Discussion between Claire Decomps and Ben Jack Nash
What follows is an extract from a conversation between Claire Decomps and the artist Ben Jack Nash which took place at his studio in Strasbourg in April 2018 in connection with the art project "Left over from the Void".
Claire Decomps is based at the MAHJ museum in Paris. She is principle curator and analyst for Jewish culture and heritage in France (a national department specifically set up under André Malraux) and for several years she worked for the Eastern French region (Le Grand Est). She is officially the only person in France with this specific expertise. Her focus covers both architectural and object based heritage, in public and private spheres covering all historical periods.
In particular they discuss how objects, artefacts and architecture whilst at the core of both their work is seen and used by them from two very distinctive viewpoints.
A full version complete with images is available in the exhibition catalogue.
Claire Decomps: The idea of what is ‘heritage’ is
one which has greatly developed over the years,
even since I have been working in this department.
For example, when I started my job we were already
interested in rural situated architecture and heritage
but only up to 1850. Today, our research covers everything
up to the present day. We also introduced new
fields such as industrial and material heritage. My field
has significantly evolved and continues to do so.
Ben Jack Nash: Its not only a building which forms
part of heritage but also the objects which are found
within them. For me one informs the other - space
and objects are physically connected on the one hand
and symbolically on the other but equally through
their connection with memory. How, in your work do you
distinguish between what is defined as architecture and
what is defined as object?
CD: The object/architecture distinction is not always
obvious. In a synagogue for example, an ark of the
covenant made from stone is embedded into the architecture.
Are the foundation stones architecture or
object? This distinction is not fundamental in what I
do. It is important from a legal point of view - for the
purpose of conservation. In general it is considered
that if it’s attached to a building/ edifice then it is part
of the architecture. But for a study, it is not fundamental.
When we do a [site] study, we don’t separate out
architecture and objects as in other countries but we
study the objects according to their context. For example
is a succah an object, or is this architecture?
It’s a temporary shelter for the festival of tabernacles,
what’s important is the roof, the idea that you must
be able to see the stars and not be protected from
the rain. In theory it’s really a construction but which
has a lot of modification. There are examples of lofts
which have been modified and branches put in place
of the actual roof for the period of the festival. In this
case, its semi-permanent and it is an architectural solution.
What is important in the succah is that people
must build the shelter themselves, a very temporary
shelter, and you appreciate the difficulty with living
BJN: The nineteenth century was the museums’
golden age and a symbol of state power. Many site
specific artworks were removed from their intended
place and put into museums. None of these works
were conceived for the museum space and often the
artist knew their artwork’s destination before making
it. We see this in particular with religious paintings.
As such these art museums can be seen as artifices.
Nowadays, it is far more common to find contemporary
works of art commissioned for the museum space.
Often we remember the space in which we’ve seen a
work as well as the work itself.
In ‘Les Résidus du Vide’, we see the opposite. Instead
of changing our impression of the work by putting it
in an alternative space, it changes our impression of
the space through the work. If you take it elsewhere
it loses its meaning. It is an architectural intervention
which means that the artwork / the art object has a
very direct even inseparable relationship from its
environment. For the synagogue, it is a most authentic
product whereby its authenticity lies in its uncertainties.
Its more natural to think about the object and space
not as two separate entities nor as one single entity
but as a spectrum of entities as with colour. Its more a
series of overlaps. And this spectrum contains everything
which influences our perception of the building
from the architecture to the sunlight to the objects.
These exchanges and influences in the space are not
limited to the architectural borders.
CD: For us one of the main interests is the study of
objects. In museums you don’t necessarily know the
origin of an object. We essentially study objects that
have a connection with the building where they’re
found. How did it get there and why? In relation to
Jewish heritage many objects are extremely mobile.
Its people have moved around a lot with many
upheavals throughout history. Many buildings were
destroyed and their objects were randomly dispersed.
For example in Thionville the harmonium was made in
Vermont USA which is somewhat unexpected. I often
find [in France] objects that come from North Africa,
Poland, the Hungarian Empire and of course Germany -
there’s something from everywhere. What’s interesting is
how these objects ended up where they did. There is a
whole range of analytical factors, including artistic and
the more you know about an object the more important
this can be.
BJN: I see your role as a ‘materialiser’ of objects. You
carry out a study to determine their influence, role
and importance for heritage. Effectively, before your
analysis, the object may exist only in the abstract as
something mysterious whereby its origins and functions
are little known. You are there to bring them to
light and make them understandable vis-à-vis science,
logic or witnesses to fill in the voids. I see the artist’s
role more the opposite. I also want to in a way make
the world more visible but by reinstating an abstract
dimension of the object which creates a universe of
imagination and mystery through its void. Once the
provenance of an object is explained, it becomes
difficult to think about it any other way.
CD: When talking about objects there is a very subjective
side. My work attempts to provide coherence
where there is mystery. There is very little contact with
the public in my work, but when I have the opportunity
to meet them, they teach me something about
the object. For example, I met some people who make
the bundles for Torahs; I have an historical approach,
through standards etc… but they can tell me what
meaning it has for them, knowing that this meaning
may have changed. Normally, these bundles are made
by scribes or calligraphers but here they were made
by women for their families. It was an (Ashkenazi)
tradition in the Rhine region but these women were
Sephardi, where children from a different culture fabricated
them. This knowledge around objects is still
BJN: I have never created a work which has a practical
function. It’s more the form, relationship with light,
limits of the material and aura which I undertake to
communicate. The practical function of the object has
very little value for me.
CD: In Jewish culture, function takes precedence over
form. It is a culture of books and the written word but
which carries little importance regarding form and material.
Every time, it is an adaptation according to the
conditions of the location. What will define an object
as Jewish is its use. But the same object could well
be used differently in another context. We see this
in the synagogue in Reichshoffen - the basin which
was part of a bain-marie or the candelarbre which was
partly made from the bases of sewing machines. The
question I always ask myself is what is the object’s
purpose. For example, a cup could have a number
of different functions. Fortunately, there is often a biblical
inscription or a document from the donator to
understand it’s function. If there is nothing to go on,
I will try to understand how it was used. Many jewish
objects, in synagogues, were donated within the
community…If I see an object outside of its context, I
don’t study it. But I have seen Christian chalices used
as a kiddush cup.
BJN: In contemporary art, the usual things which help
define an object as an ‘artwork’ have become more
interchangeable and harder to separate out. Namely,
the maker, its environment, the subject, the process,
the material, the curator the spectator and the exhibition
space. These overlaps make the artwork less
visible and identifiable from its time and space compared
to more traditional distinctions. The work can
be the sum total of multiple objects. The art object
then requires more context and indications, such as
those contained in your studies, in order for it to be
defined as an artwork. I think that archaeologists will
find it harder in the future to identify today’s artworks!
CD: Objects move around and this is complicated. In
the case of Reichshoffen, certain objects by themselves
would not carry much interest but it is its totality
which makes it coherent. What really moved me, as it
is very illuminating on 19th century Jewish Alsace, is
all the homemade DIY objects. These recycling of objects
are characteristic of the jewish world. Here, we
find many objects from the De Dietrich foundry. This
is most interesting and unexpected which shows this
relationship with the object which is very different to
what you find in a church.
The object has a presence which imposes itself on
you, even if it is disturbing and you do not wish to find
it there. The object will be far stronger than archive
documents or discussion. Often the objects we work
on are under valued even looked down on. It’s rarely
the case in Jewish heritage that there is an affective
attachment to an object. We try to find this interest in
objects for their owner. Here you could say we have
an educational role.
BJN: For me the loss in certainty of an artwork corresponds
to the loss of certainties in society and of
our perceptions of space and time. Their limitations
over the last hundred years have moved faster than
in any other period of human history. Identity loses
its familiarity which provides us with comfort and security.
Sociologically, the same goes for people as it
does for objects. We are seeing the political consequences
of this now. We are being moved towards
more extremism to reinforce a less visible centre.
The uncertainty surrounding this building’s function
as a synagogue is one of the things which struck me
on my first visit, it was if you like a confused identity.
You have to pay greater attention to the detail to avoid
being fooled by its chapel like outline. It also carries
a presence of permanence whilst being discreet and
CD: The synagogue is oriented towards Jerusalem
and this creates a problem with regards its visibility.
We see the lateral facade, the compass determines
the positioning of the synagogue. It is a large synagogue
with great quality. It is lucky not to have been
destroyed and burnt down during the second world
war. It is in good condition. Early synagogues closely
resembles churches or temples. Here, it is noticeably
discreet. This is an Alsatian trend which you don’t see
in Lorraine or Champagne-Ardennes. It is open yet
discreet, a half-way house.
BJN: This is a phenomenon which also exists in relation
to the objects. Either their function is not at all
evident, or they are mixed up with other materials,
shapes or uses. It is clearly constructed during a moment
of transition for the jewish community. The building
carries a sense of permanence whilst its uncertainties
are also very present.
CD: This solidity also speaks to something else. The
synagogue is too big in relation to the size of the village.
The period it was constructed was in the golden
age for rural Jewish communities.They were planning
for a larger community but many in fact moved away
to the city or abroad. They foresaw a future which
In 1850, it is an intermediary stage, where the Jewish
community is still perceived as other on its way
to being accepted. The larger and more visible the
building, the greater the community has become accepted.
For more information on the work of the MAHJ please visit www.mahj.org
Claire Decomps at the studio