Theaters of Memory: Art and the Holocaust

November 9, 2008 - February 1, 2009

Theaters of Memory presents work by eight artists who have addressed the histories surrounding the Second World War, the atrocities of genocide and mass destruction, and their attendant moral devastation. From the self-consciously dramatic to the intensely self-contained, the works respond to the drama of incomprehensibility and traumatic historical memories. The eight artists are presented in three galleries and include works by George Segal, Tadeusz Kantor, and Matthew Buckingham.

Theaters of Memory presents eight artists whose work relates to the histories surrounding World War II, the atrocities of genocide and mass destruction, and their attendant moral devastation. Making art about the Holocaust has long been considered problematic, even taboo. Shortly after the war, philosophers such as Theodor Adorno warned that to make art faced with the horror of Auschwitz was morally suspect; the existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre cautioned that artists must be conscious of adopting an approach commensurate with such a tragic subject. Several decades later, in 1978, a popular television mini-series catapulted the Holocaust into popular consciousness and inspired a wave of research while providing major impetus for a popular pedagogy that continues today.

Given initial reticence in dealing with the subject in art, it is all the more fascinating that the works on view, made between 1975 and 2007, take highly theatrical approaches towards this demoralizing history. George Segal’s Holocaust (1982) transforms the heartrending photographic documents of piled corpses found immediately after the liberation into an epic sculptural monument. The artist offers a lifesize mise-en-scène in which his characteristic plaster casts produce an impassive solemnity. The other works in this exhibition all bear elements of the theatrical or vestiges of the performative: the tenderly choreographed performances of Eleanor Antin’s Vilna Nights; the intense lighting in Christian Boltanski’s Monument (Odessa); the eerie stage set of Tadeusz Kantor’s The Desk; Fabio Mauri’s props for a performance; and the operatic scale and dramatic brushwork of Anselm Kiefer’s Die Himmelspaläste (The Heavenly Palaces). Matthew Buckingham’s two-screen projection is a contemporary cinematic backdrop for the personal recollections of a refugee from Nazi Germany. Through their theatrical nature and performative strategies, these works engage historical tragedy with dramatic immediacy and visceral impact.