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This is a great little piece of work by Peter Schjeldahl about the Jewish Museum’s “controversial” show. I actually think he’s right on. (And I am hoping to be writing about Polish artists and their visionary strength with regard to the Holocaust sometime soon.)
March 29, 2002 | home – The New Yorker.
THE HITLER SHOW
by PETER SCHJELDAHL
The Jewish Museum revisits the Nazis.
Issue of 2002-04-01
Ten years ago, Bruce Nauman was asked by officials in Hannover, Germany, to conceive a Holocaust memorial for their city. He came up with an idea that has become a cherished legend in the art world, although he eventually decided against proposing it. The work would feature a sign that said, “We are sorry for what we did, and we promise not to do it again.” When I tell people about this, they invariably crack up. What’s so hilarious? I think it’s the succinctness of the statement: Nauman isolated the two emotionsremorse and repentancethat are the rhetorical burden of any German memorial to the Holocaust, and he stripped them of folderol. When you think about it, for fifty-seven years an apology and an assurance have been what the world has wanted to hear from Germany and, really, all that the world has wanted to hear. Whatever else might be said has belonged to the victims. Of course, with the dying out of the Second World War generation, this state of affairs was bound to change. Today, both direct responsibility and proprietary grievance regarding the Holocaust are expiring like patents, and the business of reflecting on it has become a free-for-all.
An unsurprising controversy surrounded the Jewish Museum’s daring exhibition “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/ Recent Art” well before it opened, on March 17th. The show represents thirteen mostly young, little-known conceptual artists from seven countries and makes a case, in the words of its curator, Norman Kleeblatt, for “works in which viewers would encounter the perpetrators face to face in scenarios in which ethical and moral issues cannot be easily resolved.” The idea of artists making clever works about the Holocaust struck many observers as an unacceptable offense to the sensitivities, even posthumous ones, of survivors. Others countered by ritually endorsing art’s mission to challenge conventional thinkinga conventional thought if ever there was one. Few took account of the show’s unacknowledged but obvious inspiration: “The Producers.” Now, I am among those who deem “The Producers,” on either stage or screen, the funniest thing that ever was. Its effect is what a baby feels while playing peekaboo: laughter as an explosive release from anxiety. We were afraid that Adolf Hitler would keep making us feel bad forever, but you know what? He’s dead, and we’re not. In “Mirroring Evil,” only one of the nineteen works has a Brooksian zing to it, but the show plainly owes its timing to Max Bialystock’s reign on Broadway.
Talk about bad taste? Let’s. Most of “Mirroring Evil” fails not out of irreverence but out of inchoate earnestness. Take Zbigniew Libera’s “Lego Concentration Camp Set,” which consists of seven imprinted boxes picturing what the title describes. Rather than flip off fear, this lugubrious sally diffuses it, contaminating an excellent toy to no cogent end. There are significant and trivial varieties of shock in art. The significant kindthe onset of Impressionism, Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, “Springtime for Hitler”abruptly heralds a sea change in culture. Trivial shock diddles the status quo, altering nothing. It’s very easy to achieve: just cross discordant wires and dig the fleeting spark. The show’s artists do this by short-circuiting Nazism with references to childhood (Libera’s Lego piece), commerce (Libera again), and sex. Sex especially. Dilettantish sadomasochismgiddily eroticizing themes of cruel powerabounds at the Jewish Museum.
Piotr Uklanski, from Poland, displays a hundred and forty-seven alluring color prints of actors in Nazi roles. (Clint Eastwood musters a terrific look; David Niven is pathetic.) Less entertaining is a video montage by Maciej Toporowicz, another Polish artist, that includes shots of Calvin Klein ads and body-beautiful Nazi propaganda. What these things have in commonsolemn smutis simply insufficient. (Why this seemingly irresistible urge to pair Nazism with consumer goods, as if they partook of a common essence? When the artist Tom Sachs displays a model concentration camp made from a Prada box, isn’t he holding the power of Prada in excessive awe? And when the English artist Alan Schechner digitally inserts himself, holding a Diet Coke can, in a picture of Buchenwald inmates, I quit.) The Israeli Roee Rosen contributes an extended fantasy, in words and drawings, about Eva Braun’s having goodbye sex with Hitler in the bunker; it seems to have been fine, shivery fun for the artist. Over all, the show suggests an emergency ward for cases of toxic narcissism.
The day is enlivened, if not saved, by a piece that recalls both Brooks and Nauman. For “Hebrew Lesson,” a repeating thirteen-second video, the Israeli artist Boaz Arad spliced together isolated words and syllables from films of Hitler’s speeches to create a herky-jerky but intelligible sentence in Hebrew: “Shalom, Yerushalayim, ani mitnatzel” (“Hello, Jerusalem, I apologize”). Shots of the dictator in impressive settings flash by. At the video’s end, he is glimpsed ducking his head and smoothing his hair with both hands, in that self-adoring, epicene way he had. Delivering a touch of the sublime, Arad deals successfully with a crucial issue that the other artists in “Mirroring Evil” furtively exploit: Nazism’s aesthetic appeal.
I think that we could save ourselves a great deal of intellectual backing and filling by accepting Nazismalong with everything else that it wasas one of the twentieth century’s major stylistic movements. Leni Riefenstahl’s films, Albert Speer’s architecture, the choreographed rallies, those uniforms, and the Nazi flag were creative feats. Why pretend otherwise? Giving the Devil his due is an intelligent preparation for defeating him. The bulk of the work in “Mirroring Evil” smugly suggests that we are in denial about Nazism’s seductive resources. The more conscious we are of the limited but potent attraction of Nazi culture, the less its redolence will strike third-rate artists as a surefire ticket to sensation.
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