2018-06 Gallery Show Ryerson Artspace, Adult, Age, Art, Art Gallery, Bright, Child, Content, Eyes Open, Face, Female, Frontal Face, Gender, Group, Hertha William II, Indoor, Male, Other, People, Person, Photography, Place, Projects, Smile, Teenager / Young Adult

Denk Ich an Sonneberg

The Grid

Denk Ich an Sonneberg

Denk Ich an Sonneberg (Remembering Sonneberg) combines photography and video in an installation revealing the artist’s family history and its transformation over four generations. It delves into the shifts of family identity, starting from mono-cultural roots in the late 19th century Germany to a North American household of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This personal chronicle of cultural change employs our collective relationship to food as both common denominator and cultural indicator as a way of shaping our individual and communal identities. 

Denk Ich an Sonneberg makes visible the permissions granted by a new culture. It enables the viewer to witness the long-term impact of migration on identity, individuals and society. The work allows us the opportunity to consider the role of photography: in recording and portraying memory; the truth of photographs and their observational role; and the nature and agenda of portraiture. 

This project is a study of my family’s migration story. It starts with my paternal grandparent’s migration from Germany to Canada in 1929 and explores the consequences of that event on the generations that followed. My life has been shaped by this story and, in turn, I am now shaping the continuation of this narrative in the lives of my own children and the future generations of my family. I felt the value of this story lay in its multi-generational perspective of change in contrast with the more prevalent view of the immediate challenges faced by newly-arrived immigrants. Toronto, the city where I have lived for most of my life, has been referred to as an “Arrival City” because of the cultural changes that have taken place here as a result of unprecedented transnational migration over the past twenty-five years. I have participated in this migration story first through my grandparents, then by choosing to marry a woman from Asia and most recently, embracing a new son-in-law whose parents immigrated from South Asia. Each line made a decision to come to Canada, and through serendipity, we all met, with the result that four migration stories intersected in our family. Each one is worthy of study, but to do so would increase the complexity of the narrative and in doing so cloud the issues I am grappling with. It is in this context that I chose to focus on one line, the Hertha family line, beginning with my paternal grandparents Fritz and Gertrude Hertha (née Schellhorn). 

As I studied my family story, I realised that the choices my grandparents and parents made, those that went against their traditions, the norms of their times, influenced my own choices, to make choices contrary to tradition, including racial and ethnic diversification. Their choices developed for me the notion of giving permission that became foundational to my thesis that migration enabled incremental change over transgenerational change by resetting the norms, that presented a different path.

However, notions of permission and resistance raised questions of representation: concepts and ideas are subjects difficult to represent visually. What form could I employ to tell this complex story in a way that would be accessible to a larger audience?  

 To address the complexity of the narrative I felt I needed to help the viewer internalize, relate and integrate what they were being given into their own ways of thinking; I felt the need for an organizing conceptual framework. This lead me to the use of food as both a sensory and conceptual analogy. Representations of food, as ingredients, meals and diet, engages the viewer to recall a taste and smell. But food is more; it is an encapsulation of traditions, preferences, manners, many of the elements of what a culture is, the norms. It provides an analogy that everyone is familiar with and as we witness the change in diet we witness the change in the family, the traditions, and the culture.

The resistance some of us have in eating certain foods parallels the resistance we might experience adopting the norms of a new culture; broadly, a resistance to the unfamiliar or change. But the change experienced by the immigrant is also felt in the hosting community. They too may witness changes to the norms they hold dear. When multiplied a thousand times across a community we can extrapolate from the personal to the societal to the political perspectives. Resistance to change is expressed on many levels in myriad ways. How we manage it depends on those we look up to (our family, political leaders, the justice system) and how they either encourage or discourage this resistance.

The outcome of this investigation takes the form of a multi-media installation employing a grid of photographs summarizing the family story, a video of a dinner capturing the dynamic interactions and sounds of different eating styles, manners and foods, with a second video that develops the parallel between food and cultural norms. The work is presented as a personal chronical, in part because of my position in the third generation and my direct knowledge of each individual. Ultimately, the goal of this work is not only to tell my own story in relation to migration and cultural change but also to submit that this transformative experience has become increasingly prevalent in a 21st global society.

The Grid

The narrative is expressed through a multi-part installation, leveraging the capabilities of different media to develop a fuller sensory and emotional experience. This allows the viewer to experience my story through three different perspectives:

  • The “grid” develops the themes of ethnic transformation, and convergence with migration as an agent of change using family photographs combined with images of dinner plates, global migration patterns and references to place.
  • The vignette “Ein Bummel durch Sonneberg (how I learnt to Make Sonneberger Dumplings)” is a narrative about my relationship to culture through food. It uses dumplings as a cultural marker, making parallels between the diversity of dumplings and the diversity of the family.
  • The video “dinner” presents a performance of my extended family eating an elaborate cross-cultural meal. This work is projected onto a dinner table encouraging the viewer to participate in the connection of diverse cultures through the familiar act of eating and socializing. 

The work was shown at the Ryerson Artspace during for the month of June 2018 as part of the 10th Anniversary DocNow Documentary Film Festival (DocNow Trailer). These videos document the installation and opening and a walkthrough of the gallery.