New York Times January 29, 2002, Tuesday THE ARTS/CULTURAL DESK CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK; Jewish Museum Show Looks Nazis in the Face and Creates a Fuss By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN (NYT) 1834 words Two months before it will open, a contemporary art exhibition that uses Nazi imagery and was organized by the Jewish Museum is making some tempers boil. Holocaust survivors and their families have pronounced the show vulgar and repugnant, while Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, recently told a reporter that such an exhibition was at least premature while survivors were still alive who might be offended. "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art" will feature 13 artists: American, European and Israeli; four of them Jewish; mostly in their late 30's and 40's. The show's idea, the museum says, is to bring together works using images of Nazis and the Holocaust that focus not on the victims but on the perpetrators for a change. In so doing, the art is supposed to show how evil has been trivialized and fetishized and how artists are using parody and provocation to try to keep the Nazi past alive as an issue for new generations like their own. Detractors see it as just another "Sensation," but pushing the buttons of Jews this time instead of Roman Catholics. "Sensation" was the 1999 show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that offended some Catholics, including former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, because of an image of the Virgin Mary adorned with elephant dung. This time it's Jews who are asking why the Jewish Museum, of all places, should present art that offends Jews. I won't review a show that hasn't taken place, but some questions have come up and beg for comment now. The brief descriptions of works in the show that have caused the most outrage include faux Lego boxes with photographs on the front of Nazi camps built out of Lego blocks by a Polish artist, Zbigniew Libera. A 1998 work called "Giftgas Giftset" by the American Tom Sachs includes cardboard imitation gas canisters festooned with Chanel and Tiffany logos. You may recall that Mr. Sachs, who has exhibited handmade guns and airplane toilets, put live 9-millimeter cartridges in a vase for visitors to take from Mary Boone's gallery during his solo show there in 1999, landing Ms. Boone, festooned in her own chic sleeveless orange dress and high-heel shoes, briefly in jail. Also scheduled to be in "Mirroring Evil" is Alan Schechner's Web-based work featuring him holding a can of Diet Coke among inmates photographed at Buchenwald by Margaret Bourke-White. And there will be some collages by an Austrian artist, Elke Krystufek, of herself nude beside pictures of movie stars portraying Nazis. They were borrowed from another work in the show by Piotr Uklanski, an installation of film stills and promotional photographs of actors like Dirk Bogarde, Clint Eastwood, Max von Sydow and Frank Sinatra. It has not been lost on officials at the Jewish Museum that sight unseen the show has probably infuriated some of the people who have helped make "The Producers" Broadway's hottest ticket. Years ago "Hogan's Heroes," set in a World War II P.O.W. camp with comical German guards, was a popular sitcom. Standards vary. All is not fair in the culture wars. Such is the burden on a museum tackling touchy work. Rattled by the firestorm, the museum has lately responded with lists of Jewish scholars and others it consulted while putting the show together, including James Young, an expert on Holocaust memorials; Fanya Gottesfeld Heller, a Holocaust survivor and museum trustee; and Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Taking the unusual step of questioning the motives of an institutional colleague, the museum has even released a statement enumerating the reasons the exhibition differs from "Sensation." "Sensation," the statement says, "faced questions about conflicts of interest," "proposed no curatorial viewpoint," was widely understood as "an effort to increase attendance and admissions revenue" and "played on the exhibition's title" to promise "a (supposedly welcome) sense of outrage." "Mirroring Evil," by contrast, "proposes a complex set of ideas." If the Jewish Museum were just out to make money, it "could more reliably drive admissions by mounting another Chagall or Pissarro exhibition," the statement says. A spokesman for the Brooklyn Museum said it had no comment in response. Not that Jewish Museum officials go so far as to say that the art in "Mirroring Evil" is necessarily good. When I asked Joan Rosenbaum, the Jewish Museum director, about lending the museum's imprimatur to the work simply by showing it, the way all art museums implicitly do when they show anything, she demurred: "This is art with a message, political art, so we're not talking about aesthetic issues, by and large. It's art that provokes discussion. We're reporting on this trend, we're interpreting the work." She added, "We're endorsing the goals of the work to make us think how easy it is to put distance between our lives in the present and what occurred in the past." She endorses the "goals of the work," she said; she did not say she endorsed the work. A couple of years ago, at a public forum about "Sensation" in which we both participated, I recall Ms. Rosenbaum being heatedly asked by someone in the audience whether she would consider exhibiting art about the Holocaust that offended Jews. Yes, she replied, if the context was right. The museum does exhibitions of contentious art supplemented by elaborate explanatory labels to provide context, she said. The timing was interesting. The museum had already acquired Mr. Libera's Lego work. "Mirroring Evil" was already germinating as an exhibition idea. Its curator is Norman L. Kleeblatt, who put together "Too Jewish" several years ago, about how young Jewish American artists, generations removed from the Holocaust, identify themselves as Jewish in their art. Among the work was part of Elaine Reichek's ersatz re-creation of her childhood bedroom, with stock Colonial wallpaper discreetly stamped with a Jewish star and linen hand towels inscribed with J.E.W. The joke was disturbing because the simple word Jew was provocative in a way WASP would not be. Jews are not all that assimilated in American society after all, the show implied. The art wasn't great, but the exhibition was stimulating and amusing. The 53-year-old son of Jewish refugees from Germany and the grandson and great-grandson of Jews killed in the camps, Mr. Kleeblatt noticed more recently that artists, Jewish and otherwise, have been producing works that look at the Nazi period "in a radically different -- indeed disturbing -- way." These artists have "turned from what has become a standard focus on the often anonymous victims and instead stared directly at the perpetrators," Mr. Kleeblatt writes in the catalog for "Mirroring Evil." "More important, they created works in which viewers would encounter the perpetrators face to face in scenarios in which ethical and moral issues cannot be easily resolved." He and Ms. Rosenbaum have lately been stressing that the show will address those issues, among other ways, through a video of Holocaust survivors reacting to the art, some of them presumably critically, and in panel discussions with survivors, artists and Jewish scholars. And then there is the catalog. The catalog caused a small stir at a reading at the museum in late November. This was brought to the attention of a Wall Street Journal reporter earlier this month; she then got a copy of the catalog and contacted outraged survivors and Jewish scholars. VoilE0, a controversy. As if hopefully, "Mirroring Evil" was instantly declared by the media to be the next "Sensation," the Jewish Museum show fortuitously filling the void for public scandal suddenly left by the expiration of Mr. Giuliani's ill-planned decency panel. But "Mirroring Evil" is not "Sensation." The Jewish Museum is right about that. Courting trouble will no doubt increase the Jewish Museum's box office, even if not the way a Chagall show would. Still, there's no debate this time about withholding public money from the museum. There is no question of a particular private collector exploiting a public institution. There is no First Amendment debate. Even outspoken detractors of the show like Menachem Z. Rosensaft of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, who have threatened boycotts, among other things, aren't questioning the museum's legal right to do what it wants. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who resigned as vice chairman of the museum's board last month to avoid a conflict of interest, which means that, like other trustees, he was sent information about the show while it was being planned) announced through a spokesman that while he didn't plan to go to the exhibition, he wasn't in the business of dictating to museums what they can or can't display. The mayor was busy in Albany yesterday and his press office said it did not know whether he had looked at the information while he was on the board. When the Whitney Museum of American Art organized "Black Male" a few years ago, it offended some blacks who thought the art reinforced stereotypes; they considered the Whitney a white museum exploiting a hot-button black issue. The Studio Museum in Harlem might be able to deal with this difficult subject, but not the Whitney. Maybe that argument constituted another sort of stereotyping, institutional instead of racial, but it is the argument for the Jewish Museum to present "Mirroring Evil." Context matters. As Ms. Rosenbaum puts it: "We provide a context that the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim can't. The presence of our permanent exhibition, which locates the Holocaust in Jewish history, and the fact that were are an art museum that interprets Jewish culture, provides a context that lets us take risks and deal with daring works. We show this work precisely because we are the Jewish Museum, because it is part of our mission, which is to look at everything about Jewish culture that is expressed through art." So we'll see about "Mirroring Evil" in March. Leafing through the catalog, I noticed that, by way of providing bona fides for the art, an essay cites Gerhard Richter, the important German painter. In the 1960's Richter juxtaposed photographs of tangled corpses from the death camps with pictures clipped from pornographic magazines as part of his vast compendium of scavenged images called "Atlas." The juxtaposition seemed to ask: Where is the line between historical inquiry and obscene gaze? And are Holocaust images respectable pornography? The catalog failed to note, however, that "Atlas" is really a kind of continuing public diary in which Richter reveals the sources that he has contemplated turning into paintings but does not always use. He ultimately declined to use the Holocaust. He decided it would be cheap and obvious. =30=
Site Map ·
What's New? ·
© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012
This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and
to combat hatred.
Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.
As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may
include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and
provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist
and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.
Home · Site Map · What's New? · Search Nizkor
© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012