This new multimedia art installation in Toronto examines modern Jewish community life

A drive-in Rosh Hashanah celebration at Ontario Place in Toronto—from the exhibit, “A Peoplehood: Amiut Yehudit.” (© Marnie Salsky)

A new multimedia art installation in Toronto examines the city’s contemporary Jewish community, and the emotional impact of insidious antisemitism.

Award-winning Toronto photographer Marnie Salsky created A Peoplehood: Amiut Yehudit using two-channel video, meaning there are two videos playing at the same time, combined with observational photography and the everyday media that makes up the invisible architecture of society, such as social media, email, and newspapers.

The multimedia installation is an intimate look at the Jewish community, examining how shared collective memory can shape group identity. Themes such as belonging, community, fortitude, empowerment and antisemitism are explored in the 22-minute video presentation.

Salsky operates not only as an artist, but also as a cultural anthropologist. “I use media ephemera to situate expressions of antisemitism and contextualize the lived experience of those photographed,” said Salsky. “Observational photography, portraits and still life illustrate the community’s resilience and shared values.”

Salsky interviewed a cross-section of Jewish people aged 18 to over 80 with various levels of religious observance.

“I was interested in learning if they had ever downplayed being Jewish and if they refrained from discussing Israel in certain spaces,” said Salsky. “The participants understood they were not being identified and as a result were very candid in sharing their experiences.”

The soundscape consists of layers punctuated by a single audible voice, drawing the audience in with its word choice, rhythm, pace and emotion.

“The use of layered voices creates a ‘cocktail party’ effect,” said Salsky. “The community reflects upon aspects of identity, pride and trepidation illustrating Jews’ ever-present awareness of living as a minority community in Toronto.”

These audio and visuals are montaged in multiple ways.

“At times they support each other thematically to reinforce or emphasize certain ideas, at other moments they are juxtaposed to create tension and space, allowing the audience to arrive at meaning,” she said.

The project was three-and-a-half years in the making. Salsky’s inspiration was a series of photographs she restored some 10 years ago that documented Jewish life from the late 1890s to the 1930s in the Polish shtetl of Staszow.

“The historical photos included group portraits of sports and music clubs, street scenes of celebrations, candid images of groups of Jews wearing a variety of religious and secular garb, as well as individual portraits of townsfolk from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds,” she recalled. “The series provided a window into the diversity of everyday Jewish life in the town. As a result of the horrors of the Holocaust, by the 1940s the town was emptied of Jews. Until that time, there had been a Jewish presence in Staszow for centuries.”

Salsky contemplated the parallels to Toronto’s contemporary Jewish community.

“What stayed in my mind from this project, aside from the tragedy of knowing the fate of the town’s inhabitants, was the multivalence of Staszow’s Jewish community. Although vastly larger in size, it too is not a monolith—the lived Jewish experience is heterogeneous. The community is multifaceted and diverse with regard to its socioeconomic, cultural, religious and political affiliations.”

Salsky said the exhibit “can be challenging for audiences, yet ultimately encourages critical thinking about the subject matter.”

Marnie Salsky’s fine art photography and site-specific commissions have been exhibited in galleries and can be found in private and corporate collections. She received her training at the Toronto School of Art and is an MFA candidate in Documentary Media at Ryerson University.

A Peoplehood: Amiut Yehudit runs Aug. 4 – 29 at the Ryerson Artspace Gallery, 401 Richmond St. W. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Private showings are available.