BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

I Saw It

The rise of ‘dark tourism’ poses the question: are works of art as powerful as the sites they attempt to memorialize?

BY Ronald Jones in Opinion | 01 MAR 10

Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz, Mahnmal gegen Faschismus (Monument against Facism), 1986 - 93. Steel column with lead coating, 12 x 1 x 1 m.

Focus on the raw numbers. Last year saw 1.3 million people visit the former concentration camp, Auschwitz, which for 63 years has been a memorial and a museum. The steady rise in visitors since 2000, when more than 400,000 passed beneath the infamous – and recently stolen – sign reading ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Makes You Free), underlines the trend that has made ‘dark tourism’ the fastest-growing sector in the tourism industry worldwide. As medieval pilgrims once visited shrines to religious martyrs, today dark tourism is the invitation to explore sites of suffering and death perhaps out of a mix of reverence and voyeurism.

By comparison, 8.5 million people visited the Louvre in Paris last year, making it the most visited museum in the world. Of course, the Louvre tells an epic story stretching 6,010 years, and the gap of 7.2 million visitors between the two museums should say something about their relevance to a general audience. Then again, while the Louvre saw a 45 percent increase in attendance over the last decade, at the Auschwitz museum, the increase was 225 percent over the same period. Of course, the two museums are very different, but this comparison opens the door to an intriguing line of inquiry: given that the Arts and Letters have done so little to roll back political, social or economic intolerance, we might wonder whether works of art are as influential and resounding at remembrance as the actual sites they memorialize.

Is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) a more effective instrument in proactively averting future cruelties, by impeaching those responsible while remembering their victims, than visiting the Spanish city where civilians were the sole target of the infamous attack? About 200 survivors of that air raid still live in Guernica. In a BBC news report in 2007, one of them, Josefina Odriozola, who was 14-years-old in 1937, remembered: ‘Three planes flew in full of bombs and then left empty. Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, until everything was burning.’1 Dark tourism is a powerful form of first-person witnessing, whereas works of art – whether they are about Auschwitz, Ground Zero or Rwanda (all popular dark tourism destinations) – can make no greater claims than as hand-me-down accounts. Without doubt, Guernica came to characterize the role art would play in postwar politics, but its political effectiveness is a matter of faith. What if Picasso couldn’t summon the visual language to be politically effective? Isn’t that forgivable?

Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, wondered what language he would use to recount being there. ‘Daily language is for the description of daily experience,’ he said, ‘but here it is another world, here one would need a language “of this other world”.’2 Levi lifted truth from direct experience and out came his doubling language as victim and witness – not a conditional language but the language corresponding to the fact of Auschwitz. While not one of its targets, Francisco Goya witnessed Napoleon’s army persecute Spanish citizens and, with emphasis, titled one etching from his ‘Disasters of War’ series (1810–20) Yo lo vi: ‘I Saw It’. Goya shared a similar position to photojournalist Eddie Adams almost 160 years later when, on 1 February 1968, he photographed Nguyên Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong prisoner Nguyên Va˘n Lém on a street in Saigon. The photograph substantiates Adams’ eye-witness account of the atrocity just as Goya’s title did. This profound, unconditional Gilead language (from the Biblical ‘mound of witness’ in Genesis) was beyond Picasso. Art historian Herschel B. Chipp, in his definitive book, Picasso’s Guernica (1988), describes Picasso drifting from an account of the bombing towards a canvas that progressed according to its own internal logic. That seems fair.

Dark tourism cannot make us victims, but in situ it makes us unequivocal witnesses and, significantly, like the work of Levi, Goya and Adams, it is immune to relativism, according to which, inconsistent claims may have equivalent legitimacy. But, for example, to say ‘Levi was held against his will at Auschwitz’ is not about attitudes or ways of thinking, it is a fact in the world analogous to that of spoken truth. If you consider it a mind-set, then it becomes a psychological profile of the narrator, rather than the physical circumstances of Levi’s existence at Auschwitz. Works of art like Guernica, which will never be more than secondary or tertiary accounts of suffering, are more truthfully witnesses to the artist’s state of mind. Possibly, the artist’s mood motivates consciousness–raising, but how shall we value that, compared to witnessing, first-hand, the site of suffering itself?

Jack Burnham’s watershed essay ‘Systems Esthetics’ (1968) problematizes art’s efficacy in the larger world, while providing the lens to see the ascendancy of dark tourism’s unambiguous emotional lucidity. ‘Situated between aggressive electronic media and 200 years of industrial vandalism, the long-held idea that a tiny output of art objects could somehow “beautify” or even significantly modify the environment was naive,’ he wrote, before concluding: ‘The specific function of modern didactic art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people, and between people and the components of their environment.’3 What we take away from Burnham is that art’s ability to effect measurable change is perennially irresolvable, even as he anticipated dark tourism’s ability to make palpable the relations between people and between people and their environment. Burnham lifted out rare exceptions in art that we may read as kindred forms to dark tourism: Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 – photographs disclosing the transactions of a real-estate firm between 1951 and 1971 – rendered corruption transparent, and succeeded by Burnham’s criteria as a fact in the world, corresponding to that truth.

Apposed to Haacke, consider the Mahnmal gegen Faschismus (Monument Against Fascism, 1986) by Jochen Gerz and Esther Shalev-Gerz. A 12-metre pillar, sheathed in lead, it was erected in Harburg, Germany, so that passers-by could scratch graffiti onto it. In 1993 it was buried, becoming a time capsule of expressions as diverse as the contributors themselves. Would ethnographers be surprised that a few swastikas appeared – evidence of enduring sentiments about the Holocaust? What did this exercise in ‘authorized’ graffiti divulge? What real challenges to totalitarianism were triggered? What do we say about any work, like this monument, whose potential can never reach farther than the unrelenting, stupefying hum of consciousness–raising? Perhaps more silent witnessing and fewer monuments and pictures would be better.

1 Danny Wood, ‘The Legacy of Guernica’, BBC News, 26 April 2007
2 Primo Levi quoted in Michael Kimmelman, ‘Horror Unforgotten: Where Politics and Memory Meet’, The New York Times, 11 March 1994, p.c1
3 Jack Burnham, ‘Systems Esthetics’ in Artforum, September, 1968, p.31

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.