Vol 0, No 35
24 May 1999
O N D I S P L A Y :|
But Roman Buxbaum's Kunst macht frei
If you have found yourself on the streets of Prague this past month, then you have probably noticed the screaming fire-engine red posters with sparse black print, reading: "Roman Buxbaum, Meine Kunst." You may have also noticed that Meine Kunst is written in the ornamental Gothic type which eerily evokes some other signs with slightly different texts - Juden raus and Arbeit macht frei, for example. It is no accident that Czech-born Swiss artist and psychiatrist Roman Buxbaum chose to promote his latest Prague exhibition in Third-Reich-style typeset. The theme of his exhibit is Nazism and the Holocaust, and much of it centers around Adolf Hitler - the artist.
"[The Prague exhibit] is partly focused around the central role of art in Adolf Hitler's life and on the fact that kitsch is not a mere excusable lack of taste, an improperly matched tie, but that it is an existential deficit, which under certain conditions, such as when an artist becomes a dictator, is deadly. In short: kitsch kills," says the artist in an interview reprinted in the exhibit's accompanying catalogue, which is presented in an unconventional, hardcover book format and, aside from two interviews with Buxbaum, contains texts by Primo Levi and Sigmund Freud.
Upon first entering the exhibition space in Prague's regal Rudolfinum, the impatient observer may feel disoriented and, more importantly, cheated of his entrance fee. One sparse room with a few inconspicuous objects strewn here and there greets the visitor. Then, one begins to slowly ease into the aesthetic and psychological experience that Buxbaum has prepared and can emerge hours later, exhausted and affected.
All is as not as simple and ordinary as it first seems. On top of the table that one at first mistook for gallery furniture lies a phone, an answering machine, a newspaper clipping bearing the headline, "The Number of Racists in the Czech Republic is Decreasing Slightly" and some photocopied flyers sporting one of the following messages: "Do you have something against gypsies? Call us!" "Do you have something against Germans? Call us!" "Do you have something against Jews? Call us!" The number provided is that of the gallery phone. Throughout the duration of the exhibit, the flyers are distributed in the city, and callers can call, leave a message or enter into a direct dialogue with one of the gallery's visitors. Beside the flyers and clipping stands a baby blue Swiss Air vomit sack with an ink-scrawled message from the artist himself: "Whoever doesn't want to throw up, will be thrown out!" And indeed, Buxbaum does not intend to provide a "comfortable" experience.
One can then proceed to one of two rooms, each of which has a pile of what look like gray, felt museum overshoes outside its door. An official-looking sign tells the visitor to put them on before entering. Again, one thinks - standard museum fare, there is probably something delicate inside. Wrong, these are no ordinary overshoes but ones designed for the "Roman Buxbaum Museum" and made partially of human hair.
Once inside, one again needs a few moments for reorientation, and not only because the sole light in the room comes from the small, round lens of a slide-projector which projects Adolf Hitler's soft-colored, idyllic portrait of mother and child onto the wall. On the floor lie shards of mirror which reflect the slide image and cast it about the room in shard-shaped sections. Just as the shards break up the idyllic image, so too does the loud, disjointed falsetto voice coming from a gramophone on the floor break the usual peaceful and quiet gallery experience and throws one into a state of agitation. A mirror shard rotates round and round in the record's center, while another hangs suspended from the ceiling - constantly hitting against the needle and causing a deafening scraping as the needle skips across grooves. The end effect is jarring: in combination with the attuning to the theme of racial violence and Holocaust one has already received outside, the scene inside the darkened room evokes violence, terror, madness. Buxbaum tries to replicate the feelings of disorientation, terror and mental unease which one imagines must have been a prevalent part of the Holocaust experience or any violent, terrorizing situation. One can't help but feel that Buxbum's psychiatric training had a hand in this.
Across the way in the second room, a similar scenario exists. Hitler's slides again adorn the walls, but this time it is the jacket of Buxbaum's grandfather, who died in a concentration camp at Majdanek, Poland, which spins round and round on the gramophone. This is a sign of the integral role which Buxbaum's ancestors play in his art. Born in Prague in 1956, the artist emigrated with his parents to Switzerland in 1968 and began returning regularly as a Swiss citizen in the 1980s, befriending poets, artists and musicians of the Czech underground. It was then that he also began unearthing his ancestors and making them not only the inspiration of his art but the art itself:
"It all begin in my grandmother's attic in Kyjov...There were things there going back three, four generations. Grandpa Rudek Buxbaum's things, who died in the Majdanek concentration camp, great-grandfather Kopecny's things, the anti-Semite and founder of the funeral service "Pieta"...I had the conglomerate of my ancestors before me...I even found letters from concentration camps, yellow Jewish stars worn by my grandfather, the last letter he wrote before he boarded the transport. At that time, not even my father knew where his father had ended up. Everything seemed to be submerged in twilight and dust, like the attic itself. I plunged in and began searching: starting with my own ancestors, I soon hit upon the subject of the Holocaust, and later the "artist," Adolf Hitler. I am not a historian - my tools are artistic. So, I started hauling it all to my studio and exhibiting it...Eventually, I freed some of the objects from the context of ancestors and transferred them to the context of art by branding them with the label Kunst macht frei (Art will set you free)."
My own family's history is stretches between objects of lead and objects of gold. Two years before the Nazi gold affair, I exhibited my great-grandparents' gold jewelry alongside objects I found at Auschwitz and my grandfather's golden tooth with a twenty-franc '1939B' coin, that was actually minted in 1946 and predated because the National Bank knew it contained Nazi gold. My grandfather Rudolf Aurel Buxbaum was a dental technician and when he was taken away to the concentration camp, he left a small gold brick at home which my father sewed into his shoe and smuggled into Switzerland when he was escaping from Prague in 1968. It is quite probable that grandfather's golden teeth also reached Switzerland, via Majdanek, Poland. So, there in Switzerland, we were all joined together in gold.
I later wrote to the National Bank, explaining that I would like to buy the golden brick which had the highest probability of containing a piece of my grandfather. After a very long correspondence, the director of the bank finally said: 'Of course I have bricks of gold in the basement, but I can't give them to anyone. If I returned your grandfather's teeth to you, all Jews would want their grandfather's teeth and I would soon have none left in the basement.'
If I had gotten it, I would have taken the brick of gold in my lap, rubbed it on my bald head and said: 'Grandpa, it's nice that we're all here in Switzerland!'"
Beyond the two darkened, enclosed rooms where one is left alone to squirm, the Rudolfinum exhibit also contains various collected objects of Buxbaum's exploration of the Holocaust and racially motivated violence. A series of suitcases of all shapes, sizes, materials and eras lined up against the wall contains Buxbaum's recorded Auschwitz dream sequences, which he began having after he immersed himself in Holocaust literature. Occasionally, a suitcase contains objects which Buxbaum collected on his visit to Auschwitz: long rusted nails, small, blackened blocks of wood, smelling of grease.
"I walked around the concentration camp collecting objects from the ground which were touched by time - nails, pieces of clothing, buttons. The point was to immerse oneself into everything not only mentally, but also physically. One thing that made a large impression on me was a Pole who was also walking around the camp and collecting, but he was collecting mushrooms. It was September, and he was walking around Birkenau II, formerly the female camp, around the barbed wire of block 2A, where Josef Mengele worked, calmly picking mushrooms. At that point, I realized that I was doing something similar. We were both trying to find something nourishing after a catastrophe. This touches upon that famous question posed by the contemporary German philosopher Theodor Adorno: Kann man nach Auschwitz noch Gedichte schreiben? (Can there be poetry after Auschwitz?). Can one pick mushrooms at Auschwitz?"
Next to the suitcases, in a small inconspicuous pile, lie Buxbaum's series of lead objects - strips of roof plating wrapped around various foodstuffs: bread, seeds, potatoes, pomegranates - "Supplies for hard times" - which Buxbaum has left to disintegrate inside over time:
"[This type of preservation] is not the smartest, everything rots, everything is transient. What remains is only the lead wrapping. It creates a shape whose content has long since dissolved. Drying out and rotting - for us like for every biological material - are the two possibilities of dissolution...With my lead objects the biological process of decay took a total of two years. What's interesting is that some potatoes dissolved with an awful smell, while others dried up nice and cleanly. At one museum exhibit where they were displayed in warm and well-lighted glass vitrines, the potatoes sprouted green shoots and stuck them out from their lead coffins - like a last tremor of longing for life, before they resigned themselves to death.
Wrapping is an elementary psychological procedure. Man is much worse at 'digesting' difficulties than he would like to think. We tend to separate conflicting and destructive material, we wrap it up in crypts, in order that our psychological apparatus can function normally. What the body, the mind or society cannot digest is wrapped up and separated, surrounded by a protective material, covered with slime and expelled. A casing protects me from the contents, it must be able to be closed and then opened again. This is how I conceived my Auschwitz objects: they both hide and reveal what they hide."
Confronting the perpetrators
The remaining part of the exhibit uses the medium of video to tackle the subject of Holocaust and racial violence. One installation features a series of interviews that Buxbaum conducted specifically for the exhibit with witnesses of both past and present violence: Czech Jews, Czech Roma and Czech Germans.
"I wanted to put these witnesses of the war within the context of racial violence in our current time. It is no longer enough to identify with the victims, we have to have courage to confront the subject of the perpetrators as well."
It was precisely such a confrontation - of both victims and perpetrators - that Buxbaum tried to facilitate two years ago when he staged a unique, creative and psychologically harrowing performance in Vienna:
"In 1997, I organized my second-ever theater performance at the Wiener Festwochen...I invited some concentration camp survivors to cooperate on the project: Karl Redlich, my uncle twice removed, and Richard Mueller, both Jews, originally from Kyjov, who survived Auschwitz, as well as two other witnesses of that time.
The audience did not sit in chairs as is usually the case. We divided them into pairs in which one person asked questions and the other told family stories and memories. We tried to steer the whole event so that the conversations would probe deeply. The evening culminated at a large table, where we sat with 60 audience members. The former Auschwitz victims served soup and bread. Into the bread crust the baker had baked the identification number from Karl Reldlich's forearm, the number of Auschwitz prisoner number 97427. We told stories. Some audience members talked publicly for the first time about a father or grandfather whose collaboration the family is ashamed of. It was very intense - people cried, got angry at one another, swore at us, hastily walked out, and some didn't want to leave at all."
At arm's length
Lastly, one can round out a mentally and emotionally exhausting visit with a fairy tale, which, however, is no less exhausting, since in it a narrator's soothing voice recounts the tale of "How Little Adolf Became an Artist."
In short, Rudolf Buxbaum's Meine Kunst is not so much an exhibition as it is a confrontation - with violence, the Holocaust, terror, human survival and man's relationship to his past:
"To a certain extent, we still act as if Auschwitz never existed. In this sense, the liars who deny historical reality [and say that Auschwitz never happened] are only doing what the whole of post-Auschwitz society is doing when it holds Auschwitz at arm's length by veiling it in memorial rhetoric. We act as if the Holocaust were comparable to ordinary street violence. That is why I focus my artistic work about the Holocaust on this aversion and strategy of steering clear. I present my so-called Auschwitz objects in a pseudo-archeological manner in the ordinary boxes and suitcases of our daily lives. In what kind of crypts will we wrap up and liquidate Auschwitz, I wonder?"
Kazi Stastna, 17 May 1999
All quotations are the author's own translations of excerpts taken from Olovo (Lead), the catalogue for the Meine Kunst exhibit in Prague.
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