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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Controversial Exhibit Mirrors Holocaust's Evil

Author: Yvonne Chen

"Shalom Yershalayam ani minatzel," says Hitler. "I apologize Jerusalem." This apears to be the real thing. The infamous Nazi leader is apologizing to Jerusalem through the 'real' manipulations of archived footage in a 15-second video art installation. The artist has edited film clips of Hitler in such a way that snippets of his German words distort into Hebrew. This image suggests consolation and at the same time reminds his audiences that history cannot be changed because Hitler is dead. The artist suggests that only we in the present can truly reconcile his deeds.

Israeli artist Boaz Arad's "Hebrew Lesson" was just one of the works of the last decade by 13 young artists in "Mirroring Evil," an exhibition currently on view at The Jewish Museum in New York City. The show opened on March 17 after weeks of controversy from Jewish interest groups and the press.

The Wall Street Journal has called the exhibition "insulting," "an affront" and a show that contains "questionable content." In a protest against its opening, one Holocaust survivor's sign read, "Genocide is Not Art."

Under closer scrutiny though, "Mirroring Evil" attempts to explore the malevolence that prompts these criticisms. The artists, many of whom are at least two or three generations removed from the terror, purposefully depart from earlier documentary-type art that focuses on the victims. Using conceptual art to manipulate the perpetrators' propaganda in new and daring ways, they seek to raise our awareness of modern techniques that shape our perceptions of evil.

In response to the heated criticism, the museum has sponsored a series of public dialogues and lectures that modified the exhibit.

Walking in, however, one cannot help but see images of Nazi evil — and Nazi power — in Piotr Uklanksi's "The Nazis," a series of 123 publicity photographs showing famous movie stars, including Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood and Ralph Fiennes, in Nazi garb to the point of glorification. Although the horror of their imagined Nazi roles contradicts the allure of their faces, the photos nonetheless border on moral ambiguity.

Another intellectually inspiring installation is Rudolf Herz's "Zugswang," a room wallpapered with unbroken portraits of Hitler and avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. The deadlocked repetitiveness of the two men's juxtaposed images creates a kind of concious acceptance of Nazi atrocities.

Still other works were displayed behind a newly constructed doorway labeled with a sign that warned survivors of the disturbing nature of some of the works. Inside one finds hokey toys. Tom Sach takes attractive objects and makes them gifts of death: concentration camp models made with Tiffany's and Chanel packaging. Zbigniew Libera's concentration camp Lego sets (a sign for which indicates that the toy company does not authorize any marks or identifications found in the work) attempts to manifest the pervasiveness of violence in children's toys today. Jewish spokesperson Elie Weisel calls the content "a betrayal."

In Alain Sechas' "Spoiled Children," a series of mustached toy kittens hold swastikas in one hand and miniature kittens in the other. The mirror effect on either side of the objects causes the viewer to see an infinite number of these kitties — forming a rank and file line of Third Reich disciples.

In a piece that has been tagged by some critics as bearing political meaning of questionable taste, digital artist Alan Schechner inserts himself holding a can of Diet Coke in a photograph of concentration camp prisoners. Here one sees an uncomfortable representation: the new generation against Schechner's history, the robust against the emaciated, the material goods-oriented consumer against the starving prisoner of genocide. But, as a museum placard pointedly asks, "Does a Jew have a right to identify with the tragedy? Is this a misappropriation of history … or an obligation to memory?"

Maciej Toporowicz's "Obsession," a black and white video, suggests today's films and TV commercials use some of the same techniques as fascist propaganda. The Polish artist juxtaposes images of Nazi war movies such as Visconti's "Damned" (1969) with Calvin Klein ads eroticizing an emaciated Kate Moss.

Although "Mirroring Evil" came under the attack of Holocaust survivors as a betrayal of their sufferings, these Nazi images allow viewers to question the evil that pervades consumer culture almost half a century after one of the most devastating acts of evil in history. "At what point do we submit to the techniques of evil's persuasion?" asks a museum placard.

Despite its blurred ethics, these works warn us to be wary of the symbols and associations of oppression. They warn us of our capacity to lower our mental thresholds, becoming desensitized to these techniques.

During the past decade, Nazi evil has emerged as a shared iconography for artists.

"In a world saturated with images, these artists prompt us to question the fine line between representation and reality. They ask us to remain vigilant to situations in everyday life when the mundane may become dangerous and the dangerous mundane," says Norman Kleeblatt, curator of the controversial exhibition.

Despite the tumult of controversy caused by the loaded imagery, the exhibition seeks not to define evil, but to explore its nature. In the words of one rabbi, "The exhibition aims not to excuse — but to understand and thus prevent."

"Mirroring Evil" will be on view until June 30 at The Jewish Museum, located at 1109 Fifth Avenue in New York City.