Visual artist since March 2021Ella Ponizovsky Bergelsonhas completed a series of murals in Berlin for his latest project Present Figures. The works are site-specific interventions of "hybrid calligraphy," an artistic practice that weaves and mixes different languages and typographies. For these murals, Ponizovsky merged BergelsonYiddish, Arabica,Germanand English words in a visually appealing way. The result is a bold layering of geometric shapes with a vibrant color scheme reminiscent of neon signs and billboards.
The words that form the intricate patterns in the artworks come frompoemsVonDébora Vogel, a poet who died in 1942 during the settlement of LvivGhetto. In preparation for Present Figures, Vogel's poems, originally written in Yiddish, were translated into various languages and transcribed into their respective alphabets. The resulting texts were painted on the walls of residential buildings in three parts of the city. Reinickendorf, Spandau and Tempelhof are suburbs that are not part of the tourist routes or cultural centers normally associated with Berlin. Large format public art is rare in these areas, let alone art composed of Yiddish poetry written in Arabic script.
From the 1920s Vogel was part of a group of avant-garde young artists and intellectuals who were slowly creating a Yiddish revival. The movement for him gained momentum, not only in Eastern Europe, but also in Paris, New York and elsewhere. The group sought to make Yiddish a channel for modern, bold, and multicultural expression. But that rebirth would not happen. The untold evil unleashed during World War II ended the culture movement before it had a chance to establish itself firmly enough to survive. Throughout the 20th century, many works fell into oblivion or were only discussed in specialized circles.
But recently there was oneYiddish-inspired revivalvisual art. Present Figures is at the forefront of this boom. Born in Moscow, raised in Jerusalem and now living in Berlin, Ponizovsky Bergelson only (re)discovered Yiddish a few years ago, before that she had no particular interest in the language. But as she reconnected with her own family history, she became curious.
Ponizovsky Bergelson is the great-granddaughter of David Bergelson, a writer and contemporary of Vogel's who also wrote in Yiddish. She explains to Alma: “When I finally moved to Berlin permanently in 2016, it was the first time I really got interested in Yiddish and David Bergelson and the story of this generation trying to use it as a literary language rather than a language. language, a 'native' what it was. It grew out of this desire to find my own connection here. So I had to look back at my family that actually came through here. My grandfather grew up in Berlin and lived here until he was 14, when they moved to Moscow." As she delved into her family's past, she discovered a new creative expression.
While the connection to Bergelson was personal, his connection to Vogel was more artistic, almost intuitive. Ponizovsky Bergelson calls the experience of discovering the poetry that Vogel wrote almost a century ago a "magical" moment. He immediately connected with the work and artistic vision of his predecessor.
When writing his poems, Vogel was inspired by the visual arts; He applied principles of modernist painting, abstraction, and cubism to the text. This paralleled the concept of hybrid calligraphy that Ponizovsky Bergelson had been practicing for some time, where he applied text logic to fine art in reverse. “I felt a very strong connection to the strategy behind his decisions. Especially linguistically. I felt that his way of working and my way of working were concurrent. [...] When I discovered Vogel and how he worked, I realized that he had to use his words. So he could create a kindloop effect…She was inspired by the image and put it into words, and then I take the words and put them back into the image.
Meeting the older generation of artists and writers who dealt with the Yiddish language was a revelation for Ponizovsky Bergelson. As he reflected on his affairs, he realized that not enough had changed in the last century. Many questions and challenges from the past still seemed to shape the present: "That's when I started reading David Bergelson. I started delving into Yiddish, I tried to learn it, I tried to read it, before that I had no interest in it at all. Reading to Bergelson and Vogel, I had the feeling that less than a hundred years had passed. [In these works] everything is very provisional, everything looks like a train station, there are many migrants and refugees and it seemedNow. I feel like we had similar inspirations, similar motivations, and similar struggles."
Ponizovsky Bergelson sees Vogel and the other artists of the previous Yiddish wave as iconoclasts. Choosing this language as his medium at a time when it made little logical sense was profoundly (and implicitly) radical. Clearly, anti-Semitism was on the rise. But also, from a pragmatic and commercial point of view, what might the reading public for literature written in Yiddish look like? Limited, to say the least. For Ponizovsky Bergelson, this demonstrated that his motivations were not material or in any way indiscriminate; they were decidedly artistic and perhaps also idealistic. This notion of iconoclasm resonated with her: even before discovering this group of creatives, she always saw herself outside the normative context of the traditional art world.
As a student at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy, Ponizovsky Bergelson was no longer content with what she calls a "rigid" training in visual communication and graphic design. She would never allow rigor to become restrictive: "We couldn't use more than two fonts for a piece of work. And even then, I would immediately try to break it, break the rules, and prove to my teachers that it works. You can use 200 fonts on one image and you'll still be there." It works from a design standpoint. It comes from my natural instinct to break the rules, challenge authority, and follow my gut.” The affinity for hybrid penmanship seems to have emerged during his student days.
In murals that form "contemporary figures," the artist successfully translates the non-commercial choices of the older generation of Jewish intellectuals into visual expression. While the murals may look like advertisements at first glance, Ponizovsky Bergelson's main message is clear: "Not for sale."
"The color theme is definitely inspired by pop culture, fashion, and the 'commercial world,'" she explains. "For me, it's about using this strategy, the enlargement, this huge wall size and these vibrant colors, really vibrant colors that draw attention and nobody can ignore. But [it's not] an advertisement because there's nothing here to sale. The murals are hard to decipher or really read. You have to do some research to understand the content and what is written."
Ultimately, refusing to "sell" means not giving people what they want, because wanting is the fundamental principle of buying. In “Present Figures”, Ponizovsky Bergelson does not try to seduce the viewer into sharing his beliefs. He simply expresses a personal point of view: “For the last five years, living in Berlin, I have tried to be less of a 'good girl'. There's obviously a lot of anger and intense emotion. The color reflects that, I would even say aggressive colors.”
When asked if the anger is directed at the past or the present, he replies: "It makes no difference. If you dig below the surface, very little has changed, and perhaps only superficially. Life in Berlin seemed very bright and beautiful to me, also because of the difficult past. [I used to think] that this is really an emancipated nation because we don'tinpossible mistakes and learn now. But then eventually living here and being a part of this system... I work here, I have romantic relationships here, I have friends here, and I realized...There is still much left to do.“
The maverick spirit of the past generation is clearly an integral part of Present Figures. Just as his predecessors challenged the social and political climate of their time, Ponizovsky Bergelson comments on what he sees around him with his hybrid aesthetic. “I have been told that mixing languages is wrong. When someone speaks a language it has to be correct, you can't borrow words, even if people understand you, you still understand them.can notDo it. […] When I translate Yiddish into Arabic, there is already a statement.”
"Figures of the Present" is full of tensions: between the past and the present, between scripts and incompatible languages, between opposing cultures. And like anything filled with tension, it feels like it could snap at any moment. Ponizovsky Bergelson is not afraid of this. His rebellious spirit seems to foresee and encourage destruction.
His theme serves this attitude well. A tragedy of Yiddish culture of the last century is that much of it was lost when its authors emigrated or were killed. This transience was integrated into the murals. Ponizovsky Bergelson has an agreement with the owners of the buildings where he painted Present Figures: the murals must be painted within one year. Soon the words will disappear from the walls. “The idea behind almost all the murals I do is that they should be temporary. They are not monuments and they are not there to stay.
He has used this practice on previous projects as well. Among Refugees Generation Y, completed in 2019, was another series of installations for public spaces that he painted elsewhere in Berlin. For this project, she took a phrase from David Bergelson's short story Among Refugees and repeated it over and over again. Some of these murals were painted with lime which is said to fade over time. Others were painted on ceramic tile with chipping paint. From the beginning, these pieces were intended for a short life.
Not surprisingly, brevity and destruction underpin these designs. Both Debora Vogel and David Bergelson disappeared too soon and with too much violence: Vogel at the hands of the Nazis and Bergelson in 1952 during the Stalinist massacre known historically as the Night of the Murdered Poets. And if you look at recent history, there is no place like Berlin to stage the disappearance and destruction of walls.
Although these interventions do not stay long where they were originally created, they soon reappear in other places. After “Among Refugees Generation Y” and now that the current murals “Current Figures” are finished, Ponizovsky Bergelson leaves for Krakow. In Poland he will create another series of murals, again based on the hybrid calligraphy of Vogel's poems. The project is planned for May of this year. She sees this series of murals, painted in different places and cities, as "stops on the same route."
Next year he has his sights set on Marseille, another hotbed of hybridity and cultural and linguistic tensions. In France, she hopes to look beyond her own heritage and engage with other cultures that have challenged established narratives and been marginalized due to this historical nonconformity. It will certainly be exciting to see how and where Ponizovsky Bergelson's future projects pop up, and what up-and-coming acts he attempts next.