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Art After Auschwitz: The Problem with Depicting the Holocaust

How today's artists are still finding the trauma to be a complex vehicle for social commentary.

How does one narrate a trauma? This age-old question of mimetic and abstract representation in art has been dredged up once again by a new video, which the creator claims to be “THE sickest [video] of them all.”

Holocaust / Daisy Chain | ANN /DeepDream [Warning: the link is graphic] by artist Denial of Service was uploaded on Vimeo a fortnight ago. In just over three minutes, the lysergic-esque video shows real footage from Auschwitz, Mauthausen-Gusen, and Dachau that has been fed into an Artificial Neural Network program (ANN, colloquially known as ‘deep dream’ or ‘inceptionism’) accompanied by a disembodied, glitchy voice-over that whispers: “just like the past, the future is shit (it’s gotten worse).”


It is perhaps this particular trauma—the Holocaust—that has seen the most overwhelming creative responses over the years. Holocaust literature and poetry became a genre of its own immediately following the event, and silver screen reaction ranges from the still-raw Night and Fog (1995), to sweeping story epics Schindler’s List (1993),The Pianist (2003), and memoir-esque documentaries to preserve the memories of elderly survivors.

Film still from “Night and Fog,” courtesy Argos Films

But of course, there are polarizing opinions in narrating the Holocaust, and in general, trauma. Poet Theodor Adorno famously uttered and then retracted the oft-misinterpreted statement “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”; over half a century later, when graphic novelist Art Spiegelman was questioned by a reporter about the insensitivity of his Holocaust memoir Maus, he retorted, “no, I thought Auschwitz was in bad taste.” There is a grain of truth in both dictums. A traumatic event, whether personal or universal, is an illogical outlier and thus it should be near impossible to make any sense of it—to be able to translate that illogic into a poem, book, or painting after an act of barbarism is equally barbaric. As a society of storytellers, we feel an impulse or desire to narrate it, to make sense of it, and to use it as a vehicle to comment on the world-at-large. This conflict in itself is rife with moral ambiguity and those who do choose to narrate traumas like genocide, especially as observer—not survivor—should also expect to be vilified.


Visual art is an especially tricky breeding ground for polymorphous representation, misinterpretation, and insensitivities. There are Holocaust and Auschwitz references in the work of contemporary artists such as Tom Sachs, Mirosław Bałka, and the Chapman Brothers, that some say are exploitative; the artists’ responses to these criticisms are usually that the work is meant to disturb, because the world is disturbing. In an interview with Hong Kong Tatler in 2013, Jake Chapman said of his Hitler and Holocaust dioramas and sculptures, “There is art that embodies a will or redemptive obligation to better the world, to salvage some human hope. We’re trying to make art that doesn’t do that; we thought, ‘Is it possible to make nasty things that have absolutely no redeeming features?”

Panels from “Maus,” courtesy Art Spiegelman

For Harry Martis, a.k.a. Denial of Service, narrating the Holocaust was a deeply personal journey that took him four intensive weeks overall to complete. “As a child in the 70s, I was accidentally exposed to these images on the television,” he says of the Holocaust footage used in Holocaust / Daisy Chain | ANN /DeepDream (click here to watch the piece). “It was a traumatizing experience and the initial visceral memory still lingers on, as I still cannot make sense out of the ‘sapiens monster,’ its motivations and innate urge towards sadism provided the slightest opportunity,” he says.

Online comments to the video have been mainly positive. There are academicians and critics, however, who might express different views. Professor Berel Lang of Philosophy Emeritus at SUNY Albany, who has comprehensively researched and written on Holocaust representation, brings up the issues of declaring art as “bad” or “good and the delicacy of exploitation. “The video clip referred to is certainly art, and just as certainly, in my view, bad art, since it pretends to intensify what is already grotesque—the concentration camp victims—by imposing what is more grotesque on them,” he says. “Writers and artists generally have moral obligations that don't go away in the act of creations; such obligations then only become more refined and demanding. There is the challenge of combining honesty with dispassion, and at the very least, of avoiding exploitation."


Jake and Dinos Chapman, “The Sum of All Evil,” courtesy White Cube Gallery

The latter has been a recurring temptation that has claimed many victims in Holocaust writing, film, and painting.” Lang’s book Primo Levi: The Matter of A Life mediates on, along with other aspects of the Holocaust survivor’s life, the complexities of writing about experiences within the camps. This tightrope act between honesty and dispassion is also drawn out in Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s tripartite memoir, in which he struggles to make sense of humanity both within and outside Auschwitz.

Martis does, however, make a salient point about contemporary society and the wealth, speed and accessibility of random information that, some argue, has led to desensitization. In utilizing the still-fresh ANN programs to comment on the Holocaust, he is both continuing an ongoing discussion about narrating trauma and also springboarding a new one about what ANN and deep dream represents in our image-obsessed world today. Is it a coincidence that the German word “traume” translates as “dream”? Perhaps we are all in a perpetual state of disconnect and ANN allows a clearer and more logical picture of sociological association, looping back to the point about making sense of a trauma.

“The deep-dreaming-machine process much resembles the perceptive process of a three-year-old… free association ensues,” Martis says. “The process, in essence, produced the entire artefact almost unattended. And these fusions of ‘repitilian meat’ which the machine imagined out of Auschwitz and Dachau tractor sequences are not that far from what any individualized brain in my vicinity has to be cleansed of at the end of each day. This world is totally desensitized towards all the wrong stimuli. Violence, death, mutilation, suffering aren’t part of those. Nipples, apparently, are.”


Regardless of the argument on society’s warped views on what is and isn't taboo, debates germane to exploitation of trauma are still rampant. Take the recent debacle on the Virginia reporter and cameraman shot while live on television, or the hordes of beached Syrian refugees—images of these victims are churned out through social media and, in some cruel cases, taken out of context and subjected to memes. Skeptical voices question the necessity of presenting these traumas on public platforms: Does it really help the cause? What do these images tell us about the way the world is? Such questions could well be asked for both the pictures that turn up on our Facebook feed as well as artworks like Martis’, as the lines between representation in various forms are increasingly blurred—all is a narration of trauma, and something worth thinking twice about.

Film still from “The Pianist,” courtesy Focus Features

“Bambi”, Mirosław Bałka, courtesy Gladstone Gallery

"Lego Concentration Camp," Zbigniew Libera, courtesy of the artist

“Prada Deathcamp,” Tom Sachs, courtesy of the artist

Click here to watch Denial of Service's Holocaust / Daisy Chain | ANN /DeepDream. This link may be graphic for some viewers


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