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History's Burden

From artists who take as their subject the Holocaust, viewers demand a great deal. We demand that the Holocaust not be trivialized, universalized, aestheticized or used as a metaphor. Because the Holocaust is not simply another tragedy, it cannot be treated like one. And because the trivial, the universal, the metaphorical and especially the aesthetic are broadly defined, artists who deal with the Holocaust are almost always under suspicion.

That may be why "Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust," now on view at the Blaffer Gallery, takes shelter in accepted modes of Holocaust art. However, discussion of the Holocaust in both art and scholarship has progressed far beyond what's seen in this unwieldy exhibit, which originated at the Minnesota Museum of American Art. To deal with one of the most particular examples of horror in human history, the installations, paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos use only the most orthodox responses -- responses that have become cliches. "Witness and Legacy" is mostly made up of the worst kind of victim art: third-rate victim art. "Sorry," I felt like saying after a lengthy browse at the Blaffer, "I gave at the office."

The most egregious example of didacticism is Edith Altman's Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory. Looking rather like a large science fair project, Altman's installation includes a number of large placards detailing the "History," "Definition," "Occult Meaning" and other aspects of the swastika. Next to a nine-foot swastika (with its arms pointing in the traditional, pre-Nazi direction), she reproduces several pages from an 1894 report on the symbol. The next wall is devoted to a regimented display of the triangular badges that the Nazis used to categorize what they considered society's undesirables. Even if by some small miracle I were moved to read all the text in this dryly indulgent display, I suspect I would hardly be enlightened -- particularly not when it contains such observations as "The shadow or dark side of our ego is exposed to COLLECTIVE INFECTIONS to a much greater extent than is the conscious personality...."

Still other installations, such as Gerda Meyer-Bernstein's barbed-wire-lined "Shrine" and Pearl Hirshfield's dark corridor featuring "authentic" tattoo numbers painted on mirrors so that they (gasp!) look like they're on your own skin, fail miserably at approximating the experience of "being there." In fact, the artists would probably admit that such a simulation is impossible to achieve -- part of making art about the Holocaust is declaring its inadequacy -- though if that's the case, then neither installation has much point.

There isn't much in the show that a history museum couldn't do more effectively. After all, what is seeing a painting of a pile of confiscated eyeglasses compared with seeing a roomful of the actual shoes of dead Jews? Still, at the Blaffer the need to report and record is pumped to a high pitch. Perhaps in response to revisionists who have denied the Holocaust ever happened, artist Gabrielle Rossmer supplements her stiffened-gauze sculptures of empty clothes with a "Document Wall" of 66 papers documenting her family (with a tape-recorded, airline stewardessstyle description of each) and photographs transferred onto rectangles of plaster to make them look more like art and less like what they are -- evidence.

Such proof is deemed important, because by its very nature victim art privileges experience above ability, and at this exhibit it's no different. The show has three tiers of artists: Holocaust survivors above the rest, then children of Holocaust survivors and, at the bottom, interested third parties. In a tacit admission of this hierarchy, the catalog essay dutifully devotes two lengthy paragraphs to members of the first category, slightly shorter paragraphs to members of the second and measly one-paragraph notes to members of the third. Predictably, the degree of Holocaust experience has no bearing on the quality of the art produced -- in fact, the work of survivors such as Netty Vanderpol, for whom "every stitch" of her needlepoints of barbed wire and Jewish stars "is a memory," is far more therapeutic for the artist than it is interesting to the viewer. And despite the historical significance of the subject, art about the Holocaust is not excused from having to be interesting.

The only artist for whom the catalog's formula deviates is Art Spiegelman, whose comic-book opus Maus, which takes the Holocaust as its theme and depicts Jews as mice and S.S. men as cats, has been widely praised. A few original drawings from Maus are on display, and the catalog allots a little extra space to the question of whether or not Spiegelman's work -- the most interesting in the show -- is actually art. Sadly, the catalog essay ultimately fails to defend it as such.

One of the reason's Spiegelman's work is so successful is that he presents the story of the Holocaust with both specificity -- he traces his father's story in unrelenting detail -- and distance. In contrast, much of the art in this show is leaden with a weighty moral tone, and though that's certainly justified, it's not particularly effective at provoking a genuine response from viewers. The work that does produce a response does so through its documentary, not artistic, strength; Jeffery Wolin's photographs of survivors with their stories superimposed on them, or Pier Marton's videotaped interviews with children of survivors, shown in a cattle-car-like environment, are two examples.

 

One artist in "Witness and Legacy" does, however, manage to succeed in addressing the sheer magnitude of the Holocaust, in part through failure. Seth Kramer set out to count one grain of rice for each of the six million victims of the Nazis. He intended to complete his task within a year, but eight months into it, as we see on a videotape, he has reached only one million grains. Kramer is neither monkish nor precious about his task -- the video shows him counting while spouting off to his wife about an encounter with someone who thought the Holocaust didn't happen ("Like I'm hiding six million Jews in my fucking closet!") and arranging mayonnaise jars full of rice on a coffee table while watching TV -- and that very banality gives it power.

In this untitled video, the way the grains of rice are counted and swept into jars becomes a real attempt to grasp the Holocaust (this guy is counting to six million), as well as a representation of the systematic, unflinching way corpses were actually disposed of. It also puts the magnitude of the Holocaust into some perspective. "This," says Kramer matter-of-factly, picking up two jars from a table covered with jars, "is how many Americans died in Vietnam." The other jars sit mutely, making up an impossible abacus meant to count incomprehensible numbers.

hortly after the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., opened in 1993, I visited the building. As I wound through the exhaustive, purposefully claustrophobic display, passing under a replica of the gateway to Auschwitz, I absorbed fragments of history, documentary images and deathly dioramas. Near the end of the exhibit, I approached a four-foot black wall. Behind it was a television screen, shielded from the view of children, that documented both the ghastly physical condition of those in the concentration camps and medical experiments that had been performed on Jewish inmates. I was both horrified and riveted. The short wall gave the images on the monitor the unseemly yet electric charge of the forbidden.

My banal voyeurism, I have since come to believe, is very much a part of how the Holocaust is experienced today, in some measure because the extent of the dehumanization is so incomprehensible that we have a heightened need to see it for ourselves. The works at the Blaffer basically avoid the issue of how the Holocaust is, or can be, represented, choosing to add to rather than address the body of historical evidence and testimony. At the bottom of this avoidance seems to be a fear that once the last of those who experienced the Holocaust firsthand are gone, the Holocaust will become only what is recorded. Therefore such evidence is vitally important -- as is the admission of its shortcomings.

But for most of us, that body of knowledge is already the way we know about the Holocaust: mediated and incomplete. A companion exhibit at the Holocaust Museum Houston (both shows are co-sponsored by the museum and the Blaffer) deals directly and bravely with images of the Holocaust. In "Mein Kampf: The Photography of David Levinthal," Levinthal reproduces those images in staged and photographed tableaux.

In Levinthal's scenes, the characters involved -- Jew and Nazi, victim and victimizer -- are represented by dolls. Levinthal uses toy S.S. soldiers and a Hitler doll that, eerily enough, was cast in the present day from a Third Reichera mold. For the victims he uses various figurines, including some Japanese-made erotic dolls. Each sparsely furnished tableau -- most of them modeled after pictures of real events -- is photographed with a large-format Polaroid against a theatrically lit background in a focus so soft that it's not immediately clear that what we're seeing are toys. One shot, of Hitler standing with his back to the camera as a shadowy dog leaps in front of him, seems for an instant like a freakily intimate glimpse of the FYhrer himself. Yet there's something artificial about it -- his coat is a bit too glossy, his shadow a touch too stark.

In one part of the show, Levinthal exhibits photos of Nazi pageantry; in another, the focus is on Nazi crimes. There's an image of a trumpeter marching in front of a mock Brandenburg Gate; a picture of two male figures shoving a third, naked figure into a crematorium; and another of a doll lying dead in the snow near a simply constructed electric fence. The images are lavishly sensual, saturated with color. But though the work borders on a vampirish aestheticization of horror, Levinthal's project is more complex than that.

 

Levinthal is sophisticated, not evil. His images exaggerate the condition of the memory of the Holocaust, something that's aestheticized, even eroticized, already -- and Levinthal has the toys to prove it. He defends his use of the graphic Japanese-made dolls, for example, by noting that sexually sadistic degradation was part of the dehumanization of the Jews before their death.

A few of Levinthal's images are weak. Filling miniature "mass graves" with flimsy plastic skeletons doesn't quite work, nor does his tossed-off final image of an artily blurred menorah. Beyond that, toys are rather flat -- in his pictures as well as in the playroom, they are what you do with them. Alone, these images wouldn't work, but as a group, they gather force.

By re-enacting Nazi horrors with toys (whose faces one can never quite make out), Levinthal forces us to see them fresh, and to fill in the gaps in detail with our own imagination. Better yet, the exhibit doesn't tell us how to feel about the Holocaust. It lets us approach the terror on our own, relying, however theatrically, on the facts themselves.

Some of the most curious images in the series are the Nazi glamour shots, the pictures of swastika-bearing flags and saluting soldiers and the FYhrer himself against richly red backgrounds. In these pictures, Levinthal emphasizes the fascism of the image and the power of the symbol. On one level, his tiny toys subvert that power; on another, Levinthal's gloomily worshipful depictions of the Nazis serve as a warning about the gloomily worshipful depictions of the Holocaust itself. To deal with one of humanity's greatest transgressions against itself, Levinthal trans-gresses against the rules of how the Holocaust should be approached. Only by doing that does he get to the heart of what we should truly fear: that orthodox representations of the Holocaust, like disciplined displays of Nazi force, will only serve to conceal real, unspeakable terror.

"Witness and Legacy" will be on display through December 14 at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston (entrance no. 16 off Cullen), 743-9530.

"Mein Kampf" will be on display through January 5 at the Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline, 942-8000.


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