First of all, I’d like to thank you for giving me the opportunity to present a part of my research at this conference. Given that my paper was placed in the session on tourism, I decided to focus on three art works that deal explicitly with the visit to Auschwitz. However, it is likely that my paper does not exactly fit in with the topic of this session – we will see!
It’ll be fun to visit Auschwitz
This is the very first caption in a series of drawings by Swedish artist Patrick Nilsson. In his Sensmoral or Death, “Patrick”, the artist’s alter ego, is struggling to express his excitement before a planned visit to Auschwitz. Unable to find the right words, he feels a growing reluctance. In the end, he is unable to find a good reason to go or a possible excuse not to go.
Nilsson’s collection of drawings entitled Sensmoral or Death consists of 12 parts. The drawings are in black crayon on paper, in different sizes, most of them between 50 cm by 70 cm, so relatively huge in size.
The work was completed in 2001 and was acquired by the Museum of Art in Uppsala where it was displayed in an exhibition during the autumn of 2009. The subject of the exhibition was – according to the official program – “memory, history and narratives after human trauma and its effect on us today”. Because it was displayed in the “White Cube” and was purchased by a public institution, Nilsson’s work automatically gained recognition as a bonafide work of art, a part of the official memory culture – regarded as a work of art that evokes critical questioning, thereby fulfilling a vital function within a democratic society.
Let us take a closer look at the series – which I shall, due to the language barrier –, render in a summarized interpretation. Let me also add that the series’ aesthetics, which I will not analyze any further, seems a conscious choice by an artist who otherwise clearly is an explicitly gifted drawer – and this choice can be seen as an intentional refusal of “Unwanted beauty” – as Brett Ashley Kaplan expressed the problem of beauty in Holocaust related art works.
Sensmoral or Death can be seen as an expression of an inner dialogue the artist conducted with himself. “Patrick” was presumably offered a trip to Auschwitz, which he accepted. At the beginning, he appears to react positively to the idea. But his almost juvenile attempt at putting his enthusiasm into words immediately proves to be futile. Certainly, words such as ”fun”, ”exciting” and “interesting” would seem inappropriate in this particular context, wouldn’t they? Such commonplace words, which one might associate with the unreflected language of youth, are scratched out, encircled and repeated. ”Patrick” gets increasingly caught up in a maze of weighing proper word choice and an adequate mode of behavior when he is to arrive at his destination. It’s difficult for him to justify – purely through means of language – why he would like to travel to Auschwitz. But, as the uneasiness in him grows, he is also unable to come up with a reason for not going. What could possibly serve as a reasonable justification for not visiting Auschwitz, especially since we have been taught about the importance of remembering the past, this past in particular. So, doesn’t that mean that we should all go there? But for what reason? At what end?
The refusal of a trip to Auschwitz might be misinterpreted as blatant disregard. The Holocaust has become recognized as a benchmark in history, which one is expected to take seriously and handle delicately. (Biber) There is much weight placed on finding the right words when it comes to this particular subject. “Patrick” realizes that he has difficulty in finding adequate words for expressing how he feels, and this difficulty is probably the reason he did not receive the scholarship he had previously applied for in order to travel to Auschwitz. His reasoning continues until he passes up the trip: “Jag vill inte åka dit för det verkar så krånglikt.” – “I don’t want to go there ‘cause it seems so complicated”.
The following page of the piece features the title Sensmoral or Death.
One can interpret the three white panels occupying the space under the title as a “table”, which the author had possibly intended to fill in with arguments for or against making the trip. This space, however, remains empty. A spiral labyrinth without exit covers a portion of the words contained on the following page. It is difficult to read everything “Patrick” has written, but the words – utan tvivel – without doubt written at the centre of the page are clearly legible.
And indeed, “Patrick” seems, without a doubt, confused and despondent as a result of his own uncertainty with regard to how he is to deal with the situation. How does one act in Auschwitz? What would happen if he were to break a leg there? Would he be allowed to express his physical pain? Would his pain be seen as a trivialization of the suffering endured by the victims of the Holocaust? Everything is so emotionally charged, so sensitive. No matter how you act, there will always be someone who takes offense to something you do. So why should one even go at all? In the course of the series of drawings, opposition grows. Patrick decides not to go. He has a cold. But what is a mere cold in comparison to the suffering experienced by the victims of the Holocaust? The hardly convincing excuse, a pretext of course, is followed by confused scribblings, a manifestation of despair. Still, the more rational attempt at an explanation that follows the climax of inner turmoil does not suffice. And once again, “Patrick” finds himself confined within the limits of language in his attempt to justify whether or not to make the trip.
The last three drawings are not accompanied by any captions. In one drawing there is a flame. Then the search for words seems to have been pasted over by small scraps. Is there a figure hiding behind the pasted trails, barricaded behind “white lies”? Finally, all excuses run out in a scrawl. Wordlessness prevails.
The series of drawings by Patrick Nilsson touches upon an essential aspect, namely: the inability of language to deal with the Holocaust. This has been discussed repeatedly since Adorno’s well-kown dictum. Also in Kitsch and Death Saul Friedländer addressed language’s inability to treat events as the Holocaust adequately; language creates a distance between events we are unable to grasp. This distance also acts, however, as a defence; the barrier prevents us from inserting ourselves into the real and terrible suffering inflicted. We are confronted in Nilsson’s work with the difficulty to find an adequate language, a stirring speechlessness, and finally, a certain feeling of emptiness, of resignation, or the sense that it’s better to just remain silent. (jmf SF 99). Just like the architectural void, one of the most often used symbols in Holocaust iconography, so too does emptiness represent an admission of inaptitude and functions as an often accepted metaphor for the unspeakable.
Furthermore, Nilsson’s work provokes reflection on the normalized and regulated remembrance of the Holocaust. Patrick Nilsson, a Swede born in 1966, has no biographical ties to the Holocaust. He created his work at a time when the Holocaust was becoming an important topic on the political agenda in Sweden. After decades during which most Swedish scholars had evaded this subject, the prime minister of the time, Göran Persson, established that commemoration of the Holocaust was indeed relevant, even for the general Swedish public. The Living History Forum began its work in 1997 and became a public authority on the subject in 2003. It had as its point of departure the Holocaust. Its purpose was, and still is, to work towards promoting tolerance, human rights and building a stronger democracy. Scholars and journalists had already established a debate on the question of guilt on Sweden’s part during the 1990s – now commemoration of the Holocaust had become institutionalized.
So it’s hardly a coincidence that Nilsson’s piece appeared at the very beginning of the 21st century. His reflections must be understood as having gone against the established conditions: Holocaust commemoration as a strongly integrated part of even the Swedish collective memory and self-understanding, anchored by a public institution such as the Living History Forum.
I interpret his work first and foremost as a reflection on these institutionalized politics of memory: How does one act toward an officially enacted (and here I do not only mean the state but also mainstream culture) and publicly accepted memory culture which seems to fail to present convincing arguments for why we should remember? As it seems, most people would agree today that they should remember the genocide of the European Jews, but they often lack arguments for why this memory is of such great importance. The uncertainty of the fictitious character Patrick in formulating a convincing argument for or against traveling to Auschwitz stands in contrast to the strong and prolonged feeling in him that it is indeed of great importance to remember – or so the prevailing canon of memory tells us.
I used Nilsson’s series with my history students on several occasions. It seemed to help the Swedish students, especially the younger ones, to become more receptive to the subject – they seemed to react positively to the fact that there was someone out there who expressed what they felt. They seemed to feel relieved that Nilsson’s work already used all those inadequate wordings they themselves used when describing why they were interested in the Holocaust. However, older students and students with German or Polish background often reacted adversely towards the work, at least in the beginning. Often, they were more informed about – and therefore more experienced in – dealing with the Holocaust and also felt personally more connected to the subject.
Change of scenery. We go from the “White Cube” to the dirty streets of everyday life. It is there that the enfant terrible, the street artist Dan Park, arouses attention, not just from local onlookers, but today also from an international world. Dan Park was denied access to the White Cube, the grand room, but, as Park stated himself, he used his street art to consciously target another type of audience. Park’s posters have been around since the 1990’s, placed on electric boxes and light posts all throughout Sweden, depending on wherever Park may have been residing at the time.
His posters most often arouse uneasiness and confusion. And Park “lashes out against everything and everyone”; not only his posters with references to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust arouse contempt: no one is free from his cynicism, whether it be minorities or private individuals – he makes fun of precisely those subjects that “normally” demand tact and respect. Park is, first and foremost, against one thing: political correctness.
To make a long story short, while working on an article on Park, I realized that he most often used political scandals or quotes from popular consumer products as a source of inspiration for his art. I realized how distanced we researchers often are from the everyday life of non-researchers who are confronted with the Holocaust not by reading scholarly books but by watching entertaining feature films or reading comics e.g. Consequently, I took on the challenge of trying to better understand Park’s work, simply because his worldview seems so different from mine. But also because – as you can see by this example – Dan Park does sometimes hit the mark.
Still, most of Park’s posters, as Visit Auschwitz – more fun than Disneyland (Umeå 1998) or Been there, done that arouse distaste in me. These posters go against every form of permitted and acceptable conduct.
Katherine Biber formulates it aptly when she says:
“At the centre of all Holocaust discourse is the duty to be responsible; responsibility is the hard kernel at the heart of every Holocaust representation.”
But Dan Park fails to see the gravity of the issue and to take responsibility. Moreover, he does not show any respect to the Holocaust survivors. In that respect alone, he is breaking a major taboo.
Of course, one can ask oneself: what kind of person makes posters like this? It’s easy to side with the criticisms of the general public and dismiss Park’s posters as tasteless drivel. But, we can also change perspectives – especially after having been introduced to Patrick Nilsson’s series – and ask ourselves: what kind of person willingly travels to Auschwitz, especially for a holiday, as a youth, seeking out the largest mass grave in the history of man? And what kind of person devotes his entire life to studying the Holocaust and its commemoration? (jmf BIBER 250) – One cannot avoid seeing Park’s posters in public but one can avoid devoting one’s time solely to the study of the worst act of crime in history. Why do we choose such paths? What effect does this have on us? Of course this question can be directed to all historians, not only Holocaust researchers, but it seems more urgent because the subject seems to call for action, or at least a moral stand.
Research on what effect visiting places like Auschwitz has on us, is as good as non-existent – at least according to Jochen Fuchs, professor of law at the University of Magdeburg. (Compare his article in How the Holocaust Looks Now). I assume and maybe even hope that the papers presented at this conference will prove Fuchs wrong and teach me the opposite. However, we can certainly still agree that much more research in this field is needed. For now, it is correct to say that we believe that knowledge of Nazi crimes will make us into better, more enlightened individuals. I for one, who grew up in Germany during the 1980s, was raised on such beliefs. I want to believe that our research is for the good of humanity, but have to admit that I do not know. Still, even if we don’t know where future research will lead, today’s students and pupils are expected to go through some kind of catharsis which seems the best condition to contest the legacy of the crimes and to transform them into a trajectory for action in their own lives. This is quite a claim! And the greater the distance between us and the historical events grows, the less convincing such claims may seem, especially for the younger generation in Sweden which most often lacks an intimate connection to the Holocaust.
Posters like Been there, done that trigger in me a sense of shame. This feeling has however nothing to do with a distaste for certain forms of commercialization of Holocaust memory or for the side effects of the many class trips to Auschwitz. Such places of historical importance are today frequently visited and sometimes act even as tourist attractions. Students from all corners of the world pose for class photos in front of the gates marking the entrance of the camps. My feeling of disgust has either nothing to do with the actual, sometimes questioned purpose of or motivation behind such trips.
Park’s poster brings to my mind an interview I had with the Hungarian sculptor Imre Varga in 2003. Varga told me about a dilemma he had been faced with: his Holocaust memorial in Budapest was the result of an artistic and creative process and he experienced a satisfaction in having found in his memorial an adequate form of artistic expression. An anachronism arose in that it was the worst genocide in the history of the world that was to be remembered, but working with the theme, as sad and painful as it may have been, also was a creative process he enjoyed.
Been there, done that provokes a feeling of shame in me comparable with the dilemma just described: As scholars who work with the subject of the Holocaust, – and I’m not referring here to survivors such as Kertész – as scholars we all “make our living”, so to speak, on the crimes of the Nazis, we build our academic careers, our monthly salary secures birthday presents for our children and our holiday vacations. We enjoy (perhaps) our brilliant formulations, our satisfaction at having been given research grants or at having the opportunity to take part in this conference, for example. The point of departure is still that which is generally seen as history’s most heinous crime. The shame of unintentionally profiting from – or building one’s own career on – the foundation of such crimes, satisfying one’s own ego, and thereby not knowing if the work one does truly leads to a better world has only grown over the years.
Let me conclude.
The remembrance of the Holocaust has undergone a paradigm shift. As Aleida Assmann points out, historians have lost their monopoly over this territory: it is no longer they who, in the first place, reconstruct, represent and interpret this historical occurrence. But it’s not only about who mediates knowledge about the Holocaust. With the growing temporal distance and the diminishing number of survivors and first hand witnesses also grows the need to educate the greater public about why we need to remember the Holocaust today, 66 years after the end of the War, especially in countries such as Sweden which did not experience the war or the genocide first hand.
According to my interpretation, it was not intended that Park’s and Nilsson’s works depict “how things were”, or what effect Nazi Germany and the Holocaust had on subsequent generations. They have to do rather with how we handle and relate to the memory of the memory of the Holocaust. Both works, as different from each other as they are, stand in direct opposition to the official memory culture which is in many respects characterized by political correctness, generalizations, but often also by empty rituals.
Park and Nilsson protest against what Volkhard Knigge calls the “imperative of remembering” – which has become a part of the “institutionalized code of practice”, a prescribed remembrance, which is ritualized, cliché and consists of rhetorical codes. As it seems, this “helpless rhetoric” will fail to hit home with future generations. It will not have any lasting power. But hadn’t we committed ourselves to never forgetting?
Paper presented on the opening Conference of The European Association for Holocaust Studies (EAHS), Krakow, Poland, 14 June 2011