NINA LEVITT at the Koffler Gallery (4588 Bathurst), to April 18. 416-636-1880 ext 268. Rating: NNNN
Nina Levitt uses the tools of installation art to craft a stirring you-are-there experience of the women who spied for the Allies in World War II.
Her intriguing show Thin Air takes as its subjects Vera Atkins, the only woman handler in the British Secret Service, and the better-known Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian who returned to Europe from the relative safety of Palestine to spy for British intelligence and was executed by the Gestapo.
In the departure room, a group of sound-equipped suitcases sits behind a metal Quonset hut. A snippet of Atkins recounting wartime experiences plays from each case when lifted.
Though the suitcases bring up loaded Holocaust associations, the elderly but still jaunty voice of Atkins, who took her mother’s name to conceal her father’s Jewishness, provides calm, competent reassurance.
Black-and-white period footage screening on the hut’s door is overlain by oscilloscope-type lines that change when the suitcases are opened.
Spy-like peepholes in the hut give a view of more film, putting you at a historical distance, and a projection on the wall lists the dates of the era’s full moons (when planes could drop spies undetected).
The arrival room is dominated by a white parachute periodically inflated by fans. Brave quotes from Senesh’s diary are projected, and one wall holds documents from her British Secret Service file. Disturbingly, they deal with compensation payments to her family in Palestine after her death. The seeming coldness of these communications may reflect wartime necessity, and the material can’t help but recall the conflict’s millions of uncompensated deaths.
Senesh’s identity photo shows a round-faced, unglamorous girl, a moving reminder that many heroes were ordinary folk who didn’t look like Cate Blanchett.
Not to diminish the undeniable courage of Atkins, Senesh and their sisters or the power of Levitt’s installation, but today, when women participate in running places like Abu Ghraib, is it too easy to focus on the moral certainties of the Second World War era?