Santiago Sierra, a Spanish shock artist known for stunts raging from the provocative (tattooing the backsof drug addicts) and inane (reading from a phonebook for 120 consecutive hours) has created quite a stink with his latest artistic venture:
He’s taken over a former synagogue in Germany and filled it with poisonous fumes, creating a ersatz gas chamber where visitors don gas masks and take a guided tour.
When I first heard about this, I was fairly disgusted. I mean, can’t you imagine this pretentious attention-addicted narcissist sitting around in his cashmere underwear or whatever it is performance artists like to lounge around in when no one’s watching and thinking to himself “Hmm, no one’s looking at me. How can I top my starvation in a brick house project? What will upset people so much that my name, Santiago Sierra, will forever be associated in the public minds with the words ‘shocking!’ and ‘artistic!’ and ‘superfantastic!’? I know! I will piss off the Jews! They complain louder than anyone! Everyone will soon hear how controversial and provocative I am!”
Seriously, you can picture him on his real leopard skin couch smoking hand-rolled cloves, can’t you?
But Sierra (who is not Jewish) wrote in his artistic statement that rather than exploiting the Holocaust, he’s actually trying to honor the Jews murdered in the Shoah by countering the “trivialization of our memory of the Holocaust,” which I sort of understand.
Because our generation has heard so much about the atrocities of WWII and sometimes feel stifled by its enormity, we try to distance ourselves from it by placing a box around the Holocaust without truly exposing ourselves to its lingering grief and impact on the Jews and the rest of the world. Sierra’s protest is effective because making a gas chamber out of a synagogue bites us underneath our neat little mental games of avoidance and denial.
But mostly methinks he doth protest too much.