Emily Hass: Mass displacement and the poetry of architecture

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What does it mean to feel at home? What does it mean to lose it? Such questions about displacement and exile characterize the practice of the New York-based artist Emily Hass and are also woven into the fabric of her family history.

Hass’ work, while global, is based in New York, where she works from her studio on Avenue A near Tompkins Square. “There’s something about the energy of Manhattan that’s part of my job,” she says of Zoom with infectious enthusiasm. “I want my inspiration with me in the [studio] Place. I warm up with blocks and toys and just play for a while.”

Hass, who has degrees in psychology and design from Harvard University, uses architectural codes to explore the human sense of place. ‘Me, [psychology and design] are inseparable. We are influenced by our surroundings and express ourselves in our spaces.” Her long list of artistic influences includes Gordon Matta-Clark, Mike Nelson, Lygia Clark (particularly her architectural “critters”), Lygia Pape, Fred Sandback, Eva Hesse ( her fearlessness and her shared history with Hass’ father, who also fled Nazi Germany), Doris Salcedo and Zarina Hashmi.

Portrait of Emily Hass in her Atelier Avenue A with Water Shape Canvas, 2021 (left) and String Nail composition, 2021 (back)

The material palette of Hass is diverse and symbolic. Her works on paper—often using ink, gouache, nails, and string—are intricate, ghostly representations of fragmented blueprints, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Other projects included building materials: burlap and house paint to represent houses left behind by refugees who came to Berlin from Syria; and cement casts, reflecting the cinder block that is often uncovered after buildings have been bombed.

“Architecture is a path into a person’s personal history and also into the history of a community or society,” explains Hass. In 2000, she began observing the aftermath of the New York construction boom. When buildings were demolished, the outlines of their floors and walls were preserved on the adjacent buildings. Through photography, collage and stitching, she documented these architectural “ghosts” in a series called pages in which abstracted wasted forms told the stories of earlier structures, a two-dimensional echo of a three-dimensional story.

Emily Hass’ Altonaer Straße, 2 sewn 42008 Canvas strands and paper, made according to the archival architectural documents of the former home of Anne (née Berger) and Bernhard Hass

In 2006 Hass turned to her own family history: Her Jewish father Gerald Hass had fled from Nazi persecution in Berlin in 1938. The artist traveled to Berlin to do research in the state archive there. She found the original plans of the demolished building on Altonaer Strasse where her father once lived and used them as the basis for her artwork. These pieces, mostly gouache on old, found and sometimes damaged paper, attempted “to acknowledge the loss of this property as both a historical fact and a trauma of displacement”.

What began as a deeply personal project would soon grow in breadth and depth, forming the building blocks of an ongoing series. Hass continued to research the state archive records from the 1930s and uncovered the homes and workplaces of persecuted artists and intellectuals, including Josef and Anni Albers, Marta Löffler and Lion Feuchtwanger, Else Ury, Walter Benjamin, Lyonel Feininger and Charlotte Salomon. As Hass explains in her new monograph exiles: “I have used the archived architectural records to visualize the lives given up under duress. House by house, I documented the profound cultural loss Berlin suffered from the Third Reich-orchestrated purges, a loss of both individual citizens and a creative tradition.’

Works in Hass’ studio, including dragon2021 (shown on black wall, above), maple dowels, nails. dragon is part of new work developing Hass, which explores forced migration and displacement, and is a collaboration with Jim Vercruysse, a carpenter on Martha’s Vineyard

In 2016, after ten years of researching the lives of people living in exile during World War II, Hass’ focus shifted. She began to make connections between the persecution of the Jews and a more contemporary crisis. Berlin was once a place of refuge. It is now a destination for migrants – particularly from Syria – to flee to or through them. In 80 years, the city had transformed from a place of peril, trauma and exodus to a safe haven that is still at the heart of the plight of those seeking refuge.

Hass began his volunteer work at Tempelhof Airport, a disused airport turned into Berlin’s largest refugee camp. She chatted with the residents. They described their homes, sometimes drew them, and shared photos. She recalls a conversation with a young Syrian architect whose brother had been killed and whose parents remained in war-torn Syria. “She said, ‘I can’t look at pictures from home, but when I feel like I’m losing that connection, I draw it. Then I throw the piece of paper away,’ I found unbelievable and poetic.’ hate remembers. Although her family experience has shaped her approach to issues surrounding displacement, exile and the plight of refugees, she comes across as lighthearted. “I don’t want to borrow the experience of others,” she says.

Above: Hass pictured with Transom, 2021 birch plywood wall paint, a collaboration with Jim Vercruysse. Above: Works in the artist’s New York studio, below kite configuration2021, maple dowels, gesso, nails (front wall)

Her research then took her to Athens, where she met individuals and organizations involved in refugee resettlement. Many refugees entered Europe via Greece via dangerous water crossings, a theme hatred explores in the latest series water forms (2021), a series of plywood geometric shapes that Hass placed and filmed on the shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Reminiscent of makeshift boats, the fragments shattered and reassembled in different compositions, all at the mercy of the sea.

When Covid-19 struck, Hass moved in with her father – now in his late 80s – on Martha’s Vineyard. There she set up an ad hoc studio in her late mother’s pottery workshop. “It was really meaningful to be with her memories and her spirit, but also to have a job during those many months. I was forced to work outside. I wanted to work bigger and also embrace the place, just be in nature and think beyond the studio,” she says.

“As we lived together in isolation, my father (unprompted) began to think about the parallels between the dislocations caused by the coronavirus and his own childhood displacement,” recalls Hass in exiles.

Flensburger Strasse, facade 112011 Gouache on vintage paper (framed work) based on the architectural archive documents of Kurt Weill’s former home

Her work distills lost moments like these, which are broken, fragmented and reassembled into something universal and trans-generational. Though deeply personal, Hass’ work is not prescriptive; it leaves room for external interpretation so that others can fill in those gaps with their own experiences.

“A lot of the subjects I work on are pretty devastating. Sometimes I ask myself, “Why am I recording this?” says Hass, who also studies fears of future mass displacement due to climate change. “But I feel more hopeful and awed by humanity and our ability to move on. I learned that from my father and his attitude towards what he was missing.”

For Hass, the complex and multifaceted human need for home is not about nostalgia or comfort. It’s about how losing that sense of home leaves a gaping hole in our ability to thrive as human beings. The loss of place represents a deeply personal wound and the mass displacement is a rupture of an entire collective identity. She uses architecture and buildings as language, as narrative devices for the movement of people and what they leave behind. She uncovers stories of trauma, but also stories of strength. §

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