bottom/top – meetings meanings – memories weights

bottom / top: by MY NAME IS SCOT
March 31 – April 29, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Darrel Ronald

“It reminds me of Auschwitz.” He said. I heard him, and agreed. I wasn’t going to ask him any more than that. He was Jewish, and had been there before. I wasn’t Jewish but had also been to the camp. Whereas I can talk about it, he can’t. It means too much. “There’s a terror underlying all the structures, it even scares me,” I carry on, thinking backwards. I was in Poland only eleven months ago. The entire day floats close to the surface of memory.

We never know where we will find ourselves. Our body moves through space. Alone it records our private histories and our public histories. Then we, the being – conscious identity – accompany our body but are free to travel through a constellation of memories. Our body is here, our being is there, or anywhere it wishes.

Auschwitz was originally one small camp when it opened in June 1940. The camp took over what were previously barracks for Polish soldiers. The entire site was too small, so by June of the next year, an enormous site was chosen just five kilometers away. The new camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, is the one most seen in photographs. A lone train track leads to the main gate and watchtower. Beyond the tower is the camp, an expanse of small rectangular sheds lined with bunk beds. The bunks were stacked two high; six or more people to each wooden bunk. There were no pads or sheets for sleeping.

The structures in bottom/top are bodies. They have been present throughout history recording the experiences of centuries. Each structure’s being has accumulated personal memories. They never know where they will find themselves.

We keep talking and slowly come around to a new place. “Yeah, it’s just like when you’re a kid. My brother and I had to fight over who got the top bunk, he was older so he got it,” he’s becoming excited now. But I cannot stop here, the experiences of children and bunk beds are far more appalling. When the Industrial Revolution came to Canada, many of the new workers were children. They could be taken from their homes to workplaces in mines, factories or shops. Nothing stopped industrialists from taking children as young as five or six. It was not until 1873 that the first child labour law was passed in Nova Scotia. It set the minimum age of mine workers to ten years old. It also stated that boys under twelve years old could only work a maximum of sixty hours per week underground. When the children were able to sleep, it was in a mass, in bunk beds.

The bunk beds are dead loads – non-moving weights on the gallery floor. Each structure is stable; each structure is a site. We, the audience/ participator, are the live loads – moving weights affecting the structures, affecting the gallery floor. Our live weight is mobile and unpredictable, almost dangerous. The artist has hopefully constructed the bunk beds strong enough so we do not collapse them with our weight.

We’ve been sitting in the bunk bed mass talking for a long time. A peace fills the small space as we talk hidden away like this. I found out we could pull up the floorboards and sneak out the bottom, like a hidden passageway. It isn’t long, though, before history comes back to haunt us. “I guess this is like labour camps too. Like on the West Coast when the Chinese had to build the railway through the mountains.” His stare seems blank and vacant as if it’s his duty to remember. I think of a quote by Peter Waite that was next to a photograph in a Canadian history book. The black and white image is from the Public Archives of Canada. He says:

“Possibly the best-known Canadian photograph. Donald A. Smith, president of the Bank of Montréal, is seen driving the last spike into the final rail of the CPR at Craigellachie, British Columbia, at 9:22 a.m. on November 7, 1885; general manager William Van Horne, chief engineer Sanford Fleming, and assorted officials and workers are looking on. Conspicuously absent are the immigrant Chinese labourers whose toil made possible the completion of the railway through the Rockies.”1

We must engage our bodies with the space and share the spatial experience of cramped spaces and physical exposure, of privacy lost and publicity gained. We need to feel the structure’s stress and strain under our body’s weight, just as our body feels the stress and strain under the weight of our being.

1. Peter Waite, “Between Three Oceans: Challenges of a Continental Destiny,” in The Illustrated History of Canada, Craig Brown, ed. Toronto: Key Porter books, 1997, 361

Darrel Ronald works with photography, text and space while studying at the School of Art and in the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba.