Artist Monika Weiss on Francisco Goya, War, Trauma, and Unforgetting History

In a film by The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented as part of The Met film series, Artists on Artworks, Polish-American artist Monika Weiss shares her insights on the work of Spanish artist Francisco Goya and reflects on her own transdisciplinary practice which investigates relationships between the body and history and evokes rituals of lamentation in response to tragedy. The film premiered on April 6, 2021 in conjunction with the exhibition Goya's Graphic Imagination, curated by Mark McDonald. Some of Weiss' works and some of Goya's works that the artist discusses in the film, are presented below.  

Monika Weiss’ thoughts and ideas presented in The Met's film resonate with us today, as we are living in the time of the war in Ukraine. In response to this time, the artist has written notes
, On War, Trauma, and Unforgetting History, in which she reflects on the humanitarian crises of wars, and recalls her grandfather Leon Knopik, who was one of the defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdansk in 1939 at the start of World War II.

Landscape

Francisco Goya, Landscape, ca. 1807-1810.. Etching, aquatint. 12 1/8×17 1/16 in.

The Met: This print embodies the calm before the storm, when a foreboding presence threatens to overpower unsuspecting victims. It might therefore capture the fearful anticipation of the invasion by Napoleon’s army, who entered Portugal in 1807 before moving to Spain the following year.

Monika Weiss on Landscape, from the film by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in its Artists on Artworks series (16:31): "... it’s a landscape that is not offering redemption or peace. It’s a romantic landscape that was changed into a frightening body. .... It’s bending away from the impending sky. It’s almost as if the sky and the cloud is touching the trees and pushing them in this very unusual, dramatic way towards the mountain which is piercing the trees. And so together, it creates conflict and somewhere there in the upper right corner, we see a building suspended inside of this mountain that is almost alive, and everything is moving. Nothing is stable in this landscape. And I feel that it’s the sky that is taking over that creates this symbolic and actual feeling of change and impending doom."

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Monika Weiss, Koiman II (Years Without Summers), 2017-2020 (limited edition film still). A cycle of film projections, sound compositions, and large-scale charcoal and graphite drawings inspired by Winterreise (Winter Journey), a cycle of songs composed in 1828 by the German Romantic composer, Franz Schubert.

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“I believe there is a responsibility that comes with being an artist, which is in part poetic and in part political: to listen and to address the archive of events, paying special attention to the forgotten narratives and voices. The concept of nationalism, of any kind, does not interest me. Rather, I believe we need to pay attention to the global nature of oppressive systems and institutionally designed violence. Such violence is often justified by the ideology of “protection,” which usually veils hidden economic and colonialist agendas.”

 

From an interview by Julia P. Herzeberg, PhD, published in Monika Weiss: Sustenazo (Lament II) by Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile, 2012.

Monika Weiss, artist portrait by Paul Takeuchi, Brooklyn, NY 2021 

Watch the 30-minute film with Monika Weiss by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The Met's series, Artists on Artworks 

 

On War, Trauma, and Unforgetting History
by Monika Weiss

Thinking of History
 

Lament is an extreme expression of despair in the face of loss. As Judith Butler writes, “grief furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order, and it does this first of all by bringing to the fore the relational ties that have implications for theorizing fundamental dependency and ethical responsibility.” [1]

I had worked on Thinking of History, commissioned by media historian Ming-Yuen S. Ma, for about six months. For this sound composition, I chose one sentence from his recent book, "There is No Soundtrack: Rethinking art, media, and the audio-visual contract" [2], and created music around the words in that sentence. I included a Polish singer Ania Wilkiewicz, who sang a short phrase that I composed while in Poland last summer.

Monika Weiss, Thinking of History, 2022, sound, 10:40 min. composed by the artist.

Thinking of History is a song in three parts. The first scene represents a dark ocean of history evoked by drone sounds, with a single female voice singing wordlessly as if from a great distance. I composed the middle part by recording a number of readers, creating a tempest of voices. Throughout the piece we hear underlying drones based on my piano improvisations but transformed electronically such that the piano is no longer recognized. In the last part of the composition, the piano enters, now fully recognizable, responding rhythmically to the words and sentences recorded earlier. 
 

On February 23rd, I finished the composition. The day after, on February 24th, I woke up to a world that changed forever.

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War Against the World
 

Today, we enter third month of the genocidal war against Ukraine. Mass graves are being discovered. Atrocities committed on civilians, including children, are coming to light almost daily now. Horrific acts of gruesome terror, rape, massacre and torture, are being revealed to us.  Civilians in Mariupol are dying slowly as I am typing these words, disappearing gradually in the most inhuman conditions, trapped in the underbelly of the city.
 

This unprovoked, colonialist war against Ukraine is already a global war. Words and feelings are expressed loudly in the media. Defense weapons are delivered strategically, with millions of refugees welcomed in Poland, Europe and elsewhere. Yet the West is trying to continue business as usual, as it did when my grandfather was defending the Polish Post Office in Gdansk, back in 1939. 
 

When the war against Ukraine began, I thought of my grandfather, Leon Knopik, who was one of the defenders of the Polish Post Office, which was subjected to a fourteen-hour attack on the first day of the World War II. By then Europe had already ceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany hoping that doing so would sate Hitler's appetite. It did not. This is when Europe was already secretly divided by Hitler and Stalin in the Ribbentrop/Molotov pact.
 

Whether the so-called "West" wants to admit it or not, Ukraine is part of Europe, the way Poland was then. In fact, Ukraine, Poland, Syria, Afghanistan and all other wounded, devastated, disposed of, sometimes forgotten and otherwise disrespected countries are part of the same world we inhabit, the same planet, whose bleeding body seems to be covered, over and over again, by various regimes, with the dark veil of our inability to remember history and to act with empathy.
 

I don't have an answer. I too am afraid of nuclear conflict. I too am praying for those wounded, tortured, raped, killed and dying right now in Ukraine, the largest country in Europe. I too feel jolts of deep wrath and anger, and of profound sadness, despair even, when my heart travels through the assaulted right now body of Ukraine.
 

I went to Warsaw in April invited by Adam Mickiewicz Institute to speak about my sound work Metamorphosis included in the exhibition devoted to art against gender-based violence, Take My Eyes, at Warsaw’s prominent gallery local_30. The show was planned long before the war began. All cells in my body recall the trauma of my old country, whose own body, full of past and current trauma, borders that of Ukraine. Almost everyone I know in Warsaw and elsewhere in Poland, is hosting refugees, mostly children. But this will not stop Putin nor did it stop Stalin or Hitler. The West will continue its business as usual, including economic exchanges with the criminal and genocidal state, the way the world attended 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
 

That is, until Putin eventually knocks directly at its doors (Western doors marked with a sign engraved in gold spelling: worthy), that is until he enters Paris or London, or bombs Pearl Harbor. Then, perhaps, no one will ponder the question whether it is worth fighting for Warsaw or for Kyiv, whether it is worth opening the southern US borders to children refugees or should we rather keep them in concentration camps. Then, nobody will wonder anymore whether human lives matter. I, too, am complicit, safely tucked in my chair, in tears, a spectator, a witness.

 
Sustenazo Fragment
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Monika Weiss, Sustenazo (Lament II), 2010-2012, HD video and sound, 26 min. (excerpt).Composed, directed, filmed, and edited by the artist. Collection Frost Art Museum, Miami, and Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw.

Unforgetting
 

My music and film cycle Koiman II (Years Without Summers) was inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise, and dedicated to my mother, pianist Gabriela Weiss, who departed in 2017. My mother began to teach me piano before I entered the school of music at the age of seven. I recall her seated on a chair beside me, pressing her fingers into my arm, as if my skin were her keyboard. She said music that reaches hearts requires the performer to use her entire body. And not just the body; the entire soul, she told me, must inhabit every pressed key. A child refugee during World War II, she believed that a musician must feel how each sound is born and must contain the entire universe.
 

To paraphrase the words of my dear friend, the acclaimed late poet Meena Alexander, we have art and poetry so that we don’t die of war and trauma. In many cultures, women have practiced organized group lamentation rituals in response to the absurd and grotesque losses through war. In my work, in my humble ways, I hope to evoke lament as a form of metamorphosis through the act of unforgetting of trauma, towards another possible world, one without violence. 

[1]  Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, New York: Verso, 2004.
[2]  Rethinking Art’s Histories is a series of books published by Manchester University Press.

POLISH HISTORY

Monika Weiss Koiman II Excerpt
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Monika Weiss, Koiman II (Years Without Summers)  2017-2020 (excerpt). A cycle of film projections, sound compositions, and large-scale charcoal and graphite drawings inspired by Winterreise (Winter Journey), a cycle of songs for voice and piano composed in 1828 by the German Romantic composer Franz Schubert.

Monika Weiss, Shrouds (Całuny), 2012, is a two-channel experimental film shot from an airplane, an ephemeral public project and a series of aerial photographs. "Local women from Zielona Góra perform silent gestures of lamentation on the abandoned, forgotten and ruined site of the former concentration camp Gruenberg in Zielona Góra, Poland. Viewed from that great distance, their symbolic presence evokes the prisoners’ absence. Performers/volunteers leave their black scarfs in the ruins adding a symbolic and physical layer to the rubble’s strata. During WWII about 1,000 young Jewish women worked there as seamstresses and were later sent on one of the forced death marches. This project employs performative lamentation as a form of postmemory, set in opposition to acts of conquest and power." -- Monika Weiss

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Monika Weiss, Shrouds 2015 (Diptych), drawing

Third of May

Francisco Goya, The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid, or The Executions. Oil on canvas, 1814. 268 cm x 347 cm.  Courtesy, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  

Museo Nacional del Prado: A depiction of the execution of patriots from Madrid by a firing squad from Napoleon´s army in reprisal for their uprising against the French occupation on the second of May, 1808. The French commanders in Spain were highly experienced and successful soldiers, but they completely misjudged the inflammatory nature of Spanish political, religious, and social life.

Monika Weiss on The 3rd of May, from the film by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in its Artists on Artworks series (1:00, 7:50): "The arms are up in that sort of gesture of complete surrender but also, strangely, the beauty of that gesture…In that act of self-desperation…. It makes me think of how lament is something we perform, we enact. It’s a moment beyond words. It’s after language, when everything has been said, and the only thing left is the entire body coming together into this ultimate gesture of protest or plea."

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Francisco Goya, Bon voyage (Buen Viage) 1799. 8 7/16x6 in. 

The Met: A group of witches and demons flies through the night sky on the batlike wings of a monstrous creature. These hideous figures have been interpreted as the embodiment of vices let loose, under the cover of darkness, in the domain of ignorance. The blurring of the creatures that emerge from or disappear into the velvety layers of aquatint of the background lends the scene a nightmarish quality.

 

Monika Weiss on Bon Voyage, from the film by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in its Artists on Artworks series (8:15): "...amidst this darkness is this tremendous light, almost like a light that is suddenly appearing from a source we don’t know, but extremely, acutely, making us aware of frightening, unrecognizable faces that maybe used to be human, or perhaps in our dreams became non-human. To me they are more like masks, approximation of what human face should look like but doesn’t at that moment of dreaming and being between awake and asleep or perhaps between being alive and in the embrace of death.

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Francisco Goya A Way of Flying, ca. 1815-16. Etching, aquatint, drypoint. Plate: 9 5/8×13 7/8 in.

The Met: Five men wearing helmets in the shape of a bird’s head fly aided by wings strapped to their wrists and feet. The image has been interpreted as a metaphor of the latest political and philosophical currents, which were opposed by the most conservative sectors of Spanish society. The contraption worn by his figures also recalls a "new machine for flying" invented about 1808 by the Austrian clockmaker Jacques Degen.

Monika Weiss on A Way of Flying, from the film by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in its Artists on Artworks series (32:19): "The multitude of the figures makes me think of, perhaps, all human beings, forever trapped in that attempt of ascension and flight and yet forever falling, the way Icarus did. Yet, in that attempt, there is this beautiful hope used in the attempt of ascending into the outer space. And by outer, I don’t necessarily mean the real cosmos, but rather the outer as in outside of our everyday experience and the hopeful levitation and flight that mystics and artists have shared for centuries, if not thousands of years across various cultures."

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Monika Weiss, Two Laments (19 Cantos), 2015-2020, 4K digital film and sound. Composed, directed, filmed and choreographed by the artist. Limited edition film still from Canto 1, 2015

MONIKA WEISS