It was 2009, a bright day in early spring, when I took the afternoon off work and made my way to Heidi Gallery and gardens. The gardens were in bud, there was a shadow of brilliant green on the deciduous trees, the river seemed less brown than usual in the sharp white light. And the birds! A rowdy party of magpies, peewees, and rainbow lorikeets flapped through the still air. I meandered around until the lengthening shadows made it uncomfortably cool and then made my way to the gallery itself. There I found an exhibition of the work of Kathy Temin. I’d never neard of her, knew nothing of her art or her background, so I entered the long room of the main exhibit with no expectations. I found myself in a forest of white trees constructed out of white fake fur and soft stuffing. Some trees were stocky, others were slender; there were trees formed from squashed soft spheres piled one on top of the other, there were cone-shaped trees and slender cylindrical ones; some trees were not much more than a metre tall, others stretched to two or three metres.
As I moved among these soft white structures, I was simultaneously silenced by them, dwarfed by them and swaddled by them. I couldn’t have left if I wanted to. For reasons I could not explain, nor at the time did I want to explain, being immersed in Kathy Temin’s sculptural landscape had transported me back to Auschwitz. It was not Auschwitz 1, so nicely spruced up for the visitors with its famous gates and infamous words, Arbeit macht frei, but Auschwitz 2, Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its equally famous peaked gatehouse under which the trains entered the camp, stopping a moment later at the long platform where a clipped Teutonic nod decided who would die and who would live a little longer.
Kathy Temin’s white fake fur trees took me back to Auschwitz.
In November, 1999, Dot and I spent an afternoon walking the paths and woodlands of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It’s a huge area and apart from a few locals taking a short-cut via the old death camp and a small group of bored Polish schoolboys, we were alone. We wandered the pretty woodlands still rosy with late autumn colour where over half a century earlier Jews were amassed at the peak times, waiting their turn for the gas chambers. We stood silently in the ruins of Crematoria 2, 3, 4 and 5 where hundreds of thousands of murdered men, women and children were reduced to ash. We wandered the umpteen columns and rows of wooden huts. We stood in front of those tiered bunk benches each about 3 metres wide where as many as 12 Jews were crammed in together, the sick, the dying, and the steadfastly-surviving.
At the end of the railway tracks and situated between the ruins of Crematoria 2 and 3 is the International Monument to the Victims of Auschwitz. Built in 1967 in Soviet brutalism style, it consists of huge cement blocks in a geometric pile with plaques set in the brick work under foot. It’s big this monument, but it had no effect on me. The place, this Auschwitz-Birkenau, was monument enough.
Kathy Temin’s sculpture was called My Monument: White Forest. I did not learn the title until I was back home reading the exhibition catalogue. Sue Cramer, one of the curators of the exhibition wrote: ‘If not for the title of Kathy Temin’s sculptural environment My Monument: White Forest, we might not at first recognise this maze-like arrangement of furry white, oddly shaped trees as a monument.’
I knew it immediately.
Cramer continued: ‘Temin describes the work as a “memorial garden, an attempt to translate the feeling I had when visiting memorial sites in Eastern Europe.”’
Monuments are an art form designed to convey people, places and events from the past, as well as abstract qualities of courage, goodness, freedom – even memory itself.
At the time of Temin’s exhibition I had only vague thoughts about the novel that would become The Memory Trap. I saw My Monument: White Forest and soon after, emerging from the imagination’s soup, came the character of Nina Jameson, an international consultant on memorial projects. And so the novel began – nothing about Auschwitz, nothing about the horrors of war (the loose-limbed imagination doesn’t work that way), rather four main characters with a shared childhood in seventies Melbourne, four people whose hopes and yearnings, whose loves and obsessions, whose uses and abuses of memory have all shaped the course of their adult lives. There are monuments in The Memory Trap, but as well there’s music and marriage and a swag of very human mistakes.
I’m fascinated by the imagination, I’m gripped by its loiterings and lurchings, but most important of all, I am grateful for it.