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Montage-Murals: Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson’s “Present Figures” (Berlin 2021)

Anna Elena Torres

This spring, Debora Vogel’s poetry bloomed riotously across the faces of three buildings in Berlin. Passages from the collection Day Figures (Tog-Figurn, 1930) appeared in Vogel’s Yiddish and in translations into German, Arabic, and English, the letters of those four alphabets painted alongside hobo hieroglyphs, squatter runes, and paleotype. The cool, restrained tones of Vogel’s palate erupt into acid hues of yellow, purple, blue, and two-toned shadows; the four alphabets elbow one another across pock-marked brick, around balconies and windows. Paint pools and stains the sidewalks, drips extending the artist’s gestures beyond her control.

This series of calligraphic murals is the work of Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson (b. 1984). Born in Moscow, she grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Berlin full-time in 2016, a series of migrations which inform her multilingual artistic practice. One year into quarantine, Ponizovsky Bergelson embarked on a project to proliferate Vogel’s poems across the city. Though in addition to being a Yiddish poet Vogel was an art critic involved with Cubism, Constructivism, and the specifically Polish school of Unism, Ponizovsky Bergelson does not revisit the visual idioms of artists from Vogel’s circle; the murals explore the interior linguistic world of the texts themselves, rather than Vogel’s artistic milieu.

Like Zackary Sholem Berger’s poems featured in this Special Issue, Ponizovsky Bergelson’s “mural-montages” make Vogel’s texts at once illegible and spectacular. Her dynamic, layered “hybrid calligraphy” resists immediate readability or consumption, making the letters of multiple alphabets writhe and drip in three dimensions. I spoke with the artist by Zoom on April 15, 2021, a couple of weeks after the third mural dried. Ponizovsky Bergelson appeared on screen rolling a cigarette between tattooed fingers, with a long blonde mullet and broad warm smile, framed by hanging plants in her home in Berlin’s Neukölln district. Our conversation ranged from the politics of Yiddish in Germany to the physicality of mural-making and Vogel’s theory of montage.

One of the murals’ “source texts” is Vogel’s “Buildings at Night” (1926), in Anastasiya Lyubas’ translation:

Night streets would be lost
and we would be abandoned
if not for the buildings.

They stand on the streets.
And, like us, perhaps wait
for a second body.

So you can compare them to bodies,
a gray building with red light inside
and the second gray building. With yellow light.

The first building is like
a transparent light body,
which can still long for something
that could have come but didn’t.

And the second building is
a robust body with sweet light kernels
of longing of thirty evenings a month filled with waiting,
a building, which has given up waiting.

And you still have someone to go to
in the bodiless glass city sphere.

Vogel makes buildings into kin, sharing in human anticipation and longing. Illuminated like souls by “sweet light kernels” of different colors, buildings find a near-metaphysical unity with human city dwellers. Reading Vogel during quarantine, her poetics of still life and banal urban captivity strike even more deeply. As Ponizovsky Bergelson says, this text fits our moment “like a glove to hand.”

“Fir-lingualism” and “daytsh af tselokhes”

Ponizovsky Bergelson’s youth in a “fir-lingual [four-lingual] home, minimum” speaking Russian, Hebrew, German, and English resonates with Vogel’s multilingualism. Though Yiddish retains an “abstract beauty” for Ponizovsky Bergelson, speaking two of its component languages opens up Vogel’s poetry for her. Experiencing dyslexia makes letters “a challenging thing for me—I’m challenged by what I see.” Some dyslexic readers describe letters as appearing dynamic, twisting on the page and refusing to sit still. Ponizovsky Bergelson’s artistic practice involves “making alphabets difficult for others to read,” externalizing the inner sensorium of dyslexia. Painting with non-standardized orthography thus becomes “a way of resisting grammar, of refusing to be read,” as for her “all texts are reluctant in readability.” One phrase recurred during our conversation: “the refusal of language to be disciplined.” She notes wryly, “The authorities are strict about the right and wrong way to speak,” as native speakers often guard the borders of fluency. She wonders, “Why is yallah not a word in German, when we say it here all the time? What’s the point in trying to close language, fix it, make it not dynamic?” In her montage-murals, language rebels against forces of cultural discipline and neurotypicality. I interpret her confrontational calligraphy as a complete refusal to pretend that language can ever be made singular or ‘pure.’ The dynamism of her letters embodies both the traces of migration and the heterogeneity of visual-sensory perception.

Ponizovsky Bergelson’s multilingual murals are a form of linguistic Cubism. Rather than bringing all angles of a face or vase into a single plane to be visible simultaneously, her murals make multiple languages ‘heard’ simultaneously, visually representing the sonic effect of a crowd on a street corner. There is Jewish precedent for this textual composition: one mural strikes me as resembling a page of neon Talmud, arranged in concentric blocks around the house’s windows and balconies.

Ponizovsky Bergelson’s art reminds us of the materiality of language and that there is much space between speech and alphabet. Each of the languages within these murals functions differently. Phrases in English are chosen for when she wants something to be clearly legible, though, Ponizovsky Bergelson adds with a chuckle, “This is rare.” Ponizovsky Bergelson declines to transliterate either the Arabic or Yiddish into the Latin alphabet, which would make it more accessible to German and English readers. To many eyes, Yiddish and Hebrew writing is indistinguishable, and Hebrew and Arabic are often predetermined as antagonists; thus a passerby who doesn’t read Yiddish might presume the juxtaposition of ‘Hebrew’ and Arabic to comment on Israel/Palestine or the Middle East. In fact, Ponizovsky Bergelson identified the Arabic script found across Berlin kiosks and shop awnings with Vogel’s interest in advertising graphics. By pairing Yiddish passages with languages and sites, she seeks the points where the poems already touch the city as it lives. She intends for this to play with “the cliche of the Arab in the German street, the orientalized person who is distant or poetic.” Curious pedestrians must find information on the murals by searching online, as no informational plaque is provided within the space of the mural. [Editor’s note: since this piece was written, a plaque in German has been installed at the site] Ponizovsky Bergelson’s public art aims to “reduce to a basic state, very elemental state—three colors, four colors—giving space to recognize the violence of everything else” in the mural’s social context.

Ponizovsky Bergelson reports that on the streets of Berlin, towering Yiddish letters spark hostility: “Like being naked in public, Yiddish is perceived as very rude.” She explains that she paints “not in a ‘clean’ style, but ‘dirty’” as a strategy to reveal the perceived ‘dirtiness’ of Yiddish itself in Germany: “We’re in the third generation to suppress and push it away—and here comes this woman and puts it outside so aggressively! I take it out from the hidden, pushed away, suppressed place where Yiddish is kept. People have a hard time with it here.” I ask how she chooses which phrases to paint in which language, and she replies, “What’s from Yiddish is left in Yiddish, to make people choke on it.” While children were delighted to watch the project sprawl and younger adults connected with its “multiculti” aspects, she also endured incessant complaints and police calls placed by older area denizens. I was struck by the difference between Ponizovsky Bergelson’s gracious support from the city and my experiences of police surveillance and interference with public art in the U.S., where murals are often scanned by officers for ‘hidden gang symbols’ and colors. She notes that attempts to stop the murals never came from municipal authorities, but neighbors: “The Berlin police is really nice, really amazing, very protective. People in uniform here have to behave.” Nonetheless, after constant harassment in response to the murals, she found that “a dark mirror of this German society was exposed to me. This project got the dirty laundry to come out.”

Mural-space and mural-time

Mural-making is intense physical labor, especially when painting high above the street on a scaffold or mechanical arm-lift. Ponizovsky Bergelson eschewed mural technologies to paint freehand, like a stick-and-poke tattoo improvised on the building’s skin. Making preliminary sketches helped her memorize the texts, cultivating “memory with the hand.” There is a serendipitous quality to how the paint falls, without the aid of projections, stencils, or computer mock-ups often used to transfer designs from notepad to multi-story buildings. Ponizovsky Bergelson recalls, “The physical experience is very radical, it’s radical days for me, ten hours without breaks, very heavy buckets, very messy, all of myself is put into this—very exhausting. The cranes are a bit flexible, and there’s always a bit of a surfing feeling in the beginning; the first one or two hours are full of adrenaline. After the first hour or so of physical adjustment [to working on a crane], then there’s no fear, just flow.”

The murals are ‘blooming spaces,’ arising without aspirations of permanence. All three are painted on walls of residential buildings provided by the Jewish organization Szloma Albam Stiftung, which Ponizovsky Bergelson had not visited prior to the project. These residential buildings are on (here Ponizovsky Bergelson quotes Vogel) “streets where literally nothing happens.” Their locations challenge what is culturally and geographically “central” in Berlin, and she notes that some people do not consider Spandau to even be part of Berlin. Ponizovsky Bergelson hails Szloma Albam Stiftung’s “very courageous move” in offering her these walls “without a clue of how it will look eventually.” The murals “mark the buildings as Jewish” and “exposed [Szloma Albam Stiftung staff] themselves to a lot of conflict.” Ponizovsky Bergelson did not use any special materials, such as chemical fixatives, light-blocking varnish, or primed bricks, that would ward off decay. Instead of allowing them to fade, the murals will be buffed within a year, and this inevitable erasure will be documented as well. Ponizovsky Bergelson laughs, thinking how glad some neighbors will be to see them go.

The series plays with repetition, just as Vogel’s own work repeats phrases and images across her collections. I quoted to Ponizovsky Bergelson the Vietnamese filmmaker and postcolonial theorist Trinh Minh-ha, who politicizes the technique of repetition in women’s art as “drawing attention to the negligible, the unessential, the marginal,”⁠ arguing that “building up through repetition” can force an audience’s attention to minoritized subjects. 1 1 Charlene Regester, “Review of Trinh T. Minh-ha, Cinema Interval,” pp. 43-45. https://english.chass.ncsu.edu...In this interview, Trinh says: “Every time you repeat, you also build up, and in the process, people come to understand what you say differently from when they first hear you make the same statement. […] In short, repetition has an important and extremely complex political function, but it can easily be dismissed because it has often been understood and practiced in a very limited way.” To this prompt on the politics of repetitive art, Ponizovsky Bergelson responds: “If Vogel’s poems were music, they would be techno, industrial techno: all this glass, brick, and metal, primary materials which repeat all the time, with motifs that reappear across poems; there’s something very brutal in it.” Giving Vogel a thumping techno remix is an apt Berlin adaptation and helps explain the choice of colors not found in nature, unlike the landscapes seen from train windows in Vogel’s urban ballad poems. Appropriately, Robin Pailler’s short film of the mural process is scored with the repetitive trance music of Nic Arizona.

Scale, too, is a feminist tactic of confrontation. Painting in public as a woman is a disruptive performance: another muralist has spoken about her experience of painting up on a lift and later taking male observers on the street by surprise when they realize she’s a woman, her gender only becoming visible when she returns to earth. Working at a height can free the artist from one kind of perception, while becoming hyper-visible in other ways. The artist Shahzia Sikander, trained in Pakistani miniature paintings, began working with traditional aesthetics expressed through murals as a strategy to prevent western viewers from ignoring the space of ‘miniatures.’ In a similar move, Ponizovsky Bergelson makes Vogel’s palm-sized text eat up whole buildings, miniaturizing the viewer within poem-space and magnifying the artist’s body. Reviewing photos of Ponizovsky Bergelson’s faraway murals, I am struck by the elasticity of scale: Vogel’s small, printed books explode across the shopfronts and architectural flourishes of Berlin, then shrink back, homogenized to the standard thirteen inches of computer screens.

Though two of Vogel’s Yiddish books are readily available online, physical copies remain rarities. Digital presence now precedes materiality: it was only several months after translating Vogel’s Manekinen (Mannequins) from a pdf that I finally touched a copy. The book was far smaller and more delicate than I had imagined, belying the force of her voice. I recall the surprise of holding it in an archive, like the body of a small yellow bird. The Yiddish Book Center’s scanned copy, I found, is missing a single page—the one with a poem titled “Shikh” (“Shoes”). “Shikh” describes not archetypes of materiality, but one particular object: the shoes of the poetic speaker’s deceased father, tucked under the bed, with their memories of his daily walks to and from school. This is the most devastating and elegiac poem in the collection; the book itself was a war survivor. In leaping from rare print to mass digital realms, it turned out, more than tactility was withheld. Ponizovsky Bergelson’s murals reassert and amplify the materiality of Vogel’s verse, through artistic repetition and a dramatic shift in scale, though she has never held a copy of Vogel’s book either.

We end our conversation reflecting on the uncanny prescience of Vogel’s theories of simultanism. Ponizovsky Bergelson expresses a strong sense of time’s rhyme: “The simultaneity of her time and this time—they are not happening in the same moment, but somehow are overlapping. There is something mystical about how everything coexists… This is the point of convergence.” Vogel’s montages speak through juxtaposition: across her poetry and theory, Vogel repeats the image of soldiers marching in the street past acacia flowers. The poet need not comment on the abyss between these two tempos of movement, marching and blooming, dynamism and stillness; their juxtaposition brings heightened attention to these ways of being. By drawing out the enthusiasms, longings, memories, dialects, and hostilities of their viewers, Ponizovsky Bergelson’s montage-murals make us see and hear the city anew. Like great-grandchildren who refuse to bear their ancestors’ silence, these paintings holler and riot Yiddish persistence across the face of Berlin.

Artist’s statement: Exploring the visualisation of language by Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson

Language and typography are defining elements of a culture. By using strict sets of rules, each indicates the nature of that culture both in content and in visual form. Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson’s murals contradict the rigidity ascribed to language by using diverse typographic systems from different alphabets to create a visual hybridity. However, as the Yiddish poet Debora Vogel writes, “[A] word is strongly related to the rationality of life; it acts as the bearer and mediator of life’s needs” (“Day Figures,”, Debora Vogel). Because language mediates meaning, it is more difficult for an artist to justify the role of the word in visual form. The content of words stands in the foreground. When an artist renders a text visually, the text becomes abstract. As the obligation to its content, and even its language fades, a text can be reconstructed into a new experience. The content becomes a superstructure. As readability becomes obscured by the artist’s visual rendering, the text can tip over into its sub-context: a patterned surface that implies its identity. A new kind of text can thus emerge. Ponizovsky Bergelson’s ‘vandalistic’ actions are intended to be an example of such a form of visual poetry. Her murals resist easy consumption by any reader/viewer and are reluctant to be deciphered. In these paintings, the viewer experiences Vogel’s poems as a space of emotion and intent, in which images of words have more than one distinct identity and inherent meaning. Overlapping realities and times, the text of the poems takes a new form that reflects upon the simultaneity of the trivial and the life- (or world-)changing events of the present day.

Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson (born 1984, Moscow) is a multilingual visual artist who immigrated to Israel (1991), grew up in Jerusalem and since 2016 lives and works in Berlin. Her own hybrid identity drives her to inspect cultural self-definition in individuals and in communities. In her work she explores and contemplates manifestations of migration and integration processes through visualisation of language. She studied in the Jerusalem High School for the Arts, Bezalel Academy of Arts, Jerusalem and in the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Aside from commissioned work, she has been creating interventions in public spaces and works presented in galleries and museums. Ponizovsky Bergelson’s site-specific murals have been installed in public locations such as ZK/U, Berlin (2019), Kindl Brauerei, Berlin (2019), Antique Toy Museum (Mexico City, 2020), The First Station (Jerusalem, 2019) and JCC, Berkeley, California (2018). Her solo exhibition, Order (Almacén gallery, 2017), was an extensive artistic research of hybrid identity through language and calligraphy. Works were shown in ADC Gallery, New York, NY (2006), Mumedi Museum, Mexico City (2007), The Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Culture, Israel (2016-2017), Jaffa Museum (2016-2017), BB Galeria, Krakow (2017), Mazeh 9 Gallery, Israel (2017), The Altes Rathaus Marzahn, Berlin (2018), The Jerusalem Biennale (2019), Literaturhaus Berlin (2019), Root Division gallery, San Francisco (2020) and more. Work is included in the collection of Klingspor Museum, Offenbach am Main (2017).

MLA STYLE
Torres, Anna Elena. “Montage-Murals: Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson’s “Present Figures” (Berlin 2021).” In geveb, October 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/montage-murals.
CHICAGO STYLE
Torres, Anna Elena. “Montage-Murals: Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson’s “Present Figures” (Berlin 2021).” In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anna Elena Torres

Anna Elena Torres is an Assistant Professor in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity at the University of Chicago. Torres' book is titled Horizons Blossom, Borders Vanish: Anarchism and Yiddish Literature (Yale University Press). Torres is also co-editor (with Kenyon Zimmer) of With Freedom in Our Ears: Histories of Jewish Anarchism (University of Illinois Press, 2023).