moment before it was demolished. On a shelf on the wall she placed stuffed animals like teddy bears next to corpses of animals.

“Death is not the end of the road. This was an opportunity to photograph my childhood animals with the dead animals. Anyone who doesn’t know in advance can’t know that there are more dead animals there. Already years ago I noticed that I photograph things that people don’t necessarily see.”

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