Canadian artist Vera Frenkel’s installation … from the Transit Bar was originally commissioned by Jan Hoet in 1992 for documenta IX – the first edition of the exhibition after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tucked on the second floor of the Fridericianum in Kassel, this functioning lounge responded with rare prescience to the social challenges of participatory installation and the changing realities of widespread migration.
There were no regulars in Frenkel’s bar; everyone was just passing through. A bartender served shots, rather than glasses to sip; there were no dark corners to hide in for hours. The idea was that this familiar atmosphere would create open conversation amongst strangers, honouring the act and experience of displacement. In 1992, global migration was at then-record numbers; reunified Germany, on the receiving end of many newcomers, was rife with xenophobia. This resonated with Frenkel. She experienced a migratory upbringing – born in Czechoslovakia, raised in Britain and based in Canada for her adult life – and over the last 40 years has traced belonging, communication and identification through her work.
Following documenta IX, … from the Transit Bar travelled to institutions throughout Canada and Europe, before sitting in the vault at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa for 16 years. Thanks to the dedication of the gallery’s Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Jonathan Shaughnessy, and Conservator Geneviève Saulnier, it has now been restaged with all of its original components. … from the Transit Bar is resolutely ordinary: it boasts second-hand furniture, neutral paint colours and dim, functional lighting. A piano sits in the corner – visitors can use it to make their own tunes, and it is occasionally played by hired musicians. The artist chose not to hire virtuoso pianists, opting instead to have them play folk tunes and popular classics. But for all of its everyday charm, the bar is strange. There are comically theatrical elements – trench coats and suitcases are placed in corners as quintessential markers of the traveller, cardboard palm trees skirt the room’s edges and look thoroughly out of place. The walls are peppered with roughly cut apertures – windows meant to dramatize the fact that we are in a constructed space. (In the Ottawa version, you peer out – oddly – into a storage space.) Originally scaled to the Fridericianum in Kassel, the walls still echo that building’s dimensions, but have been twisted. The angular space underscores the work’s fiction: the bar is almost but not quite normal – not so different from one in a train station, for instance, but dissimilar enough to heighten awareness.
Around the room, six small monitors play testimonials from 14 new Canadian citizens, telling their experiences of migration and alienation: false panic at feeling illegal in one’s adopted country or feeling part of the nation but betraying oneself because of an accent. Their voices have been dubbed in either Polish or Yiddish – the languages of the grandparents Frenkel never knew. The monologues are then subtitled in alternating English, French and German. The resulting cacophony mimics the uncomfortable sense of uncertainty that accompanies exile or forced migration. Beyond these recorded stories, the work’s layered, ongoing narrative is built through conversations in the bar. Frenkel herself prefers to bartend when she can, meeting patrons and listening quietly.
It is this nuanced blend of comfort and discomfort that gives the installation its enduring qualities. In 1992, … from the Transit Bar struck a chord on many levels. Richard Artschwager would come play the piano and the artists of documenta IX used it as their watering hole. But beyond its social success, Irit Rogoff wrote of the work as testimony to ‘the migrant’s fundamental experience of inhabiting both strangeness and familiarity at the same time.’
… from the Transit Bar is a seminal and complex work. Frenkel’s creation of a bar as installation art pre-dated what is now known as relational aesthetics and the artists’ bars that seem to appear at every international fair and biennial. The work, however, goes beyond creating a mere space for conviviality to tease out the nature of belonging and the ways in which we situate ourselves between documentary and fictive realities. Its continued political relevance in 2014 is unsettling. Ultimately, … from the Transit Bar makes space for hospitality and what Frenkel calls ‘everyday rights,’ which are, as ever, in need of preservation.
First published in Issue 165