Ellen Rothenberg finds new ways to view the refugee crisis in ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

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Ellen Rothenberg finds new ways to view the refugee crisis in ISO 6346: ineluctable immigrant

Spertus reopens its gallery with an installation that blends the past and present.




s any history of the Jews will tell you, we are a wandering people, and any collection of Jewish artifacts will be filled with relics of immigration. When the Spertus Institute commissioned Chicago artist Ellen Rothenberg to do a site-specific installation last year, Rothenberg spent several weeks combing through its vast archive.

She found plenty of evidence of the Jews' long history as refugees, including immigration papers and records of mutual aid societies, and many wonderful and marvelous artifacts, like the shoes of a Jewish opera singer and an enormous postcard collection, but nothing seemed a likely foundation for an installation until one day, while poring over a list of holdings, she came across a description of a photo of blockade runners bursting through barbed wire above the coast of Palestine. In her mind, it evoked other, more recent images of people traveling by rafts in the opposite direction, from Turkey and North Africa to Europe. "The picture gave me an orientation," she says now. "It was an aha moment."

In May, Rothenberg went to Berlin, where she spends part of every year. A friend introduced her to THFwelcome, a charity that works with refugees living in the camp at what was once Tempelhof Airport. Tempelhof itself has a complicated history: Hitler built one of his first concentration camps there and used it as a slave labor site during World War II. After the Berlin Wall went up, the hangar housed refugees from East Germany. Since 2015, refugees have been living there again, but last year the German government decided to build a more comfortable "village" out of shipping containers, which it called Tempohome Dorf. Rothenberg felt drawn to the site and spent five months taking photos documenting the construction.

Back in Chicago, Rothenberg returned to Spertus and began thinking about the relationship between her photos and the various objects in the archives and how they connected to the institute's gallery space. "I didn't want to talk about individuals," she says. "I wanted to talk about systems." She found she could get the sense of historical distance and disorientation she was aiming for by photographing objects from oblique angles. A photo of a passport of a Jewish refugee who came to the United States via Mexico, for instance, focuses on the taped and frayed edge of the cover, not the information inside about its owner. "It requires you to look at it," says Rothenberg, "and think about what it represents." (In an online component of the exhibition, visitors will be able to look at more conventional photos of the objects and learn about their history.)

On the floor of the gallery, Rothenberg has painstakingly taped a floor plan of the shipping containers at Tempohome (the exhibit's name, "ISO 6346," refers to the containers' international standard organization code). Situating the visitor in the camp and in the gallery simultaneously brings home how to be a refugee is to live in multiple times and places all at once.    v

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