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Indepth Arts News:

"Diane Samuels: Inscription - multimedia work explores memory and meaning "
2001-09-15 until 2002-02-24
Carnegie Museum of Art
Pittsburgh, PA, USA

Diane Samuels: Inscription is a multimedia installation that explores the layers of meaning surrounding personal memories. Inscription combines old and new media, including handwritten transcriptions, photography, video projection, audio recording, and books constructed of hand-lettered glass tiles, to present the personal stories of two people in ways that reveal the complexity, fragility, and elusiveness of memories as personal and historic artifacts.

Pittsburgh artist Diane Samuels has worked on Inscription for more than five years, conducting interviews, making audio and video recordings, gathering historical data and satellite images, and painstakingly constructing the installation. Samuels uses these materials to relate two compelling stories in ways that suggest unexpected and intricate networks of meaning beyond the narratives themselves.

The first of the stories is the tale of Norma Perlmutter, who in the 1920s, at the age of five and a half, emigrated with her family from Warsaw, Poland. Norma Perlmutter's story recounts her family's reasons for leaving their home, her recollections of life in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, and the journey over the Atlantic and entry into the United States through Ellis Island. The other story is that of Otmar Gotterbarm, who in 1945, at the age of three and a half, witnessed the downing of an American warplane near his home in Unterwilzingen, Germany.

The verbatim stories of Norma and Otmar provide the raw material for Inscription, and in some ways, Samuels regards her role as that of a scribe. However, in the artist's hands, the narratives are purposely fragmented for reassembly. Viewers of Inscription are invited to absorb information-through sight, sound, and touch-about parts of each tale and, through the lens of their own understanding, see personal meanings in the fragments.

Each component of Inscription invites observation and interpretation. For example, visitors will see two stands holding handmade books. One bears Norma's story on its pages, the other, Otmar's. The paper in the books is made from pulp that contains bits of their clothing. At first glance, the pages appear to be blank, but a closer look reveals that they actually contain the stories of Otmar and Norma in the watermark. Requiring the closest scrutiny to be read, these hidden stories hint at other possible rewards for painstaking observation.

Photographs of the foreheads of Norma and Otmar are displayed alongside images of the handwritten text of their stories that are reduced in size and legible only when magnified. At a glance, patterns in the lines of text and the lines in the skin can be seen. Looking closely, the visitor can see that lines form the letters, words, and sentences in the story and likewise form patterns in the skin. Sensing this common structural element hints at the possibility of finding further associations and deeper appreciation in the smallest and most fragmentary artifacts.

Layered video images from sites described in the narratives, historical photographs, pictures of reenacted events, and bits of the handwritten text are projected on the gallery walls. As visitors read the paper and glass books and study the images, speakers recessed in the wall softly project audio fragments-the voices of Norma and Otmar telling their stories along with the voice of the artist spelling every word of the stories. As if eavesdropping on a conversation emanating from the room next door, visitors have to press their ears to the wall and pay careful attention in order to discern the words.

Other works in Inscription provide further possibilities for intended and unintended meaning. The exhibition has four large glass panels. Two contain the full text of Otmar's story, the other two, Norma's. From a distance, these books appear to be shattered panes of glass. Close inspection reveals that the panels are assembled from 90,000, *-inch-square, hand-engraved glass tiles and each tile bears one letter of the words in the narratives. These panels, like the other pieces in Inscription challenge us to hunt for meaning and reward those of us who look and listen carefully.

According to Samuels, the personal stories of Norma and Otmar inspired and challenged her. It was the voices themselves, the process of listening and speaking, the fragility and the delicacy of these fragments of memories, that interested me the most; and although my starting point was the narrative, the words, the stories took me to other places. My goal isn't to re-tell the stories, but to give a key to a sense of my impressions and reactions to the stories and the thoughts they generated, she said.

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