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Holocaust Agitprop in Berlin

A film of nude people playing in a gas chamber is but one piece aiming to shock at the Berlin Biennale art show

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Jonas Staal’s New Word Summit at the Berlin Biennale. (Marta Gornicka)

Berlin construction workers are accustomed to excavating the occasional unexploded Soviet shell, but in 2010, while digging a subway tunnel, a crew unearthed a rather different war relic: a cache of 11 sculptures preserved beneath Berlin City Hall. Experts quickly determined that the items, which included the work of long-forgotten Jewish-German modernists like Naom Slutzky and Otto Freundlich, were part of a collection of “degenerate art” confiscated during the Nazi period and, in 1937, deployed throughout the Reich to demonstrate the “Judeo-Bolshevik” domination of German culture.

Seventy-five years after the Nazi campaign against Weimar modernism, the German government is underwriting 26-year-old Polish artist Lukasz Surowiec’s campaign to plant his anti-fascist art in Berlin’s soil. As part of the seventh annual Berlin Biennale, which opened last week and runs through June, Surowiec is transplanting hundreds of birch trees uprooted from the forests surrounding the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp to various spots around the German capital in an effort to “deepen the memory of the Holocaust.” But while Surowiec’s tree installation is designed to draw further attention to the Nazi genocide, his piece is the Biennale’s token: It provides a semblance of contemplation in an exhibit concerned with hackneyed sensationalism and heavy-handed agitprop.

Germany is currently experiencing a profound, if subtle, shift in its dealings with the past—look no further than Günter Grass’ cloddish cri de coeur against Israel, “What Must Be Said,” which provoked an impassioned debate about the limits of national guilt. This fissure—the debate of how Germany’s past affects the discussion of contemporary politics—is starkly on display in this year’s Biennale. Partially underwritten with a $3 million government grant, this year’s show is an exposition of hyper-political art addressing recent German history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Occupy Wall Street movement; interesting subjects in more capable hands.

It was not long ago that Germans were reliably, almost professionally, contrite about their fascist past, establishing a strong relationship with the state of Israel and regularly commemorating the Holocaust. Indeed, while the academic world was critically savaging Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argued that Germans were in thrall to a particularly “eliminationist” strand of anti-Semitism, Germany feted him. The late Israeli journalist Amos Elon observed that Goldhagen, who insisted on calling perpetrators of the Holocaust “Germans” rather than Nazis, was greeted as “a pop star or visiting statesman.”

Though the reticence to criticize Israel largely remains in German society, the Berlin Biennale is aggressively flouting these taboos, and the country’s media isn’t paying much attention. Curated by the Polish artist and controversialist Artur Zmijewski, whose previous work includes a video in which he pressures a reticent Holocaust survivor to re-tattoo the fading concentration camp number his arm, the collection of agitprop art offers a rather singular view of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

“Key of Return,” a Claes Oldenburg-like sculpture of a giant key, advocates for the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, which would likely result in the demographic destruction of the Jewish state. At first blush, its inclusion appears to be balanced by work of Yael Bartana, an Israeli video artist whose “First International Congress of the Jewish Renaissance Movement” advocates, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, a return of Jews to their ancestral homes in Poland. But as one Polish critic noted, the “parallels between the Zionist movement and the invasion [sic] of Palestine in 1947 are intentional” in Bartana’s work. If her politics were still opaque, Bartana is holding a symposium at the Biennale posing the leading question: “How should Israel change to become part of the Middle East?”

Or how about the contribution of Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar, who created postage stamps for a Palestinian state, which were recently issued as usable postage by the German post office? Jarrar also offers Biennale visitors a chance to get their passports stamped with stamps from Palestine, whose image conspicuously erases Israel from the map. Unsurprisingly, Jarrar advocates a one-state solution, something which, in years past, might have unnerved German government sponsors.

“The New World Summit” by Dutch artist Jonas Staal is less a work of art than a debating forum for extremist groups. Staal is staging a two-day conference and “alternative parliament” at the Biennale, composed of the “political and juridical representatives” of outlawed terrorist organizations who will, say the organizers, present their visions of democracy. According to Staal, Western “political prejudices, diplomatic relations, and economic or military interests play a decisive role in labeling an organization as a ‘terrorist group’ ” and make it difficult for groups like al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah to “perform their activities.” This, Stall says, demonstrates the hypocrisy of Western democracies.

In a clumsy manifesto co-signed by Biennale curator Zmijewski, Staal declares that the methods of Islamist groups and the United States are fundamentally “two sides of the same coin”—the “violent policy of the so-called ‘terrorists’ therefor [sic] reflects the violent policy of the so-called ‘democracies.’ ” Staal’s naive project “to include those who are excluded” allows for fanatical anti-Semites and various religious extremists to present their case on German soil (the entire list of proposed “parliamentarians” can be viewed here).

But the most controversial work of the show is “Berek,” a short film Zmijewski made in 1999 that features a group of smiling, naked people playing a game of tag in a Nazi gas chamber. Last year “Berek” was withdrawn from Berlin’s prestigious Martin-Gropius Bau exhibition hall after complaints from Jewish groups, setting off a series of furious counter-complaints of censorship. (The newspaper Die Tageszeitung protested that the film was removed “without debate.”)

According to Zmijewski, the film shines a spotlight on the oppressive nature of memory: “The murdered people are victims—but we, the living, are also victims. And as such we need a kind of treatment or therapy, so we can create a symbolic alternative; instead of dead bodies we can see laughter and life.” A Polish art critic quoted on the Biennale website argues that “Berek” offers “a way of breaking with the kitsch of the Holocaust.”

How this expands our understanding or interpretation of genocide is anyone’s guess, but trite and pretentious artistic “representations” of the Holocaust are depressingly common. The 1998 exhibit “Mirroring Evil” at the Jewish Museum of New York induced outrage with works like “Prada Deathcamp,” a model of a concentration camp built using a Prada hatbox. The artist, Tom Sachs, told the New York Times that he was, for some inexplicable reason, “using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion.” But for those of a more radical persuasion, Sachs offered a connection between capitalism and fascism: “The death camps are examples of amazing German engineering and design. And there are strong links between military products and consumer products.” According to the Jewish Museum, “LEGO Concentration Camp,” a reconstruction of Auschwitz made from Lego bricks featured in the “Mirroring Evil” exhibit, was included for its observation that “the same type of creative construction that little boys do with Lego also took place at concentration camps.”

Such piffle is often deployed to defend lazy art that exists to “shock” its viewer (and to point this out is to court charges of philistinism). And most participants in the Biennale can similarly offer only dopey platitudes and maundering political manifestos about “redefining politics,” the “undemocratic” nature of declaring Hamas a terrorist organization, and suggestions that we “speak out against injustice.”

If the organizers of the Berlin Biennale are concerned about preserving, extending, rethinking, or contextualizing the memory of the Holocaust—which is done, to employ the cliche, so it never happens again—why not muster the artistic bravery to confront contemporary examples of anti-Semitism? Because they exist. And quite a few of them could probably be found milling about the Biennale’s “New World Summit.”


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julis123 says:

1) It’s obvious that this is a German effort to deny their guilt by saying that the Israelis are no better than the Nazis.
2) The Palestinian  leadership in the 1940s were strong Nazi supporters so it’s not surprising to see this partnership re-emerging.
3) Many Germans at least apologized and tried to make amends for their Nazi past. This is something that the Palestinians have never done, just as the Arab states have never admitted that they ethnically cleansed 800,00 Jews from their countries.

     I don’t quite understand how this is a German effort to deny guilt when in fact the two primary offenders in this event are Polish?!

    This article offers an insightful and convincing critique of some very problematic and disturbing art, but I have to disagree with the assertion that this sort of trivialization of the Holocaust is either commonplace or typical of the avant-garde. I find it telling, in fact, that the only other parallel the author offers is to an exhibit–at the Jewish Museum in New York, no less: hardly a bastion of either cutting-edge experimentation or the European radical left–from 1998. Twice in 14 years does not a trend make…?

    I think artists have a right to make even bad art; to tolerate even offensive acts of free speech is precisely what makes expression free in the first place–and it’s not for nothing that the first act against human rights the Nazis pursued on taking power was to ban books. Nonetheless, as viewers and as thinking people we have not only a right but an obligation to speak out against anti-Semitism, especially on behalf of Holocaust victims who can no longer speak for themselves. The author of this article makes the case that this art is an offense to the memory of the Holocaust–all the more tasteless for taking place in Berlin–and he is to be commended for bringing this to our attention….

    Why are the Zionists willing to overlook the enormous atrocities visited on them by whites in order to pursue present day goals like the annihilation of Muslims?

Boychic says:

I wonder how this exhibit makes those Jews who now make their home in Germany feel. Secure? Baffled? Disappointed? Fooled?

    Thinking about aliyah?

    I actually figured your odds were better in Germany over the next 50 years, but I’m starting to rethink that.

Royq says:

Thanks for taking it in so we don’t have to, Michael.  I wonder how indicative the show is of grass roots attitudes in Germany.  The avant-garde has always flirted with antisemitism in its perennial  and tiresome quest to epater le bourgeois.  The fact that it remains something of a taboo, in Germany in particular, just adds to the cheap frisson they’re trying to cook up.  But it’s an inadequate substitute for actual artistic talent.



cesera cesera says:

Dear  ,
 they are right for looking for the historic truth about Gertrude Stein in this however wonderfull exhibition,”The Steins Collect;Matisse,Picasso,Cezanne and the Parisian Avant Garde” in NewYork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art .

Because what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Who was as Picasso an antifascist and antinazi artist .Persecuted by Franco and the Nazis .
But who is in this exhibition ,thanks to Rebecca Rabinow and Edward Burns, perhaps
the only one artist would fought  them weapons in his hands .
Whose father was in jail after the spanish civil war .So Riba-Rovira is beside Tchelitchew and Balthus and Francis Rose near Picabia and Picasso in the last room of this exhibition with Cézanne, Matisse  .

And you have an interesting article in Appollo London Revew about him .And also in Artes Magazine from San Francisco where the exhibition was before .

But the main document as a revelation is with the mention beside the picture with the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for first Riba-Rovira’s exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira “will go farther than Cezanne…will succeed in where Picasso failed…I am fascinated ” by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira ?

Me I am when I see « L’Arlequin » on the free access website of « Galeria Muro ».

But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and  Juan Gris .
Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein’s saloon rue Christine with Masson ,Hemingway and others. By Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .
This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .And her last Gertrude Stein’s Art Retrospective before dead .

It illuminates the tone as an esthetic light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York thanks to Curator Rebecca Rabinow .

Coming from San Francisco “Seeing five stories” in the Jewish museum to Washington in National Portrait Gallery .And now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .

And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Riba-Rovira, Rose ,Tall-Coat, Valloton .Never before it was . 

You have the translate of Gertrude Stein’s Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein’s page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this Roquepine exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought to Riba-Rovira .
There is another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira’s works in an exhibition in Valencia in Spain “Homenage a Gertrude Stein” by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art … 

But we do not missed today that all over Europe a very bad wind is blowing again bringing the worth in front of us .And we must know that at least were two antinazis and antifascists in this exhibition but the only one fighting weapons in hands would be Riba-Rovira who did one of the first three « affiches » supporting Republicans in the beguining Spanish civil war .

Seeing Potrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira in the Metropolitain Museum of New York with Picasso ,Cézanne ,Matisse we feel a recreation of spirit .


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Holocaust Agitprop in Berlin

A film of nude people playing in a gas chamber is but one piece aiming to shock at the Berlin Biennale art show

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