Art and the aftermath

`Art after Auschwitz' and the work of Luc Tuymans bring the Holocaust to the art gallery. Adrian Searle questions its place there
Click to follow
At Dachau, a workman mows the grass; at Buchenwald a signpost in a raked field points the way to a museum; in Berlin there are plaques informing visitors that they are standing on the grounds of the Gestapo's torture chambers. Henning Langenheim, a tourist who knows too much, wanders the sites of the atrocities and takes his photographs: a decaying concrete sill and an old shoe; the open stairwell down to an undressing room, filled up with pond weed and scum. He photographs the forgotten corners and the set pieces of the Holocaust theme-park, the evidence not only of what happened 50 years ago, but of what has happened since, what we have done with those places, those memories.

Langenheim's photos are among the most telling works in After Auschwitz. It is a depressing show, but mostly for the wrong reasons. It takes its title from Theodore Adorno's claim, made in 1949, that to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. But much of the art here isn't barbaric, it's just bad.

The art made in the camps by the inmates (in secret and at the artist's mortal risk), and by survivors after the event, will always remain important as historical testimony and witness, yet its value as art seems somehow immaterial - it exists, rather, as evidence. Zoran Music's drawings of piles of corpses at Dachau, where the artist was an inmate, or Daisy Brand's unsettlingly sweet ceramic plaques - with their scant images of the camps inset within stylised borders (derived from the Scrolls of the Law) - are evidence not only of what the artists underwent at the time (Brand survived seven camps), but also what they have suffered since.

Artists who address the Holocaust today have to deal not only with the genocide itself, but with the intervening half-century which separates us from it. Describing again how horrible it was is inadequate - perhaps even an impertinence - nor is it sufficient only to re-cast images of the events of 50 years ago in a more modern idiom. To memorialise the Holocaust's victims without sentimentalising their suffering, or without reducing it to one-dimensional, Expressionistic anguish, is beyond some of the artists here. They have been overwhelmed, and seek refuge in generalised images of despair, or in self-conscious formal sophistication.

Ellen Rothenberg's sanitised allusion to the stock-piling and recycling of the victim's possessions and body-parts confuses window-dressing for memorialising. She has printed part of Anne Frank's diary on vellum, cut it into strips so it looks like hair and let it fall to the floor where lots of combs are scattered among the trailing ticker-tape. With their outstretched arms, agonised postures and tarry finish, Shirley Sambeg's sack-cloth and lathe figures come straight from central casting: they lean, they cower, and if they could they'd wail - except that they're faceless drapery wraiths. Mistaking hammy generalisations for universal truths, and artiness for conceptual depth, is a characteristic of much of the show.

Many of the works commemorate what is lost and absent. Fabio Mauri's stack of old suitcases - the forsaken luggage of one-way trips to nowhere, turned into a Wailing Wall of lost possessions; Christian Boltanski's piles of rusted tins, surmounted with blurry photographs of Viennese-Jewish high-school graduates; Lena Liv's altar-like constructions (children's faces looking out of blackness, abandoned toys); Shimon Attie's photographs of pre-war Jewish life, projected on to the outsides of the buildings where these people once lived. They conjure ghosts. But no one here is prepared to look at Nazism itself, at Germanness, at the bureaucratic machinery which implemented the Final Solution, or the reason why it happened. Two of the four installations at the Imperial War Museum - Jean-Sylvian Bieth's library of both Reich-approved and proscribed books (with bottled foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals filling-out the shelves and the paraphernalia of the censor laid out in a quiet corner) and Melissa Gould's Nazi Wall- paper store go a short way to redressing the balance. The show looks at victims, at buildings and sites, but never stares a Nazi in the face.

Elsewhere in London, the Nazi Ribbentrop refuses to meet our eyes. He's back-lit, anonymous, his eyes fuzzed into shadow and his features dissolving. It is as though, the artist says, his image has been oxidised. We are made to think of time slipping by. The Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, whose first solo show in Britain is at the ICA, returns repeatedly to the subject of the Holocaust. He has painted portraits of its perpetrators, like Ribbentrop and Heydrich, the glamorous Nazi, images derived from survivors' drawings, seemingly innocent paintings of people out for a walk in the snow, an image of a lampshade on a desk. But the snow scene is a picture of Hitler and his cronies, out for a stroll in Berchtesgaden, though too far away to be identifiable - they could be you or me. The lampshade (from the painting Recherches) looks ordinary enough, but it is a depiction of one made from human skin. Tuymans is describing normality.

His painting of a gas chamber at Dachau, reworked from a water-colour the artist made on the spot, is the pivotal image of his show. The colour, like so many of his paintings, is soured and the painting's tonality - and much else about it - is degraded. It is a painting about the past, and seems to belong in the past. There are the vents, where the gas gushed in. The weak light in the painting seeps across the image, like the gas itself. The scant description of the chamber's functional features, the hesitant spots and even the wonkiness of the painting's stretcher, are an attempt to define an old, bad memory. It is a painting of what is left of that memory, its stain, slowly being reduced to an abstraction.

Tuymans's paintings are concerned primarily with indifference, the late century's numbness. They are filled with disquiet and the presence of the past.

n `After Auschwitz': Imperial War Museum, London SE1, until 29 May (daily 10am-6pm; £4.10); and at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London SE1, to 17 April; free

n Luc Tuymans, ICA, London SW1, until 30 April; open daily 12noon-7.30pm; £1.50 m'ship

Comments