Most of this artwork addresses the fringes of societal criticism and commentary and have minimally engaging Jewish content. A meticulous chart of Meyer Lansky’s Financial Network (Mark Lombardi), a photo-realistic drawing of Stairs to Freud’s Apartment (Robert Longo) and a photo of Israeli youth dancing in G-d is in Our Clubs (Tomer Ganihar) are among the works that fail to engage either the Jewish intellect or a sophisticated aesthetic sense. The
general absence of overt Judaic content and relevance makes this exhibition indistinguishable from most contemporary ideas found in New York galleries. Many of these works have in fact been seen in the avant-garde scene before. Taken as a whole, it is mildly interesting as a survey of postmodernist sensibility, and yet there is one notable exception. Tirtza Even and Brian Karl’s digital video, Far Along (2001), engages the imagination with a troubling vision of
contemporary Germany unlike anything else in this exhibition.
The 26-minute video is composed of 15 vignettes capturing what seems at first to be daily life in contemporary Germany. Almost totally silent in its observations, the video is introduced with a short voice-over from the book “Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany” by Marion A. Kaplan. These chilling words are from a memoir: “I could pinpoint no exact date when normal…association with Jewish friends became an act of defiance and then petered out… When was it that credulity turned into doubt, doubt to resignation…” The text introduces us to an operative paradigm of the video: absence.
After 1933, Jews in Germany became legally ostracized, little by little becoming socially invisible and finally disappearing into the abyss. The video focuses in subtle ways on that absence in today’s Germany through the use of digital effects. A worker sits drinking beer with a friend who gradually fades into the darkness. He casually notices the absence, but continues to stare unperturbed at the camera. A solitary man descends an escalator to a subway
platform and walks past the camera as a train passes through unendingly. Another vignette of strangers on a commuter train, slowly moving away from one puzzled passenger, echoes the initial social isolation of Germany’s Jews. Trains in Germany have a fearful metaphorical power.
Far Along utilizes classic postmodernist methodology to deconstruct that which seems ordinary and normal, uncovering a hidden and horrific past: the haunting absence of Germany’s pre-war Jewish population. The architect Daniel Libeskind in his design of the Jewish Museum Berlin (opened in 2001) uses a similar formal device. At the center of his highly praised zigzag structure are a series of five “voids” that pierce the structure from foundation to roof. Once inside the titanium zinc clad building, the visitor encounters these voids as they retrace the history of Jews in Germany. Repeatedly the exhibition space is interrupted by a large mass of wall that must be circumvented. Walking around these random shapes, the visitors can peer into the cement lined voids. The absence of Germany’s Jews haunts this video and is made into a pivotal architectural element in Libeskind’s building as well.
A woman is seen at a lunch table, meticulously folding her napkin and a figure passes in front of her. Suddenly she is gone, vanished. In what might be the most powerful image a woman is
seen waiting for something, perhaps a bus or tram. Only her head is visible as she casually looks around anticipating the arrival. Slowly, from the left, a white panel encroaches on her image, squeezing her until she has been consumed, covered over. Only white is left as the
screen fades to black. The slow menace of ordinary events, innocent illusions and curious optical tricks build to a dread that gnaws at our sensibility until the missing and murdered German Jews become a presence in every aspect of ordinary German life.
Tirtza Even and Brian Karl’s digital video resonates with several important issues that are singularly Jewish. In the mundane images of daily life the acquiescence of everyday Germans in the Holocaust is calmly explored. Much in line with one of the major themes of Kaplan’s book, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany, the video exposes the constant tension in finding and maintaining normalcy, even when the world is slowly being consumed by a totalitarian state, or as in modern Germany, the haunting history of a nation’s past. This acute awareness of history coupled with the notion of absence is a theme that persists in Jewish thought.
Almost all of our ritual life is bound up in historical consciousness. The absence of the Temple, its sacrifices and Jewish unity and peace haunt our daily prayers. Seeing this from the perspective of contemporary Germans spins this idea in unexpected directions. Our absences can become, in fact are, theirs.
The question arises; if this spare video contains so much substance, what is missing from the handful of other important works of art shown here? The Robert Longo Untitled (Stairs to
Freud’s Apartment 1938) (2002) also deals with absence. But here the material (the absence of items that were in the original photograph) is much too thin to trigger the larger concerns of
murdered millions. William Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection Series, 1989-91 is a brilliant and inspiring tour-de-force of animation/drawing but the Judaic content of his Jewish protagonist is elusive and without insight into the role of the Jews in his native South Africa. To present the Jew, capitalist or slave/worker, is not always enough to set the viewer thinking about the complexities of the Jewish content of these roles. The Crushed Brandenburg Gate,
Proposed Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, 1994 by Horst Hoheisel, an altered photograph proposing that the highly symbolic Brandenburg Gate in Berlin be destroyed and crushed into a field of gravel as a Holocaust memorial is perhaps the most audacious work
shown, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to move much beyond simple vengeance.
What continues to gnaw at me as I review these works is a simple question: what does it have to do with me as a Jew? Not all intriguing artworks have to address that issue. But then, why am I seeing them in the Jewish Museum? In the rarified context of the Jewish Museum, must it be Jewish? It doesn’t seem like an inappropriate question to pose as I keep going back to try to discover the answer.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to email him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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