Issue 2/2004 - Rip-off Culture

Politically Correct Trauma

»The Hidden Holocaust«

Katalin Timár

It seems that one of the most fundamental questions regarding the representation of the Holocaust is related to its two modes and the schism between them. The age-old separation between the “documentary” mode on the one hand and the “representational” mode on the other has been the central, though paradoxically hidden, issue in the visual commemoration of the historical event involving the deportation of Hungarian Jewry to the Nazi concentration camps exactly 60 years ago. The vehemence with which every non-documentary and non-historical recalling of the events has been dismissed should be considered as a telling sign of some hidden trauma. This trauma is different from the trauma of the Holocaust and its survival. It is rather related to the ways in which the Holocaust was officially discussed and represented in Hungary until 1989 – a discourse that is still prevalent today, as is shown at a documentary exhibition, held parallel with the M?csarnok-show, dealing with the history of the Hungarian memorial exhibitions in Auschwitz and the related ideology that has defined these exhibitions. This exhibition shockingly presents how anti-Semitism in Hungary after the end of World War 2 found its new alliance in anti-bourgeois, communist ideology, both dismissing the figure of the greedy, fat, inconsiderate -- i.e. Jewish - capitalist in the name of social equality and the people’s welfare.

In the new, ‘politically correct’ reassessment of the Holocaust and its historiography, this serves as a backdrop for the exhibition »The Hidden Holocaust« in the M?csarnok. Besides the Jews, other minority groups, such as the Roma people, homosexuals, and Jehova’s Witnesses also appear, albeit in a somewhat problematic way. Some of these groups – mostly members of the Roma community – are given a voice to formulate their own relationship to their own Holocaust. In some cases, this results in outstanding and highly critical works: Katalin Bódi puts all the objects on display that you can purchase with the money Roma people received as a compensation for their suffering in the camps. This little pile of basic food that only poor people consume is echoed in a “classic” piece by Miklós Erdély. For an exhibition in the 70s, he used the ridiculously small amount money his family received from the German State as compensation to purchase some bottles of ‘barackpálinka’ (Hungarian schnapps) so the visitors could have a drink and toast his health.

This paradoxically highlights one of the main deficits of the show: that the biggest minority group (women) is left undefined by the curators and does not receive an opportunity to formulate a (gender-)specific relationship either to the historical event or to its present discourse. In certain cases – for example, that of a well-known Roma painter, Omara - the female voice gets an opportunity to make some very powerful statements, but even historical pieces (works by artists who either died in the camps or survived the Holocaust) remain a neutral symbolic space from the point of view of gender. Yet we know from testimonies and from contemporary accounts and theory of trauma that the specificity of women’s experience is the result of gendered power and a higher degree of gendered oppression.

One of the most problematic elements in the exhibition is related to the selection of artists and topics. Although the overall installation of the show (the concept of János Sugár) promises the possibility of a more personalized reading of the ‘story’, the mixture of historical works by witnesses (survivors and victims), haphazardly chosen and displayed documentary material, and contemporary art works not just by professional artists, but also by Roma people (and homosexuals), unnecessarily maintains the unresolved dichotomy between the two above-mentioned modes (historical and representational). It often happens in the case of exhibitions about the Holocaust that the viewers are constrained to choose between assuming the position of the victims or that of the perpetrators, without having any other options. This particular show is an exception in the sense that, with most of the works, it offers the viewer the safe position of an outsider – a typical stance that is largely promoted by contemporary thinking about the Holocaust in Hungary in terms of the dichotomy of »us« (i.e. Hungarians) versus »them« (i.e. Jews).

All this means that the best works in the exhibition not only expose the dichotomies but also try to visualize the contemporary presence of the Holocaust in Hungarian society. Sándor Bodó’s photograph depicts the platform of a metro station in Budapest that was built in the 70s with marble from Mauthausen. In Miklós Mécs’s video, a skinhead with a star of David on his jacket sleeve beats a homeless person with a baguette that quickly crumbles without doing any harm. Ilona Lovas’s piece can be understood as a symbolic apology and homage to the victims – a rare gesture in political life. The characters in Csaba Uglár’s video carry on an uncanny conversation about drugs or genetic manipulation. The sequence of blurred images is juxtaposed with another story: two identical twin brothers passionately kissing each other in the back seat of a car. János Fodor’s installation shows the unequal positions we are forced to take vis-à-vis this particular historical event: it is a double-sided window like those we know from police investigations. One side offers a view of people who are unaware of being observed, while on the other side we are put on display and observed by other visitors. Attila Menesi and Christoph Rauch tried to involve the public as much as possible by offering them the chance to make contributions to the show by bringing in objects or any other form of memory to the exhibition space. Roza El-Hassan made an installation of her drawings as a symbolic gesture of taking sides with the victims. In addition to this, she organized a performance for the opening: a live chain of solidarity that any visitor could join for a duration of 10 minutes. The participatory aspect of these works is an indication of an existing need to work with traumatic historical events in the age of post-traumatic society.

The Hidden Holocaust. Múcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest
March 18 – May 30 2004