Perpetrators, victims and bystanders
At Maidanek - a Nazi concentration camp - hut after wooden hut, lit by bare lightbulbs and an open door, is filled to the brim with shoes: the smell is unforgettable, as is their colour when one adapts to the dimness. You have arrived at what Daniel Libeskind has described as the 'terminus of history'. Theodor Adorno's dictum that there can be no art after the Holocaust seems irrefutable.
What brings you to this despairing conclusion is the random detritus of the death camps: shoes, bowls, utensils, prayer shawls, striped uniforms, prosthetics, toothbrushes, spectacles, human hair and family photo-albums. And all in seemingly endless quantities. In their physical presence is the disturbing echo of installation art - except that art this most definitely is not. This was the scientific management not just of genocide but of plunder: recycling of personal possessions, melting down gold fillings. Someone was forced to extract, sort, sift, weigh it all out, and record it meticulously.
Enter Christian Boltanski - an installation artist - who disproves Adorno by dealing with the Holocaust in the most direct manner. He works with detritus, photographs and light, but reorganises the materials in a way that makes the act of looking one of self-questioning; at each turn we become perpetrators, victims or bystanders.
In a vitrine he places a series of sharp implements bound in what appear to be recycled rinsed-out bloodied bandages. Each is different, home-made: are they instruments of survival or of torture?
Like Monet's colour theory or Picasso's Cubism, it is a revelatory way of reinterpreting the world. In the camps it is the sheer scale and repetition, the lack of identity, that is overwhelming. In Boltanski's installations there is no repetition: every part is individuated, and the spatial layout is carefully paced and sequenced.
The first part of the main installation in 'Nightfall', Les Lits, is a series of cots. They are all different in dimension, height and scale. Each is reminiscent of some kind of hospital bed or incubator or, again, an instrument of torture; through abstraction we are never sure. They are made of galvanised sheet and angle, with industrial trolley wheels; each has a plastic cover, and is lined with a made-up bed - sheets, pillow, and a brown blanket. Over each cot is a fluorescent tube on a stand, like a drip, but not; one is within, glowing through the plastic.
This scene recalls the kind of architectural space inside Francis Bacon's paintings - for those tautly delineated cubes read the rectilinear cots. Describe it and it sounds scary;
installed, it is calm, organised, ambiguous in its twilight. You are Dr Mengele on his ward rounds, you are the victim in the cot. In making this abstracted installation, Boltanski subjects himself, and by extension the viewer, to a simulacrum of the places and thought processes of the Holocaust. His art gets you straight to that mindset (and the clumsy handiwork) which was needed to design the loading-trays for ovens at Auschwitz. It conveys the essence of the whole thing in a way that no other medium can.
The second installation, Les Portants, is a series of over-scaled hospital screens. Each is draped in crumpled cotton sheet, in between which photographic images (presumably on mylar) are lit from behind. The photographs, as in much of Boltanski's work, are contemporary, culled from newspaper stories of violent crimes. The portraits are larger than life-size: a beautiful woman, a wide-eyed child in a striped T-shirt, one blindfolded.
The last installation in this sequence is Les Tombeaux: tombs made of galvanised angle, shrouded in crudely-sewn black felt, fill the room. You can walk between and under them, although all around, at different heights, dim 40W light bulbs are suspended. On the walls are hundreds of individually-sized glazed rectangles of black paper, edged in black gaffer tape. The voids are filled with reflections of the light bulbs, the tombs and the viewers.
Adorno got it w rong . It is on ly ar t which can break the silence, confront the viewer, give space to imagine and question. The Poles do it through folk art - how else do you explain the extraordinary shocking spiritual power of hundreds of candles placed inside the crematoria ovens on All Saints Day? Boltanski's art confronts death, loss of identity and dignity, and the fragility of memory, head on.
Stephen Greenberg and Bob Baxter are designing the permanent Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum