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The Agencies We Need

11th CEI Venice Forum for Contemporary Art Curators

Theme: The Agencies We Need

The Synagogue at Babyn Yar:

There Will Be Singing 

By Lera Kotsyuba

Winner of the Young Critics Award 2024!

Exhibition Title: The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a Shared Dream of Good
Exhibition Location: The Koffler Centre, Toronto, Canada
Client: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation
Architects and Project Team: Manuel Herz, Maxim Gabai, Ben Olschner, Isabella Pagliuca, Angeliki Giannisi
Curator: Robert Jan van Pelt
Exhibition Produced and Installed: Douglas Birkenshaw
Photography: Iwan Baan, Maxim Dondyuk, Edward Burtynsky
Status: Completed April 2021


To make an exhibition without its central object is a difficult premise, but such is the nature of an exhibition about a building. A structure activated by the presence of people, with wood construction that recalls the long history of the local material, unfolding to reveal the splendor of colour within. 


"Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a Shared Dream of Good" (April 17th - Jan 30th, 2024) unfolded at the Koffler Centre in Toronto, Canada, like a storybook itself. Without shying away from the weight of the history of the site, curator Robert Jan van Pelt and architect Manuel Herz bring the site alive through different periods of its history, from historical aerial photographs, contemporary poetry, community interviews, historical literature, taking the visitor through all stages of construction by photography and video, all tied to the current war in Ukraine, with Russian shelling narrowly missing destroying the newly completed structure in February 2022, while targeting the radio tower nearby. Taking the visitor through three pivotal moments in time of the site itself, the curation of the exhibition nevertheless impresses upon visitors that time, like the exhibition itself, is cyclical.


The initial entry into the gallery space directly confronts the massacre of September 29th and 30th, 1941 with aerial photographs of the site, from a black triangular shape on a large scale photograph marking the Babyn Yar ravine, a wound amidst the black and white topography. Another dark map shows the ravine in red superimposed against the modern development of the site, the red of a continued wound against the thin, precise lines of modern city mapping. Murmured voices draw you to an alcove that hosts a film that speaks to the suppressed history of the massacre, where 30 000 Jewish residents were told to appear at the site and were subsequently murdered. This history was suppressed by the Soviet regime, and although there were war memorials built, to the POW’s, Orthodox priests, the purposeful unnaming of the Jewish community lingered like a spectre to the present day.  


Commissioned by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Foundation, the research and community consultation of architect Manuel Herz sought to take inspiration from hope rather than desolation, and to create something for the Jewish community that continues to reside in Kyiv, Ukraine. Commissioned by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Committee, the video continues to tell of the transformation from the initial idea of a monument to a structure that reflects the hopes and lives of the community. In the words of curator Robert Jan van Pelt, “To show the life of Jewish people, not just their death.” Before WWII, Ukraine was the heartland of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, because Jewish people were not allowed to live within 100km of a major city. 


Taking inspiration from the siddur, a book of prayer, the wooden structure opens and unfolds then closes when not in use, like a pop-up storybook. The exhibition itself mirrors this motif with the walls of the gallery wrapped with the exterior of the building, and the trees and landscape of the site, a moment of magical transportation from Toronto to Kyiv. Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk and Ukrainian-Canadian Edward Burtynsky collaborated on the photography to capture the evocative mood of the wooden structure. Painted by Ukrainian artist Galina Andrusenko, the Babyn Yar Synagogue connects through history to the unique tradition of western Ukrainian wooden synagogues, albeit all destroyed, to their dense ornament and elaborate interiors, which served as inspiration, with the playful Bestiario book showing the hand painted birds and beasts, with references to buildings now lost.


From video showing the consideration of the land of the site, with special attention paid to disturb the ground as little as possible, to pop-up book inspiration, to poetry and writings about Jewish history at the site and a few liturgical objects, a long table is filled with a wealth of information and references that show the cultural legacy of the community as well as the building itself, that is once again living and thriving at the site. 


The cultural legacy of Jewish life is unfolded by the long sweeping table to the left of the gallery, enveloped by the surrounding walls and photos of the walls of the synagogue and its bright, hopeful presence itself manifest in the space. Walking amongst books and liturgical objects, gazing outward at the trees in winter that stand on the site of violence but is intentionally driven beyond the past into the present, with photographs from the bombing of the radio tower in 2022, yet toward a hopeful future as the walkways lead you to the painted mural photographs, as if the building itself is comforting you. 


Bisecting the gallery space is a wooden wall with small framed photographs of the construction, completion, and use of the synagogue, with the opposite side depicting the forestry and landscape of the ravine and surrounding space.  As well as the metro station that is filled with the structures of everyday life, kiosks and park benches, and people going about their day. The bisecting wall gives a period of reflection to the space, showing that although it was the grounds of a massacre, today it is both a sacred site, as well as one of everyday life. Rather than ignored, or being trapped at a particular moment, the Babyn Yar Synagogue is part of a flourishing community in the middle of the city. Rather than purely a somber place of memory, it can also be one of joy.


This tension is carried into the 10:1 scaled architectural model, which was saved and sent to Toronto amidst the current war, fleeing by train into Poland, then making its way by plane to Canada. The working model stands against the backdrop of the winter forest, trees dark against the snow, but the shining sun comes through to illuminate the forest that seemingly envelops the visitor and architectural model together. Although the model can be operated like the real life structure, it stands static in place, opened to reveal the beauty and polychromatic joy of the interior.  Birds and beasts dance along the scrollwork in bright yellows, reds, greens and blues, reminiscent of the magical wonder of a popup storybook, filled with wondrous details the reader is eager to discover. 


The final structure in the gallery is the turning night sky and painted constellations, where the visitor is invited to lay back in a circular bench and gaze at the projected constellations of September 29th, 1941 transform into the painted stars and flowers on the ceiling of the synagogue, as poetry is read aloud through a recording, and the words dance along the borders of the sky as they would on the interior of the architectural structure, to remind the visitor of the cyclical nature of time and human history. 


Yet consider, a Jewish visitor may take in the exhibition right to left, following the reading tradition of Hebrew. With this, the exhibition changes from the macrocosmic wonder of the sky, its constellations of September 29th, 1941 transforming to the stars and flowers of the painted sky of the interior of the synagogue. Next the magical wonder in small scale of the architectural model, and the enveloping contemplation of the forest is slowly broken by the photographs of the site coming to life, populated by people, and in crossing the boundary of the wooden wall, the synagogue is activated with people in photographs, and brought to life by the panoramic photographs on the gallery walls, as you take in the literature, video, and objects that tell the story of its history and creation. 


This dual reading of the exhibition is intentional, linking the visitor with not only the site and space of the Babyn Yar Synagogue, but also the people that form the community. The cyclical nature of events is mirrored by the layout of the gallery, the exhibition holding space for forgotten truths and embodying a place of memory and remembrance, while always looking towards the future. The exhibition is ambitious in bringing together disparate elements of architecture, design, and art that harmoniously come together in the end, from a nightmare of evil to a shared dream of good, like the storybook intended.

Thank you to Trieste Contemporanea for organizing and hosting the 11th CEI Forum!

A video recording of this presentation is forthcoming.


11th CEI Venice Forum for Contemporary Art Curators




April 19th, 2024

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