San Francisco

Ania Bien

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

“Every photograph is a certificate of presence.” Roland Barthes’ words seem most appropriate in considering Ania Bien's photoinstallation Hotel Polen, 1987. Eighteen photographs, enlarged to human scale, occupied a narrow corridor gallery here, arranged in parallel rows of eight, with a single photograph mounted at each end of the space. Each one features an old brass menu stand, engraved with the hotel's name, against a field of glossy black. In all but the first of these pictures the stand holds an object: an old postcard view of people seated on a terrace, with mountains in the background; a battered leather luggage tag showing a card printed with the name “Józef Bień”; a photograph showing chess pieces in play upon a board. The menu stand and mementos have been enormously enlarged, the drastic shift in scale rendering everything sufficiently strange so that the viewer must pause to reconstitute these things at their actual, diminutive size. What at first seems a random assortment of subjects in this sequence of tableaux begins to suggest a kind of narrative, all the more compelling for its incompleteness.

These are souvenirs from Bien’s past, fragmented bits of a family history that resembles so many other family histories, but with its own particular variations on universal themes of love, parenthood, and bereavement. Born in Poland, Bien now lives in Amsterdam, where the hotel referred to in the title once stood (it was destroyed in a fire about ten years ago). It is not the building itself that matters here, however, but the lost past that its name evokes.

Some of the items among this collection of ephemera suggest that mere nostalgia is not Bien’s subject. A piece of a map of Poland shows the area around Kraków, including “Oswiecim (Auschwitz)”; two grainy photographs show a man and then a woman in the dreadful striped uniforms of a concentration camp. Such details are extraordinarily effective in changing the reading of images in the surrounding photographs from affectionate to elegiac. The inferred connection between the ghostly inmates and the two smiling children in another photo charges all three pictures with tragic dignity.

The menu stand lends more than a constant scale referent to these pictures. It is both a sign bearing a name of the past and a stanchion bearing a heavy metaphorical load. Its form suggests another significant object of memory: the signet, used to authenticate important documents. Displaying a selection of family relics, this engraved brass “plaque” proclaims their status as emblems of the horrific experience of our century, the memory of which we all share.

Reviewed by Buzz Spector.