DEAD LETTER DAYS

I think the memory is a desert where I am a nomad. Haim Sokol

There is a recurring theme in the spy thriller - that of the dead letter drop: the process by which secret information is passed covertly from one spy to another without them ever meeting or knowing each other’s identity. It is the meat of spy fiction and encapsulates the need for secrecy, of being unknown in the context of treachery, the other face of idealism, and the heightened anxiety of individual alienation, isolation and impending punishment. For those in the West who have been fed a diet of John Le Carré novels and movies set in the era of the Cold War, Moscow has been established in the popular imagination as one of the obvious sites at which such exchanges might take place. Writing this in London one is reminded of the exploits of Burgess, Maclean and Philby, the British spies who eventually relocated to Moscow. Portrayed in the UK as men whose ideological sacrifice led to miserable, alienated lives whose dénouement was played out in the grim reality of Soviet Moscow, they are part of the national common memory of relations between the two countries in the sixties.

Haim Sokol makes art works that engage with some of the issues that are contained in these accounts of alienation: treachery and idealism, isolation and disrupted communication. Set upon a stage where the grim realities of harsh urban life compound the contradictions of exile. His works while often located in the realm of fiction or fancy, like all good narratives have their origins in fact. The facts that underpin Haim Sokol’s narratives are as close to the gritty side of contemporary life as the fictions played out in spy novels, except that they have a deeply serious intent. Sokol’s work is not produced to entertain or distract, its purpose is to accentuate the personal and political conditions that an urban global society creates. Sokol delves in to the underbelly of urban life, exaggerating his findings as a metaphor for the condition of the individual. In the process he discovers the possibility of turning such bleakness into poetry.

Sokol’s development as an artist has taken place in two societies – post-Soviet Russia and Israel. Similar in few respects other than in the demands that seismic change makes upon the individual. Sokol has moved between these two cultures at a time when both are undergoing extreme forms of upheaval, developing a personal language to express the alienating effect of change upon the individual specifically within the context of his own experience and that of his immediate family. In his video work and performance Return 2009, Sokol sits at a table eating a meal. Projected onto the wall in front of him is a video of his mother and father. They too are eating a meal and Sokol is sitting down with them. The fact that they are in Israel and he is far away wherever the performance is taking place, accentuates the point of the work. What are the significant rituals in secular society and what is their purpose? As Sokol sits and eats with his parents we are reminded of the simplicity of effective communication and the significance of bonding with others. This is not a prosaic encounter; alienation is held at bay by the simple tools of family and food. Elsewhere this convention is turned on its head as Sokol explores the position of the ‘other’; his identity as a Jew in Russia and a Russian in Israel.

The wider implication of Sokol’s assertion and analysis of identity is considered within the predicament of the cultures in which he finds himself. His sculptures and installations poetically enhance the ordinary to accentuate the human condition and portray it as a microcosm of a violent and impersonal world order in which history and individual identity are contextualised by conflict. The old existential premise of the outsider trapped within the confines of the self, is formed by Sokol into a symbolic language that places the viewer at the centre of a dystopian world in which everything is as bad as it can be but from which there is an offer of redemption. The verities of the Old Testament and the Communist Manifesto are referenced just as the abandoned values of the Soviet proletariat and those of Zionism are critically appraised through the symbolic order he develops, an order that is rooted in memory. The partiality of history and the inevitable unreliability of memory are at the heart of Sokol’s work as he strives to retain and record the past knowing that he will fail.

In Sokol’s room the window is blocked by a sheet of rusty tin. The occupant either denied a view or protecting themselves from an unknown threat outside.  A dog lies dead at the foot of a ladder, atop of which sit two tiny children’s boots, a possible escape; promise denied but always there. The voices of the dispossessed are recorded in letters that Sokol finds in the street and discarded on rubbish tips and then transposes on to sheets of rusty tin. He has no interest in the content of these letters, it is enough that they have been written, they have been sent and, read or not, discarded. Whether messages of love, accounts or bills, the prosaic, the romantic, the familial, the contents of the letters has no bearing on Sokol’s interest, only the attempt at communication and its inevitable failure. If their meaning gained significance in his hands then the purpose of the exercise would be annulled. These leaden letters, sometimes tied up in bundles or fashioned into aeroplanes that are too heavy to glide, are only of use to him for their symbolic status. In the artist’s words:

As usual it is about the loss of memory, about the situation when communication with the past is impossible. Post and letters symbolise for me some different perception of time and space. The waiting has disappeared from our life. The waiting as a pause between two events was really the most important event itself. .

In a recent performance, the third part of a project Sokol made in Thessaloniki To All Who Ever Lived Here, 2009, he wrote a letter, made 100 copies of it and put each into an envelope. On each envelope he wrote “To all who ever lived here” and then walked through the city posting them in the city mailboxes. These ‘dead’ letters can neither be sent nor received. They cannot be returned to sender; they are waiting in time and space. Sokol’s focus has shifted from one side of the meaningful pause that the post and letters create for him, to the other; here, as he tries to send his own message his purpose is clear but his method deliberately flawed. His letters, as distinct from those he has salvaged, are posted but they are sent out to the past, to history, to memory, to an idea not a reality. No-one can reply because no-one can receive these letters except in a spirit that is part of the different perception of time and space that Sokol’s idea embraces.

The project is declaimed and surmounted by a five metre high concrete column at the top of which is fixed an old rusty mailbox. On the front of the column is fixed a plaque on which is written ‘To all whoever lived here’ in the languages of the five communities who have lived in Thessaloniki from ancient times until today, Greek, Jewish, Turkish, Bulgarian and Armenian. Elsewhere in the city are three exact copies of the standard city mailboxes made by Sokol from cast iron. However they are hermetically sealed, so nothing can be posted into them. The mailboxes are inert, they lack the vitality, energy and intent that letters normally give them. Rather than the bearers of information they are tombstones, standing as lifeless reminders of failure. A mailbox affixed to a tower five meters above the ground can never act as a receptacle for the post, except, as Sokol has remarked, that of the angels. It resembles a memorial but what loss is it acknowledging and who is it remembering?

His latest exhibition Dead Letter Mail consists of several parts, in one gallery Sokol has installed his work Invisible – the blocked out window stands above tin letters strewn on an abandoned table. From this interior Sokol’s attention turns outside to the vista of an abandoned inner-city.  Mailboxes made out of solid concrete are assembled as if they were towers in a city-scape or tombstones in a cemetery. The two become the same thing. The city is a dead place. Mail cannot be posted - communication cannot occur. 

Within every city there is a site of commemoration and, just as Sokol’s tower in Thessaloniki questions memory, his latest work, Three Arches, based upon the Arch of Titus in Rome which was built to commemorate the triumph of the Roman emperor Titus in the Siege of Jerusalem, considers the partiality of history. In 70 AD Titus led an army of Roman soldiers to besiege and sack Jerusalem in order to put down an uprising of the Jews against Roman imperialism. He destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem dispersing or killing much of the city’s population. For this slaughter Titus was awarded a triumph; the Arch of Titus that honours his victory to this day. Sokol’s work consists of three arches modeled on the Arch of Titus in a scaled down form. The height of each is 2.8 metres and the entrance 1.5 metres, so that even the shortest adults cannot pass through them without bowing their heads. The first arch is made of metal with two sealed mail boxes mounted on its front; the second is like a cave filled with rusty letters and the third made of glass full of letters torn to shreds.  The symbol of the Arch of Titus and its physical place in Rome and historical place in Jewish memory is used by Sokol as an analogy for the core of dissent that underpins all cultures that are or have been subject to the violence and injustice of imperialism. He extends this analogy into his now familiar territory of linking the general to the personal as his arches become vitrines for the preservation of an illegible archive or dustbins of history. Echoing Trotsky’s proclamation to the Mensheviks at the start of the October Revolution, “You are isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the dustbin of history!”

The most recent addition to Sokol’s archive is an album of forty pages each with a black on black drawing incorporating images he has amassed. He describes his process as follows:

I am making an album of 40 pages. I am chaotically copying through carbon paper on every page letters, faces, childrens’ drawings, all the archive I have. Then I connect faces with lines. In the end I receive a kind of map. No composition, but layers, or geological strata, texts upon texts, faces upon faces, like palimpsests. 

Sokol has adopted the role of archivist and by this means he keeps personal and race memories alive. His archive has been amassed from the detritus of the streets that he scores for signs of other lives. Not only are his materials found in this way but his images too. As he rifles through discarded ephemera to find old photograph albums, pictures of this and that – postcards, old magazines and newspapers; each full of unassigned history, anonymous and incomplete. Sokol orders and arranges them into series of his own making in his sculpture, drawings and installations. Constructing histories and artificial memories that he fashions to tell the narratives that he wants them to. Unnamed and free from context other than the world that Sokol creates, each image, each person depicted, has lost its identity only to have it reinstated by Sokol in an archive that accords with his own needs. 

DAVID THORP