By Chelsea Rozansky
In 1933, Sophie Rosenbaum packed her things and left her native Berlin to go to Argentina. Among her possessions was a collection of postcards, one side bearing pictures of celebrities popular in Germany when Rosenbaum was a kid: famous singers, movie stars, directors. On the other side were autographed signatures and the street address of the home Rosenbaum was to leave behind. They must have been important to her, the postcards. Presumably, she could only take with her the essentials and valuables.
Tal Sofia never got to meet Rosenbaum, but she inherited a couple of things from her great-grandmother: her name—Sofia, like Sophie—and the postcards, which lived with Sofia’s father in Argentina, and then in Israel where Sofia grew up, after they were passed down to her. Now the postcards are with Sofia in Toronto, her new home.
I am so afraid of words, Sofia’s recent solo exhibition at Ignite Gallery, features images, texts, and video installation examining the tactility of photographs—objects that can be touched, held, maybe held onto, or thrown out. Sofia’s project began out of a suspected kinship with her namesake, and a subsequent investigation in Berlin’s archives of Rosenbaum’s life there. She and her great-grandmother were similar, Sofia imagined, turning the postcards over in her mind. Sofia’s background in graphic design and photography sprung from an impulse to collect—an impulse that Rosenbaum must have also possessed.
“Touch became something very significant in this research, like reaching towards something, trying to hold it, trying to grab it—like a memory,” Sofia tells me. She suggests that today “we’re living in this touch-deprived world,” and a photograph’s virtual form causes us to relate to images differently than we might have used to. It may seem natural to assume that the virtual image is farther obstructed, farther away, than its analogue ancestor. Consider the durability of Rosenbaum’s postcards compared to the scroll and tap dance performed between hand and virtual image: pictures rolling up to disappear like a credit crawl, while we’re thumbing the other side of a screen. These gestures are a response to virtuality, which materially is innately ephemeral. They don’t quite satiate. It isn’t enough. But it is a fantasy to suggest that a print photograph is. You may be able to hold it more closely, but no matter the form, pictures are only representations of something already gone. As cultural theorist Erin Manning (whose thought informs Sofia’s practice) suggests, touching is a transaction that is incomplete, the moment of contact also temporal, fleeting. (1) And touch happens in flux; movement—touch is constituted by reaching, which is to say, by desiring.
One of the works in the exhibition is a booklet Sofia produced after her time in Berlin. Two texts are interwoven with each other, displayed side-by-side. The first, printed in enlarged, sans-serif font and appearing on the odd-numbered pages of the book, is a fictionalized monologue by Rosenbaum, which emerged after a dead-end in Sofia’s archival research. Its opposing even-numbered pages feature, in a serif font, a memoir about Sofia’s experience in Berlin—resulting in an unconventional layout which simultaneously breaks up and interlaces the two narratives as you read through. “Your name is Sophie Rosenbaum and you are going to be a movie star: you know it, you know it with every bone in your body,” goes the first text. The second: “I fight every bone in my body urging me to roll to my side and whisper: hold me? I am falling apart.” I imagine Rosenbaum playing with her celebrity postcards, placing her hands atop their headshots, and the closeness Sofia must have felt to her while doing the same. I wonder about the desire to become a celebrity—to become an image—and if it’s the same as the desire to be held.
I am so afraid of words presents a link between reaching for a photograph and longing for the past. “If we want touch to last, we must touch again, lest the skin ‘forget’ the touch we can feel but momentarily,” Manning writes. (2) Memory-making is a process of ongoing forgetting. We constantly reframe and re-picture the past in our attempts to document it. I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s description of history: “the true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” (3) You want to reach out and grab it—capture an image before you forget. A photograph “is an object that we often have some sort of memory attached to,” Sofia says. “Every time we look at it, it creates another memory. So holding it is like holding a piece of history, or a memory.” Ultimately Sofia’s research led to fiction; the text she produced about Rosenbaum was imagined. Sofia tells me that in German, the word for ‘history’ is the same as the word for ‘story.’
I point at three rows of spiral-bound booklets lining the north-side gallery wall. Each is open at a different page. They look good all lined up together. “Can I look at one?” I ask Sofia, meaning “Can I hold it for myself?” I’ve already assumed my look-don’t-touch posturing of art gallery good manners, and I’m surprised that she says yes. I find out that the stories both begin and end in the same place, meeting outside Rosenbaum’s apartment building. Once you get to the end—“and now we are here, right here”— you flip the page and arrive, in medias res, at the start again: “and you are still waiting.” Sofia wanted to see Rosenbaum’s old home. She went to Berlin with a friend, a historian. The information she had to guide her was the address inscribed on her great-grandmother’s postcard collection. Having mostly met closed doors in her archival research, Sofia finally found the building and arrived IRL at the front door of her great-grandmother’s home, only to realize she had been there before. Coincidentally, it was around the corner from her favourite café in the city, already her local haunt.
When we speak of haunting we often speak of buildings and pictures. There are haunted houses and there’s that link between photography and death: photos capture and freeze in time what immediately becomes past. A building, like a photograph, can exist for longer than the people inhabiting it. Sofia says that in this way, it exists outside of time. Photographed fragments of the front door to Rosenbaum’s building are blown up in two side-by-side posters, which are also the first thing you see when you enter the gallery. Smaller renderings are printed inside the booklets. A photograph is an image but it’s also an object. These images of Rosenbaum’s door are a figurative and literal threshold to Rosenbaum’s life here.
Reaching the front door, Sofia realized she couldn’t go inside. What would be the point? Her great-grandmother left long ago. “So I ended up taking photos of architecture,” Sofia says.
1. Manning, Erin. Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
3. Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Translated by Harry Zohn. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. 255.
I am so afraid of words ran from March 1 – 6, 2019 at Ignite Gallery in Toronto, ON.
Feature Image: Detail of I am so afraid of words, 2019 by Tal Sofia. Photo courtesy of the artist.