Berkeley artist to display installation at Buchenwald

Like many Jewish children, Berkeley artist Lisa Kokin watched grisly Holocaust films in religious school. They horrified her so much she blocked out what she saw.

"I just drew a dark shade over it and said, `No more of this. I can't cope. I can't take this in,'" she recalls.

Then in 1989, Kokin was touring Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum when she entered a room filled with Holocaust artifacts. The memorabilia, particularly a partially burned Torah and a concentration camp jacket, affected her dramatically, awakening the part of her that had once turned away from the Holocaust.

Kokin — who was already an established artist — began avidly studying the Shoah and in 1990 started work on her own personal memorial. That work, a room-size installation titled "Remembrance," will soon be shipped to the German concentration camp Buchenwald, where it will become part of the permanent collection at the memorial museum there.

"It's one of the most significant works I've done to this point," says the 40-year-old Kokin, who holds a master's degree from Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts.

"It's a great honor" to have the work displayed in an actual camp, where the sort of dramas took place that inspired "Remembrance," she says.

The installation comprises 10 jackets and 10 sacks fashioned of animal gut, a material that native peoples of Alaska have used for centuries to create functional items.

The gut "has a very translucent, eerie quality that makes it very appealing," she says.

That eerie quality pervades "Remembrance," which has been displayed at the Magnes Museum, the Gallery Concord in Concord, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and a cultural center on Staten Island. The jackets in the installation hang from the ceiling on black wire, and are striped with blue ink to resemble concentration camp uniforms. The stitching is crude; the cuffs are engraved with numbers.

The 10 sacks, meanwhile, are two feet high, stuffed full, streaked with dirt. They sit about the floor in a random pattern and are meant to be less literal than the jackets. Kokin says she has asked visitors viewing the exhibition what they think the sacks represent. Were they "the sacks that [Holocaust victims] packed at the last minute when they had to leave," for instance; or are they "sacks of bones, sacks of dust"?

Kokin, who primarily works in sculpture, installation and mixed media, often uses everyday objects to evoke memories of New York, where her parents ran an upholstery business and her grandmother worked in a tie factory.

A number of her works have dealt with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In her installation "Unearthings," for example, shovels are set upright in clumps of earth, each with a different anti-Semitic epithet written on it. "Tales of a Nice Jewish Girl" consists of a series of self-revealing journals about growing up Jewish in America.

Still, of all Kokin's Jewish-related works, "Remembrances" remains particularly close to her heart. She plans to visit Germany in April to oversee assembly of the installation and to attend the 51st anniversary celebration of Buchenwald's liberation.

To help fund the trip — which along with shipping, customs and insurance for the installation she estimates will cost about $15,000 — Kokin has received partial sponsorship from a San Francisco nonprofit through which donors' contributions aid artists.

"I feel I need to make the journey on the emotional and personal level," Kokin says, "and on the artistic level, to make sure that my work looks its best."