Emily Hass: mass displacement and the poetry of architecture

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

Although global in scope, Hass’s work is rooted in New York City, 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 via Zoom with infectious enthusiasm. ‘I want my inspiration with me in the [studio] space. I do warm-ups with building blocks and toys and just play for a while.

Hass, who holds graduate degrees in psychology and design from Harvard University, uses architectural codes to explore humanity’s sense of place. ‘Tome, [psychology and design] are inextricable. We are influenced by our environment and we express ourselves in our spaces. Her long list of artist influences includes Gordon Matta-Clark, Mike Nelson, Lygia Clark (notably her architectural “creatures”), Lygia Pape, Fred Sandback, Eva Hesse (her fearlessness and shared history with Hass’ father, who also escaped the Nazis in Germany), Doris Salcedo and Zarina Hashmi.

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

Hass’ material palette is diverse and symbolic. His works on paper – often using ink, gouache, nails and string – are intricate, spectral representations of fragmented building plans, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Other projects have involved building materials: burlap and household paint to represent the homes left behind by refugees from Syria in Berlin; and cement casts that echo the cinder block often exposed after buildings were bombed.

Architecture is a way of accessing someone’s personal history and also the history of a community or a society,” explains Hass. In 2000, she began observing the results of the construction boom in New York. When structures have been demolished, the outlines of their floors and walls remain on adjacent buildings. Through photography, collage and sewing, she has documented these architectural “ghosts” in a series titled sides in which abstract residual forms told the stories of structures that were once, a two-dimensional echo of a three-dimensional story.

Altonaer Strasse by Emily Hass, 2 sewn 42008 strands of canvas and paper, made from the architectural archives of the former residence of Anne (née Berger) and Bernhard Hass

In 2006, Hass focused on her own family history: her Jewish father, Gerald Hass, had fled Berlin in 1938 under threat of Nazi persecution. The artist traveled to Berlin to conduct research in the city’s Landesarchiv (architectural archive). She located the original plans for the demolished building on Altonaer Strasse where her father once lived, and used them as the basis for her works. These pieces, mostly in gouache on old, found and sometimes damaged paper, sought to “acknowledge the loss of this property both as a historical fact and as a trauma of displacement”.

What began as a deeply personal project would soon grow in breadth and depth and form the building blocks of an ongoing series. Hass continued to research the Landesarchiv archives from the 1930s, uncovering 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 Solomon. As Hass explains in his new monograph Exiles: ‘I used the architectural archives to make visible the lives abandoned under duress. House by house, I have documented the profound cultural loss that Berlin suffered following the purges orchestrated by the Third Reich, a loss of both individual citizens and a creative tradition.

Works inside Hass’s studio, including kites2021 (photo on black wall, top), maple studs, nails. kites is part of new work Hass is developing that deals with forced migration and displacement, and is a collaboration with Jim Vercruysse, a cabinetmaker from Martha’s Vineyard

In 2016, after ten years of exploring the lives of exiles during World War II, Hass’s focus shifted. She began to draw connections between the persecution of Jews and a more contemporary crisis. Berlin had once been a place to flee. It is now a destination for migrants – especially those from Syria – to flee to or through. In 80 years, the city had transformed from a place of peril, trauma and exodus into a haven of safety, but still at the heart of the plight of those seeking refuge.

Hass began volunteering at Flughafen Tempelhof, a disused airport turned into Berlin’s largest refugee camp. She engaged in conversations with its inhabitants. They described their houses, 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 away this piece of paper,’ I found it incredible and poetic.’ recalls Hass. Although her family background has informed her approach to issues related to displacement, exile and the plight of refugees, she advances slightly. “I don’t want to appropriate someone else’s experience,” she says.

Above: Hass photographed with Transom, birch plywood 2021, mural, a collaboration with Jim Vercruysse. Above: Works inside the artist’s studio in New York, including Kite Setup2021, maple dowels, gesso, nails (siding wall)

The search then took her to Athens where she met people and organizations involved in the resettlement of refugees. Many refugees have arrived in Europe via Greece via perilous water crossings, a subject Hass probes in the recent series forms of water (2021), a series of geometric plywood shapes that Hass placed at the water’s edge on Martha’s Vineyard and filmed. Evoking makeshift boats, the fragments broke up and reunited in different compositions, all at the mercy of the sea.

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

“While we lived together in isolation, my father began (uninvited) to reflect on the parallels between the dislocations caused by the coronavirus and his own childhood displacement,” Hass recalled in Exiles.

Flensburger Strasse, 11 front2011 gouache on vintage paper (framed work) made from the architectural archives of the former residence of Kurt Weill

His work distills lost moments like these, which are fractured, fragmented and reassembled into something universal and transgenerational. Although deeply personal, Hass’s work is not prescriptive; it leaves room for external interpretation so that others can inhabit these voids with their own experiences.

“A lot of the stuff I work on is pretty devastating. There are times when I’m like, ‘why am I taking this?’ says Hass, who also explores fears of future mass displacement due to climate change. “But I come away with more hope and more impressed with humanity and our ability to carry on. I learned this from my father and his attitude towards what he escaped.

For Hass, the complex and multifaceted human need for home is not a matter of nostalgia or comfort. It’s about how the loss of a sense of belonging leaves a gaping hole in our ability to thrive as humans. The loss of a place represents a deeply personal wound, and the massive displacement is a fracture of an entire collective identity. She uses architecture and buildings as a language, as a storytelling device for the movement of people and what they leave behind. She discovers stories of trauma, but also stories of strength. §

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