Other Voices, v.2, n.3 (January 2005)
Copyright © 2005, Other Voices/Dora Apel, all rights reserved.
When Michael Kimmelman, an art critic for The New York Times, mocked and trivialized the Mirroring Evil exhibition at the Jewish Museum, he spoke for many survivors. The art, suggested this veteran critic, would leave one feeling "confused, excluded and finally bored, if not pained and offended." He reserved his most biting ridicule for Polish artist Maciej Toporowicz's video work Obsession, writing: "And previously you weren't able to distinguish between a Calvin Klein television commercial and a Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film. But now that we have a video in this exhibition to show how closely related they are in the use of certain sexy visual cues and devices, you will be more circumspect when you next shop for underwear. Now you know that your innate attraction to these kinds of images is a dire warning of the fine line between being enticed to buy expensive lingerie and being persuaded to go along with state-sponsored mass murder. Feel better now?" Echoing the sentiments of those who suggest that the exhibition is so banal or offensive as to merit no consideration at all, Kimmelman was unable to recognize or simply refused to address the deeper issues raised by this work, instead confessing to the intense pressure against the exhibition that was personally directed at him: "I am being grumpy partly, I suppose, because of the anguished e-mail messages from Holocaust survivors and their relatives who tell me how stunned they are that the Jewish Museum would present Tom Sachs (of the Prada death camp)."1 Sachs outraged many survivors by likening the mechanisms of fascism to the mechanisms of fashion.
The postwar generations have invented new strategies for coming to terms with the continuing effects of Holocaust and Nazi imagery on contemporary culture, and the uneasiness their work causes stems in part from the fact that our society has never fully come to terms with these events. There is, of course, no access to the historical events of the Holocaust other than through representation; thus the understanding of the Holocaust by those born later is highly mediated by the many forms this representation takes and survivors rightly realize that a great deal is therefore at stake in representation. But the purpose of the thirteen artists in Mirroring Evil is to make visible, in imaginative ways that are more or less successful, the already highly mediated ways in which we have all come to know about the Holocaust, including hundreds of films and a well-known public archive of photographs, addressed in different ways by various artists in the exhibition.
Toporowicz's video, combining clips from Nazi films, films about Nazis, and Calvin Klein advertising, addresses something deeply disturbing and uncomfortable. The work makes visible not just the appropriation of Nazi visual tropes in contemporary advertising, but in popular films that have, perhaps even more explicitly than advertising, made Nazism and the Holocaust "sexy." The larger question is not only how Nazi imagery harnessed the deepest yearnings and desires of ordinary people, but how ideologically seductive these visual tropes of racial "whiteness" and power have continued to be through the decades in other forms of representation, and how easily adapted they continue to be for contemporary commercial—and political—uses, in a world where whiteness continues to be a changeable and contested term. The more familiar notion of Nazi "racial purity" in fact relies on the assumption of whiteness found in Greek classical statuary, which became the foundation for the hyper-classicized imagery of the "Aryan" ideal as well as the basis for the social construction of a sleek idealized beauty in contemporary advertising. The Jews back then—like Arabs today, it might be argued—were ideologically raced as "other," meaning "non-white," a category with continuing ominous implications in countries like the United States.
Piotr Uklanski's photographic project The Nazis presents a series of 123 publicity shots and photo stills of Hollywood's most enduring and beloved leading white men as attractive, haunted, imperious, tormenting and tormented Nazis. The unlabeled faces can be easily identified and matched with the films in which they appeared in the book publication of Uklanski's project. Robert Duvall (The Eagle Has Landed, 1976), Roger Moore (Escape to Athena, 1979), Yul Brynner (Triple Cross, 1966), Richard Burton (Massacre in Rome, 1973), Gregory Peck (The Guns of Navarrone, 1961), Dirk Bogarde (The Night Porter, 1973), Liam Neeson, Michael Douglas (Shining Through, 1992), Marlon Brando (Roots: The Next Generations, 1979), Ed Harris (Code Name: Emerald, 1985), Christopher Plummer, Harrison Ford (Hanover Street, 1979), Nick Nolte (Mother Night, 1996), and of course Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List (1992) are just some of the many actors who have come to represent for us "the Nazis," both chilling and glamorous in their uniforms and swastika armbands. It's from films like these that the postwar generations have learned about Nazism and the Holocaust, and they have played a far greater role in Holocaust consciousness than almost any other medium—making the line between representation and history blurry indeed.
The only other image of a Nazi as recognizable as these handsome faces is that of Hitler himself, who appears in quixotic juxtaposition with the face of Marcel Duchamp in Zugzwang, a work by Rudolf Herz. Here a room is wallpapered with the alternating faces of arguably the two figures who had the most signal impact on twentieth-century art, as if on a chessboard (implied by the title)2, and taken by the same photographer twenty years apart. The progenitor of conceptualism and the would-be destroyer of artistic freedom engage in a kind of contest of endurance in which the artistic and intellectual gamesmanship produced by the work already signals the profoundly successful effects of Duchampian practice, yet implies the ever-threatening existence of repressive forces.
On the basis of just these examples, we can argue that the attempt to discredit this exhibition as a whole and mark it as unworthy of any serious attention becomes an attempt to delegitimize an entire postwar generation of artists because their works have exceeded the boundaries for artmaking established by the war generation. The perspective of those born later is indeed different from those who were there—contemporary artists strive to show how the past is continually reconstructed according to the needs and pressures of the present. Postwar artists who address the effects of the Holocaust often turn to an interdisciplinary art practice that is nonnarrative, polyvalent, metaphorical, enigmatic and ambiguous. This is not surprising, given the difficult, elusive, and enormous nature of the subject.3 Survivors often tend to see Holocaust representation in binary terms, as either sacralized or desacralized. The discourse of sacralization finds its best-known exponent in Elie Wiesel, the most influential American interpreter of the Holocaust, who assigns a religious significance to the events of the Holocaust "equal to the revelation at Sinai."4 Wiesel suggests that attempts to "desanctify" or "demystify" the Holocaust are subtle forms of antisemitism. A desacralized approach might be defined as a self-consciousness that always places "the Holocaust" in relation to the circumstances of its representation in the present, recognizing the fragmented and conflicted nature of experience and subjectivity, and the difficulty of retrieving knowledge from the past, while using the events of the past to produce new knowledge and greater awareness in the present. Thus, while not exactly mirroring evil, contemporary artists such as those in Mirroring Evil more precisely mirror the effects of representation; while seeing their role as producing new ways of seeing, they also sometimes illuminate the ways in which we have learned to see.
1. Michael Kimmelman, "Evil, the Nazis and Shock Value," New York Times, 15 March 2002, front page "Weekend: Fine Arts Leisure."
2. Zugzwang "refers to the untenable situation in which a player is limited to moves that will have a damaging effect on his or her position." Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, edited by Norman Kleeblatt (New York: The Jewish Museum, and New Brunswick, NJ, and London: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 118.
3. See my Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (Rutgers University Press, 2002).
4. Quoted in Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1999), 201.
Dora Apel received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and serves as W. Hawkins Ferry Chair in Modern & Contemporary Art History at Wayne State University. Her recent works include Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing (Rutgers University Press, 2002) and Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women and the Mob (Rutgers University Press, 2004). She also has published articles on gender and national identity in visual imagery of the Weimar Republic, Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Diego Rivera’s RCA mural in New York and numerous art and book reviews. Her teaching and research interests include 20th century European and American art, contemporary photography, modernism and postmodern visual culture.