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Carina Bukuts on Georges Perec’s Ellis Island

‘At the first site, the freedom of the United States of America is honoured; at the second, the history of its immigrants is conserved’

Georges Perec with Robert Bober, Ellis Island, 1995. Courtesy: The New Press 

Georges Perec with Robert Bober, Ellis Island, 1995. Courtesy: The New Press 

Monuments are built to honour, memorials to remember and museums to conserve. In the Upper New York Bay, the Statue of Liberty stands just a stone’s throw away from Ellis Island. At the first site, the freedom of the United States of America is honoured; at the second, the history of its immigrants is conserved. In 1978, director Robert Bober and writer Georges Perec ventured into the bay to shoot a short film about Ellis Island, which, between 1892 and 1954, acted as a gateway for 12 million immigrants travelling to the US. While the resulting documentary, Ellis Island Revisited: Tales of Vagrancy and Hope, was broadcast on French television two years later, it was not until many years after Perec’s death that the distinctive literary qualities of the film script were discovered.

Authored by Perec and titled Ellis Island (1995), the script combines poetry with prose and literary quotation with empirical fact, employing the hybridity of text to reflect upon the very concept of integration. While exploring the island – its history, its buildings, its leftovers – Perec pays particularly close attention to the absence: ‘How to understand what is not shown, what has not been photographed, archived, exhibited?’ He identifies Ellis Island as a non-place, an isle of tears, and reveals Emma Lazarus’s metaphor of America’s ‘golden door’, which is emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, to be little but a false promise. 

Carina Bukuts is a writer and curator based in Berlin, where she works as the frieze Publishing Trainee. She is the co-founder of the online magazine PASSE-AVANT.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019
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