Celebrating five years of FENTSTER with Bernice Eisenstein

From November 24, 2017 to February 22, 2018, FENTSTER exhibited Nothing and All by author and artist Bernice Eisenstein, who was a Trillum Book Award finalist in 2006 for her graphic novel I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.

The installation layers and explores different memories and ways of navigating memory through language, illustration, and books. The entire exhibition, Evelyn Tauben remarks in her curatorial statement, becomes “a palimpsest—an entirely new, pulsating creation revealing traces of what came before.” 

To celebrate FENTSTER’S fifth anniversary, Niv spoke with Eisenstein to learn more about her experience with FENTSTER, working with Tauben, and why the gallery is essential to the artistic landscape and beyond. 

Nothing and All at FENTSTER. Photos by Lisa Logan.

As an artist working primarily with text and illustration, how did FENTSTER’S space inform Nothing and All

What I had done was specific on-site installation. I had not formed what I wanted to do and then reshaped it for FENTSTER’S space. It’s a lovely combination of processes in what I wanted to do and it’s in response to the space.

The kind of work that I do, the term is called: memory artist. What the exhibition ended up becoming was a meditation about language and memory. Being confined in a little gallery space, how to enlarge that with what I want to do was to make an installation about layers of memory and all those experiences. I’m getting really literal here but the literalness was such a beautiful spark to what came for the show. So when looking at it, and going through my process thinking about memory, and memory being layered, that became its own metaphor for the outside window. The window is the first layer that people are going to press their nose against, like a layer of memory. Which is why there’s a quote on the window from Euripides, reading, “Come back Even as a shadow, even as a dream”. That one layer, it’s to draw the viewer closer, and then there’s a table, a tableau of books [some include work by Albert Camus, Stefan Zweig, and Robert Wasler]. The whole show is an interpretation of the definition of palimpsest. Which is when a manuscript page from a scroll or a book, you’ve scraped the text, and/or washed it off and you reuse the paper for something else, so for me, that’s how memory works. You add layer upon layer, you place your own layer upon a memory, it’s a beautiful metaphor for history, time, for collective memory, it’s like one long string. You’re not going to be seeing every single page, you’re going to see where I’ve opened it up to, so it’s like the pieces on the table talk to each other. And then on the inside, because that table has gone almost to the depth of the space, I also wanted to create an audience. My own audience looking down. I did a painting of—it’s like a pre-war painting in Poland—from my father’s family members who attended a wedding. Let’s say 99% percent of those people did not survive the war. And then at the side window, Evelyn prints out a brief explanation very beautifully, so the person has to go around, it’s quite lovely how those elements within a small space direct how you want people to take something in and feel about it. 

I always think of FENTSTER from the front, but having that ability to move around, adds a whole other element to it.

And then from the side, once you’ve read something, because it’s on clear plastic, you’re again looking in and you’re seeing the side, there’s a painting, it’s hung there, all those elements play very subtly, and what that does, hopefully, is create space for the person who is looking to bring what they have into what they’re seeing. If it happens to be strong enough, you walk away reflecting, personally, you take something with you. If you’re more confined in a way, you look for greater freedom.

What was the collaboration process between Evelyn and yourself? 

Evelyn was very sensitive and attune to the process of the artist. She was knowledgeable, she knew about my work before this. So she comes already with a language I’m comfortable with because she understands my sensibility, she’s great because she gives full freedom to that. We had discussions, but as an on-site installation, I didn’t come to it and say this is exactly what I want to do, I don’t work that way, I have to find things while I’m working. It is the only way I feel I can put love and life into it. Evelyn was really great about understanding that. I have a lot of respect for her, and when she wrote the curatorial statement, it’s sensitively and intelligently written, I was grateful and impressed. And we’re installing together, so it’s fun, it’s a good long day. 

What did you take away from your experience exhibiting at FENTSTER? What surprised you? 

It became what I was hoping it would become. It felt whole in all the layers, they came together, and they started speaking, they started having the whole conversation I was hoping would happen visually. In a way that is a surprise because you don’t know till then. The other surprise, I loved that it was in a window.   

To have a storefront gallery ends up being, in the way that I think parks are,  the most democratic space a city can offer—it’s for the viewing for anybody going by. I love that that’s what the gallery is about, which means if somebody’s going by, they don’t even have to look at it, or when they do, maybe they’ll stop for a second, maybe they’ll go past and maybe they’ll step back a bit, and then put their nose a little closer. There are all these different levels of engagement and I’m never going to know what their thought balloons are. I became a stalker for a little bit of my own show because I was so curious about that. I would sometimes drive and park across the street, and just sit for 20 minutes to watch. It was a surprise and full pleasure, I loved it. I loved that it’s [the space] taken for granted. And I love that it surprised people. It’s there for the plucking, it’s there for the tripping into.

It’s been five years since FENTSTER opened, how has/does FENTSTER change how we, as an artist and/or spectator, can interact with art?

Each exhibition has its own considered conversation, they’re serious even if there’s something light about it, a tremendous amount is being offered, and it becomes part of the community.  Kensington is not so far away. You have a whole history of what an area’s gone through, and then it’s a new baby on the block. And FENTSTER has its own memory of where it came from, it’s fabulous.

Now, we’re in a pandemic, and people have had a year of their own adapting and growing awarenesses of watching and looking. Most people have had these experiences through nature on their walks., I think that also applies to being on the street and looking into windows, the experience has a poignant and deeper value now.

The five year FENTSTER anniversary celebration continues, with interviews from founder and curator Evelyn Tauben, Lynne Heller, David Kaufman, Rachel Miller, and Evan Tapper.  

Header photographs by Lisa Logan. 

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