Burnt Whole: Contemporary Artists Reflect on the Holocaust
at the Institute of Contemporary Art Through April 9
Curated by Karen Holtzman
"Cockroaches come out at night," intones a voice-over announcer in German. On three television screens, larger-than-life cockroaches crawl over sausages and bread. "They breed all over the world," continues the announcer. "For health reasons alone they must be exterminated." Scientists appear, wielding pipettes and tanks of lethal gas. Piles of cockroach cadavers are swept up into dustpans.
When artist Yael Bedarshi discovered this promotional film in Berlin a few years ago, the sponsor's name was instantly and ominously familiar. Bayer, a developer of cockroach control chemicals, was a subsidiary of IG Farben during World War II. IG Farben was the chemical cartel responsible for the manufacturing of Zyklon B gas, a pesticide used to exterminate victims of he Nazi regime.
Cockroaches and Jews? The connection Bedarski makes in displaying an edited version of Bayer's promotional tape as art (Cockroaches, 1993-94) is creepily potent. Her monitors are set up on the lowest level of the ICA, in a corner draped in black, appropriately damp and smelling faintly of sewage. Cockroaches accomplishes a disturbing transference of emotion. Already slightly queasy at the sight of six inch cockroaches, the viewer is easily horrified by the appearance of Germans in gas masks speaking calmly and matter-of-factly about efficient modes of extermination. Bedarski's parallel is clever, subversive and electric.
The rest of the exhibition is subtler, tamer and less effective. Burnt Whole: Contemporary Artists Reflect on the Holocaust delivers what its title promises, but not necessarily what the visitor expects. All thirty-one artists involved were born after World War II. Although there are some direct responses to the Holocaust itself, many of the works displayed are responses to response, depictions of secondhand guilt. Several of the artists are groping in the dark, trying to understand stories which were never spoken, and history which was never quite revealed to them. In their art, they try to grasp the meaning of elusion. Why should it be so difficult to recall the Holocaust?
Unfortunately, the viewer finds himself asking the same question. Why is it so hard to recall the Holocaust through through this exhibition? The artists expect a lot of themselves, but so do the observers. There is a self-induced pressure to understand, not just mentally, but viscerally, the horror of mass death. Burnt Whole fails to produce the necessary gut reaction, leaving the viewer confused, between guilt and disappointment.
Part of the problem is the way the exhibition is set up. Paintings and mixed-media pieces are neatly separated from each other on white walls illuminated by track lighting; the rooms, distributed over three floors, are distinct and geometric; and in general there is an atmosphere of preserved sterility, even banality. On the landing, under Steven Evans' homage to homosexuals persecuted by the Nazi regime, is an incongruous dried flower arrangement, left by oversight. One of the best pieces in the exhibition, Christian Boltanski's Le Tiroire (1988), is obscured by the reflection of the main door in its glass surface.
Small imperfections aside, the general white flatness of the space is strategic, according to the documentary video prepared by ICA video Curator/Director Branka Bogdanovich. (Incidentally, the video space is also plagued by a slight sewer smell--less appropriately than in the cockroach exhibit.) The exhibition space is supposed to represent the sterilization of the Holocaust--the way in which it is rendered historically innocuous. Hopefully, the viewer will stick around long enough to figure that out.
Burnt Whole's set-up is a case of mistaken form-and-content parallel. The sterilization of mass memory is much more skilfully represented in specific pieces. The ICA's surgical ambiance serves only to deaden their effect. In the documentary, the art is more powerfully arranged on an exposed brick wall.
Some of the most striking representations of a sterilized or blurred. Michel Dector and Michel Dupuy's joint contribution, Drancy (1994), is a segmented white canvas with a smeared, irregular blot faded into its surface. Suggestive at first glance of a stain beneath the skin, good and evil blurred, it is identified in the exhibition program as the depiction of a swastika, whitewashed over in a Paris suburb. According to the artists, the French authorities paint over persistent expressions of Neo-Nazi sympathy. Drancy's whitewash addresses the equally obscured period in French history of Vichy France complicity.
Obviously, the program notes are iluminating and often indispensable. Most of the art is highly conceptual; sometimes the explanations are more interesting than the actual pieces. This is not an easily penetrable exhibition.
An exception is Dagmar Demming's Supplies for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (1994). Demming installs a series of ordinary soap dishes throughout the exhibition space, each holding a bar of fossilized soap. According to the program, "They symbolize the constant need to cleanse away guilt," At the same time, they inevitably suggest the bars of soap handed to the prisoners of Auschwitz as they were herded into the gas chamber "showers." It is unnecessary to analyze Demming's installment in order to feel its effect.
Mixed media pieces are in the majority in Burnt Whole. Andrea Fisher, working is glass, plastic and photographic images, produces one of the most delicately beautiful pieces in the show, "I told him that my mother's misfortune took up the space of dreams"-- Marguerite Duras II, (1195). More humorous is Ellen Rothenberg's pile of pink erasers, each printed with the word "GUILT," in Gothic lettering. Art Spiegelman, famous as the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Maus, a cartoon retelling of the Holocaust, contributes sketches and studies.
Many of the paintings and exhibits are illuminating, when duly studied and understood, but in the face of the exhibition's stated "fear that the Holocaust may be forgotten," they are not enough. Few will bother to spend two hours reading, talking notes and collecting information to create a lasting memory. Those who do will leave feeling frustrated, somehow dissatisfied with intellectual conclusions. Just because this art is about distance doesn't mean we should be distanced from the art.
We come closer to an emotional understanding of the Holocaust in the televised images of the survivors of Auschwitz gathered fifty years later, or even in the yearly Harvard tradition of reading aloud from Widener steps an unending list of the names of the victims. Visit the exhibition for a perceptive look at second-hand memory, but don't expect to create your own memories in the process.