Related News

Home » Feature » Events and TV

Artist celebrates our Holocaust sanctuary

LIKE many of her generation, Jewish American artist Barbara Edelstein finds memories of the Holocaust are fading. So when she discovered the role that Shanghai had played in housing Jewish refugees during World War II, she took the opportunity to retell the story of suffering and courage to a new generation.

Over 20,000 European Jews were allowed sanctuary in Shanghai during the war after other countries had turned them away. Late last year, Edelstein used her visual and sculptural art to send a message of "incredible thankfulness" she felt toward the city.

The grandfather of one of Edelstein's cousins was an Austrian Jew who escaped from the concentration camp to Shanghai, where he later died.

Edelstein had always known of the story from her family. Among more immediate relatives, she has one grandfather who escaped from Warsaw, Poland, but all eight of his siblings were killed by the Nazis. Edelstein chose the city's Hongkou District to make her Holocaust statement because it was the location of the Jewish ghetto under Japanese occupation. Her "Hongkou Stones" exhibit was part of the "Intrude 366" art project organized by Shanghai gallery Zendai to mark the leap year. For each of the 366 days of the year one artist would work outside the museum on the streets, using art to interact with ordinary people.

This fall Edelstein plans to do a mirror exhibition in New York. Gathering Jews from all over the world she wants to make larger versions of the stones, plus add documentation to allow the spectators to write their own stories in a more participatory exhibition.

"Older people know about what happened in World War II, but younger people are beginning to forget," she said. "My exhibit retells the story."

In Hongkou, Edelstein collected stones about the size of a human palm and engraved them with Chinese and Jewish symbols. They were passed around to visitors and spectators, old and young while a local rabbi spoke.

The use of dual symbols is intended to represent how Chinese and Jewish people mixed and intermarried in the 1930s. On one stone the Jewish minorah (candelabrum) sits atop a Chinese yin and yang sign. On another stone, the circles within the yin and yang symbol became the Jewish Star of David.

The stones were then put in a red bag and Edelstein rode a bike around the 1943 perimeter of the Jewish ghetto to "sanctify the area." The exhibition ends with the stones brought back to the park to be put on top of a memorial for Jewish refugees.

In Judaism, stones put on graves show that mourners had attended and paid their respects. Stones, unlike flowers, are permanent and symbolize lasting remembrance.

She cited one of her most satisfactory moments during her exhibition in Hongkou. As the stones were passed around, a little Chinese boy asked his grandfather what they were, and the elderly man was able to tell him the area's special history.

Edelstein's fate has been intertwined with Shanghai in more ways than one. She is married to Shanghainese artist, Zhang Jianjun, and comments that there is good compatibility between Jews and Chinese. One example is that both cultures prize education.

But other than her personal life, Edelstein has found her work is especially well received in China where she spends an increasing amount of her time.

Ever since reading a book on Zen at the age of 13, Edelstein has been obsessed with the world's lost connection to nature. She has since devoted her life to exploring the relationship between the natural and built urban worlds. Her gentle, subtle art works combine modern industrial materials with the natural forms of leaves, trees and flowing water.

"We often forget the existence of this magical, natural world in our busy urban lives," she said. "But we are nature, and if we forget that then the whole system of life gets out of balance."

When we meet, Edelstein is dressed conservatively in a black suit. Only her long, wavy red hair and artist portfolio hint at a creativity bubbling underneath.

She comes from a very artistic family from whom she got her early Zen influences. Three of her cousins are Zen Buddhists and another two are Tibetan Buddhists. Her father was a graphic designer and her mother a painter. Though not rich, they used all their money to travel and took Edelstein and her brother across North and South America, Europe and Asia. Edelstein's first exposure to Asian designs came from photographs of Japanese gardens brought back by her parents from another trip.

It was also at around this time she read the book, "Zen and The Art of Archery" by a German philosophy professor who spent five years in Japan in the 1920s. The book greatly influenced Western ideas of Zen Buddhism, describing how the archer and the bow become one through continued practice so that hitting the target becomes eventually secondary.

The mystical link between mind and body captured the young Edelstein's imagination, resulting in what her husband was to point out was a very Chinese perspective on space. Chinese landscape paintings go up the paper whereas Western classical painting has a focal point in the distance.

But she was to take some detours before finding her path to Zen.

At university Edelstein took an unusual combination of biology and art majors. She even started a research project in reproductive hormones but then realized biology was not her calling because "I couldn't kill mice."

She was also taking dance classes in all sorts of genres ?? ballet, modern and salsa. But at age 20 she realized she was not cut out to go professional. When she finally chose sculpture and art, however, the physicality of dance training influenced her awareness of space, movement and smell.

This is also the reason for her trademark flowing water. The unique sound and smell of trickling water evokes "life" and brings energy to space, she said.

In China ?? a country deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and with a long history of art celebrating nature ?? Edelstein has found a niche.

She has created three permanent public sculptures in China and dozens of non permanent exhibitions and installations.

Two of her permanent sculptures are in Hangzhou, including the first sculpture on Hangzhou's West Lake in 2001. Taking inspiration from the gnarled trees and willows around the lake, Edelstein twisted copper into the silhouette of a leafless tree in winter, dripping water into the lake.

More recently Edelstein completed another sculpture for Hangzhou. Now on display in Qianjiang New Town, it is a green copper leaf with water flowing along its vines.

Her third public sculpture in China stands at the entrance of the Guangdong Museum of Art and was completed in 2002.

She now divides the year between Shanghai and New York where her husband teaches at New York University.

While in Shanghai, the two work and live together in a bright studio overlooking Suzhou Creek. They have also collaborated on art works, such as "Dream Garden" at the 2007 Shanghai Art Fair. Zhang deals with modernity and the changing culture of cities through his sculptures and multimedia, whereas Edelstein looks at the physical world.

Their "Dream Garden" contained natural rocks and leaves but was cast in bright fluorescent colors and modern materials so that it resembled a "mirage," a garden that only appears in dreams.

Edelstein sees her public sculptures as part of her duty as an artist to leave the world "more beautiful than when I entered it."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend