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Months before Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art opened at the Jewish Museum in New York, the media began to heave. “The forthcoming exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York is in excremental taste,” wrote one commentator. Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times said that using the Holocaust “would be cheap and obvious.”
By the time the show was about to open last week, the cacophony online, on the radio and TV and in the papers was deafening. One interviewee on an early-morning TV programme shrieked: “Putting Mengele on a pedestal [referring to a sculpture by the Scottish artist Christine Borland] is like putting Osama bin Laden on a pedestal.”
What was it all about? The Holocaust. And, incredibly, the question of who owns it. Otherwise the decibel level wouldn’t be so high, nor lines of argument drawn so fiercely. One renowned Holocaust scholar, Terrence Des Pres, goes so far as to demand the following: “The Holocaust shall be represented as a unique event, apart from history. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible – without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event.” These read like commandments. Solemnity above all. No laughing. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List? Fine. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah? Better. Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful? Absolutely unacceptable. Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock? Don’t even ask.
Mirroring Evil was postponed for a year. Members of the museum’s board of trustees were fearful of upsetting survivors and their families. Discussion groups and seminars were held. Survivors came; so did artists and scholars. The show’s curator, Norman Kleeblatt – a Jew of German background whose grandparents and great-grandparents were killed in the camps – presented the work. Wall labels were carefully written. Videos with comments and responses from all sides were composed. Film clips were gathered.
This is the emotion-laden discourse the Jewish Museum has taken on in this brilliant and brave new exhibition. At its heart are the questions: how does one “know”? What does one know? How does one arrive at knowledge?
The 13 artists in Mirroring Evil, mostly in their 30s and 40s, are the children of victims and victimisers alike. Four of them are Jewish. They come from Poland and Germany, the US and Great Britain, Austria, France and Israel. For none was the Holocaust a direct experience. It is a legacy that they learned about through their parents, the films they saw, photographs they looked at, sexual fantasies they had, music they heard. They grew sated with the endless stories of death and humiliation, the bowing of heads, the silence. In Mirroring Evil a single voice with different accents seems to roar out: “Enough! No more injunctions, please. No more de rigueur high seriousness and endless focusing on victims. Let the party begin! And then, maybe, we’ll come up with some new answers.”
Here there is swooning over actors in Nazi uniforms, and beaux arts-style sculptural respect for a satanic doctor, and cute white plastic kittens with swastika-rattles in their paws. Despite the title, this show is not about “mirroring evil.” It’s about toying with evil, “digging” evil, getting inside it to maybe know it, possess it and then get rid of it. There is a lot of noise in this show, a lot of confusion, but this time, there is no pity.
In the first room is Piotr Uklanski’s The Nazis (1998), which features 147 head shots of handsome male film stars playing Nazis. There’s Robert Duvall, Klaus Kinski, Christopher Plummer, Yul Brynner, Cedric Hardwicke. They’re so attractive, so seductive, all these good-looking guys. You remind yourself that they’re Nazis. Or rather – oops – pictures of Nazis. Well, what are they anyway? You read heartless will into their faces, and contempt, arrogance, loathing. But you also notice doubt in a handsome face or two. Then fear. Amazement. Wonder. Love. One hundred and forty-seven photos strung like jewels on a necklace along four walls, so lively and enticing – so much fun to look at!
Elsewhere in the show a room is wallpapered, Warhol-style, with two alternating black-and-white photographs of Hitler and of Marcel Duchamp, snapped by the same photographer – Heinrich Hoffmann – 20 years apart. This is Zugzwang (a player’s move in chess that dooms his opponent), by Rudolf Herz (1995). Duchamp’s face is easy. You like him, respect him. You can’t avoid Hitler, though, so you look right at him, right into his miserable face. But it’s not miserable. It’s just the face of a young man with a stupid moustache and a silly hairstyle. That’s Hitler, you tell yourself. Big deal! Hitler. And some mental corset comes undone.
In a glass cabinet sit three tall tin cans of the tomato-juice type. Or the Zyklon-B type. They are painted Hermè orange, Tiffany baby-blue, Chanel black. They are labelled Hermès, Tiffany, Chanel. This is Tom Sachs’s Giftgas Giftset (1998). The tins are made of cardboard paper, ink, thermal adhesive and foamcore. They are merry. You want to touch them, own them. And your gut twists. You’ve been had.
There is worse: Lego Concentration Camp Set, 1996, by Zbigniew Libera. Libera uses little Lego pieces to build Auschwitz. Have we gone mad? Where is our responsibility to the past, to the victims? Where is our respect? But you keep looking, maybe sideways, peeping through your fingers. You imagine touching the henchman in black. For a split second you imagine being him. Maybe you gasp. A toy can do that – invite you in, open up doors in the imagination that an earnest narrative cannot. But remember, these are not toys to be played with by children. They are a simulation of toys aimed at adult imaginations in a museum.
Hebrew Lessons (2000), a video by Boaz Arad, has five seconds of Hitler gesticulating. The loop runs endlessly. You’ve seen this spectacle before, you think. But when you look and listen more closely, you realise the sequences are spliced together from different speeches. Hitler’s uniform changes; his words are unrecognisable bits and pieces. Then you realise that the shards of German add up to Hebrew. Hitler is speaking Hebrew! He is saying: “Greetings, Jerusalem. I am deeply sorry.” What can one make of this? Isn’t that exactly what’s wanted, what has always been wanted: an apology? And in that split second of absurd retrospective hope you tumble into unutterable desire.
That is what the work in Mirroring Evil does: it recasts your hopes and fears and longings. It douses you with cold water and wakes you up on the other side of reason.
Ernst van Alphen, a Dutch man of 41, says in his catalogue essay that he resisted reading The Diary of Anne Frank until quite recently. He knew it wouldn’t matter to him, that it was just another cliche about the Holocaust. Too much time has elapsed, too many dire tales have been told too often. What we need are techniques that push us, the spectators, into a place where we can wander wildly and return redone. Perhaps we need to dip into evil and our worst fears, fears that include identifying with the perpetrators. As Sidra Dekoven Ezrahi puts it in the catalogue: “To be a victim is morally safe, even it if is mortally dangerous.”
Mirroring Evil dares the spectator to feel nothing. The Holocaust used to be sacred terrain, but it came to be a holy wall that could not be penetrated, or even touched. The brilliance of Mirroring Evil is that it hacks away at that wall. But at a price. One may lose one’s balance in this show – emotionally, aesthetically, politically. One can only hope so.
The Guardian, 21 March 2002