The Sound of Silence

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”To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”, says T. W. Adorno in “An Essay on Cultural Criticism and Society.” To him, art was irredeemably changed by the Holocaust. Silence became important in the discussion of big, controversial events. Speech fails to scratch the surface of such realities. Our endeavour to contain and translate these inexplicable events into a comprehensible language, in art form or simply through description, ultimately fails.

Initially, Minimalism liberated art from the language of representation. The experience of the spectator, art work and gallery space, was about interaction, dialogue and self-awareness in the viewer. No longer was art “representing” reality. Art became life: it was obdurate and ever-present, as the Minimalist art object sat in the museum, waiting for the spectator to complete it. Hence Minimalism was the beginning of a new language of “thingness”.

The etymology of the word “thing” harks back to Anglo-Saxon times, when it meant “gathering”. And this is the condition to which all art should aspire. It should be a gathering, a dialogue and an interactive experience for viewers. Rather than attempt to represent the graphic details and personal situations of Auschwitz’s victims, works of art attempting to deal with the Holocaust should simply provoke questions and explore the political and social implications of such a barbaric event in a modern world.

Jonathan Horowitz (b.1966) is an American artist based in New York. His work integrates artistic mediums, which allows him to engage critically with the contradictions and problems within art and its institutions. Described by Interview Magazine as the art world’s Jonathan Swift, he is a “master” of blending irony, politics and humour, offering radical solutions to the hypocrisies of commercial art. His works include a giant, old-fashioned popcorn dispenser with the exclamatory words “PEOPLE LIKE WAR MOVIES” (2007) pasted on the glass. In reality, he is a humble and introspective man, who has the heavy brow and thoughtful face of a philosophy graduate (he is one).

The exhibition, entitled “Minimalist works from the Holocaust Museum”, is spread across two rooms. They deal separately with the different languages used to talk about controversial topics: firstly, the histrionic language of Hollywood, contrasted with the deadpan speech of Minimalism. The exhibition commences with a confrontational, large-scale photograph that encompasses the entirety of the wall of the room. It is dramatically juxtaposed against the window facing out of the DCA, which looks onto the sedated, dystopian stillness of Dundee’s streets.

Opposite the photograph, is a solar powered video installation (Apocalypto Now, 2009), which you enter by means of an unsettling darkened passageway, recalling the dilapidated buildings of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The film is a visual collage of the rhetoric of disaster movies, climate change and Mel Gibson. We are plunged into a fast-paced narrative of graphic details, bombs, bloodshed and Gibson’s deranged smile as the interviewer asks him: “Do you believe God wrote this film?” (in reference to The Passion of the Christ), to which Gibson responds, “Well, God ordains everything”.

The video is a polemic against the opportunism of media conglomerations who exploit the fact that audiences are susceptible to shock tactics, blood, guts and cheap thrills. It is nice to feel drama in our mundane lives. As Conor Oberst says: “Each new act of War is tonight’s entertainment”. A good point, albeit a little obvious and regurgitated.

The following room appropriates the language of Minimalism in order to scrutinise the form. Horrowitz expresses his disdain at the impotence of Minimalism at addressing topical issues, despite its initial creation of dialogue between spectator and art institutions. He restages the works of four canonical Minimalist artists: Richard Serra, Sol Le Witt, Ellsworth Kelly and Joel Schapiro, who were commissioned by the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC to address the subject of Auschwitz.

The Holocaust museum claims that the works offer a contemplative and reflective state for their visitors. To Horowitz, this is a false statement. Minimalism has been corrupted and consumed by commercial institution. It has become a deadened art-viewing ritual, lacking the initial confrontational impact it once had. The room brings together a number of old and new works which are spread out throughout the warm, dim-lit space of the DCA. At the entrance of the room, one is confronted by a wooden “double” crucifix (Crucifix for Two, 2010) made out of sustainable Douglas Fir wood. We are then led onto Contribution Cubes reminiscent of Hans Haacke’s MOMA Poll. Visitors are invited to drop coins into three glass donation boxes which double up as sculptures.

Once more, we are put on the spot as we experience his video installation “Art Delivers People”, a work which revisits Richard Serra’s “Television Delivers People”. All these politically charged works culminate in a block of preserved tofu ironically displayed on a pedestal (Tofu on Pedestal in Gallery). The exhibition explores the way in which the art world is trapped in a self-perpetuating commercial cycle of consumerism: Artist makes good art. Touches People. Institution consumed artist. Artist makes soulless works. Fails to touch people. This mantra, however, is nothing new. It’s been done before, and much better, such as Gordon Matta Clarke’s Splitting(1992), where he sawed a building in half as a statement of exposing the innards of institutions.

Horowitz does succeed in marring politics and Minimalism, despite his lack of ingenuity. More than anything, he is good at establishing dialogue between viewer and politics, through art. For instance, the two most successful works are the Crucifix for Two and Pink Curve. Both of these are deeply confrontational and dramatic, without relying on easy shock-tactic rhetoric. Pink Curve (based on Ellesworth Kelly’s white fibre glass works) is a heavy triangular swoop, which takes place across the span of the large gallery wall. The pink triangle was the badge of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. The shape and colour are both effective at stimulating sensation and directing awareness towards the plight of these individuals.

As we enter, we are confronted with the double crucifix. The work is bold, evoking the human form, while it stands staring and interrogating us. It is almost as if the individuals affected by the Holocaust are standing before us and demanding consideration: “how do you feel about me? Where were you?” The exhibition gives us facts to consider without offering tangible answers.

Horowitz is not the archetypal satirist: a raving, self-righteous misanthrope who fails to see any good in the possibility of dialogue and reconciliation amongst human beings. On the contrary, he has great faith in language. His practice is a part of the contemporary search for a new form of expression. T.S Eliot said that every generation need a new language in which to discuss their experience. This is why the WW1 War Poets appear so constrained by their anachronistic poetic form, attempting to describe an entirely new episode of warfare in an old Victorian language.

Thus, perhaps Adorno is right. It is not poetry or representational forms of art that we need to discuss our collective political and social dilemma. Art needs to break out of its institutions, like poetry broke out of its metrical constraints, and become a “thing”, a gathering point where ideas and dialogue are exchanged, not profit and corporate interest.

Diana Kurakina

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