The viewer should get caught in the middle:
Kleeblatt on Tom Sachs and his Prada Death Camp
Prada Death Camp, 1999
©Tom Sachs, New York
Last year, Tom Sachs'
work Prada Death Camp created a scandal in the controversial
exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art at the
Jewish Museum in New York. The model of a concentration camp, made from a
Prada hat box, shocked
Holocaust survivors and the heads of Jewish institutions in America
and Europe alike. Now, Tom Sachs is coming to Germany: Nutsy's, his
most recent room-sized installation, will be presented at the
Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin starting on July 24. This work also constitutes
a controversial interplay between popular culture and historical symbols.
In New York, Cheryl Kaplan met with the curator of
Mirroring Evil, Norman Kleeblatt, and questioned him on his
retrospective observations on the controversy surrounding Sachs' Prada
Cheryl Kaplan: Why were you
interested in including Tom Sachs' Prada Death Camp and the
Manischewitz Luger in the exhibition Mirroring Evil?
Norman Kleeblatt: First of all, you know, we [The Jewish Museum] had
purchased the Manischewitz Luger for the collection.
Kaplan: What year was that?
Kleeblatt: Quite some
time before I began working on Mirroring Evil. The Sachs works were
remarkably powerful, moving works that made one sort of renegotiate one's
own connection, one's own closeness to the symbols of
Nazism. And that was the earliest work in which he began exploring the
connection of popular culture to Nazism after having discovered some
historical connections concerning the Luger, which had been owned by a
Jewish family that was subsequently Aryanized by the Nazis.
Kaplan: Why do you think there was such a visceral reaction to Tom
Sachs' Prada Death Camp? The reaction to that piece was stronger
than to the Luger piece, wasn't it?
Kleeblatt: Yes, that's
right. It was the conflation of two symbols that seem so totally
incongruous. This is the way Tom often works, making something that's
elegant and attractive and desirable, and compressing it onto something
that's heinous – it's one of the ways he makes us rethink the image world,
if you will, that we navigate on a daily basis.
you think the reaction was so strong because Sachs was taking the
Holocaust too lightly?
Kleeblatt: I find the piece
incredibly upsetting and incredibly moving. I think the conflation of
popular culture with the Holocaust is a difficult pill to swallow, and the
reaction to a number of works in the exhibition that used items from
popular culture was strong – or, in the case of Tom Sachs, that used the
actual wrappings of luxury goods, or Alan Schechter's Diet Coke ,
which brought the Holocaust closer to us in an almost visceral way. These
are images we recognize.
Kaplan: They're products that are
part of our contemporary lives.
Kleeblatt: These are works
that have a kind of valence and immediacy that eradicate the distance even
film creates. All of our favorite things, all of our familiar things. What
those artists did in conflating the familiar or superimposing the familiar
and banal of the everyday onto the distant horrific brought it all
frighteningly close to us. And that's also the power, it's what the
artists used to create that powerful immediacy.
you think anything Sachs might have done would have come under attack
because he was going back into a history that has been so codified?
Kleeblatt: I'm just thinking of other works that Sachs has done that have
dealt specifically with history. Obviously, when one deals with the Third
Reich and the Holocaust, it's a history that's both so near and so far
from us and that carries so many moral implications. Society tries to keep
it at a comfortable historical distance and a comfortable moral balance;
when artists or filmmakers or writers try to upset that balance, we're
made uncomfortable, but we're also made more conscious.
It almost seems as though the physical object quality of the Prada Death
Camp violated something.
Kleeblatt: It's about the
fragile boundaries between propaganda, promotion, desire, and destruction.
Kaplan: Why do you think Sachs used Prada and not
Hugo Boss, which would have been more historically accurate?
Kleeblatt: Art isn't about historical accuracy. Good art, great art is
about making people see something in a radically different way.
Giftgas Giftset, 1998
Gallery, New York
At the time, Sachs said that he was using Prada to construct his death camp
because there was a connection between fascism and fashion. This seems to
dismiss the whole notion that evil was even an issue. Did you see the
Prada Death Camp as a representation of evil? Or as a mirror?
Kleeblatt: In terms of the exhibition, I saw the Prada Death Camp
as a mirror. He created this collision of imagery between Prada and
Auschwitz. But it was the way he crafted it – with all the fragility of
the box it was made from, a sort of meaningless wrapping of luxury items.
It wasn't even made from the luxury item. It was made out of an extrusion
of a luxury item, the packaging of a luxury item. He made it fragile, and
I think that's the interesting discussion – the fragility of these
symbols, and what happens when one fragile and meaningless and worthless
symbol is associated with another symbol of a historical space in which
any kind of human dignity, much less luxury was denied. This is what made
it so redolent, this is why it really functioned on so many levels.
Kaplan: When all is said and done, the Prada Death Camp is an
architectural model, a temporary structure meant to fall apart. In the
real Auschwitz of today, efforts have been made to fortify walls, to make
sure the structure lasts. In what way were the reactions to the Prada
Death Camp related to the fact that it was a facsimile and not a place
that existed historically, and for this reason couldn't possibly contain
associations or memories that were true and actual, because Prada had of
course never created or sponsored a death camp?
It's always a question of how we restate, how we re-inscribe, how we
Kaplan: The question I have is related to
the reactions of the Prada Death Camp – coming from the fact that
Tom Sachs' structure was neither a memorial nor a model of the actual
Auschwitz structure. It's a facsimile that doesn't really have a place in
the history that existed, yet at the same time contains associations or
memories that were real. The Prada Death Camp is caught in the
Kleeblatt: And that's precisely what Tom wanted to
have happen – that the viewer gets caught in the middle.
Kaplan: To exacerbate the disparity?
are difficult symbols and difficult representations existing somewhere
between whatever the meanings of those representations are and what we
assign as meaning to those representations.
almost puts the whole idea of memorials and that kind of memory effort up
for grabs. It's scary. It's not like you're going to a known site to feel
Kleeblatt: You have to remember, the Prada Death
Camp was highly miniaturized, which diminishes some of the importance,
but also adds a kind of preciousness.
Kaplan: To what extent
did Sachs' Death Camp function as a re-enactment?
Kleeblatt: I don't see the work as a re-enactment. I think it's the
viewer that has to re-enact within that conflation, which makes it harder.
And I've always talked about this in terms of a kind of 1990s art.
Nicholas Burio talks about that phenomenon: that 1990s art was always made
with the viewer, and that the viewer's response was central to the art
making. Of course, these were the artists who clearly understood
post-modernism: the interest in the spectator, the death of the author,
and the importance of the receiver in completing the work. In later
writing, post-exhibition, I talked about how almost all the works in the
exhibition were predicated on the viewer. Many of the earlier Holocaust
monuments weren't about the Holocaust; they kept a very stringent distance
between then and now, between what was represented or seen or assimilated
– and they guaranteed the security of the viewer, who knew that he or she
was in an entirely safe place.
Kaplan: And that history
supposedly only happened THEN. What's interesting about Sachs' work is
that it's such a visceral violation of THEN and NOW.
That's right. Most of the works in the exhibition were about that. And so
Sachs takes his place among artists who've dared to bring that piece of
history and these symbols from history way too close to our present.
Kaplan: That's uncomfortable.
uncomfortable, and we're supposed to feel uncomfortable.
Norman Kleeblatt is curator at the Susan and Elihu Rose of Fine Arts at
the Jewish Museum in New York.