Defunct German synagogue hosts gas chamber exhibit, sparks outrage

'A shameless abuse of artistic freedom,' official says.

holocaust 88 (photo credit: )
holocaust 88
(photo credit: )
The German Jewish community is outraged at a controversial performance artist who has turned a synagogue into a gas chamber. Santiago Sierra, a Spanish artist, set up an exhibition in which automobile exhaust is channeled into the sanctuary of the defunct Pulheim-Stommeln Synagogue. Visitors must don gas masks and be accompanied by a fireman to take a tour of the building, which hosts art exhibits but not longer serves as a house of worship. "The art project of Santiago Sierra is a scandal. This is a base provocation at the expense of victims of the Holocaust," declared Stephan Kramer, the secretary-general of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany, in a statement. He called the exhibit a "shameless abuse of artistic freedom" and a "tasteless artistic spectacle that insults the dignity not only of victims of the Holocaust but also the Jewish community, [and has] absolutely nothing to do with the culture of memory and memorials." But Sierra said he was seeking to honor the memory of the Jews murdered in the Holocaust and explained that he was attempting to counter the "trivialization of our memory of the Holocaust," according to a statement distributed outside the synagogue, as reported in Spiegel Online. Sierra's exhibit, which opened on Sunday, is entitled "245 Cubic Meters" in reference to the empty space of the synagogue. "Above all, however, '245 Cubic Meters' is meant to be a work about the industrialized and institutionalized death from which the European peoples of the world have lived and continue to live," his statement read. There has been damning criticism from the German media, according to Spiegel Online, but local officials defended the piece. "The artist is making a statement, not I. He must be allowed to make a statement and convey it without any distortion. I don't engage in censorship. The artist thinks what he thinks," said city official Angelika Schallenberg. Bobby Brown, the World Jewish Congress's director for international affairs, cautioned that despite the best artistic intentions, "the sheer brutality of the Holocaust means that we should be careful of using it, especially in Germany. "One need not create a mock-up of a gas chamber since the ones that existed are shocking enough," he continued. According to local media accounts, however, people who visited the exhibit were moved by it. A teary Wolfgang Rieger told the K lner Stadt-Anzeigerthat: "I'm really beaten up about this. None of the previous projects has affected me like this." And a 60-year-old-man reportedly said, "I wasn't afraid but I felt a sense of threat. This realization shouldn't be lost in this day and age." Around 200 people attended the opening of the exhibition, which is scheduled to be staged every Sunday except for Easter Sunday until the end of April.