There were plenty of words last Sunday morning on East 92nd Street, but not the sort The Jewish Museum had hoped for when it planned a provocative exhibition of contemporary art meant to rekindle dialogue about Holocaust memory.
About 100 yeshiva students, politicians, Holocaust survivors and other community members, most of them from Brooklyn, directed chants of “Shame on You” and “Don’t go in” toward anyone who approached the museum’s front doors at the 10 a.m. opening of “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art.”
A few turned away, to cheers, but most were eager to get inside to see “Lego Concentration Camp Set” and other now infamous works.
“I think there is a confusion in the minds of people who object to the show,” Herbert Okun told The Jewish Week a few minutes after he had heard the shouts of protestors and passed through metal detectors into the museum lobby. “There’s a big difference between representing and approving. We ought to commend the museum for this show that stimulates thought and interest in the subject,” said the former U.S. ambassador to East Germany.
But outside, others found the show to be a mockery of the victims of the Holocaust. “I dropped my museum membership,” said Hedwig Heller, an Auschwitz survivor there for the protest. “The Holocaust is beyond comprehension, and so is The Jewish Museum that they could do this.”
There were a few heated exchanges outside the building, and by 11 a.m., the crowd had largely dissipated and police officers began dismantling barricades.
The museum now hopes that public debate will shift from the outrage of survivors to the issues raised by the artists. But with Sunday attendance at 1,310 — moderate for a contemporary show but far below the average figures for a Chagall show — and the exhibition netting a collective yawn from New York art critics, the art may continue to remain secondary to the debate it has spawned.
“Sometimes large institutions find out that they can get cut by the cutting edge,” said NaRhee Ahn, program director at the Asian American Arts Alliance, who witnessed a similar recent clash and eventual reconciliation between young artists and traditional audiences at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, in New York’s Chinatown.
Menachem Rosensaft, who organized the protest with Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, is continuing to press for a boycott. As of Monday, one school group had canceled a planned trip, said museum spokeswoman Anne Scher.
As for the first-floor exhibition itself, every step is carefully moderated. A new exit was cut to allow visitors to leave at the halfway point. And the show is bookended by explicatory buffer zones.
At the beginning, the visitor first encounters statements from director Joan Rosenbaum and curator Norman Kleeblatt, as well as the first of two warning signs. “This art is cautionary rather than memorial,” Rosenbaum says in the statement. “It warns us not to take for granted the symbols of oppression that pervade our outlets of news and entertainment. It conveys a sense of wariness about techniques of persuasion, including those we encounter in the marketplace.”
There is also a short video, assembled by art critic and curator Maurice Berger, composed of clips from movies and television shows like “Brooklyn Bridge,” “Cabaret” and “Skokie.” One must resist humming “Springtime for Hitler” when moving along into the first room, which displays Piotr Uklanski’s “The Nazis,” a frieze of 147 color photographs of Hollywood actors in Nazi uniforms.
At the crux of the controversy over “Mirroring Evil” is the transference of conceptual art from commercial galleries to a Jewish museum. Though the 18 works share the use of Nazi imagery, the 13 artists all emerge from and respond to disparate national and cultural preoccupations, from Israeli identity to haute couture.
“I firmly believe that controversial artwork brings to light all undiscussed issues,” said Babette Albin, a poet and mother who went to the museum in support of free speech. The audacity of some protestors bearing signs like “Nazi Museum” angered her more than any of the work in the exhibition, she said.
Others went with open minds but were disappointed.
“There’s no there there,” said Shira Dicker. The (recently resigned) communications director at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture attended the media preview last Wednesday and called the show “insubstantial and trendy. It says nothing about encountering evil and being a Jew.”
She said her comments are her own and do not reflect those of the NFJC, which last week released a statement urging “the community to respect the museum’s right and responsibility to mount exhibits which reflect the full spectrum of Jewish expression and experience.”
Yet the wall panels in many instances do not always give audiences a complete sense of the artists’ intentions. To better understand Tom Sachs’ high-fashion canisters of Zyklon B, “Giftgas Giftset,” one should know that “Gift” means poison in German, explains Herbert Okun. The work can be construed as a sort of visual pun.
A similar twisting of language, to different ends, occurs in Boaz Arad’s 13-second video “Hebrew Lesson.” Searching hours of stock footage, the Israeli artist spliced fragments of Hitler’s bombastic speeches to make him say “Shalom, Yerushalayim, ani mitnazel (Hello, Jerusalem, I apologize).”
Roee Rosen’s large installation “Live and Die as Eva Braun” uses variously charming and repulsive drawings and texts to ask viewers to imagine themselves as Hitler’s mistress. This was one of the few works not caught up in the firestorm, presumable because it’s too large and complex to be easily judged or represented by a single shocking image.
These unusual historical imaginings upset those who prefer direct representations of the horrors of the Holocaust. Zbigniew Libera’s use of an innocent plaything (Legos) to render genocide has lead to cries of Holocaust trivialization. Other artists have used children’s toys to recreate events of World War II, but this larger art context is only addressed in the catalogue, not the exhibition itself.
The American Jewish artist David Levinthal, for example, photographed toy soldiers in his eerily naturalistic series “Hitler Moves East” (1977) and “Mein Kampf” (1994-6).
But Kleeblatt, the show’s curator, boldly chose to focus on younger, lesser-known artists, born in the ‘50s and ‘60s, who are further from the events and deemed to have their own newer means of approaching the Shoah through its representation, especially in popular culture. The addition of established works by Levinthal or Art Spiegelman may have added art historical bona fides to the show, but would have detracted from the sense of experimentation and riskiness of “Mirroring Evil.”
As a sort of epilogue, The Jewish Museum has added a final room meant to provide further explanation of the art. Many visitors crowded around a video of brief comments and insights from the artists, museum officials, historians, and average citizens, including a homemaker and a Holocaust survivor.
Only one of these voices offers any sort of dissent, but the museum has also posted wall quotes generated in the media over the last few months from critics like Rosensaft and Elie Wiesel as well as supporters like Michael Berenbaum and Rabbi Irwin Kula.
The museum also continues to enhance the educational potential of the show. Visitors on Sunday were met with a battery of docents and educators bearing photocopied flyers listing additional information like other Holocaust-related art on view, a daily dialogue in the café and hourly guided tours.
That is not to mention a glossy program calendar of panel discussions, films and lectures with historians and artists throughout the spring.