Museum of Tolerance/Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles
THE ART OF HUMANITY
In fact, his work is insistently open-ended. Like Goya's Disasters of War, his art queries time and again, "How can this have happened?" Sometimes viewers reply, assaulting pictures of innocent children, worshipping those of a murderous dictator. Yet such reactions can only bring us to inquire again, louder and with greater urgency, "How can this have happened?" At last we recognize that Helnwein asks questions not in order to solicit answers - hate has no reason - but rather in order that we might begin to pose our own.
Helnwein belongs to no movement. He is enslaved by no genre or aesthetic. His primary obligation is to be human. He's able to change people more as an artist than he could as a baker or a plumber. But one gets the sense that, were plumbing what the world required, and were that within the reach of his talent, he would, without a moment's hesitation, trade in his paint brush for a pipe wrench.
As it is, he uses an unusually broad range of tools, producing work of the first rank in painting, sculpture, performance, photography. The last of these he used as the basis for one of his most ambitious works to date: Ninth November Night, originally installed in Cologne in 1988 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
"I didn't want to use these historic photographs which are used too often," he has said, "those mountains of corpses that mean nothing anymore." He recognized that, as a society, we'd grown numb to them: Paradoxically, the more often we saw the Holocaust's human remains, the more indifferent we became. From Kristallnacht, there are many lessons to be learned, but one of them, perhaps the first, is that violence and apathy operate in a vicious circle, and that it takes precious little to start that cycle. Using the attempted assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jew as an excuse, Nazi Party officials sought to condemn the entire Hebrew race by giving German citizens a night of amnesty during which they might personally take revenge on any Jew in their midst. Homes were destroyed, Synagogues burned to the ground. Collectively culpable, the German people learned to overlook the excesses of one another and the criminal acts of their government. Violence begot apathy begot violence. For the attempted assassination of one German, the price was between five and six million Jewish lives.
That, of course, is an oversimplification. Yet it does not exaggerate the degree to which Nazi acts, following Hitler's behavior, were arbitrary. Rather than piling up bodies, Helnwein took that uncertainty, and used it to attack indifference in the present day.
Specifically, he photographed seventeen local children, all between the ages of six and seven, Jewish and Gentile, German and foreign. Some looked impassively at the camera. Others let their eyes fall shut. All had their faces smeared with a white powder, as if dusted with a deathly pallor. Their photos were printed on banners, each four meters high, set side-by-side on a hundred-meter-long train platform between the Cologne Cathedral and the Ludwig Museum. At the end was a white banner on which was printed in black the German word "SELEKTION". Next to it were a couple anatomical drawings taken from a certain Text Book of the Sub-Human, showing the difference in the shapes of the feet and buttocks of the "lower" and the "higher" race.
The implication was inescapable. Here, along a railway line that had once run trains to the concentration camps, was a selection of seventeen children, chosen for who-knows-what-reason, condemned to die. According to Helnwein, selektion "is the key word that describes the Nazi ethos: the idea that a small group of people can select or decide who is subhuman and who is superior." His memorial to Kristallnacht dramatizes that.
Excerpt from the essay "The Art of Humanity" by Jonothon Keats for the catalogue "Helnwein - Ninth November Night", Los Angeles, 2003