Quintan Ana Wikswo’s ON THE SOFA OF A SYNAGOGUE IN VILNIUS, 1923 is a constellation of the artist’s photographs, installation films, prose poem texts, and collaborative live performance work.
It is a stolen moment between two women: a cleaning lady, the mother of a disabled child, a recognition of lacunae between those roles that leaves space for an erotic encounter. These are two socially-scripted lives in which romance – and queerness – is not supposed to exist, for reasons that, for these women, demand transgression.
Working in the Jewish quarter of Vilnius, Lithuania, Quintan Ana Wikswo created the project using salvaged Nazi and Stalin-era battlefield cameras and military typewriters manufactured with concentration camp slave labor.
I met an elderly Jewish woman once who spoke of her life in Lithuania before the war and Shoah. As a young woman of twenty, she trained as a seamstress and opened her own shop selling what she described as “menswear for women.” These were for informal private gatherings between women who did not wish to wear dresses or skirts. They loved her clothing. She said that as a result, she became socially unacceptable, and was encouraged to move to Paris – the arrival of war merely hastened her departure. In Paris, after the war, she opened her own atelier, where she continued her line of clothing for women who wished to dress as men.
She said that her husband had refused to leave Lithuania, and she had looked at this as a glorious gift of freedom and escape. But, she said, there was a woman, beloved, closer to her than a sister, who at the last moment, did not join her. She had been a cleaning lady at a synagogue, and she did not survive
First published in The Kenyon Review
ON THE SOFA OF A SYNAGOGUE IN VILNIUS
Her in heavy pants, thick waxed canvas work apron tied stout around her waist and chest, covered with paints and mud. Her son Leo doesn’t speak – he’s ten, and he has lost all his words, his recognition of her, and now his are the three dark scratches down her nose. In my bag god knows what. A tin of charcoals, blackberries, a bicycle chain for repair. Summer. Around two in the afternoon, before the songs and shouts of children too early gone from school. After the deliveries, glass bottles of milk and medicines on dolly and trolley, precarious on the cobblestones. Her mouth on my nipple – it began with laughing. At the end of the hallway, the old metal door that sticks in the heat with old paint clotted on its hasps. A thick grate across its window, like it’s braced for cheese, or a crowbar. Us on the other side, not waiting.
Enter the husbands in my mind, hers a blackberry, all curls and little seeds of yud. Mine I pretend permissive, this a gift. I am an idiot, and this is where we belong, on this sofa, one foot pressed against the linoleum floor that later I will scrub. It’s what I came to do. The bottoms of my feet black, my nails black grimed beneath, there are crumbs inside her shirt from the little one, unleavened. This is our hour. There is no magic for women in the morning – all is preparing, inventory, reminders, making ready for tasks, errands, disasters of blood and body and book learning. Clothing bought and sold, sizes adjusting for age, accounting for nutrition. List making, stock taking, coals in the oven, and where are the pencils to be sharpened. The knives. Brisket. When will the butcher be ready. For us, the afternoon, the hour of naps.
For an instant I remembered our apartment – in a flash I emptied it – no tables and chairs and children, pots, towels, photographs, curtains – just a wide expanse of cream wall, four windows, and this flat green synagogue couch striped with lust and light.
Published in The Kenyon Review
Photographs, Films and Text: QUINTAN ANA WIKSWO
Composers: Anne Le Berge and Pamela Madsen
Piano and Voice: Pamela Madsen
ON THE SOFA OF A SYNAGOGUE IN VILNIUS is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Haute de Fee (France), Ucross Foundation, Ragdale Foundation, Catalysis Projects, Oberpfalzer Kunstlerhaus (Germany), Catalysis Projects (Los Angeles).
Publications include The Kenyon Review (first serial publication) and Catalysis Projects (DVD).
Performances, exhibitions and presentations include Yeshiva University Museum (New York City), California State University at Fullerton, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.