The Experience of Auschwitz

“Poland––Israel––Germany:  The Experience of Auschwitz”
Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK), May 14-September 30, 2015


A memory evoked too often, and expressed in the form of a story, tends to become fixed in stereotype...crystallized, perfected, adorned, installing itself in the place of the raw memory and growing at its expense.  ––Primo Levi


The distinction between the Holocaust as a historical event and the Holocaust as a cultural topos is not new.  The Holocaust as such ended seventy years ago.  The Holocaust as a cultural phenomenon is ongoing––the Holocaust as a symbolic entity, a complex of lessons and puzzles and agonies, a motif, a “place” of inquiry and of the rupture of inquiry that the world is still trying to grasp.  MOCAK’s current exhibition “The Experience of Auschwitz” addresses the latter, the Holocaust as an aspect of cultural discourse, or more precisely, as a discourse in contemporary art.

The exhibition does not offer a comparative historical approach (something partly offered in a small parallel exhibition focusing on the artist Yehuda Bacon).  Rather it presents a survey of works mostly from the last twenty years, with an emphasis on work from the 1990s.  At times it seems as if the curators still think it is the 1990s.  As this exhibition offers it, art about the Holocaust is virtually emotionless––it not an outcry, or a scream of pain or horror or confusion.  It is not a lamentation, not an expression of grief or mourning or an address of the human heart to the sheer evil for which the Holocaust stands.  And it is not testimonial––not an investigation into something that happened in the shared world, or something that happened and might still be happening within a person.  By their absence, the viewer infers that these approaches are presumably old or outmoded or both.

Instead, the exhibition presents work by artists who approach the Holocaust much as they might approach a myriad of other subjects:  as an object on which to perform artistic acts, enact artistic designs, apply artistic strategies, test artistic hypotheses.  Almost without exception––and rather against the curators’ suggestion that the artists’ national/ethnic origin begets a certain type of artistic practice––the artists in “The Experience of Auschwitz” treat the Holocaust variously as a topic of ironic commentary, a pop-culture commodity to be mocked, a prefigured image to be recycled or evoked, a stereotype to be confirmed or disconfirmed, and a source of ekphrastic image-making.  The Holocaust is, in short, a creature of postmodernity, a subject for conceptual games.  Let me give some examples.

Agata Siwek, Original Souvenirs from Auschwitz-Birkenau (2002), detail

Erez Israeli, My eBay Collection #1 (2009), detail

Grzegorz Klaman, Kunst Macht Frei (2003)


Three works greet the visitor:  Agata Siwek’s Original Souvenirs from Auschwitz-Birkenau (2002), a collection of ersatz tourist paraphernalia in a vitrine just outside the exhibition; Grzegorz Klaman’s Kunst Macht Frei (2003), an altered replica of the infamous sign at the gate at Auschwitz, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work makes you free”) hanging in the wide threshold of the gallery itself; and Erez Israeli’s My eBay Collection #1 (2009), an installation of replica Holocaust memorabilia that the artist has bought at auction, together with descriptions and bidding records.  All three pieces implicate themselves, and by extension all that is to follow, in a pre-emptive critique.  Art about the Holocaust, we learn, is a bad joke from the start because Auschwitz itself has been corrupted in advance, reduced to a commodified spectacle and a tourist trap.  And art about the Holocaust is a sham about a sham, a restaging of an imitation––all the more insipid because the fake momentos are actually worth money in our sophisticatedly stupid market-driven world.  And like the Auschwitz gate’s giant lie, art is a false promise, freeing nothing, except that we, in contrast to the forced laborers of Auschwitz, are not only art’s prisoners, but also its dupes.  None of these pieces, to state the obvious, really concerns the Holocaust.  Rather they concern its afterlife, which is for all three pieces a closed circuit of meanings.

Ernst Volland, E8, E10 (1997)

Naomi Tereza Salmon, Asservate / Exhibits (1994), detail


In a similar spirit, photographer Ernst Volland approaches the Holocaust as an intrinsically derivative phenomenon.  His diptych E8, E10 (1997), hanging some five meters high (for reasons I can only believe have to do with a shortage of wallspace), is a rephotographing of iconic images of Hitler and the barbed wire fences of Auschwitz, with the originals intentionally thrown out of focus.  It is not that they become unrecognizable, but the reverse––we become aware of a hyperrecognition, of what seems an essential recognizability precisely in spite of the visual irresolution.  The artist’s point is clever, but is much more a comment about iconicity itself than about Hitler and Auschwitz in particular.  They are not so much the subjects of the pictures as the means of the pictures, instrumentally valuable because they make the point cogently.  It almost goes without saying that the same point could as easily be made with any number of other iconic subjects; the Holocaust is sufficient but not necessary for Volland’s purposes.  Beside Volland’s pieces hang a series of paintings by Wilhelm Sasnal, which take Volland’s logic a step further.  Sasnal became known in the early 2000s for a series of paintings derived from Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel Maus, in which Sasnal reproduced Spiegelman’s drawings without the drawings, only the text bubbles.  For this exhibition he painted over leftover canvases from that body of work, moving them a step beyond their original (self-consciously) derivative position concerning representation of the Holocaust, and decidedly into the realm of esoterica.  If the artist’s markmaking forms a way of understanding the symbolic status of the Holocaust, it is legible only to him; for other viewers, these works are insightful as paintings about painting.  

Naomi Tereza Salmon’s photo-installation Asservate / Exhibits (1994) surrenders what could have been a fresh encounter to a stale framing device.  Her careful studies of artifactual remains of the Holocaust in the collection of Yad Vashem are taxonomic specimens, each photographed in a rigidly controlled studio environment, such that they become variations of one another, or perhaps pointers to some unshowable Platonic anti-form.  Removed from the world to float on an aspectless ground, they are then submitted to the prepossessing logic of the grid, ubiquitous as the the ur-symbol of all things mindlessly systematic and dangerously replicative.  So rendered, these eyeglasses, dentures and shaving brushes are denatured even as generic evidence of the Holocaust, not to mention as links to the bodies of murdered people, to become just one more type of detritus retrieved from some infinite twentieth-century garbage heap.   The formulaic visual approach and appeal to the grid are less revelations about the Holocaust than about the conceits of contemporary art from the nineties.

Zbigniew Libera, KLZ Lego (1996), detail

Artur Żmijewski, The Game of Tag (1999), still


The nineties make their biggest (re)appearance in well-known pieces by Zbigniew Libera and Artur Żmijewski.  Libera’s KLZ Lego (1996)––shown here not in its original form as installation but (without explanation) in photographs of the original––and Żmijewski’s The Game of Tag (1999) are self-conscious provocations.  The former is an elaborate children’s toy of Auschwitz, and the latter a video performance of adults playing a children’s game of tag, which begins in a bare cement basement and at a certain point cuts to an actual gas chamber.  In both, the Holocaust figures basically as a device for an easy attack on the sanctity of martyrs, and on the mythic innocence of children.  It may be true that not-funny irony makes better art than non-ironic sincerity, but what insight really follows from the proposition that solemnity can be burlesqued?  Not much, in my eyes.  These pieces, especially now in retrospect, carry about the same degree of scandal as a teenager spraypainting a penis on a church.  The rebellion does not go all that far.  

Sigalit Landau, Victory of Memory––Island of Shoes (2013)

Sigalit Landau, Salted Lake (2013), still

The most far-reaching pieces in the exhibition belong to Sigalit Landau in two related works, Victory of Memory––Island of Shoes (2013) and Salted Lake (2013).  Both pieces involve shoes that Landau has submerged for weeks in the Dead Sea, until they have acquired a thick deposit of crystalline salt.  The former piece is a sizable pile of these shoes, and the latter (in a particularly elegant gesture) a film of them perched on the ice and snow covering Gdańsk harbor in winter, the salt slowly melting the ice, so that the shoes gradually sink into Polish waters.  Landau’s symbolism is subtle:  salt is of course both a preservative and a desiccant.  It evokes both healing and sereness, warmth and thirst.  But even here, in work that beautifully recalls the words of the poet Robert Hass, “poetry ought to be able to comprehend the earth,” it seems reasonable to ask how a natural process becomes a historically referential one?  The answer has nothing to do with the physical remains of the Holocaust itself, as the shoes of the murdered Jews of Europe are not what Landau put into briny water.  Rather she relies on the presumed cultural force of Holocaust stereotypes, by which a shoe––any shoe, and certainly any pile of shoes––somehow begins to transubstantiate into the shoes notoriously on display at Auschwitz and at Majdanek.  Krzystyna Piotrowska’s Carpet (2013) operates in the same way.  A small textile made of human hair, it is presented as part of MOCAK’s permanent collection and not included in “The Experience of Auschwitz,” though is altogether compatible with it.  MOCAK’s curators write about Piotrowska’s piece as follows:  “The experience of Auschwitz has affected today’s perception of human hair.  Cut-off and tangled, it instinctively brings connotations of subordination and death.”  There is something too easy here.  It is not so different from suggesting that any contemporary cruise ship cannot help but evoke the Titanic disaster, or that a cumulous cloud in Japan cannot help but recall the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima.  Really?  Why?  It seems to me incumbent on both artists and curators to distinguish accidental association from real reference, especially in the case of atrocity.  At stake is the balance of history and invention on which work about atrocity pivots––with the right balance keeping the work from falling into the solipsism of art games.

Krzystyna Piotrowska Carpet (2013)

The overall spirit of “The Experience of Auschwitz” is a rejection of the Holocaust as a sacred mystery––a development that I would count as positive.  But implicitly it is also a rejection of other things.  Most obviously to me, the show turns away from the world itself––the world where the Holocaust happened and continues to ripple forward in time––in favor of what strikes me as an insular world of aesthetic events.  Many will disagree with the term “aestheticizing” to describe these works, but it isn’t obvious to me why the term is wrong.  Not all aestheticization involves sentimentality, romanticization, and irresistible beauty––things that most of the works in the show disavow in one way or another.  The question is how a work of art treats its subject.  Does it convert it to the terms of art itself, which is to say subject it to those terms, colonize it with those terms?  Or does it allow the subject a freedom within itself (as it were), a condition of non-possession from the terms of its own artistic maneuverings?  If the former, or predominately the former, it seems to me fair to call a work of art an aestheticization.  By this definition, the preponderance of works in this show are aestheticizing.  It is noteworthy to me that while photography and video are the dominant media in the show, observational approaches are all but absent, as if they were somehow intrinsically non-conceptualist, or incompatible with conceptualist conventions.

Further, this exhibition offers the Holocaust as by definition an overdetermined subject, but one acting paradoxically to concentrate its multiple potencies into increasingly trivial things.  The upshot is that the Holocaust itself acquires triviality as a defining feature.  At its root, this is the same process by which high culture becomes pop kitsch, except that the trivialization with regard to the Holocaust occurs precisely by means of high culture, such as the works in this show.  In contrast to the Mona Lisa or Michaelangelo’s David or Monet’s waterlilies, we do not have tote bags and t-shirts and keychains of Auschwitz, except at contemporary art exhibitions.  Moreover, it seems to me that certain unspoken conventions of conceptual art allow the artists to disavow the moral implications of this trivialization.  Insofar as it is a predicating term of conceptualism that artists are not so much creators as initiators and overseers of processes, the artists figure as impersonal authorizing presences lurking somewhere above or behind their works––not so different from the way scientists figure as remote authorities behind scientific findings, rather than as distinct consciences or intelligences within them.  Again, the prevalence of this approach in “The Experience of Auschwitz” does not owe to the Holocaust as a subject, but to the kind of orthodox postmodernism with which the curators are evidently in thrall.

Lastly, MOCAK’s exhibition comes very close to renouncing the Holocaust as a subject about which moral seriousness is possible, much less ethical urgency.  As this exhibition hands it to us, the Holocaust is at the least a subject of spent energies, and often a vulgar spectacle about which the artist can only be cynical.  If the most popular slogan of the Holocaust remains the injunction “Never Forget,” MOCAK’s exhibition could be said to ask, “Are we at liberty to remain indifferent?”  The exhibition’s answer is, in general, yes. 

Altogether, “The Experience of Auschwitz” contains little that I would call experiential, and I question whether its true subject is Auschwitz and the Holocaust at all.  Neither the controversies it engages nor most of the works it presents are new.  The crisis over representation, memory, postmemory and the Holocaust was already exhaustively debated in the scholarship of the 1990s, and cogently brought to the art-going public in the 2000s, most notably in the landmark 2002 exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, Mirroring Evil:  Nazi Imagery/Recent Art.  MOCAK’s curators assert that the state of the debate remains essentially where it has been for a generation.  If they are right, contemporary art on the Holocaust remains preoccupied with the Holocaust’s symbolic emptiness, its dried-up relevance, and its status as desiccated truth.  But it could be that the Holocaust turns out to be the measure of art’s emptiness, dried-up relevance, and desiccated truth.


Kraków, May 2015