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Gilles Peress:  Yakov’s Children

Tues-Fri 12-5 PM or by appointment

In 1998 the Joint Jewish Distribution Committee (JDC) invited Gilles Peress to create a body of work using materials in the JDC archive.  With the permission of the JDC, Peress drew from the archival texts, photographs and other materials he found to build three interlocking narratives that helped him intellectually and emotionally grapple with the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s.  The resulting installation, Yakov’s Children, consists of three oversized volumes – each over six feet wide when opened – that were first exhibited in Artist in an Archive at the International Center for Photography (New York, 1999) before travelling to the Miami Art Museum, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.  

Yakov’s Children will now be shown for the first time in over 15 years at Meislin Projects from November 28 to December 15, 2017.

“End of War,” the first volume in the piece, explores pogroms and the rise of anti-Semitism in Galicia and the Pale of Settlement through the lens of Max Colton, an American who was sent on an investigative mission to the region, leaving behind a large-format album that Peress discovered in the archives.  “Between Wars” uses archival photographs to interrogate both the rise of Nazism in Germany in the years before World War II and the tidal wave of hatred that simultaneously subsumed Poland.  “Before War” brings the work to the edge of the Shoah, traveling with a Dutch motorcyclist on the road to Berlin and ending in an “orphanage” for displaced Jewish children in a small town in southern France, where the residents celebrate Purim while perched on the precipice of annihilation. 

At the time he created Yakov’s Children, Peress had recently completed and exhibited his epic photographic explorations of the Rwandan and Balkan genocides (The Silence: Museum of Modern Art, Museum Folkwang, and Centre Georges Pompidou, 1995; Farewell to Bosnia: Corcoran Gallery of Art, PS1, Fotomuseum Winterthur, 1994).  That work had pushed him into despair and to the edge of reason; in his search for meaning, the JDC archives led him to confront the context of his own birth to an assimilated family in France in 1946.

Yakov’s Children (the name comes from Malamud’s The Fixer) is designed to provoke and reflect engagement with the process of learning and trying to understand the period immediately before World War II – or any period of inexplicable and mounting terror.  By insisting that the volumes in the installation be handled by thousands of people, the work questions how archives come to be and the role that human touch and personal history play in an object’s accretion of meaning.  

Yakov’s Children will be on view Tuesday through Friday from noon to 5pm, and by appointment.  Peress will be in attendance on several occasions to engage with viewers and the work.  Please contact Meislin Projects for further information.

About Gilles Peress:

Gilles Peress is widely recognized as one of the most innovative and influential photographers of our time. In a series of interrelated projects stretching over nearly 40 years, he has consistently interrogated the structure of history and the nature of intolerance, pushing the formal and conceptual possibilities and limits of photography.

In the early 1980s Peress’s seminal book Telex Iran reset expectations for how photography could engage with a historical event like the Iranian Revolution. The writer Susie Linfield states in her book The Cruel Radiance, “The postmoderns and poststructuralists saw themselves as the heirs of Walter Benjamin, but his dialectical imagination eluded them: they never grasped his way of seeing. They could not understand that a photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing.....But Peress could. His genius has been to accomplish just what the postmoderns couldn’t: to incorporate a critique of photography’s objectivity into that obstinate bit of bourgeois folklore formerly known as truth. He embraces postmodern skepticism, but uses it to enlarge photographic possibilities rather than to discredit the medium.…..Peress’s photographs reject the transparent, positivistic realism subscribed to by some earlier photographers and critics, but they never veer into the moral, political, or epistemological relativism on which so many postmoderns insist. Peress doesn’t live in Baudrillard’s world; he knows, as did Capa, that we human beings are trapped in reality.”

Of the forthcoming book Whatever You Say, Say Nothing, a 22 semi-fictional days (1000 pages) narrative about life in Northern Ireland mainly during the 80s, Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, described Peress’s body of work as having “the gripping immediacy and epic sweep of a novel by Tolstoy."

In the 1990s, extended explorations of the conflicts and genocides in Rwanda (The Silence) and the Balkans (Farewell to Bosnia; The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar) evolved into Hate Thy Brother, a cycle of interlocking narratives in books and on walls.  In recent years, Peress has continued the Hate Thy Brother series by revisiting both archival work and the sites where it was made, and by extending the series to new locations, including Palestine and Israel.     

Each of Peress’s projects has been widely exhibited.  Selected shows and installations include Power in the Blood: The North of Ireland at the Art Institute of Chicago; Farewell to Bosnia at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; PS1, New York; and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland; The Silence at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Sprengel Museum, Hannover and the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany; the Picasso Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; The Graves at the Parc de la Villette, Paris; and Telex Iran at the Musée de L’Elysée, Lausanne and PS1 in New York.  Recent group shows include This Place at the Brooklyn Museum, the Norton Museum of Art, and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; Une Brève Histoire de l'Avenir at the Musée du Louvre; and Access to Life at the Corcoran, the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, Stenersenmuseet, Oslo and the Ara Pacis Museum, Rome.   

Gilles Peress is included in major public and private collections throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the National Gallery, Washington, D.C; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Musée d'Art Moderne, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Fotomuseum Winterthur and Musée de l'Élysée, Switzerland; and the Museum Folkwang, Germany, amongst others.

Peress has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the Erich Solomon Prize, multiple National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Pollock-Krasner Grant, the New York State Council of the Arts Fellowship and multiple International Center for Photography Infinity Awards.

Peress is Professor of Human Rights and Photography at Bard College, NY and Senior Research Fellow at the Human Rights Center, UC Berkeley.

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