Resurrecting the Gay History of the Holocaust
Pacifico Silano's "Against Nature" explores an often overlooked and frequently overlooked period of LGBT history: the persecution of gay men by the Nazis.
Aryan Ideal, by Pacifico Silano
New York–based photographer Pacifico Silano's stunning and devastating exhibition Against Nature, on view at ClampArt until February 14, explores an often overlooked and frequently forgotten period of LGBT history: the persecution—and eventual slaughter—of gay men by Nazi Germany. The title is a reference to Joris-Karl Huysmans's infamous novel, as well as the phrase in Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code that both rendered homosexuality illegal and equated it with bestiality.
This show mines the same vein as his previous photographic series like Male Fantasy Icon, which examined the gay communities decimated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the figure of Al Parker, a 1970s gay porn star who died from complications from AIDS. In Against Nature, Silano uses archival sources from World War II and the earlier German Naturist movement to not only assert the importance of remembering the gay victims of the Holocaust but also explore the latent homoeroticism inherent in the Nazi's idealized vision of the Aryan male. With a bold and deceptively simple red, white, and black color scheme, Silano juxtaposes partially obscured photographs of men with beautiful Robert Mapplethorpe-esque flowers, creating a powerful statement on loss, identity, and historical memory.
I spoke with Silano about how he became interested in the history of gay men under Nazi Germany, the process behind his photographs, and what he sees as the significance of archives for LBGTQ history.
VICE: Against Nature examines the rarely discussed history of gay men during Nazi Germany. What inspired you to begin this project and investigate this?
Pacifico Silano: I was traveling in Amsterdam in 2012 and I was able to visit the Homomonument, which is the world's first public memorial dedicated to the lives of gays and lesbians killed by Nazis during the Holocaust. It was something I knew very little about—probably because in school, my history class completely ignored anything about the subjugation of LGBTQ people. It was hard to not be affected that day and so I pretty much decided that it would be my next project.
A significant portion of the work comes from archival materials related to the era. What was your process and where did you find your source materials?
It took me a while to get this project off the ground, partly because I wasn't sure how to approach making the photographs. Eventually I put my full attention into finding source material. I spent a lot of my time online purchasing found photographs and negatives related to the time period. I also put in a considerable amount of time researching in actual, physical libraries. I was thinking a lot about the idea of "the archive" and how I wanted this project to function, so the library seemed like an ideal place to find inspiration. Spending hours and hours in the quiet there definitely influenced the way I made a lot of those images.
Much of the work consists entirely of the colors red, white, and black. Why did you use only these colors?
I thought a lot about the use of these specific colors in reference to Nazi propaganda of World War II. They used this color combination a lot to help spread hate and intolerance throughout the world, and by creating work of this subject matter, I'm subverting that association. It was a very important decision that I had to make early on and really challenging creatively, but it helped the conceptual framework of the project.
The title of the exhibition refers to the German Criminal Code and Huysman's highly aesthetic 19th century novel. With these two seemingly opposing meanings, why did you choose this title?
During my research phase of this project I came across this Naturist movement that occurred in Germany prior to WWII. It was this celebration of the nude body that was embraced without shame and it included many photographic journals of male nudes, posed outdoors. Obviously that came to an abrupt end during Hitler's reign, but it was a jumping-off point for me to start making this work.
The Nazis removed the words "against nature" from Paragraph 175 in 1935, a term which historically referred to sodomy. It made it easier for them to convict and imprison presumed homosexuals. A kiss between the same sex, love letters, or even hand-holding could get a person arrested and convicted. I thought that those two missing words from the German Criminal Code were significant. Had they remained intact, more lives might have been spared.
In the exhibition, you juxtapose these altered archival images with black-and-white still lifes of flowers, which reminded me of Mapplethorpe's flower photographs. What is the relation of these flowers to the exhibition at large?
I created each still life as a memorial to those who fell victim to Paragraph 175 and fascism. I was interested in the obvious symbolism of floral still lifes and how you can have something so beautiful on the surface simultaneously have a heavier meaning.
In creating these particular pieces, it felt appropriate to reference someone like Robert Mapplethorpe, a real trailblazer who made it possible for people like myself to create work free of censorship. As a gay man who is also an artist it's next to impossible to not be inspired by his work. Robert Mapplethorpe was truly a bad bitch.
What I find interesting is that you not only address the gay victims of the Holocaust but you also represent the homoeroticism of the Nazi's " Ubermensch" in pieces like The Aryan Ideal or The German Officer. Why was it important to you to represent both of these aspects of the history of Nazi Germany?
I wanted to give agency to the gay victims of the Holocaust, something even history neglected for many years after the fact, while simultaneously undermining these macho, virile depictions of Nazi soldiers by gaying them up. By removing their identity and objectifying them through a gay gaze we render them powerless based on Hitler's ideology.
Throughout the exhibition, I kept thinking about how the work reveals an ongoing and almost haunted relationship between the past and the present. Much of your other work also deals this ongoing relationship—mostly in regards to pre-HIV/AIDS gay culture . What do you see as the significance of looking back to the gay history during Nazi Germany today, particularly through art?
Art can move people or piss them off, but I think the best kind of art can change our perspective about things we thought we knew. It is so important to make sure that these lost histories are seen and heard. It wasn't until the 1980s that homosexuals were even recognized as victims of the Holocaust, which is fucking insane. Something that even a lot of my gay friends didn't realize is that when WWII ended, homosexuals in the camps were, in many cases, sent to prison rather than freed. Not only were they denied the reparations of other victims, they were still locked up. Paragraph 175 had them still classified as criminals.
With an increasing amount of archival-based art related to LGBTQ history such as the Visual AIDS's 2014 exhibition Ephemera As Evidence, what do you see as the importance of the archive in relation to preserving gay history?
I'm deeply invested in queer subjugated histories, and unfortunately there happens to be a lot of it out there. I can't help but make work about these issues because it's so ingrained in me.
I think that because of all the huge steps we have taken in the past few years that have helped legitimize us in the mainstream, we can finally look back on our culture and try and preserve it. The difficulty in looking back is realizing how much has been lost. An obvious example is all the truly amazing, talented people who died during the AIDS crisis. There is a lot of shitty things that have happened and we can't ignore them. The archive offers us the opportunity to study who we once were, where we have been and ultimately where we hope to be, going forward.