With Tenement/Timelines, Iris Eichenberg fulfills the promise of her penultimate series of works, presented under the title Heimat in 2004. The latter embodied a provisional endpoint of a ten-year search for the meaning, the sense, of the self, of life, of life itself, initially undertaken as an exploration of the most internal parts of the body, which gradually led to the conclusion that such meaning, such sense, can only, and primarily be found in the connections that every body, every self forges with other bodies, other selves, as much as in the links between the body and its (im)material others, whether in the form of others objects, other materialities, surrounding landscapes, or even larger constitutive outsides. The series of works produced after this provisional conclusion, and before the current exhibition, appeared under the appropriate title Weiss (2005). Literally a white space, a blank page, that represented both a marking of time and the empty sheet of paper, from which the search could be started anew. A search that could no longer be undertaken on a strictly personal level, or be assumed individually. The result is Tenement/Timelines.
Immediately inspired by the curious collection of objects and paraphernalia stored in the vaults of the Tenement Museum in New York, objects waiting to be numbered, classified, and archived, these works constitute an almost literal attempt to give substance to, if not materially to actualize the multiple connections with an extended outside world, in all their branchings-out into an at least as extended timeline. Tenements, the cheaply constructed apartment buildings arising in New York City, especially on the Lower East Side, to house the waves of immigrants that arrived, full of expectation, during the second half of the twentieth century to explore the New World, became these newcomers’ first, and often permanent, residence in the United States. A typical tenement building was from five to six stories high, with four apartments on each floor, in which families of ten to twelve lived together, crammed into a kitchen, a parlor room, and sometimes, one bedroom. The buildings’ working-class inhabitants often worked from the home: many immigrants found employment in the garment industry, they rolled cigars in the overpopulated parlor room, made leather tackle, or occupied themselves with other forms of handicraft and cottage industry. Around 1900, the Lower East Side was one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world.
What enticed these people to leave their home countries, their families, and the familiarity of their social environment behind to try their proverbial luck in the land of the equally proverbial Boundless Opportunities? What did they hope to find in their new, unknown home country? The promise of the American Dream is perhaps best represented and symbolized by an object frequently recovered from the ruins of the Tenements: a large ring with an enormous bunch of—often rusty—keys, in all shapes and sizes, attached to it. The key that literally offered entry into a new home. The key that opens the door to a new existence. The key to a new world. The key to somebody’s heart. The key to happiness. In its almost threadbare symbolic associations, the key assumes a central role in the lives of immigrants.
That bunch of keys, with all of its positive as well as negative associations—a key, after all, also locks off, in addition to opening up—we encounter in a variety of transformations in a symbol that is at least as threadbare in its symbolic resonance, i.e., the human hand, in this new series of Eichenbergs work. What does a hand do? Just like a key, a hand may close off as easily as it may open up. A business deal, a first step into intimacy, a farewell. In all of their ambivalence, big bunches of hands reemerge in the experience of the artist’s own immigrant existence—an existence in which her own history connects itself with the life histories that are encapsulated in the bunches of keys dug up from the Tenements. Bunches of hands. Hands forging new connections, both in their diverse materialities—there are hands of copper, silver, leather, Bakelite, wood, tweed, and brass—and in their function, each tracing or establishing their own timelines, so that, as soon as we ourselves lay hand on them, attach them to our own bodies, we individually and collectively become entangled with or cut off from all those people who, each in their own small or large ways have given a turn to human history as a whole. Even if we have never actually left our own familiar surroundings, we know ourselves to be connected with the materiality these hands have produced. The dresses they have sewn, the cigars they have rolled, the packaging they have, whether or not at the conveyer belt, produced and inserted into our everyday lives.
The traditional methods of production, the piecework, with which the first waves of immigrants in the United States earned themselves a living, surface in other works in this series. Traditional handicrafts that could be practiced at home, such as leather-work, or simple knitting, become palpable in the materials as much as in the forms of these pieces of jewelry. There are no bracelets, rings, or necklaces here. The larger part of the pieces take shape as chatelaines—a chain or cord formerly worn by women at the waist to carry a purse or a bunch of keys—that simultaneously suggest the belt or chain worn by artisans to carry their tools or instruments on their bodies.
This direct connection to the body—inherent in all forms of jewelry, of course, but enforced with an all but too imposing literalness because of the specific shape of these works—as much as the ineluctable symbolic value of the metaphors of hand and key ring, urge us to reflect upon the ways in which timelines are being drawn. Without professing a downright political message, Eichenberg encourages us to think about that which connects us with former and current emigrants and immigrants, and to rejoice in the material and figurative meanings of connections, of assemblages, of the course of history, as well as to consider the enormous gaps—between people, between things—that have been caused by the ineluctable, whimsical courses such timelines may take. Not particularly reassuring, this work, for those who wish to see and experience the complexity of its implications. But beautiful work, too, that brings into practice a love for craftsmanship without in any way romanticizing it.
renée c. hoogland