Holocaust show: art or affront?

Exhibit: Critics say works on display at the Jewish Museum in New York trivialize the deaths of 6 million Jews.

March 17, 2002|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK -- In one gallery a computer-based work includes a photograph of inmates at a Nazi concentration camp into which an artist has inserted a picture of himself holding a Diet Coke.

Nearby, a piece called Giftgas Giftset features colorful canisters of make-believe poison gas labeled "Chanel," "Hermes" and "Tiffany." In another room are clay busts of Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who conducted gruesome experiments on inmates at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

For months, the art world has debated the worth of these works, whether they are art, hurtful provocations or tasteless trivia.

They go on public display today as part of the exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art at New York's Jewish Museum and are a catalyst for discussions about the role of the Holocaust in art, what form that art can or should take, and who has "the right" to create it.

For weeks, organizations that represent Holocaust survivors have vigorously opposed the show, describing it as offensive and saying that it trivializes the deaths of 6 million Jews.

At least one group, whose members are the children of survivors, is calling for a boycott.

"For Holocaust survivors to know that six life-sized busts of Mengele are placed on pedestals in any museum, let alone in a Jewish museum, is tantamount to having a bust of Osama bin Laden placed at Ground Zero," says Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, which is urging people to boycott the exhibition.

"The person who brutalized my mother and murdered my aunt is on a pedestal in a museum? That to me is unconscionable."

Conceptual art

The exhibit includes digital images, mixed-media collages and videos by 13 artists in their 30s and 40s from the United States, Europe and Israel who use Nazi imagery in their conceptual art.

The works, the museum says, represent a new wave of attempts to understand the Holocaust driven by a generation of artists who learned about the mass murder of millions not through experience or solely from stories told by their elders, but from popular culture.

The show "raises questions about how we guard against the idea that the Holocaust is something of the past, out of history, and how it is relevant today," says museum Director Joan Rosenbaum.

Pointing out that many of the show's critics have yet to see the artworks, she adds, "The Jewish Museum is a good place for this show. We deal with Jewish culture from ancient to modern times, in particular the modern experiences which relate, unfortunately, to the Holocaust."

Outcry provoked

The pieces that have caused the loudest outcry include British-born artist Alan Schech- ner's Web-based work, Self-Portrait at Buchenwald: It's the Real Thing, in which he inserts his own image -- holding a can of Diet Coke -- into a photograph taken by Margaret Bourke-White of concentration camp inmates.

An accompanying statement explains that the artist is grappling with the question of whether "a Jew of his generation has the right to imagine himself caught up in the Holocaust."

A second controversial work, this one by Tom Sachs, is a 1998 "fold-out" model of a Nazi death camp made from a Prada designer fashion box.

The show includes two other works by the New York-born artist: the Giftgas Giftset, and a handgun made from bright orange-and-yellow Manischewitz matzo boxes. Each is meant to raise questions about how and when conformity to commercially driven norms becomes dangerous.

"These works are very, very powerful," says Norman L. Kleeblatt, the exhibit's curator. "We've always felt that it is our moral obligation to show powerful art and even disturbing art in context. And these works ask some very deep questions about the Holocaust in a way that keeps these questions alive and relevant for this generation."

Schechner lost many family members to the Holocaust and is struggling to come to terms with this loss, Kleeblatt says. "By placing his own image into the photograph, the artist has collapsed the distance in appearance between himself and Holocaust, but he actually shows us how far away we are: That is the paradox."

Not since 1999, when the Brooklyn Museum of Art presented Sensation, which included a painting of the Madonna adorned by a clump of elephant dung, has an art show created such an outcry.

The Brooklyn exhibition so offended then-New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that he threatened to cut off city funding for the museum unless the institution withdrew the offending artwork. It also prompted some Catholics to picket the museum.

`Poor judgment'

Critics of Mirroring Evil, however, denounce the museum's taste in presenting the works, without denying the institution's right to exhibit them.

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