Ellen Rothenberg’s work can be characterized as the presentation of enigmatic proposals. Like small puzzles, these propositions act as points of departure, thought exercises on how a collective conversation might put pressure on historical and contemporary narratives. With “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant” at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Rothenberg pairs an excavation of the Spertus archive with her personal documentation of Berlin’s Tempohome-Dorf, a temporary refugee camp made up of shipping containers. The exhibition is austere and complex, and it highlights how narratives of immigration can be shaped, particularly in a contemporary moment that has proven hostile to the refugee situation.
These translations take shape in a variety of ways. Enlarged select panels from an Anti-Defamation League-commissioned issue of “Li’l Abner” by Al Capp are pasted in on a wall in multiple iterations, which provokes questions in terms of how narratives are formed. What can a comic strip featuring broad caricatures of hillbillies preaching for tolerance teach us, and what does Rothenberg’s selective rearranging of this message say about its effectiveness? In regard to Rothenberg’s images of shipping containers meant to house diasporic human beings, how might the documentary format truly convey what it means to live in such a way? While certainly didactic, Rothenberg is never proscriptive, instead taking on something akin to Lorca’s somnambulist poetry, giving impressions and atmospheres but keeping what’s being communicated something of a mystery.
While their theme is immediately identifiable—immigration papers, passports, records of identification—the photographed objects in “ISO 6346” also share a classification as quotidian. Like many artists who mine the everyday world as a site for production and inquiry, the point is to suggest that, while this work may indeed represent everyday life, it also shows that the everyday carries with it multiple possibilities, that it can be posited otherwise. By presenting objects that can dramatically shape and transform lives—consider the contemporary fixation on documentation as coded shorthand for xenophobia—Rothenberg confronts daily life by asking not only “Whose life?” but also how those stories might be told through relics, objects and little fragments that have inexplicably become synecdoches for people themselves. (Chris Reeves)
Ellen Rothenberg’s “ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant” shows through April 22 at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 South Michigan.