New YorkThe Contemporary Jewish Museum The Jewish Museum
Daria Martin: Tonight the World
June 27, 2019 – February 23, 2020
Two women are seated in a black car. One in an electric magenta coat, eyes wet with tears, accusingly looks over at her seatmate, a stoic older woman in a black funeral veil. They do not speak. The magenta-clad woman, eyes piercing, grips a cream-colored envelope from her seatmate’s hand, opening it to reveal a notecard with the typewritten phrase: “Tonight the world”.
Daria Martin’s exhibition at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, Tonight the World, presents a journey through the dreams of her maternal grandmother, Susi Stiassni (1923–2005). Stiassni ventured into Jungian psychoanalysis in the 1970s, recounting and transcribing over 40,000 dreams in a daily writing practice. Amounting to over 20,000 pages of writing over the course of 37 years, these “dream diaries” became Martin’s source material for the exhibition.
A massive, mural-sized projection of Martin’s film Tonight the World fills the gallery. Lusciously filmed in 16mm, the film’s five vignettes enact dreams from Stiassni’s diaries, which serve as the basis for Martin’s script. A rotating cast of four actresses, ranging in age from teenage to more senior, portrays the film’s characters, with Stiassni’s character always clothed in bright magenta. Referential perhaps to Luis Buñuel’s casting strategy in That Obscure Object of Desire, in which two actresses interchangeably play one character, Martin’s casting evokes connections across time with both the self and family legacies.
The exhibition is centered within Brno, the Czech city where Stiassni was born in the 1920s. Her childhood home, Villa Stiassni, is a veritable protagonist of the exhibition, whose absence looms large throughout. The Stiassni family fled Brno after their home was seized by Nazi forces in 1938. Martin’s grandmother never returned to the villa—now a Czech Heritage site—or Brno again, yet she consistently dreamt of it throughout the course of her life. Martin’s exhaustive research into the diaries revealed this pattern; the over 300 dreams excerpted on the walls all contain content related to Brno and the villa. Tonight the World was filmed on-location in the villa, completing a return that Stiassni herself was never able to make.
The ambiances Martin builds in the film are uncanny, an otherwise-mundane reality that is slightly askew. Its core scenes are fundamentally familiar: a family seated at a dinner table, children dressed up as cowboys, a game of hide-and-seek. However, there are palpably unsettled tensions that emanate within the unresolved surreality of dreams: an older woman dines on a hamburger and Coke in child’s overalls while anxiously wondering about the inexplicable presence of ancient statues in a basement; a woman wearing a slip is being hunted through a forest bathed in twilight; another woman pokes then peers through a hole in a wall to find a mammalian eye staring back at her. Like the slippery, confounding recollection of a dream, the film’s narrative is circuitous and without resolution.
The dream diary excerpts that informed the film hang on an adjacent wall, the only pages that are legible to viewers. To read them, the record of Stiassni’s hand, is to both gain insight into her thought processes and to recognize how opaque the mind is, even to itself. Stiassni sometimes posed reflexive questions within the text, like “What is the meaning of wind? Change?” and “Does this have to do with writing?” As Stiassni engaged in Jungian analysis as an attempt to self-decode, so too does the exhibition frame Martin’s own inquiry into familial histories that are inextricable from the self. Tonight the World evokes Holocaust studies scholar Marianne Hirsch’s theory of postmemory, which frames artistic practices that contend with histories and memories that the artist did not experience firsthand, but rather through an inherited past shared through mediated experiences and storytelling. Tonight the World frames that which is inherited: legacies of creativity (Stiassni was a color field painter) and traumatic losses that impact Martin as an artist and Stiassni’s granddaughter. While the Holocaust is not an immediately-obvious focus of the exhibition, it is a felt presence. Stiassni’s lifelong loss of her childhood home and the experiences of diaspora as a refugee from Nazi-era Europe is made central to the work through Martin’s choice of dreams that focus on a dissonant self, anxieties of intruders and experiences of loss. A more obvious allusion appears during a scene in which a woman kicks through a wall to find a man living in a secret space in between two rooms, a palpable historical reference to the experience of those hidden in homes throughout the years of the Holocaust.
An architectural interpretation of Villa Stiassni was built within the gallery, a warmly-lit monochrome wall with simple windows opening onto an installation of the actual pages from Susi Stiassni’s dream diaries. Almost 300 typewritten, annotated pages hang along the gallery walls, beyond the enclosing facade. They are keys, perhaps, to her grandmother’s psyche. However, the pages are both visually and physically just out of reach, with miniscule typewritten text and kept behind a wall in a dimly-lit space. Viewers must stand far enough for the pages to be visible but entirely illegible. Some, too, are further obscured with the delicate opacity of vellum, like a memory that is too obscure to visualize. What is visible are Martin’s attempts and processes to make sense of the past: Stiassni’s writing is supplemented by Martin’s contemporaneous annotations on sticky notes. Being able to see the diary pages yet not read them is undeniably frustrating. The objects are close enough to see and feel as if they must hold a key to better understand a bewildering exhibition. However, therein lies the potency: this gesture underscores what Martin might have felt while reading these diaries: that, despite her access to this breadth of information, she is no closer to unlocking the inner-workings of her grandmother.
The characters in the film are all searching: for something, someone, someplace. So too does the exhibition encourage viewers to explore without a clear end, to peek through windows at unreadable text and to turn a dark corner and find a corridor with paintings made by Stiassni. Another turn reveals a dark wall with a notebook page installed, on which letters composed of tiny “x’s” read: “I had the experience but I didn’t get the meaning,” a misquote from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Dry Salvages.”
Perhaps what this points to, as well, is the futility of knowing and the slippery nature of memory. It is unclear whether Susi Stiassni, on a journey to know herself over decades and thousands of pages, ever neared unlocking the depths of her unconscious. Tonight the World begets the unfulfilled desire to know each other and ourselves, if only we could read someone’s mind, see into their dreams, have a peek at the unmediated inner-workings of a person: a desire always just out of reach.