Are certain events so irredeemably evil that art can’t be made about them? Can Nazism and the Holocaust be the subject of art?
A simple rule of thumb might be, since there’s no mention of a special circle in hell for the creators of Hogan’s Heroes, that all is fair in love and war, and art and entertainment. Nothing is off-limits to art, but it helps if the art is original. Which is where “Mirroring Evil,” Norman L. Kleeblatt’s carefully framed, ultimately flat exhibition about Nazi imagery in recent art at the Jewish Museum, falls down.
It needn’t have. Kleeblatt is extremely sensitive to his subject and respectful of his audience. Carefully worded signs inform us that “some Holocaust survivors have been offended by some of the material on view.” The installation is a model of discretion, heedfulness, intellectual curiosity, and emotional engagement. Kleeblatt is no “hype monger,” as he’s been labeled in the press. He cares, and it shows.
It’s not that there hasn’t been a fair amount of art about Nazis; it’s that most of it has been little more than fair. Nevertheless, excellent work has been made on this subject, notably by Anselm Kiefer, Jörg Immendorf, Christian Boltanski, and Art Spiegelman. Recently Rachel Whiteread, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Collier Schorr, and Maurizio Cattelan have created probing works about Hitler and the Holocaust. Unfortunately, none of this work is here and nearly all of it eclipses virtually everything in the show.
“Mirroring Evil” isn’t an insulting exhibition. Nor is it fatuous, sensationalistic, or gratuitous. That is, except for a handful of egregiously stupid or otherwise asinine works—see Tom Sachs’s Zyklon gas canisters and death-camp model, all constructed out of designer packaging; Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO concentration camp; Alan Schechner’s insipid computer insertion of himself (holding a Diet Coke) into a photo of emaciated camp prisoners; Rudolf Herz’s ridiculous wallpaper linking Hitler with Duchamp; and Alain Sèchas’s silly Hitler kitties.
Parkett associate editor Ali Subotinik calls “Mirroring Evil” “the Jewish ‘Sensation’ with weaker work.” In fact, for all the darkness, complexity, horror, and loss that this show might have mirrored, this is a remarkably tame exhibition. There’s little in it that is disturbing or explicit. Evil, Nazism, or immorality is barely touched on; most of the work is devoid of ambiguity or metaphor. The elaborate, fraught psychic space mapped out in Whiteread’s Vienna Holocaust memorial, for example, is entirely absent here. As art critic Massimiliano Giori put it, “There is nothing elegiac, heartbreaking, or stomach turning.” Everything, in other words, is literal and leveled out.
But if “Mirroring Evil” is artistically weak, its heart is in the right place. An entryway monitor screens scenes from Cabaret and The Producers, interspersed with didactic questions like “Why must we confront evil?” and “What are the limits of irreverence?” In the next gallery is the best piece in the exhibition, Piotr Ukla´nski’s The Nazis, a group of 145 small black-and-white and color portraits of famous actors portraying German soldiers. Here you will see everyone from Ronald Reagan and Robert Redford to Sonny Bono and Jerry Lewis in full Nazi drag.
Ukla´nski’s simple, post-Pop gesture explicitly illustrates our ongoing fascination with Nazis, and the ways we make them sexy. In addition to Ukla´nski’s, the work of Maciej Toporowicz, Mischa Kuball, Elke Krystufek, and Boaz Arad all look fine, especially Toporowicz’s film montage that combines Calvin Klein ads and scenes from Visconti’s The Damned. Hating Ukla´nski or any of the artists in “Mirroring Evil”—even the imbeciles—for re-presenting what has been presented to us numerous times before, and in infinitely more inane ways, is killing the messenger. Keep in mind (and this should be carved in stone above museum entrances): Rejecting works of art based on subject matter is risky business. Sooner or later, someone will come for your subject matter, too.
The real problem with most of the art in “Mirroring Evil” isn’t what it’s about, but what it looks like. Which, in all but a few cases, isn’t very original. Primarily, what is on display is late-late neo-conceptualism, which thrives mainly in institutions, and is conservative to the core.
How else to explain Christine Borland’s earnest but sanctimonious project involving portrait busts, fashioned by trained forensic sculptors, of the infamous Nazi Dr. Mengele? If it weren’t for the hidden-identity gimmick, this piece would be just bad 19th-century academicism. Roee Rosen’s Kara Walker-meets-William Kentridge comix storyboard, Live and Die as Eva Braun, asks viewers to assume “the role of Hitler’s mistress”—another gimmick with no emotional, intellectual, or visual payoff. And no depth. Mostly Rosen just makes you miss Spiegelman’s masterpiece, Maus. As for Matt Collishaw’s lightboxes with s/m images of debauched Nazis: They’re too trendy and elegant by half.
The biggest story about “Mirroring Evil” is that it warrants no story. The right-wing press and The Wall Street Journal may be in a tizzy, branding the exhibition “insulting” and “an affront.” At the press preview, thought-police types scrutinized works for “questionable content.” Last week, “outraged” groups protested, and one camp survivor displayed a placard that said “Genocide Is Not Art.” But really, you want to say, “Neither is most of the work in the show.” The Jewish Museum is to be solidly applauded for mounting an exhibition of this kind and in this way. The irony is that none of the art in “Mirroring Evil” is worth protesting, except on artistic grounds. Most of it is harmless, which is its only crime.