Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art

Written by:
Phil Freeman
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The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (2001), Norman G. Finkelstein

Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory (1997), Ernest Van Alphen

Mirroring Evil could be the most insular art show of the year. A collection of pieces by young Jewish artists whose work incorporates Nazi imagery, exhibited at the Jewish Museum: if there’s an opportunity for enforced context the curators missed, it surely wasn’t deliberate. Indeed, control of the debate over this show goes beyond that. Upon entry, the viewer is permitted to see only three or four works, before being confronted with a large sign, warning that the works to follow have hurt and offended Holocaust survivors who’ve seen them. Patrons are offered the option of leaving through a door immediately to the left. Those who remain walk around the sign, and proceed through the half-dozen rooms containing the other fifteen or sixteen artworks; there are 19 pieces, total, in the show. Each piece has a large plaque containing not just the usual biographical data about the artist, brief synopsis of the work, and indication of ownership, but also the questions unsubtly implied that the viewer should be asking him- or herself. This efficiently removes the chance of having a purely aesthetic encounter with any of the pieces. Indeed, the question looming largest becomes "Will this be on the test?"

All the artists whose work is displayed were born some years after the Holocaust. The oldest among them, Rudolf Herz, was born in 1954; the youngest, Elke Krystufek, in 1970. This is, on its face, interesting, because it allows a disconnect from history. Particularly in the case of Krystufek and Polish artist Piotr Uklanski (born in 1968), it’s possible they’ve learned as much about the Holocaust from Steven Spielberg as from Grandma. Unfortunately, this also means that the worst of the work (Krystufek’s photo-collages, Roee Rosen’s mixed-media Kara Walker knockoffs) exists in the meaning-impaired media-space of so much new art, too bound up in commenting on itself to attack its intended subject matter with any vigor. In any case, there’s no way to view any of this art as anything but bludgeoning agitprop, whether successful or not. Not one piece has aesthetic impact as a primary goal. This is post-Barbara Kruger/Jenny Holzer art–the message is of primary importance and the pieces’ existence as art is utterly secondary.

Several pieces attempt, with varying success, to conflate Nazism and commercialism, a suspect conceit. Maciej Toporowicz’s 1993 video "Obsession" splices footage from Triumph Of the Will, The Damned, The Night Porter and Salo together with images from Calvin Klein’s "Obsession" ads and sculptures by Third Reich artist Arno Brecker. Unfortunately, the video’s five-minute running time and dated electronic score don’t add up to much of substance. In the end, it’s just a high-art version of the random film clips played on large screens at punk-rock clubs, between bands, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Tom Sachs’ "Giftgas Giftset" is slightly more powerful. Three replica gas canisters are adorned with designer labels–Hermes, Chanel and Tiffany. This is an interesting image, particularly when the show’s audience (likely to be well-off, and consequently more familiar with these brand-names than a more proletarian critic) is considered, but it doesn’t inspire much beyond a quick smirk.

The most forceful, and memorable, of the commercialism-obsessed works is Zbigniew Libera’s "Lego Concentration Camp Set," which is exactly what it sounds like. Even this piece, though, falls short. First, it’s not a toy concentration camp, but a set of seven boxes for an imaginary toy concentration camp, disappointing for those seeking a face-first dive into shock-kitsch. Second, Libera has stacked the deck. Though it’s intended to be an indictment of Nazi youth indoctrination, the Lego soldiers are portrayed with evil grimaces, while the Lego Jews are pitiable skeletons. There’s no way for the viewer to comfortably sympathize with the Nazis, so the piece’s impact is blunted.

Three works are unqualified successes. The first of these is Rudolf Herz’s "Zugzwang." Herz researched the archive of Hitler’s official portrait photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann. He discovered a 1932 portrait of Hitler, and a 1912 portrait of Marcel Duchamp. Herz wallpapers one room of the gallery with these images, repeated like a checkerboard. The title is a chess term describing a position in which any possible move will make the situation worse. The Nazi and the Dadaist stare straight ahead, gentlemen sitting for formal portraits. The lighting and pose are nearly identical in each photo, and as the image multiplies itself across the walls, the two men become more alike than different.

The second great piece is Alan Schechner’s Internet-only "(Self-Portrait at Buchenwald) It’s the Real Thing" (viewable here), which inserts the artist into a Margaret Bourke-White photo of Jewish inmates in Buchenwald. He’s standing in front of them, dressed as they are but significantly healthier, and holding up a can of Diet Coke like a born pitchman. This single image succeeds where the other commercialism-themed works failed, because in this age of cynical, shock-value "hipster" ad campaigns, the concept is frighteningly plausible.

The third success is Piotr Uklanski’s "The Nazis," which compiles 147 photographs and illustrations of actors portraying Nazis in films, including Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and virtually every major Hollywood figure of the past half-century. Seeing these stars, marketed as ideal images of masculinity, massed in full Nazi regalia, is simultaneously chilling and glamorous, because, free of dramatic context, all that remains is the uniform and the handsome man in it.

The overwhelming impression gained from Mirroring Evil is of a closed loop, a snake eating its own tail. Taken collectively, the show demonstrates, obscene as it sounds, the need for the Holocaust, not just as a historical memory, but as a defining event. To be a Holocaust survivor is to be something larger than oneself, and these artworks gain the majority of their power from the existence of living Holocaust survivors–as shocked audience, of course, because provocation is the life’s blood of contemporary art, but also as proof that the art is, in fact, dealing with reality and not merely with media-culture abstractions.

Fifty years from now, when no Holocaust survivors remain, to whom will these pieces speak? The show is a conversation between young Jews and their elders, and the older generation comes out on top. They control the debate at every turn, from its title, which implants the word "evil" in a viewer’s mind before a single work has been seen, to the large sign blocking the entrance to the major works in the show, to its very location. Indeed, the fact that this exhibit is at the Jewish Museum saps its impact. A far braver choice would have been to show these works at the Guggenheim, or the Whitney–museums catering specifically to the broadest possible public. But perhaps the fact that no other museum would be permitted to launch a show like this, without inviting protests ten times those which have already attended Mirroring Evil, makes a larger statement than anything hanging on the Jewish Museum’s walls.

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