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“Burnt Whole: Contemporary Artists Reflect on the Holocaust”

After 30 years, conceptual art may finally come into its own as the perfect method for framing artistic responses to the Holocaust. One convincing indicator of this is “Burnt Whole: Contemporary Artists Reflect on the Holocaust,” Washington Project for the Arts’ exhibition of works made by artists who grew up after World War II. Their sources are “texts” rather than the data of personal experience (for many of these artists, the texts at issue are not written documents, but the personal testimony of parents or the political and social reverberations of National Socialism in Germany and other European countries). Conceptual art’s proclivity for textual deconstruction provides most of the show’s artists with extremely satisfying strategies for representing that which is often considered “unrepresentable.”

The show is admirably free of Holocaust metaphorizing—that is, of using it as a general reference for evil. Several of the exhibit’s participants examine issues of universal responsibility (although on some level this concerns all of the artists) or indications that the human impulses that converged so monstrously in Nazi Germany still flourish in First World culture. But on the whole, the exhibit refrains from invoking every example of social and political inhumanity since 1945 to make the requisite points that Hitler’s extermination policies were not unique to his era and culture and that we don’t seem to have learned any lessons in the interim about stopping such atrocities.

There are 31 artists in the show (from Argentina, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, and the United States) and their work presents a commendable balance of approaches, within international postmodernist style, to extremely difficult subject matter. The exhibit includes paintings, photographs, sculptures, drawings, a video work, and installations. The quality of the works is consistently high; there’s not a weak piece in the show and very few ordinary ones. Big names include Anselm Kiefer, Christian Boltanski, Guillermo Kuitca, Annette Lemieux, and Ellen Rothenberg, although many others will be known to followers of contemporary art. The only Washingtonian in the group is painter Mindy Weisel, the daughter of Auschwitz survivors who was born in 1947 in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp—her Ancient History opens the show at the WPA’s main space. Other works are shown at 625 D St. NW, a half-block east of WPA, and one work is installed at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library at 9th and G Streets NW.

It is appropriate that Weisel’s Ancient History is hung at the entrance to the show. The painting effectively states the dilemma facing visual artists who want to make the Holocaust a reference of their work. Weisel is an abstract painter whose intuitive command of color and expressive gesture produces paintings of exquisite loveliness—even though they are dominated by black, and their colors are usually somber and deeply saturated. For Weisel, abstract art’s inclusive referential potential makes it an appropriate vehicle for presenting the unrepresentable. (Significantly, it is the style favored by those commissioning the artworks now installed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.) In works such as Weisel’s, aesthetic appreciation establishes a protective distance from painful allusions to and memories of the Holocaust.

Aesthetic distance, however, is controversial when it comes to the Holocaust. Many feel that considerations of beauty link visual art to Theodore Adorno’s famous postwar dictum “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This remark (which was ambiguous in the original German and modified by the philosopher later in his life) has been a primary source for those who argue that the Holocaust is not and should not be the subject of any art forms whatsoever. But art has continued to be made since 1945, and another painting in the show, Kiefer’s Your Blond Hair, Margarete, refers to its problematic status. Kiefer’s work, like Weisel’s, derives from modernism’s Romantic roots, but also expresses postmodern self-consciousness: The artist simultaneously invokes the Adorno debate and the poem that prompted the philosopher’s comment (Paul Celan’s “Todesfugue [Death Fugue],” from which the painting’s title is taken.)

In its layering of references and readings, the Kiefer painting is emblematic of all the other works in the show. An understanding of the artworks, many of which are unsatisfactory on a purely aesthetic level, requires a knowledge beyond what is visible. This is not the same as saying the works are not attractive, for many of them are. But in such a context, aesthetic appreciation feels as inadequate and inappropriate as admiring the choreography of Nazi troop rallies. There’s beauty here, but it masks something more important. The WPA brochure that contains brief discussions of each work provides specialist and nonspecialist alike with much-needed assistance in understanding the densely layered pieces in the show.

Olaf Metzel’s Ideal Model provides an example of the way that such layering is enriched by context. A monumental, 1,600-pound cast-iron handgun, the sculpture is alternately described in the notes as “a casualty of…mechanized violence” and a reference to the weapons that Saddam Hussein reportedly had poised to attack Israel. In Washington, the work hints at a way the present environment of random, irrational violence might make state-promoted violence of an allegedly “rational” kind attractive. Installed on the loose stone floor at the WPA’s auxilliary site, whose exposed brick and cement walls and generally derelict atmosphere provide an almost theatrical backdrop for the work displayed there, Ideal Model becomes an icon of the terror that rules the 20th century.

Other works in the exhibit acquire American nuances as well. Katharina Sieverding’s Deutschland wird Deutscher (Germany Is Becoming More German), quoting a newspaper report on the growth of nationalism and anti-foreign attitudes toward immigrants following German reunification, seems uncomfortably “American” during an election season made even more repulsive than usual by the candidates’ attempts to utilize xenophobia and class and racial hatred. Ellen Rothenberg’s A Probability Bordering on Certainty: Guilt Erasers examines historical revisionism and denial as well as the limits of personal and societal responsibility. Another angle on guilt and “cleansing” is offered by the soap bars that Dagmar Demming constructed for her Supplies for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (A History of Civilization) which are displayed on porcelain soap dishes throughout the exhibition. A locked glass case stocked with the bars and an inventory list hangs in a rear gallery of the auxiliary site, anchoring the work’s reference in bureaucracy. Yet the distribution of the soap sculptures on homey porcelain supports throughout the two buildings merges domestic references with institutional ones.

Although the works in “Burnt Whole” share no stylistic similarities, most employ techniques of fragmentation and/or displacement, or use the minute focus on a contained detail to symbolize the Holocaust as a totality. Israeli Gideon Gechtman displays—very scientifically—cases of brushes made from his hair and that of family members. Boltanski’s blurred photographs, lighted as if they were the objects of research or devotion, enshrine two of the millions lost. In contrast, Astrid Klein’s manipulated photograph, Ohne Titel (Quadriga), depicts a monumental pile of skulls nearly burying the victory quadriga on Berlin’s Brandenberg Gate. A cool, businesslike dissection appears in Howard Halle’s disturbing Beauty Plus Pity, a room whose furniture and walls contain silkscreens of documents that describe the acquisition and construction of Auschwitz’s Crematorium I.

Such compositional devices of indirection and displacement honor one of the truisms of Holocaust studies, which maintains that the event is beyond understanding and beyond art’s representational capacity. In scale alone, and in moral, historical, and geopolitical complexity, it defies comprehension. Yet rather than being non-representable, the Holocaust is now only representations: Since 1945, all that any of us born since then know about it has been filtered through history books, documentaries, novels, movies, poetry, and echoes in contemporary politics. “Burnt Whole” is the first exhibition of contemporary art that faces honestly up to this fact.

The works by these 31 artists definitely don’t provide an encyclopedic account of the events they invoke. But as a group, the artworks articulate the breakdown of tolerance, knowledge, and morality that accelerated with the Industrial Revolution and culminated in National Socialist Germany. In “Burnt Whole,” imagination meets the challenge posed by the Holocaust, creating intuitive understanding through complex modifications and juxtapositions of imagery.

The techniques of conceptual art provoke a “controlled uncontrolled” reaction that gives visual artists an approach ideally suited for the elaborate synthetic analysis of information, feeling, imagery, and identity that this historic episode demands. For example, Andrea Fisher’s installation I told him that my mother’s misfortune took up the space of dreams.—Marguerite Duras contrasts a long, white wall—empty except for thick, white brush marks that produce a reflective surface—with a cropped photograph of a body from the Warsaw ghetto. In such a work, reality flickers in the mental peripheral vision. The same is true of Anne-Marie Jugnet’s Comme si on l’avait oublié (As if we have forgotten), in which an industrial floodlight nearly blinds viewers to the projection of the work’s title that is beneath it on a brick wall. In Vivienne Koorland’s Last Letters from Stalingrad, whose text is presented in both German and English, reality is deliberately obscured. The letters to a girlfriend purport to recount a soldier’s sufferings during a siege, but they themselves are forgeries: One contains the line “in reality everything will have ended differently.”

Much of the cultural discussion about the Holocaust emphasizes the importance of keeping its memory alive so that the world will never forget. As those who lived through the events of 1932-45 are gradually replaced by generations who did not, the Holocaust becomes an issue not of memory, but of learning anew. The visions that make up this new knowledge, like the ones informing the art in “Burnt Whole,” draw not on the experience of the Holocaust itself, but on what it means to the individuals and societies that have inherited it. “Burnt Whole” documents visual artists’ first generational transformation of this knowledge and marks an important moment of transition.