this issue contains
>> Interview with Tom Sachs
>> Tom Sachs' Installation "Nutsy's"
>> Norman Kleeblatt on Tom Sachs
>> Weapons, Status, Shopping

>> archive

The viewer should get caught in the middle:
Norman Kleeblatt on Tom Sachs and his Prada Death Camp

Prada Death Camp, 1999
©Tom Sachs, New York

Last year, Tom Sachs' work Prada Death Camp created a scandal in the controversial exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery / Recent Art at the Jewish Museum in New York. The model of a concentration camp, made from a Prada hat box, shocked Holocaust survivors and the heads of Jewish institutions in America and Europe alike. Now, Tom Sachs is coming to Germany: Nutsy's, his most recent room-sized installation, will be presented at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin starting on July 24. This work also constitutes a controversial interplay between popular culture and historical symbols. In New York, Cheryl Kaplan met with the curator of Mirroring Evil, Norman Kleeblatt, and questioned him on his retrospective observations on the controversy surrounding Sachs' Prada Death Camp.

Cheryl Kaplan: Why were you interested in including Tom Sachs' Prada Death Camp and the Manischewitz Luger in the exhibition Mirroring Evil?

Norman Kleeblatt: First of all, you know, we [The Jewish Museum] had purchased the Manischewitz Luger for the collection.

Kaplan: What year was that?

Kleeblatt: Quite some time before I began working on Mirroring Evil. The Sachs works were remarkably powerful, moving works that made one sort of renegotiate one's own connection, one's own closeness to the symbols of Nazism. And that was the earliest work in which he began exploring the connection of popular culture to Nazism after having discovered some historical connections concerning the Luger, which had been owned by a Jewish family that was subsequently Aryanized by the Nazis.

Kaplan: Why do you think there was such a visceral reaction to Tom Sachs' Prada Death Camp? The reaction to that piece was stronger than to the Luger piece, wasn't it?

Kleeblatt: Yes, that's right. It was the conflation of two symbols that seem so totally incongruous. This is the way Tom often works, making something that's elegant and attractive and desirable, and compressing it onto something that's heinous – it's one of the ways he makes us rethink the image world, if you will, that we navigate on a daily basis.

Kaplan: Do you think the reaction was so strong because Sachs was taking the Holocaust too lightly?

Kleeblatt: I find the piece incredibly upsetting and incredibly moving. I think the conflation of popular culture with the Holocaust is a difficult pill to swallow, and the reaction to a number of works in the exhibition that used items from popular culture was strong – or, in the case of Tom Sachs, that used the actual wrappings of luxury goods, or Alan Schechter's Diet Coke , which brought the Holocaust closer to us in an almost visceral way. These are images we recognize.

Kaplan: They're products that are part of our contemporary lives.

Kleeblatt: These are works that have a kind of valence and immediacy that eradicate the distance even film creates. All of our favorite things, all of our familiar things. What those artists did in conflating the familiar or superimposing the familiar and banal of the everyday onto the distant horrific brought it all frighteningly close to us. And that's also the power, it's what the artists used to create that powerful immediacy.

Kaplan: Do you think anything Sachs might have done would have come under attack because he was going back into a history that has been so codified?

Kleeblatt: I'm just thinking of other works that Sachs has done that have dealt specifically with history. Obviously, when one deals with the Third Reich and the Holocaust, it's a history that's both so near and so far from us and that carries so many moral implications. Society tries to keep it at a comfortable historical distance and a comfortable moral balance; when artists or filmmakers or writers try to upset that balance, we're made uncomfortable, but we're also made more conscious.

Kaplan: It almost seems as though the physical object quality of the Prada Death Camp violated something.

Kleeblatt: It's about the fragile boundaries between propaganda, promotion, desire, and destruction.

Kaplan: Why do you think Sachs used Prada and not Hugo Boss, which would have been more historically accurate?

Kleeblatt: Art isn't about historical accuracy. Good art, great art is about making people see something in a radically different way.

Giftgas Giftset, 1998
©Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York

Kaplan: At the time, Sachs said that he was using Prada to construct his death camp because there was a connection between fascism and fashion. This seems to dismiss the whole notion that evil was even an issue. Did you see the Prada Death Camp as a representation of evil? Or as a mirror?

Kleeblatt: In terms of the exhibition, I saw the Prada Death Camp as a mirror. He created this collision of imagery between Prada and Auschwitz. But it was the way he crafted it – with all the fragility of the box it was made from, a sort of meaningless wrapping of luxury items. It wasn't even made from the luxury item. It was made out of an extrusion of a luxury item, the packaging of a luxury item. He made it fragile, and I think that's the interesting discussion – the fragility of these symbols, and what happens when one fragile and meaningless and worthless symbol is associated with another symbol of a historical space in which any kind of human dignity, much less luxury was denied. This is what made it so redolent, this is why it really functioned on so many levels.

Kaplan: When all is said and done, the Prada Death Camp is an architectural model, a temporary structure meant to fall apart. In the real Auschwitz of today, efforts have been made to fortify walls, to make sure the structure lasts. In what way were the reactions to the Prada Death Camp related to the fact that it was a facsimile and not a place that existed historically, and for this reason couldn't possibly contain associations or memories that were true and actual, because Prada had of course never created or sponsored a death camp?

Kleeblatt: It's always a question of how we restate, how we re-inscribe, how we re-animate memory.

Kaplan: The question I have is related to the reactions of the Prada Death Camp – coming from the fact that Tom Sachs' structure was neither a memorial nor a model of the actual Auschwitz structure. It's a facsimile that doesn't really have a place in the history that existed, yet at the same time contains associations or memories that were real. The Prada Death Camp is caught in the middle.

Kleeblatt: And that's precisely what Tom wanted to have happen – that the viewer gets caught in the middle.

Kaplan: To exacerbate the disparity?

Kleeblatt: These are difficult symbols and difficult representations existing somewhere between whatever the meanings of those representations are and what we assign as meaning to those representations.

Kaplan: It almost puts the whole idea of memorials and that kind of memory effort up for grabs. It's scary. It's not like you're going to a known site to feel pain.

Kleeblatt: You have to remember, the Prada Death Camp was highly miniaturized, which diminishes some of the importance, but also adds a kind of preciousness.

Kaplan: To what extent did Sachs' Death Camp function as a re-enactment?

Kleeblatt: I don't see the work as a re-enactment. I think it's the viewer that has to re-enact within that conflation, which makes it harder. And I've always talked about this in terms of a kind of 1990s art. Nicholas Burio talks about that phenomenon: that 1990s art was always made with the viewer, and that the viewer's response was central to the art making. Of course, these were the artists who clearly understood post-modernism: the interest in the spectator, the death of the author, and the importance of the receiver in completing the work. In later writing, post-exhibition, I talked about how almost all the works in the exhibition were predicated on the viewer. Many of the earlier Holocaust monuments weren't about the Holocaust; they kept a very stringent distance between then and now, between what was represented or seen or assimilated – and they guaranteed the security of the viewer, who knew that he or she was in an entirely safe place.

Kaplan: And that history supposedly only happened THEN. What's interesting about Sachs' work is that it's such a visceral violation of THEN and NOW.

Kleeblatt: That's right. Most of the works in the exhibition were about that. And so Sachs takes his place among artists who've dared to bring that piece of history and these symbols from history way too close to our present.

Kaplan: That's uncomfortable.

Kleeblatt: We're uncomfortable, and we're supposed to feel uncomfortable.

Norman Kleeblatt is curator at the Susan and Elihu Rose of Fine Arts at the Jewish Museum in New York.