When Mischa Kuball got invited to create an artwork for the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB) he was surprised. But why would a renowned German artist who’s been making conceptual art since 1977 be surprised with another light and sound commission? “I thought maybe they asked the wrong person because I was not Jewish nor part of the Jewish community,” says the Dusseldorf-based artist. And he was not alone in this assumption that only Jewish artists can make art about Jewish themes or for institutions related to the religion.
To this day, the public and media still are still wary of — if not outright against — such commissions. Another prominent controversy occurred when, in 2000, Rachel Whiteread was asked to create a sculpture dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust. The commission split the city of Vienna in two, with some locals so angered by both Whitehead’s work and her non-Jewish heritage that the project was delayed by four years.
But, Kuball’s commission was not for a Holocaust memorial nor for a commemoratory end; it was to create a work in dialogue with the museum’s famous concrete “Voids”, designed by American-Polish architect Daniel Libeskind. Entitled res·o·nant, the installation — comprising a rotating mirror and stroboscopic lights, together with an accompanying soundtrack — reinterprets the iconic Berlin space, with 24-meter-high ceilings. The “Voids” are an integral part of Libeskind’s celebrated floor plan, called “Between the lines” and based on two set lines, “the building’s visible zigzagging line and an invisible straight line”. The “Voids” is the section where these two lines intersect, and, until now, this part of the space had been used as an education centre.
The use of sound as a means of penetrating solid surfaces that could not otherwise be tampered with proved integral to Kuball’s nonviolent and subtle approach. “You need to go through security to enter the museum,” he explains. “It feels almost like a fortress, so sound is an appropriate medium to circumnavigate these restrictions within the space.” For the installation’s sonic element, Kuball looped a series of one-minute-long sound clips which were composed specially for “res·o·nant” by more than 150 musicians. This is the first time the artist has used sound on this scale; Kuball is better known for his use of light as a medium to explore architectural spaces as well as social and political discourses.
And was the religious affiliation of these invited musicians important? Not according to the museum’s director, Léontine Meijer-van Mensch. “To invite only Jewish artists would have been assuming an exclusive position — and that’s not what we are,” she says, referring to the institute’s public funding. “The building itself is a piece of art and so our exhibitions explore how the museum relates to the world.” Indeed, the museum treats its space and architecture as such and that’s why its directors have invited and continue to invite non-Jewish artist to exhibit there. For example, in 2012 they showed the group exhibition How German Is It?, featuring 30 Germany-based artists, regardless of religion — including Turkish artist, Özlem Günyol, who dealt with questions such as whether there is a national identity. And until September 2019, the JMB is also showing Ganzfeld “Aural”, an immersive installation by James Turrell temporarily installed in the museum garden. Turrell and Kuball are both renowned for their works using light — a central symbol in Judaism linking the beginning and end of creation — hence their being commissioned. Neither is Jewish, but that didn’t stop the museum from working with them.
Because of this approach, JMB is constantly criticised by hardliners in the Jewish community, both in Germany and throughout the world. The most obvious issue thrown up by this debate is one of cultural appropriation. While many young Jewish artists think it’s possible for German non-Jewish artists to relate a relevant awareness about the position Jews have occupied in society, it’s something that has to be handled with the utmost sensitivity. “If the showcased art-object seems unrelated, or the relation forced, then it’s up to the curators and museum directors to explain why the work is made visible within these walls,” explains text and image artist Nina Prader. “German non-Jewish artists, when dealing with Jewish subjects or matters, of course have to be extremely careful and respectful in how they frame their work.”
If a topic is dealt with sensitively, does it still make sense to speak about “pure” subjects that only certain people can work with? For older generations who grew up with Holocaust survivors, for instance, there is an enduring sense of taboo surrounding Germany. “I’ve heard from Israeli friends that their parents tell them never to go to Germany,” says Vanessa Gravenor, a Berlin-based, Canadian-Polish artist of Jewish ancestry, who does not consider herself Jewish. But, she says, views of Germany, and Judaism, are changing. “For people in my generation, these taboos are not as entrenched. I think now we can start imagining non-Jewish artists taking on subject matters of Jewish history and framing that against other narratives of diaspora and also genocide.”
Gravenor also points out that because the generation of Holocaust survivors is dwindling, we need to start thinking of memory as a fluid entity. “That means that other people who might not have claims to the survivors can engage with the history and connect it to other atrocities,” she says. “Of course, this type of memory work is different than the work that was and is done by survivors who actually experienced these events.”
Being able to place oneself in the narrative of representation is a crucial point. In 2017, for instance, Dana Schutz received heavy criticism for showing Open Casket at the Whitney Biennial, a painting which depicted Emmett Till’s corpse. This lead to artist Hannah Black calling for the painting to be destroyed, claiming that white artists don’t have the right to profit from black pain.
Dealing with memories that don’t strictly belong to us, or subjects that don’t affect us directly will continue to remain a contentious and sensitive endeavour in art for years to come. But, that doesn’t mean we should not do it — we must deal with all sorts of memories if we want to move forward. “Only through conversation, can ownerships be negotiated with the artist, the curators, the museum directors, the viewers, the journalists and the depicted subjects,” Prader continues. “All these components react. It does not have to be pleasant.”
Nonetheless, accountability has to play a role in these situations. In Kuball’s case not only was the artist very much aware of his position as the “outsider”, but the museum itself insisted on his skills and vision for the commission, based on his previous body of work. “I’d been following his work for a while,” Léontine Meijer-van Mensch says about Kuball, who in the 1990s also made Refraction House an installation in a synagogue. “He was just the best for this job.”
The art world, however, is a place for reflection and free speech, no matter who you are or where you come from. In our current climate, we all experience culture as a hybridisation, and appropriateness rides on self-awareness. Though as with everything in art — or indeed life — it’s not so much about what you do but rather how you do it.