“Living Without Them” at the Katzen Museum

Installations… because I’ve seen so many of them, after a while they begin to repeat themselves, and thus it takes a lot for an artist’s installation to really impress me.

Having said that, if your’e in the Washington, DC area anytime until July 27, you just got to drop by the Katzen Museum of the American University and see the installation “Living Without Them” by Lilianne Milgrom/Saul Sosnowski on that gorgeous museum’s first floor.

Because the Paris-born Milgrom and I had exchanged words years ago about our experiences in living and being in the Middle East, she asked me to write some words about her installation for the museum’s brochure, and I did so after viewing her plans and a video about it.

It still didn’t prepare me well enough for the actual visual reception that my maind received when I saw it installed at the Katzen.

When I was in my late twenties, I had the honor to wear the uniform of a naval officer in the United States Navy, having worked my way up to a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) from a Seaman Recruit. One of my most memorable images from my naval career resonates with Lilianne Milgrom’s installation on a personal and visual note, and thus why I think that my voice, as a critic, writer, artist and curator, coupled with my own history as a young Navy officer in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983 gives me a special set of eyes to interpret “Living Without Them.”

There is so much stuff in rubble; it all looks so big and solid on television, but until you get your hands on a chunk of cement or twisted steel, and pull, and pull, and pull, to try to move something out of the way, at the same time that you are listening to cries and screams from those trapped below, you become superhuman.

You are in shock, and rubble moves.

Milgrom knows this, and her installation shows it. And it is because Milgrom lived in the very volatile Middle East for many years, and like the poet Jose Marti wrote: “I know the monster well, for I have lived in its entrails.”

art by Lilianne Milgrom

Milgrom lived in the paradoxical world of the Middle East, where bombings, bombs and their after effects were daily common life. And her psyche and her artistic persona were forever shaped by terrorism and a world where murderers are often heroes to some and demons to others.

Her knowledge shows in the acid perspicacity of her installation, which is coupled with the power of words from Prof. Sosnowski – at first they shock us with a solar plexus punch of destruction.
from installation by Lillianne Milgrom
Then the floating porcelain pages, gently moving in the aftermath of an explosion deliver an anti-punch that is exponentially multiplied over that of the power of the explosion itself. It plants on the mind of the viewer the violence of the act, which maybe sought to kill ideas that went against the bomber’s belief.

“Ideas cannot be killed!” shouts Milgrom in this work – “you can kill people, you can kill poets, you can kill artists, you can kill women who refuse to hide their faces, but ideas will survive and even dance in the death wind of your violence, and in their dance they will spread and multiply.”

And they will use your terminal actions to ensure their infinity and their germination.

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  1. June 27, 2008 @ 10:01 pm

    Lilianne Milgrom Said,

    As an exhibiting artist one never knows what to expect once the finished work is out there for public display. When I read Lenny Campello’s review of my installation ‘Living Without Them’ currently on show at the Katzen museum, I was obviously delighted that an artist/critic of Lenny’s experience was genuinely impressed. But more significantly it reinforced the fact that, once freed from the artist’s grip, the art itself will be seen, interpreted, internalized or rejected by the viewing public with total abandon. Lenny’s personal experience in Lebanon informed his very deep, gut wrenching response. Another woman told me that seeing the burning porcelain papers brought back the smell of burning books which her parents had to secretly burn during the years of dictatorship and terror in Argentina. A Holocaust survivor shared with me her interpretation of the floating burning pages representing souls rising to the heavens, and an MFA graduate saw in the installation references to various artists’ Ascension of Christ. In my mind there can be no greater compliment to the power of one’s work.

  2. June 28, 2008 @ 12:15 am

    Rach Said,

    I have been following the work of Lilianne Milgrom for some years and own some of her paintings. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see this installation live, so it’s great to see these images online. The combination of the intellectual/ cerebral thought of this work combined with the accomplished artistic technique really provides a visceral response, so I’m not surprised you reacted so strongly to her work, too. There’s nothing more powerful than an artist who uses their work to really make you think. Congratulations to Lilianne Milgrom, for changing the world, one artwork at a time, and to you for giving her exposure on your blog.

  3. July 1, 2008 @ 6:45 pm

    Dr Jack Jacoby Said,

    I had the profound honour of viewing Lilian Milgrom’s work today on a short visit to Washington.

    It seems to me that contemporary art has largely but essentially positioned itself into one of two camps: that of representational art (the art of depicting people, places and things) in a manner that makes them recognisable and/or life-like; and interpretive art (the art of ideas and concepts) intended to make people think about the depictions and which allow viewers a wide range of subjective interpretations.

    The difference between “good” art and “poor” art is the success that each artist has in achieving these implied objectives. Technical skill, i.e. the art of art, is assumed and necessary for the practitioners of either “school”.

    Liliane Milgrom’s work interestingly and skillfully but unusually straddles both disciplines. On the representational side, her burnt and rumpled porcelain pages clearly depict the demise of enlightenment; the loss of knowledge; the book as effigy and proxy for the loss of culture of the vanquished. This depiction and message is not only clear, but screams at the viewer. A brief glance at the pages surrounding the centre of the installation easily signifies to the viewer that something bad has happened; namely the loss of knowledge, intelligence and compassion commonly proxied through “the book” that can depict learning, civilisation and intelligence. This is powerful and moving imagery.

    When one moves to the centre of the installation, namely the rubble, one can’t help but be emotionally transported to times and places where man’s inhumanity to man overwhelms one’s sensitivities. The rubble, seemingly randomly strewn, yet obviously deliberately composed, is interspersed with all the elements of civilised society: security (of one’s home), communication, plumbing, books, clothes and even a single shoe - all visible there: each depicting the destruction of part of the essence of our supposed civilised culture - and all of this viewed as a traumatic pile of emotion, symbolism and consequence. A damning indictment of man’s ability to be inhuman.

    In this, Milgrom has scaled the heights of interpretive art and has developed and produced images that not only suggest ideas and human consequences, but scream at the heart and the soul as if to say, “Take heed of the consequences of the damage that you can cause through your destructive treatment of the important elements of our humanity and of your fellow man. Yet what you think you are destroying will never be destroyed. Be warned.”

    And as if this wasn’t enough, Milgrom has superimposed imaginatively and though-provokingly a film image which reinforces the personal journey of exploration and enlightment that one gains from books. Interestingly, she achieves this without ever depicting a book - except by inference in the mind of the viewer. Maybe Milgrom is also a budding film director?

    Milgrom’s work appears to me to be very significant for a number of reasons: firstly, her ability to conceptualise emotions so deep and profound, and then to so skillfully produce them in a manner and form that allows almost consistent interpretation and reaction is in the league of the Masters.

    Secondly, her ability to so successfully straddle the Representational and Interpretive “Schools” so successfully in the one piece is not only laudible, but quite uncommon.

    Thirdly, and on a purely technical level, her delivery of tortured and burnt images in porcelian is a first for me. The skill and perseverence needed to produce this is astonishing, not only for the set pieces around the perimeter of the installation, but also for the amazingly fragile “pages” floating like ascending souls above the rubble.

    Her eye for detail is consistent with her other and earlier works where her “representational” skills have long been successfully and convincingly demonstrated at the highest levels. Her ability to now blend her exacting and meticulous eye with her profound imaginative skills sets her head and shoulders above her peers.

    I perceive this work as Milgrom’s crowning achievement so far and look forward with enormous anticipation as her body of work unfolds.

    This is a truly inspirational piece that art lovers should become familiar. No photo will do this work justice.

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