Hostage pinball

Hostage pinball

Miriam Stern unwillingly makes art from horror

In “Choose Your Game,” onlookers can pick one of the smiling hostages. Bring them home, the artist urges. (All art by and images courtesy Miriam Stern)
In “Choose Your Game,” onlookers can pick one of the smiling hostages. Bring them home, the artist urges. (All art by and images courtesy Miriam Stern)

Each of us deals with horror differently.

That is of course deeply true of firsthand horror, cruelty or accident or heartbreak that affects us personally, if we survive it.

And it’s also true of the horror that we read about, that happens to people we know or who are like us and whose nightmare we know we can’t imagine but our minds play at imagining nonetheless.

Artists often are drawn to make art, in whatever media they use, to make sense of what they know. Each one will react to the same stimulus differently.

Miriam Stern of Teaneck is an artist who works in a variety of media — paint, print, collage, cloth, a Styrofoam head, found objects — anything. She works with photographs and uses digital media as well.

Like most Jews around the world (and many non-Jews as well), Ms. Stern was deeply affected by the medieval brutality of the October 7 massacre. Like many artists, she felt a need to expel the horror that had invaded her consciousness through art, but she did not know how. So she waited.

Or, as she put it in a written statement, “After October 7, I walked around with a dark cloud over my head. I went about my daily routine with a heaviness weighing down on me. I felt frustrated and helpless about the situation. I went to the studio, did some work, but I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. I know I was not alone in feeling that way.”

During the winter break, Ms. Stern, her husband, Rabbi Michael Chernick, and their family — 10 people in all, adults and kids — rented a house on the Jersey Shore for a shared vacation. “I had asked my kids to find something interesting that we could do nearby, and they came up with a pinball museum on the beach in Asbury Park,” she said. (To be formal, it’s called the Silverball Retro Arcade.)

“It was a gorgeous day on the boardwalk, so we went, and we went into the museum,” Ms. Stern said. “You would never in a million years get me to go to a pinball anything, much less a pinball museum. I have no interest in those kinds of games. I don’t like arcades. I don’t like any of it. So I went as an observer. I didn’t go to play.”

There was a lot for her to see. “The pinball machines are from the ’50s and ’60s,” she said. “They are fantastic. And people can play every single one of them. You pay a flat fee, by time — half a day, or by the hour — and you don’t put money in them. You just go over to them, and if there’s no one else there, you can just play it.”

So she wandered around, as an observer, looking at the very specific aesthetic presented by midcentury pinball machines, aware of the bright sunshine and ocean beauty outside, and took pictures of everything, because that, she said, is what she does. “It was so bright and colorful,” she said. “So I took pictures, but I had no idea how I’d use them.

Photographs of four hostages fill the top panels of period pinball machines in Asbury Park.

“And at one point, I said to myself, ‘The tops of these machines look like frames.’” That’s the part of the machine that includes the game’s name, in period letters, as well as the kind of art that was typical of the times but wouldn’t work very well today.

“And it was percolating in my head. What would I do with them?”

About a week later, “I went from frames to picture frames to the pictures of the hostages, and I realized that I can put the pictures of the hostages in there.

“A lightbulb went off.

“Because to their captors, it’s a game.”

She downloaded images of hostages; she chose which ones to use almost at random. She combined them with the photos of pinball machines. So far, she’s made four images in the series she calls “Pinball.”

“I used some men, some women; some young, some old,” Ms. Stern said. “But the important part is that I started really looking at their faces.

“When you see the big posters, with all of the 240 hostages, there are so many that they have to be really small, and they blur. But I started really looking at their faces, and I started to think about who they are, and it was very moving.

“It is important to realize that although I was using images, and manipulating those images, these are pictures of real people. They are not an abstraction. They are real.”

In her written statement, she discussed the idea behind her images.

More hostages beam, entirely unaware of the horrors they will encounter.

“Is a game being played with these people’s lives? Are they being knocked around like pinballs? Is there a way to win this game? Is there a scorecard of who has been released and how many more will be released in the future? Are we keeping these people in our hearts and minds, or are we forgetting them, like we would a game we have played?”

Ms. Stern is conflicted about her work.

She knows that people will have different reactions to the images. “I am ambivalent about them,” she wrote. “Because I am not a family member or a friend of any of these victims, I question whether I have the right to use their images. I wanted to depict their plight in a strong way that does not abuse them. This is a sensitive issue that I have been grappling with. But I decided to use their photos, which helps me express feelings of frustration, anxiety, and dread.

“I know these images will not change the situation and bring anyone home. But it is my scream.”

Although she knows that she might make some people angry with her work, she so deeply wants to show the victims’ faces, and to make clear the evil and extreme cynicism that has taken them hostage that she will show it.

“Making art is risky,” she wrote. “Artists never know how their work will be received and take a chance every time they show their work. Unless the artist shares it, s/he will never know what impact the art has on others. I hope I accomplished what I set out to create. God forbid if I offended anyone. That was and is not my intention. But that’s the risk I take by sharing these images.”

She wishes that it were different. But it is not.

“Most of these faces are smiling,” she said. “These are the pictures that their families have, and that they wanted to be shown.” Just as she chose photos arbitrarily, so did the kidnappers and killers pick victims. The photos over the pinball games in her art smile out at viewers, inviting them to pick them. “It is very hard to look at,” Ms. Stern said.

“I wish that these images were not necessary. I wish that I could tear them up and forget about them.” But she can’t, and neither can we.

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