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Mirroring Evil

Nazi Imagery/Recent Art

The Jewish Museum

Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street

March 17 to June 30, 2002

"Enfants Gâtés," detail, by Alain Séchas

"Enfants Gâtés," detail, by Alain Séchas, installation with mixed media, dimensions variable, 1997, courtesy of Galerie Jennifer Flay and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris

By Carter B. Horsley

This small exhibition at the Jewish Museum of works by 13 contemporary artists using Nazis as their subjects has created a big stir. The controversy is not so much about censorship because of the subject matter as about the appropriateness of it being shown at the Jewish Museum.

There are a few quite good works of art in the show, but much of it is rather trite and shallow sensationalism. The show, however, is completely appropriate to be shown at the Jewish Museum for it challenges artists and art-lovers to try to come to grips with stereotyped images about Nazis and the whole incredible and horrible phenomenon of Nazism and, perhaps more importantly, about the the evil of complacency in the mass culture era.

The focus of the exhibition is not on the victims of the Holocaust but the perpetrators.

I was born in 1940 in New York and grew up with a very simplistic hair-trigger reaction to the swastika symbol of the Nazis. It was very fearful and powerful and probably the single most successful design in history. It was virtually impossible for a New Yorker and an American, regardless of age, not to be traumatized by this simple but very potent symbol that epitomized mechanical precision with merciless right-angles whose angularity gave it a reaping dynamic that was almost literally gripping, clawing.

This is not a narrow-focus exhibition on the design attributes of the swastika, a subject worthy of study, no doubt, and swastikas are actually relatively scarce in the show. The artists have approached the still rather taboo subject of Nazis with varying degrees of confrontation, some blatant, some subtle and by no means have they exhausted the subject but a larger show might have been too trying for some to wade through.

The exhibition is certainly not an apologia for the Holocaust. One work, by Zbigniew Libera (b. 1959), presents a "LEGO Concentration Camp Set," a work that understandably greatly upset the maker of the toy plastic construction sets, but one that quite dramatically makes the point that the world knew about "concentration camps" long before the real horrors of what went on inside them was widely known and that marketing is not always in everyone's best interests.

In his March 15, 2002 lead review on the front page of the Weekend edition of The New York Times, Michael Kimmelman touches on this point:

"Even the title seems to tell us what we're supposed to think. 'Mirroring' evil, as opposed to depicting evil, implies that we are all capable of evil, that we might all share in the crime of the Nazis, whether we are perfume advertisers or Holocast survivors or actors or housewives, which leads to an unasked question: so who are we to point fingers at Hitler? I don't think for a second that the museum meant to excuse Nazism, but I do think there was an unconscious condescension at work, and it doesn't surprise me to find that several works in the show use the metaphor of childhood. They imply that we all have a childlike vulnerability to brainwashing and propaganda."

Well, we do, now much more than half a century or so ago.

The "vulnerability to brainwashing and propaganda," of course, is not restricted to children, or just to teenagers. In our jaded, celebrity-focused times, a little hubris can go a long way and shows like this that try to tackle difficult, disturbing and distressing subjects are more important than ever.

One of the first "works" in the exhibition is a series of headshots of movie actors portraying Nazis. The artist, Piotr Uklanski (b. 1968), originally created 165 headshots taken mostly from publicity stills and 145 are shown in this exhibition, all the same size, all mounted in one continuous, long band around a gallery's walls. Marlon Brando appears in three different shots and several actors such as James Mason and Donald Pleasance twice. Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Yul Brynner, Robert Redford, Jean-Paul Belmondo and many more are all quite recognizable, although some appear as Nazis but were American soldiers in their roles who donned Nazi uniforms to infiltrate, etc. If the artist's point was that the movies glamorized the Nazis, that would be misleading for generally they were presented as buffoons, or stuffed shirts, or decadent, or just plain evil. Because the overwhelming majority of the actors that the artist chose to use in this work were famous leading men, one assumes that his objective is to glamourize the Nazis and yet this really is a distortion of the reality, albeit no where near as egregious as those who argue that the Holocaust did not occur.

Presumably, the artist did not intend his work to actually glamourize the Nazis but to make the point that the Nazis were brilliant with their uniform design and their propaganda, which, in fact, they were, but that point is a bit too rarefied here as many viewers tended to see how many actors they could recognize and then in which roles, a guessing game of no consequence and one that probably is at odds with what the show's organizers had in mind.

The exhibit's best work is "Enfants Gâtés," a detail of which is shown at the top of this article. This 1997 work by Alain Séchas (b. 1955) consists of five identical installations of white kittens with Hilter-like mustaches holding up small black swastikas as they sit in white cribs with large swastikas on each of the four sides. The kittens are very appealing, demure and charming but their innocence is contradicted by their identical, regimented repetition, their raising of the swastika and their mysterious blank stares. The five "cribs" are mounted on stands in a row at either end of which the gallery walls are mirrored to create an infinite multitude of kittens at the ready. This work easily stands comparison with some of the better works of Jeff Koons but it is unequivocal in its meaning.

"Hitler's Cabinet" by Mischa Kubail

"Hitler's Cabinet," by Micha Kubail, plywood installation with light projection, 1990, courtesy of Vedanta Gallery, Chicago/Konrad Fischer Gallery, Dusseldorf, photograph by Norbert Faehling

"Hilter's Cabinet," a 1990 plywood installation with light projection, by Micha Kubail (b. 1959), shown above, is a very fine work despite the fact that its concept makes it easy to envision better versions, which is meant as a complement. The wooden cross rests on the floor of the gallery and from a corner of each spoke an image is projected perpendicularly onto the floor that flairs outward as it dissolves but also visually turns the object into the form of a swastika. The wooden cross is painted a reddish brown and the projected light images are in black and white. One wonders why the artist did not hang the cross on the wall and use moving rather than still images. The wooden cross, of course, conjures an icon of Christianity, and the light projections give a sense of motion that transforms the static swastika image with dynamism.

The very good catalogue, which is available from the museum's bookstore in paperback for $30 and is published by the museum and Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey and London, has many essays: Norman I. Kleeblatt, the exhibition's curator and the museum's Susan and Elihu Rose Curator of Fine Arts, writes about "The Nazi Occupation of the White Cube: Transgressive Images/Moral Ambiguity/Contemporary Art; Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes about "Acts of Impersonation: Barbaric Spaces as Theater; Lisa Saltzman writes about "'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' Revisited: On the Ethics of Representation"; Ernest van Alphen writes about the "Playing the Holocaust"; and Reesa Greenberg writes about "Playing It Safe?: The Display of Transgressive Art in the Museum."

In her preface to the catalogue, Joan Rosenbaum, the director of the Jewish Museum, wrote that "These works are a radical depature from previous art about the Holcaust, which has centered on tragic images of victims. Instead, these artists dare to invite the viewer into the world of the perpetrators. The viewer, therefore, faces an unsettling moral dilemma: How iso ne to react to these menacing and ndicting images, drawn from a history that can never be forgotten?...These art works draw us into the past, leading us to question how we understand the appaling forces that produced the Holocaust. These works also keep us alert to the present, with its techniques of persuasion that are so easily taken for granted, its symbols of oppression that are too readily ignored....In Mirroring Evil, the artists dismiss classicism, edifices, and memorial rituals. They replace them with a disquieting, demanding, and jolting approach, which asks us over and over again to look deeply into human behavior."

In his catalogue foreword, entitled "Looking into the mirrors of evil," James E. Young wrote that "Rather than repeat the degrading images of murdered and emaciated Jewish victims, thereby perpetuating the very images the Nazis themselves left behind, artists like [Elke] Krystufek now turn their accusing gaze upon the killers themselves....For these artists, the only thing more shocking than the images of suffering victims is the depravity of the human beings who caused such suffering....Rather than allow the easy escape from responsibility implied by the traditional identification with the victims, these artists challenge us now to confront the faces of evil - which, if truth be old, look more like us than do the wretched human remains the Nazis left behind. In the process, we are compelled to ask: Which leads to deeper knowledge of these events, to deeper understanding of the human condition? Images of suffering, or the evil-doers who caused such suffering? Which is worse? The cultural commodificaiton of victims or the commercial fascination with killers?...For a generation of artists and critics born after the Holocaust, the experience of Nazi genocide is necessarily vicarious and hypermediated. They haven't experienced the Holocaust itself but only the event of its being passed down to them. As faithful to their experiences as their parents and grandparents were to theirs in the camps, the artists of this media-saturated generation make their subjects the blessed distance between themselves and the camps, as well as the ubiquitous images of Nazis and the crimes they committed found in commercial mass media. These are their proper subjects, not the events themselves. Of course, we have every right to ask whether such obsession with these media-generated images of the past is aesthetically appropriate. or whether by including such images in their work the artist somehow affirm and extend them, even as they intend mainly to critique them and our connection to them. Yet this ambiguity between affirmation and criticism seems to be part of the artists' aim here. As offensive as such work may seem on the surface, the artist might ask, is it the Nazi imagery itself that offends,or the artists' aesthetic manipulatons of such imagery? Does such art become a victim of the imagery it depicts? Or does it actually tap into and thereby exploits the repugnant power of Nazi imagery as a way merely to shock and move its viewers? Or is it both, and if so, can these artists have it both ways?....To what extent does any depiction of evil somehow valorize or beautify it, even when the intent is to reveal its depravity? For artists at home in their respective media, questions about the appropriateness of their forms seem irrelevant. These artists remain as true to their forms and chosen media as they do to their necessarily vicarious 'memory' of events."

"As a group," Norman L. Kleeblatt wrote in his catalogue essay, " these provocative works use Nazi-era images to probe issues at the center of prevailing cultural and aesthetic discourses, among them desire, commodification, and spectatorship. Virtually all of them capitalize on the way art and, by extension, visual culture at large confuses the represented and the real. As their focus shifts from victim to perpetrator, they follow the complex issues about memory recently outlined by Thomas Lacquer. as a cultural historian, Lacquer asks us 'to concentrate on the task of representing temporal contingencies rather than spatial absolutes, on the history of political and moral failures, for example, that produced the Holocaust rather than the memory of its horrors. The artists in the exhibition place us precisely in the former position, asking us to look at cause rather than effect. Aside from their use of images of Nazis and Nazi-era aesthetics, the unifying premise for the works is how they force us onto morally ambiguous terrain. Such theoretical positions and aesthetic strategies cogently reflect Geoffrey Hartman's assertion that it is incongruous for contemporary society to reverently teach about past atrocities while observing present ones tolerantly, at a distance." Hartman is the author of Public Memory and its Discontents" in "Holocaust Remembrance: The Shapes of Memory," published by Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, England, and Cambridge, Mass., in 1994.

Other artists represented in the show are Boaz Arad, Christine Borland, Mat Collishaw, Rudolf Herz, Roee Rosen, Tom Sachs, Alan Schechner, and Maciej Toporowicz.

The exhibition has been supported in part by grants from the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Dorsky Foundation, the Ellen Flamm Philanthropic Fund, Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro, among others.

There is no "morally ambiguous terrain" here. Evil and terror and horror are proper objects of study and subjects of art. "Cabaret," "The Producers" and "The Night Porter" tackled many of these issues in a past generation and European artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter have not shied away from the subject. This serious exhibit does not attempt to be the last word, or final solutions, to these subjects. The catalogue's essays provide much interesting background and "context" to the exhibition and to others that have focused on related art issues.

Viewers of the exhibition will not come away with a greater understanding of the Nazi psyche, nor will they feel that the Nazis have been glorified, nor that their victims minimalized. They will, however, most likely come away with a conviction that evil must not be swept under the carpet, ignored, forgotten, and not addressed and that art is an important weapon in dealing with the challenge of evil as well as with the challenge of living and surviving and creating.

 

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