At Memory's Edge: After Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture

Article excerpt

by James E. Young. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 248 pp. $35.00.

If there is any scholar who has stirred the imagination on the issues concerning Holocaust representation, certainly James E. Young from the University of Massachusetts stands first and foremost. His earlier work as curator of the New York Jewish Museum's exhibition, The Art of Memory, and the related book, The Texture of Memory, set the stage for this work on questions of how the Holocaust will be remembered through "anti-redemptive memorials" as well as provocative, rather than elegiac and often sentimental artistic representations. These are important questions, at least for now, as the teaching of the Holocaust as a special subject in public memory as well as in the academic curriculum has produced a number of questions which have been asked of other traumatic historical events, but not with such immediacy. The scale of the Shoah combined with post-modern thought has provoked the essential question of how the present and future generations that did not experience the event can remember it. Will the public be bombarded with artistic representations that reproduce the now clichéd photographs and even kitsch-like images that we know too well, or can some other form of post-Shoah representation actually be produced and succeed?

Young poses the question correctly: "How is a post-Holocaust generation of artists supposed to `remember' events they never experienced directly?" He admits that there can be no single formula, "no final solutions" for contemporary artists. In the realm of memorial sites, especially in places like Germany, where the crime was conceived, how does one approach the question of memorialization?

Young's approach in this excellent monograph suggests the near-impossibility of a comprehensive overview of how artists and architects have dealt with the problems of representation. Art Spiegelman's MAUS, for example, is conceived as a serious literary and artistic memory book that contains much ambivalence about memory and representation, but is judged by Young to be successful. David Levinthal's Mein Kampf, on the other hand, a series of blurred photo images of the Third Reich made from toy figures, creates some problems. Young suggests that because of the peculiarities of Levinthal's images, his work forces the viewer to "imagine and thereby collaborate," and also provides ambiguous conclusions about the possibilities of how art may inspire or provoke.

Young's chapter, "Sites Unseen," relates to the outdoor life-size projections of San Francisco artist Shimon Attie. This art form, which is based upon projecting old images of an active Berlin Jewish quarter on now abandoned buildings subject to new use suggests the relevance of ghost-like images as well as what Pierre Nora has called "the will to remember," and what Young calls an "act of remembrance." Thus, Attie has utilized a technological art to remember the past and the absence of the Jews in Germany. But this work can go beyond mere remembrance, into a form of social activism, as intended by Attie's Portraits of Exile, displayed in Copenhagen during 1995. This series introduced a grouping of lighted portraits that floated in Copenhagen harbor near the docks. Some images alluded to the successful rescue of Danish Jews in 1943, an event Denmark takes pride in remembering. Other images, however, reflected on the less than successful stories of new refugees whose acceptance has been more difficult than that of the Jews. Thus, memory can be a two-edged sword, instilling either pride or shame for national policies. In this respect, Young's analysis affirms what we know too well -- how dangerous art may be as a weapon for change and as a means for inspiring memory.

The author, of course, is in a special position that goes beyond the academic analyst. Young, because of his knowledge and excellent scholarship, became a member of the Finding Commission for the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. …

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