Review of Ellen Rothenberg @ Spertus Institute by Newcity

Ellen Rothenberg's work can be conceptually 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 resulting 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 different 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.

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