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by josh kun

Evil Art

IN 1995, Israeli artist Roee Rosen asked people to imagine what it would be like to be Eva Braun. In a series of 60 acrylic black-and-white childlike drawings on rag paper, which he called Live and Die as Eva Braun: Hitler's Mistress, in the Berlin Bunker and Beyond An Illustrated Proposal for A Virtual-Reality Scenario, Not to Be Realized, Rosen invited viewers to become Braun right before Hitler kills her and then himself in a suicide pact, right after they have sex for the last time. Viewers could pick up a crayon and finish the drawings themselves, lending their own hand to the unfolding of Braun's story. When the piece went up at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, it was criticized by the Israeli media for turning the Holocaust into pornography and attacked by Israel's minister of education on the grounds that it portrayed Nazis "in a positive light." But in fact, the real reason for the controversy surrounding Live and Die the only truly seditious thing about it was that Rosen, the son of Holocaust survivors, was asking people to do the unheard of in post-Holocaust thought: identify with the perpetrators, not the victims. Representing the stories and experiences of Holocaust victims has been the dominant feature of art about the Holocaust, the viewer's identification with victims the dominant mode of artistic reception. The Holocaust's greatest site of memorial institutionalization, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., is a monument to suffering and memory structured around the assumption that the only way to think about the Holocaust is to identify with one of its victims. In a scenario that's as much of a virtual reality as Rosen's, visitors are given a temporary "victim identity card" that asks them to assume the identity of someone who actually died as they make their way through. Simulated environments like narrowing hallways and human cattle-car replicas are supposed to add to the role-playing. Even when I first visited the museum after it opened in 1993, I was uncomfortable with the way it made Jewishness synonymous with victimization, the way the Jew-as-victim was formally presented as not only the most logical way to understand the Holocaust (to know the Holocaust is to know what the victims know, to feel what they felt) but also the most logical way to be Jewish after the Holocaust. I spent countless Sundays at the race track with my great-uncle who survived Auschwitz by translating for the Nazis and trading his furniture skills for his and his new wife's life. He lost his whole town and his whole family, but I never saw him as a victim, and he never asked me to. As writer Daniel Ganzfried puts it in A Life in Pieces: The Making and Unmaking of Benjamin Wilkomirski, Blake Eskin's new book about the Holocaust's greatest victim-impostor, "The Holocaust victim today is like Jesus. He has on his shoulders every evil deed that was ever committed. We give him some money for it, some public reputation, some respect. So he goes on with his story, I am freed from my guilt, and we all end up in heaven. And this is basically a very cruel and unhuman thing to do. No man, no human being, is only a victim." The story of Wilkomirski, the author of what many say is a fraudulent Holocaust survivor testimony, Fragments, is the story of victim impersonation, of how a Swiss Christian invents himself as a child survivor of the Holocaust. The opposite move, perpetrator impersonation, is the subject of "Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art," an exhibit at New York's Jewish Museum. Like Henry Bean's film The Believer (which is finally getting its due on Showtime this month), the work in "Mirroring" which includes Rosen's Live and Die refuses the easy split between victim and perpetrator and asks us all to confront what novelist David Grossman once called LNIY, the "Little Nazi in You." The exhibit's curator, Norman Kleeblatt, puts it this way: "[The works] surround viewers with the unmentionable, bring them close to synecdoches for evil, then leave them to ponder the inexorable complexity of ethics." Piotr Uklanski's The Nazis is a portrait gallery of Nazi impersonation in Hollywood (Christopher Plummer, Robert Duvall, Yul Brenner), and in It's the Real Thing Self-Portrait at Buchenwald, Alan Shechner puts an image of himself well fed, head full of hair, holding a can of Diet Coke that gleams red and white into a black-and-white photograph of Buchenwald prisoners on their day of liberation. He is "there," but he is flagrantly not there, not one of them, a not-victim who consumes products canned by a company that once supported the Nazis. No piece in "Mirroring" succeeds quite as well as Zbigniew Libera's LEGO Concentration Camp Set. In it LEGO parts are packaged in seven boxes depicting different LEGO-constructed concentration camp scenarios barracks, gallows, barbed wire, crematoria, medical experiments. But there is no actual assembled LEGO camp. It must be built with parts that could just as easily be used to build something else. Terror and mass death can come from something as innocent as the LEGOs I collected as a kid, as ordinary as pieces of colored plastic, from hands as clean as our own.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.