Past Lives: Julia Winckler’s ‘Two Sisters’ by Prof. Charmian Brinson, Humanities, Imperial College, London
"Two Sisters, a multidimensional, multimedia exploration of the lives of Julia Winckler’s great-aunt Martha and grandmother Viktoria, is both a supremely personal work and one with great general resonance. Intermixing a combination of photographs, documents, objects and sound in a manner that she has made very much her own, Winckler both rediscovers for herself and recreates for a wider audience the very different experiences of two women separated by and entangled in events far beyond their control, i.e. the Second World War.
"Loosely speaking, the project falls into four closely interconnected parts. The first, which engages with family documents, letters and documents dating from the war years, situates personal events within a broader historical framework. Part Two consists of images relating to the grandmother’s years in Berlin during the Second World War while Part Three was inspired by the great-aunt’s experiences in wartime Britain. Part Four takes as its subject the period since the war and until the present day.
"Of the two women, it is Viktoria whose life in wartime followed the more conventional path. In the absence of her husband who was away at the front in 1939, and again in 1943-44, Viktoria was left in Berlin to bring up her two children (one of them the artist’s mother), while working for the German railways, an industry essential to the prosecution of the German war effort. In July 1944, Viktoria’s husband went missing in Poland. In his last – prescient – letter to her, he urged her to take herself and the two children out of Berlin. Finally, in February 1945, with Berlin becoming ever more beleaguered, Viktoria succeeded – by means of a train journey lasting five days – in getting the three of them to Hanover.
"Martha, on the other hand, happened to be in domestic service in Britain when war broke out. As an ‘enemy alien’, she was taken to Holloway Prison in mid-1940 and then interned in the women’s internment camp at Port Erin, Isle of Man, where she was effectively removed from the war until her release in late 1941. Thus she formed one of a group of around 4000 alien women who were subject to civilian internment in Britain during the Second World War, the majority of them refugees from Nazi oppression (a category to which the ‘Aryan’ Martha did not belong). In her later marriage to the Jewish refugee Hugo Hecker, however, and in their joint decision to remain in Britain after the war, she can perhaps be said to have joined the Jewish refugee community by choice.
"The women’s internment camp, on the southern peninsula of the Isle of Man, was situated in exceptionally beautiful surroundings, the internees being accommodated in the hotels and boarding houses that had previously served the Manx holiday trade. Moreover, the summer of 1940 was a particularly fine one and the women were able to avail themselves of the beaches and sporting facilities that Port Erin and the neighbouring Port St Mary had to offer. After an initial period of semi-chaos, the internees also had a range of educational and cultural activities at their disposal – it is known, for instance, that at Christmas 1940, Martha took part in a nativity play for fellow internees, held at the local church. Such diversions, however, would scarcely have disguised the surrounding barbed wire that signified the internees’ lack of personal freedom and that would have served as a permanent reminder of the war. It is interesting to note that, on being released from internment, Martha joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), and worked for a munitions factory in London, thus effectively aligning herself with the British war effort.
"Following their two very different sets of wartime experiences, the two sisters were reunited in 1950 and remained in regular contact thereafter. Both had experienced loss: Viktoria’s husband was reported missing and presumed killed in action, while Martha’s husband had lost his entire family in the Holocaust. Significantly, Winckler records that these were areas that remained largely undiscussed by the sisters after the war.
"Other aspects of the sisters’ life histories were certainly recounted, however, and it is these that form the basis of Two Sisters. As a child, Winckler had often visited her great-aunt in her Sussex house, and had become familiar with her wartime stories. Martha died in 1976 but her sister Viktoria has recorded onto tape both her own wartime experiences in Berlin and also, at Winckler’s instigation, her attempts to recreate Martha’s internment. These contemporary recordings of Viktoria’s make up part of the sound installation in the ‘Two Sisters’ exhibition, combined with recordings of Martha’s voice, taped in the 1960s that Winckler came across by chance. The two sets of recordings are interwoven with one another as are the sounds of a third element, the sea, which can be seen both as separating and linking the two women throughout the Second World War. In addition, a poignant recording of a Yiddish song by the German-Jewish refugee Johanna Metzger-Lichtenstern, interned at the same time as Martha (though probably not known to her), adds a further historical and artistic dimension to the sound work.
"The inclusion of sound at the very heart of the exhibition serves to highlight the fragmentary nature of memory and experience, as do the isolated objects from the lives of Martha and Viktoria that Winckler has selected. Martha’s favourite and slightly battered red slippers, for example, are a powerful evocation of a past life. And the handkerchief upon which she embroidered the sites of her internment is evocative not merely in a personal sense but also constitutes a significant historical artefact. What gives Winckler’s work as a photographer its unique stamp is above all the historical and anthropological dimensions to her work: employing a variety of photographic techniques, she blends family photographs, for instance, with contemporary images as well as with archive material. Martha’s handkerchief, to take one very striking example, serves as the surface onto which Winckler projects combined contemporary and archival images of the Isle of Man, thereby effectively merging past and present. Similarly her images of Berlin, frequently taken from moving trains, reflect on one level her grandmother’s employment with the railway, on a second the chaos her grandmother experienced in wartime Berlin, and on a third the synchronous deportations of Jews and others.
"Thus, through the interweaving of image, document, object and sound, Winckler has succeeded in creating a remarkably timeless tribute to her grandmother and great-aunt, while at the same time locating the two women temporally – or rather positioning them on a kind of temporal continuum. Indeed, depending on the direction followed through the exhibition, the visitor is offered more than one temporal pathway: one leads from past to present though another, alternative, route points from present to past. Such an approach both transcends the merely historical and proves illuminating to the historian. ‘Two Sisters’ offers an example of an artist at work with history and memory in such a way as to elucidate the past lives of individual family members while also imbuing them with universal relevance."
(Charmian Brinson; Imperial College London; 30 December 2007)
Two Sisters received support from the Canada Council for the Arts. It was exhibited, in 2004, in the main exhibition space at Manx Museum (Douglas, Isle of Man, British Isles) as well as the Mediatheque Francois Mitterand (Poitiers, France). For each exhibition, the gallery space was transformed into a circular journey, challenging the visitors’ understanding of linear time and life narrative. A sound room was built in the centre of the gallery where sound bled into the whole space. Through the use of sound, photographs and objects, the emotions of past wars jut into the present. The layout, the immediacy of sound, stillness of the photographs and objects on display intended to engage visitors through an evocation of feelings and senses.
To coincide with the Manx exhibition, a one-day conference on 'Living with the Wire: a Female Perspective' took place. Prof Charmian Brinson (Imperial College, London) and Yvonne Cresswell (Curator, Social History, Manx National Heritage) discussed themes raised by the work. To coincide with the Two Sisters exhibition at the Mediatheque Francois Mitterand in Poitiers, an evening program included a presentation by Prof Marc Charpentier called: 'Berlin: ville de memoire et de creation: le contexte de Deux Soeurs' , which addressed the context of the Two Sisters project.
An Exhibition Catalogue was produced by Manx Museum, Douglas and a French exhibition leaflet was produced by the Mediatheque Francois Mitterand, Poitiers.
"Wim Wenders, Jean-Michel Palmier and Julia Winckler have traversed Berlin and its past. They have searched for traces of a bygone time, their journeys and search in the footsteps of others have lead them to discover haunting memories. Their art, as a filmmaker, a writer, and a photographer respectively; an their knowledge, sensibilities and sometimes even their imagination have allowed them to reconstitute, out of fragments an intimate as well as a collective memory."
(Prof Marc Charpentier, University of Poitiers on Two Sisters 2004 at the Mediatheque Francois Mitterand)
"The artist, Julia Winckler, provided a fascinating insight into the historical background behind the exhibition at the public lecture held at the Manx Museum on the previous evening. To a large and appreciative audience, Julia Winckler explained the inspiration behind the exhibition and discussed the personal journey that she had made to create it. Julia was extremely pleased to be able to talk to several people after the lecture about their own personal memories relating to the Rushen Internment Camp during the Second World War.
"Julia may have only spent the last few years working on the ‘Two Sisters’ photographic project but it is a journey that has taken her a lifetime. From her early childhood memories and conversations with her grandmother and great aunt, the ‘Two Sisters’ of the exhibition title, through to her chance discovery of an old family photograph. Julia has been making a series of journeys from Berlin, London to the Isle of Man, to find out what happened to her grandmother and great aunt during the Second World War. And the result of those journeys is the ‘Two Sisters’ exhibition and it is a journey that is still continuing.’ "The Two Sisters exhibition is a fascinating example of something that we all do... we remember stories about our families that we were told when we were young. Then we try to imagine what life was really like for the people in those photographs, lives that were as rich and varied as our own.
"Julia Winckler has taken that fascination with our personal history and the lives of our families and has succeeded in recreating and rediscovering the lives of two sisters from her own family and bringing them out of the faint shadows of the past into the 21st century."
(Yvonne Cresswell, Curator, Social History, Manx National Heritage 2004)
"Ever looked at old family photographs and wondered what stories lie behind the faces? Julia Winckler's photographic exhibition sets out to do just that, focussing on the contrasting wartime memories and experiences of two sisters, the artist's grandmother Viktoria and her great aunt, Martha. Whilst Viktoria lived and worked in Berlin throughout the Second World War, her sister Martha was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. The exhibition is a lovingly crafted artist's tribute to the lives of her relatives, as well as an intriguing history lesson on the subject of internment on the Isle of Man during the Second World War."
(Simon Barrett, www.24hourmuseum.org.uk, 2004)
"Rummaging in the attic can sometimes unearth unusual discoveries. When the photographer, Julia Winckler moved into her great aunt's house she found recordings of her singing and photographs of her family that she'd never seen. She started to ask questions about what both her German grandmother and her great aunt did during the 2nd World War. The result is an exhibition at the Manx Museum on the Isle of Man and in Poitiers in France, which recreates the extraordinary lives of two sisters caught on different sides of the English Channel when war broke out. While her grandmother, Viktoria, married a soldier, her sister Martha, who had been living in England, was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man, where she met and fell in love with a Jewish refugee, Hugo. This is a fascinating project."
(Angela Robson, BBC journalist, for Woman’s Hour, 2004)