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Koffler exhibit captures life in pre-Nazi Germany

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TORONTO — Time is at a halt, if only for the next month, in the Kiever Synagogue. The shul in Kensington Market is playing host to artist E.C. Woodley’s “Auguststrasse 25.”

From Auguststrasse 25 [Nick Kozak photo]

From Auguststrasse 25 [Isaac Applebaum photo]

TORONTO — Time is at a halt, if only for the next month, in the
Kiever Synagogue. The shul in Kensington Market is playing host to
artist E.C. Woodley’s “Auguststrasse 25.”

Run in conjunction with the Koffler Centre for the Arts, the exhibit is the latest in the gallery’s projected four-year run of travelling exhibits, as the Koffler Centre waits for renovations to be completed.

Woodley, a Toronto-based sound artist and composer, has built a makeshift shrine to pre-Nazi secular Jewish German life: a typical Berlin living room of the late 1920s, located at Auguststrasse 25.

The décor is unremarkable, yet it captures the normality of the everyday lives of prewar European Jews, who didn’t realize what was to come. We can’t help but shudder.

 A round mahogany table is placed across from a lived-in-looking sofa. Contemporary German novels are scattered on a coffee table. Sourced from a variety of antique dealers and galleries in the city, all the furniture is authentically prewar.

The outdoor shot of the Kiever  Synagogue [Koffler Centre of the Arts photo]

According to several copies of the popular dailies Berliner Tageblatt and Neue Berliner-Zeitung, which are piled atop the writing desk, the year is 1928. The viewer knows that the Nazis are slowly but surely working their way into power – yet everything seems like life as usual in this modest but well-furnished middle-class living room.

A young woman in her mid-20s fiddles around in the room aimlessly – flipping through a 1920s-era German translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy for a few pages, and then shuffles off to the writing desk, where she writes a few lines to a far-off friend, or so we are allowed to guess. Played by actress Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, the young woman, named Lottie by the artist, is a permanent fixture of the installation – meant at once to pull you in and draw you out.

“The idea is not to do theatre as if there were an end,” says Woodley. “The performance continues for six hours per day, whether anyone is there to bear witness to it or not. The experience of viewing the piece changes with the shifting of the light during the hours of the day, and some of the most beautiful changes in light and in Lottie’s specific presence may go unseen. We also don’t know much about [Corbeil-Coleman’s] character, so there is a bit of existential verity to this in a way that offers space for the viewer to mentally inhabit the scene, or to reach back into their own memories or daydreams.”

Sound is a large part of the exhibit, as Woodley has expertly spliced the sounds of Berlin radio broadcasts, including Alfred Doeblin’s popular The Story of Franz Biberkopf, with the cacophony of a neighbour practising Schubert and Beethoven.

“There has been a real focus on items and sounds and what they convey,” says Woodley of his orchestration, which involved working with set and light designers, a pianist and a sound engineer. “These elements sometimes disrupt the calm of the living room and act as a counterpoint to the space of the synagogue itself.”

Commissioned by Koffler curator Mona Filip, the installation arose from Woodley’s own experiences in Berlin and Vilnius, Lithuania. “I always saw my family as a continuation of European Jewry [in North America] but being there, I felt the absence of a connection,” he says. He recalls that in Vilnius, where there were once more than 100 synagogues, only one remains as evidence of the entire once-flourishing community.

“This setting asks people to address their notion of history – what’s past and what’s present and what’s sacred,” says Koffler executive director Lori Starr.

Tucked into a corner of the synagogue’s sanctuary, the installation at once addresses mortality, memory and the ephemeral. “There is a sense of memorial to the exhibit, but there is also a living actor who infuses the setting with a sense of living, and a sense of reappearance,” says Woodley. “What’s different with this piece is that memory is always there – this experience is only here for five weeks. It’s the sense of fleeting here-and-then-gone that will stay with the viewer.”

On the road since last summer, the Koffler Centre’s exhibits have been quite fleeting themselves, popping up across the city for the past year. “By taking our exhibits city-wide, we aim to address the diversity of Toronto and of Canada, but through our Jewish lens,” says Starr.

“I want the viewer to approach the piece on their own terms,” says Woodley. “Shul is a theatre of remembrance, and we are doing something of the same thing here by invoking an individual and cultural past that has returned in physical proximity to the present.

“My ideal viewer is a solitary person who brings a book and stays awhile on the benches of the shul, paying great attention at times, and at other times letting attention drift.”

“Auguststrasse 25” runs until May 30 at the Kiever Synagogue. The free exhibition is open Sunday to Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. The exhibit is closed May 19 and 20 for Shavuot. For more information, visit www.kofflerarts.org.


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