BERLIN, March 30 (JTA) — Can art help us understand the Holocaust, or are there certain topics that shouldn’t be touched? Those questions may never be definitively answered, but for now, at least, one artist in Germany has decided that some taboos are not to be broken. At issue was an installation by Spanish-born artist Santiago Sierra that involved pumping poisonous auto exhaust into a former synagogue near Cologne. The installation was canceled March 13 after only one day. In a joint statement March 21, Sierra, together with the city of Pulheim-Stommeln and the Cologne Jewish community, announced that it was best to abandon the exhibit and start from scratch, seeking “an appropriate and fitting remembrance and reminder of the past.” Sierra explained that he “did not and does not wish to insult or hurt anyone.” The announcement closed one chapter in the seemingly endless debate here over confrontation of the Nazi past. Sierra, 39, who said his work aimed to criticize the “banalization of Holocaust remembrance,” is only one of many international artists whose work — sometimes called “transgressive art” — crosses invisible or unspoken boundaries. The exhibit, called “245 Kubikmeter,” involved pumping carbon monoxide fumes from six cars into the former synagogue, which since 1991 has been used for art installations dealing with the history of the Nazi period. Visitors had to sign a disclaimer and don a gas mask before entering the building with a member of a private fire brigade, since the city fire department refused to participate. In an open letter to the city, Christoph Heubner, vice president of the Berlin-based International Auschwitz Committee, applauded the decision to withdraw the installation, which he likened to an attempt to turn the “experience of victimhood” into “a reality show.” At least 750,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma, or Gypsies, were asphyxiated with motor exhaust fumes in death camps at Chelmno and Belzec between 1941 and 1942. “Anyone who thinks that it is art to simulate a ‘gas chamber’ …in a former synagogue no less, and to somehow thus transmit authenticity, is shamelessly abusing artistic freedom,” Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said in a statement. The project “injures not only the dignity of Holocaust victims but of the Jewish community,” he said. “It has absolutely nothing to do with remembrance or the culture of memory.” Politicians and religious leaders condemned the exhibit, but public opinion appeared mixed. A survey of 330 readers by an online magazine found that nearly 38 percent considered the installation “tasteless and reprehensible” and nearly 9 percent felt some artists had lost all inhibitions, but 27 percent found the project provocative and “acceptable.” Ultimately, a spokesperson for the Protestant church in Cologne, Gunter Menne, said Sierra’s “experimental approach to the unthinkable” did nothing to “bring us closer” to the Holocaust. The question remains whether any art form can accomplish this. According to the famous 1949 motto of German sociologist and philosopher Theodor Adorno, “to write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric.” But this does not stop poets and artists of all stripes from trying. In fact, the Jewish Museum of New York displayed several sensational works by international artists in its 2002 exhibit, “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery, Modern Art,” including French artist Alain Sechas’ white plastic kittens with Hitlerian moustaches and Polish artist Zbigniew Libera’s “LEGO concentration camp set.” The exhibit drew both criticism and praise. Visitors were encouraged to share their impressions, and a warning posted outside some displays suggested that sensitive guests should not enter. Last November in Berlin, Austrian artists Julius Deutschbauer and Gerhard Spring caused a stir with an installation of an “Anti-fascist Amusement Park,” which poked fun at conventional forms of Holocaust remembrance. Included was a blown-up photograph of bodies of Holocaust victims, with holes cut out so one could put one’s face in, “identifying” with the victims. The artists also built a makeshift “laughing-gas chamber.” The project was supported by a grant from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, leading critics to question the use of taxpayer money.
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.