Jewish and Roma women had their heads shaved upon entering the death camps during WWII, and more than a ton of this hair remains at Auschwitz where it is slowly turning to dust. In my work for the Intimate Transgressions exhibition, tattered linens embroidered with hair are strewn across a four-foot pile of deteriorating, inhospitable mattresses, like phantoms that once warmed living bodies. The hair sewn into the bed linens also references the traditional “woman’s work” of sewing, weaving and spinning, which was also the work enslaved Jewish and Roma women were forced to do in Gestapo sweatshops and factories.
This tactile imagery will be juxtaposed with another phantom, this time a projection of a woman’s abstracted legs and genitalia floating over and onto the mattresses. The reduction of the female body to dismembered and mute body parts underlines the destruction of identity, physical security and agency experienced by Jewish and Roma women during WWII. I also find the mattress a compelling symbol for this work because it references the work of Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz, who has been dragging her mattress around campus to protest the treatment of rape victims, herself included, by the Columbia University administration. This brings the work into the current dialogue about sexual violence against women in the world today.
This work was also inspired by the story of SS Oberscharführer Josef Schillinger, who was shot and killed by a young woman, possibly a dancer, in the undressing room of the Birkenau camp gas chamber on October 23, 1943. An essay by historian Kirsty Chatwood explores a version of this story in which the young and beautiful dancer seduced the SS guards by undressing provocatively, then grabbed their guns while they were distracted. I decided to incorporate an overhead projection of a partially-undressed woman shooting upwards at the viewer to acknowledge that even in the most horrifying of circumstances women’s sexuality is not only about victimization. It can be a survival mechanism, a weapon and a source of empowerment.