Shoah Film Collection -  Interview Project

Lazar, Michael

Michael Lazar
Israeli artist

represented on
A Virtual Memorial Vilnius 2013

Interview: 10 questions

1. Tell me something about your life and the educational background

I was born in St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada in 1971. When I was 10 years old, my family immigrated to Israel where I have lived ever since. Growing up I was always interested in art and knew that I wanted to be an artist. Coming from an academic household, this was not really an option. I was told to go get a first degree in something in order to have a profession to fall back on since “it is very hard to make a living in art”. I received my B.Sc. in geophysics in 1995 and continued to an M.Sc. and later, to a Ph.D. During this time, I set up my own sculpture studio with a partner and began the long journey into the exploration of metal art. Today, I am looking for ways to combine both my career as a scientist and my calling as an artist.

2. When, how and why started you

I was always interested in art. As a child I would always draw – copying pictures from books and magazines. Since art school was out of the question, it stayed a hobby, which I developed throughout the years. My first exhibition was in 2001 and since then, my sculpting partner and I have participated in over 50 group exhibitions across the globe, more than 20 solo exhibitions and our work can be found in many prominent collections worldwide. After completing my Ph.D. in 2004, I decided the time was right to become a professional artist and to the disappointment of those around me, I refused a very lucrative offer for a post-doc position to focus on art.

3. What are you basic artistic expressions? Tell me something about the tools you use.

I have many tools in my toolbox. Until recently, my main focus was on figurative sculpture – but not in the classical sense of working. I was not content with just casting bronze or welding metal. I wanted to work the material itself. Change the shape of the steel, aluminium or bronze directly and not by casting it into another shape I had created in clay. I invented a new way of working – taking large flat sheets of metal (steel, bronze, aluminium) and very large hammers (my main tools) and banging out figurative shapes until the final sculpture takes from. Most of the hammers are handmade.

In 2007 I started to branch out into the world of photography and performance art. In the first, my tool is the camera. In the second, it is my body. Recently, I have started to look at combining art and science. In these cases, the tools I apply in my scientific investigations into the characteristics of the planet we live on become the tools I use to express myself to the world.

4. When did you start dealing artistically with the Holocaust?

Dealing with the Holocaust came about my accident. I was working documenting Doron Polak, a curator and performance artist from Israel who deals specifically with topics of memories and the Holocaust. I saw him stand in the corner. I saw him put bread on his head. I saw him cover himself with newspapers – his interactions with everyday objects became a way of confronting his past. I was fascinated. I wanted to understand what he was trying to say. What he was feeling. So I stepped out from behind the camera and onto the stage. For my last birthday, my parents gave me a unique present – a family album also containing pictures of family members who were killed in the holocaust. I used this in my work with Doron, which now took on a very personal meaning to me. Last year, there were two important stations on this personal journey – the first was in Vilnius where I first participated in A Virtual Memory and where my mother’s family is suspected to come from. The second was to Brazil, specifically to Sao Paulo where my grandfather lived for 6 years before finally being allowed into North America (Canada) after escaping Poland just before the outbreak of the war. Both experiences have deeply affected me and their influence on my current artistic work is beginning to show.

5. What kind of meaning has the Holocaust to you personally? Are your family or friends affected or did the topic come by chance?

Of my father’s family, only his father and a few aunts and uncles survived. The Holocaust was something that I grew up with. It was always there but never really dealt with. It was in the background. I knew that my family was murdered. But it wasn’t something that I directly felt. That is until I started, by chance, to deal with it through my art.
My science also brought me face to face with the Holocaust. In 1997 I was sent to Berlin for three months to work in a laboratory of the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) in Potsdam. This was my first trip to Germany and the first time that a member of my family had ever been since the war. My father took it hard but understood. I specifically remember that it was only on the last day of my stay in Germany – before I left for the airport, that the other members (German) of the lab that was hosting me dared to ask me about the Holocaust and my family…

6. Besides the historical relevance related to the persecuted Jews and other people, the Holocaust has a universal relevance. Why is the Holocaust affecting all humans anywhere?

The lessons of the Holocaust are universal lessons that we cannot allow ourselves, as human beings regardless of race, religion or gender, to forget. As dictators continue to persecute minorities in their countries, it is the world’s duty to step in and take action. The Holocaust stands as a warning sign to everyone – this can happen again if we are not careful.

7. Now, nearly 70 years after World War II, unfortunately the last Holocaust survivors will be dying soon, and no authentic witness is left to transfer the memory of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is about to be marginalized and dehumanized to any other historical incident, whereby it is measured by its final result and less as an escalating process, countless human individuals were undergoing. What do you think might be ways to re-humanize, touch people again emotionally and keep vivid the memory this way?

A very short answer – art. Art in all of its forms. Art is expression. We need to be able to keep expressing our horror, our shock, our amazement, our pain, our suffering, our inability to understand – in order to keep the topic alive. Art is universal. If the Armenian’s had managed to express their feelings at the atrocity carried out by the Turks through art – through something that everyone can understand and relate to, then maybe their tragedy would be more in the collective awareness and memory. This is why that personally I feel that the SFC and AVM are so important…

8. As a phenomenon, the Holocaust is blasting human imagination, which makes it nearly impossible for people to identify themselves with. What needs to be done, that people many find ways for self-identifying? What can do art for it?

Well, this has to do with my previous answer. People can identify through art. And it has to be modern and cutting edge. Not museum pieces where people look at a distance and admire, but something that people can touch, feel, smell, see. If it is limited to serious “classical” interpretations, it will continue to create a distance between the topic and the viewer. Dealing with the Holocaust in art has to progress together with the progression of art. Otherwise, keep it behind the glass. Stay away from it. Distance yourself from it.

9. After the Holocaust and World War II, the traditional (static) visual art media were failing in transferring the memory of the Holocaust, while literature, theatre, music and film were much more successful. On the other hand, due to the new technologies, the boundaries between the “arts” dissolve nowadays and the doors are open to a new interdisciplinary approach. What are the chances for this new (interdisciplinary) perception based on socializing concepts for keeping vivid the memory of the Holocaust? In which way have they to influence the manifestations of Shoah Film Collection via the interventions like a symposium, artists meetings, workshops, exhibitions, performances, screenings, artists talks, discussions etc.

I think that the way in which we choose to commemorate or memorialize the Holocaust must keep up with the times. If we choose to use outdate technologies or media, we will not be able to attract the attention of the younger generation. Thus, these new interdisciplinary approaches seem vital to me.

As for the Shoah Film collection, I think that it also has to find a way to utilize these technologies and approaches. One suggestion would be to open it up to more than just “classical” documentary films to include experimental approaches and media. Also the meeting should not be limited to filmmakers, but be open to all artists dealing with the holocaust. This way there will be cross-fertilization. I feel that there is a need for the Shoah Art Collection alongside the Shoah Film Collection.

10. What are your future artistic plans? Do you plan to work on new projects dealing with the Holocaust or related topics like “collective trauma caused by totalitarianism”?

I am currently working on a project that combines my science and my art with memory and the Holocaust. This is a very large-scale and ambitious project, but one which I feel has the potential to reach people, to shock them, to make them sit up and listen to look to question. The concept is good. I hope I will be able to raise the money to carry it out and have a venue to do it in. So yes – I plan to deal with these topics. I am dealing with these topics even now as I continue to work with Doron Polak and develop together with him, new ideas and performances.