Radio Tower 1, 2008. Steel, lights, and relay electronics, 34.1 x 9 x 9 ft.

Nina Levitt: Re-presenting Enigmatic Women

Inspired by the heroic women who worked in intelligence during the Second World War, Nina Levitt has produced a trilogy of related works, beginning with Little Breeze (2002–04), an installation based on Camp X, a secret wartime facility for training intelligence officers in Oshawa, Ontario. From this work, she has expanded her project into two related, but distinct installations, Thin Air (Koffler Centre, 2008) and Relay (Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2008). A Quonset hut, some suitcases, simulated transmission towers, and a parachute all signify time and place, calling up memory and emotion, which become amplified by an onslaught of facts coaxed from recalcitrant archival material, written accounts, and the memories of participants. Through research and artistry, Levitt presents a narrative that gives voice to women who have either been mythologized or completely overlooked in accounts of WWII intelligence operations.

Relay sheds light on Hydra, a many-headed tranmitting antenna that communicated coded information between Rockefeller Center, Camp X, and Bletchley Park in England. A monumental steel tower immediately confronted visitors at the RMG entrance, reaching to the atrium skylight and implicitly beyond. The Arthur Erik­son-designed building played a key role in Levitt’s installation, blurring distinctions between art and architecture. Continuing within, more towers and a Quonset hut dominated the spaces. One wall held a canvas enlargement of the panel from a Camp X radio, its worn knobs and well-aged surface offering mute testimony to many messages sent and received. Tuning knobs and jacks show their age, the meter glass clouded over like elderly eyes and the old 1940s RCA logo an earmark for time and place. Scattered about were vintage suitcases containing electronic devices that activated various audio and visual components. Latched and leather-bound, these evocative time capsules were mustily redolent of old movies and years spent in attics and basements.

In Levitt’s installations, viewers become agents, picking up the cases in order to activate transmissions that vary in each instalment. Little Breeze focuses on Violette Szabo, code-named “Louise”; the title plays on Maurice Chevalier singing “every little breeze seems to whisper Louise.” Lifting the lid of a suitcase initiates the projection of a clip from a postwar film about Szabo, her face dissolving into the features of other female spies. In Thin Air, audio clips from an interview with Vera Atkins are emitted. In Relay, visitors open the cases, expose their inner mechanisms to light, and in so doing, send messages into another gallery space, where, in cryptic telegraph style, a ribbon of text streams across a slide projection showing images of women doing war work. In stark contrast to the still images, the band of telegraph text slowly moves across the screen, telling the fate of one woman. Levitt has deliberately slowed down the moving image in order to mimic the action of an actual telegraph and to emphasize the gravity of the message.

The narrative is heart-wrenching. Viewers learn that Vera Leigh, a courier in France, was arrested in a Paris café, interrogated, tortured, and killed by injection; that Diana Rowden delivered messages by bike in France, was betrayed by a double agent, and killed by injection at the Natzweiler concentration camp in July 1944. She was 29. Another woman was executed by firing squad at age 30. By the end of the exhibition, some of the valises are silent, their inner workings exhausted, batteries dead, mute, and ironically imitating some of the stories that Levitt worked so hard to unearth.

Levitt’s research included e-mailing with former Bletchley Park radio operator David White. Their correspondence appears on wall-mounted panels, providing a firsthand account of White’s work in England where he received messages from the Oshawa relay. Filtered through decades of memory, he recalls that no women worked at Camp X. Other sources contradict this information. …see the entire article in the print version of October’s Sculpture magazine.