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As History and Memory Ebb and Flow

'The Danube Exodus' succeeds in the friction between factual documents and images of two WWII river journeys

September 01, 2002|LEAH OLLMAN

"The Danube Exodus," an intensely absorbing exhibition, is also a history lesson, a meditation on time and loss, a deep sensory soak and a struggle. What causes the friction is also what generates the most provocative of the show's unanswered questions, centering on how history is made, processed and understood.

Peter Forgacs created the installation for the Getty Research Institute in collaboration with the Getty and the Labyrinth Project at USC's Annenberg Center for Communication. Forgacs' 1997 film of the same name served as the springboard for the show, which examines two journeys along the Danube, one made in 1939 by Eastern European Jews fleeing Nazi forces for Palestine, and the other made in 1940 by Bessarabian Germans being repatriated after Bessarabia (present-day Moldova and part of Ukraine) was occupied by the Soviets. The journeys were in opposite directions, a year apart, but one captain, Nandor Andrasovits, helped ferry the illicit Jewish exodus and the government-sponsored Bessarabian one. With an 8-millimeter movie camera that he used to document life along the Danube, Andrasovits filmed both sets of passengers on their fateful journeys.

The Getty exhibition consists of two basic parts: a film montage using period footage by Andrasovits and others, and a wealth of didactic information in the form of maps, albums, text, diaries and computer stations serving as portals to yet more. The thrust of the Getty Research Institute is represented beautifully by this melding of disciplines.

In the first gallery, a timeline tracks the Jewish exodus from left to right across the wall and a chronology of the Bessarabian German exodus moves from right to left just beneath it. The flow of time and the flow of the river begin to conflate here, in defiance of a single, unified course.

The Danube, which begins in Germany's Black Forest and ends in the Black Sea, passes through nearly a dozen countries along its 1,770-mile course. Forgacs situates the river linguistically through a listing of its names in different languages and geographically through numerous hand-drawn maps. Most are the product of an 18th century Bolognese count, who compiled a six-volume encyclopedia on the Danube's topography, the everyday life of its fishermen, its flora and fauna, fossils and tides.

Forgacs compares the count's hunger for knowledge about the river with Andrasovits' gathering of data on film, and with his own persistent working and reworking of Danube stories.

This multifaceted introduction to the Danube gives way, in the second part of the exhibition, to an experience of the river based primarily on sensation rather than information. In a darkened room, Forgacs projects footage onto a broad arch of five contiguous screens stretching across one long wall.

A single image occasionally spans all five screens at once. More often, images appear one to a screen, repeating, alternating and mirroring each other to vivid effect. The black-and-white footage is toned blue, gold or rust, and the combinations create an additional dynamic rhythm across the screens.

We see passengers dancing, praying and enjoying the sun, towns along the shore, rolling waves and cloudy skies, all spliced into fragments, slowed to a pensive pace and woven together into a richly textured patchwork of impressions. Tibor Szemzo's score is haunting in its mix of solemn music, foghorns, bells, the beat of marching soldiers, the occasional voice and the rush of water.

For all of the clean linearity and continuity of the show's didactic section, the film component is luxuriously discontinuous and provocatively incomplete. It's made even more overtly nonlinear by the ability of visitors to choose the order of segments by touch-screen.

Joined in the exhibition, then, are two vastly different modes of organizing meaning--through specific data such as dates, maps and names, and through a more vague network of images, triggered memories and sensory response.

Neither component of the show, alone, would suffice. Together, they make an uneasy pair, but their friction is productive. It's the very struggle of forces that ensues in the writing and understanding of history. What we know rubs up against what we sense or intuit; what we can comfortably grasp chafes against what consistently eludes us; what holds true in words challenges what we glean from experience.

The words of Heraclitus appear on a gallery wall and throughout the installation are brought home: "Everything is in constant flux and movement ... nothing is abiding ... Therefore, we cannot step twice into the same river. When I step into the river for the second time, neither I nor the river is the same."

As a metaphor for historical narrative, the river serves well. Fluid and alive, it continuously changes over time, as different questions are asked and different people do the asking. Questions, rather than answers, are at the heart of that river, that process.

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