Academic journal article Afterimage

The Trauerspiel in the Age of Its Global Reproducibility: Boaz Arad's Hitler Videos

Academic journal article Afterimage

The Trauerspiel in the Age of Its Global Reproducibility: Boaz Arad's Hitler Videos

Article excerpt

Given the complete disenchantment of the world, art that is beyond the alternative of lightheartedness and seriousness may be as much a cipher of reconciliation as a cipher of horror.

--Theodor W. Adorno

The playfully serious and seriously playful work of Israeli video artist Boaz Arad poses crucial ethico-political questions about the limits to artistic confrontations with genocidal history and its legacies. What are our duties and responsibilities--as artists, critics, spectators--with respect to representing the problems of trauma and mourning, of collective memory and identity, and of reconciliation and forgiveness? These problems are more urgent than ever today, as a dubious doctrine of perpetual preemptive "war on terror" throws international law into global crisis. Adorno laid down the theoretical baseline here, but the contemporary situation is very different from that of the postwar period in which he developed his "after-Auschwitz" ethic of representation. Understanding the historicity of Adorno's strictures and imperatives is an unavoidable task for critical theory and aesthetics today. If Adorno's endorsement of severely "negative" modalities of memorial art attained a kind of belated dominance in the mid-1980s, it is no longer enough to simply apply his formulations as the source of conventionalized rules for production and criticism: it will be necessary to test those formulas against unfolding history and to scrutinize them through the interrogative force of contemporary practice. Arad's series of four short but potent videos constructed around images of Hitler gives us an opening to do just that.


Arad's videos began as interventions into a specific Israeli context. In a national culture in which, as historian Moshe Zimmerman puts it, "both the Shoa and anti-Semitism are instrumentalized in the interest of Israeli policy," (1) representations of the Nazi genocide are required to conform to official memory: they are limited to depictions of a moment of victimization by absolute evil, within a mythifying and recuperative narrative movement from diaspora to nationhood, powerlessness to power. The suffocating dogmatism of this civil religion, institutionalized relentlessly in schools and through public rituals, predictably produced a reaction: a so-called "post-Zionist" generation that can only view official memory with skepticism and irony and is willing to ask critical questions about the ethical and political costs of the foundation of Jewish power and nationhood. Such questions are posed directly by Zimmerman, Idith Zertal and other dissenting intellectuals-by the so-called "New Historians," as well as by committed writers like David Grossman. While the filmmaker Eyal Sivan, whose critical documentary work began in 1987, would belong to this group, its perspectives irrupt rather later into gallery-based Israeli art. The 1997 exhibition of Roee Rosen's Live and Die as Eva Braun at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem is now recognized as its break-through. As Ariella Azoulay has clarified, Rosen's transgressive invocation of Hitler in a series of texts and drawings that invites the spectator to identify with his mistress broke the taboo on naming and depicting Hitler within the public spaces of Israeli museums and galleries. Azoulay helps us to see how Arad's videos, exhibited three years later at the Herzliya Museum of Art, were made possible by Rosen's intervention but also extended the space it opened up. As she puts it, Arad's work is "testimony to the change effected by Rosen's exhibition." (2) Together, these works reveal Hitler as a "structured absence" in Israeli artistic and museological practice. (3)

It is instructive to see what happens when these interventionist works are submitted to contextual displacement. Both Rosen's Eva Braun suite and one of Arad's Hitler videos (Hebrew Lesson, 2000) were included in the controversial 2002 exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art at the Jewish Museum in New York. …

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