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Some comments on Alan Schechner's 'The Legacy of Abused Children'

Apr 4, 2003

Alan Schechner: "The Legacy of Abused Children: from Poland to Palestine" (Digitally Altered photographs & DVD projection), 2003—Locate on start page of Alan Schechner's web site dottycommies.com (bottom-right, on 16 October 2005)

There also is a reply by Alan.

I checked out dottycommies [site seems now defunct, D.F. 13 Oct 2005] today, and then looked at "The Legacy of Abused Children: from Poland to Palestine". Now I have to find an appropriate way of dealing with it. I might say nothing because usually I find it more rewarding [1] to think about art that intrigues me in a positive way, but I'll give it a try anyway. I know Alan from having been on the same art course in Coventry, UK.

What makes my spontaneously negative value judgement difficult is that it comes all too easily - it is an instant rejection which will hide its share of cliché or aggression, which to explore will be necessary if I am not to resort to bland assertions like "Holocaust and Israel fighting the intifada are not in the same register of event, neither in scale nor politically; and a symmetric comparison between them creates a superficial analogy based on antropological cliché, the term 'abused' adding an ill-fitting sexual connotation."

The basis of analysis and critique becomes further complicated when I realise that my father fought against the red army that came to the rescue of the Jews in the concentration camps, thereby contributing his share to the extermination of Jews. What is it that I do when I tear apart (criticise) Alan's work? So guilt and projection is inescapably woven into this discourse, and there is probably no limit to the exploration of personal idiosyncrasies and hidden motives that contaminate it.

Then, there is a further point. Alan has seen service in the Israelian army and lived for a while in a Palestinean village, so he must be a better judge of the situation there, one should think.

The initial rejection above sums up my critique one level, but this is not good enough. Following the narrative of the montage, it is the Warsaw ghetto child which is made to hold the second photograph of the Palestinean boy (and vice versa). So the link is constructed very explicitly, like an embedded hyperlink, consciously avoiding all subtlety of relation. (Here, it is important to point out that these are cropped stills (not screenshots) from a video projection, which is likely to add an element of time to the juxtaposed images, probably in the way of a long looped zoom, reminding me of Michael Snow's film Wavelength (1966-7) that consists of one single 3/4 hrs long slow track/zoom into a room, closer and closer until it dives into a small postcard ( a sea view) pinned to the wall between the windows.)

In Alans work, there is a conscious use (abuse?) of the material: the pasting in of the photo, using the outstreched hand that is raised on command or unconsciously spread apart in a moment of struggle like a prop that carries the artist's purposeful idea that there is a relation to be explored, which turns the child victim into an agent reminding us of the fact that the reciprocal child (and himself) is being 'abused' - (why ab-used? Is there a good *use* of a child?) . The moment of terror is characterised by the fact that the victim is fearing for himself, wanting to get away, wanting to be rescued by his parents; nothing could be more alien to his state of mind than concern with someone else suffering (but I may be wrong here). This is what lends some impertinence to the montage. In a sense, the implanted visual link can be seen as a crude dialectic image, but the scope for exploration to which it invites us seems rather narrowly set. My dominant perception is that the montage is used as a simple rhetoric exploiting emotionally loaded imagary. The reciprocity of images constructs another likewise Ghetto, with Jews turned aggressors - or, by inference, Jews turned Nazis.

I am far from trying to justify the stance of Israel regarding the occupied territories, but it appears to me from what I have read that this is a rather involved conflict which has developed over many decades in a complex historical and geopolitical situation. Bringing down this conflict to a psychological cliché ('victims who replicate and repeat the abuse they have suffered') just detracts from a level of political analysis which may be the only one that could lead to a better understanding of the conflict.

Looking more closely at the photograph of the boy and the Israelian soldiers, the latter do not appear to be intent on harming the boy - while they carry him away against his will, and while he is clearly terrified, chances are he will be released soon (being a child) - certainly not end his life in the gas chamber of an extermination camp. I do not know enough of the overall situation and the actual practices of Israelian police to judge with any confidence, but to me is seems evident that - as I stated in the first sentence of rejection - the events liked in this montage belong to a different register.

Aesthethically, the forced link blots out any other more tentative and less rhetoric mode of investigation that these these images and their relation might invite. I guess this is not (or not intended as) a piece of abject art which would construct something deliberately 'bad', unsuccessful, 'tasteless', or irritating as a trigger for reflection. Also, I guess this juxtaposition is quite different in kind from Alan Schechner's provocative montage of himself with a can of Coca Cola in front of liberated Buchenwald prisoners ("Self-portrait at Buchenwald - Its the real thing"), which to me seems far more subtle.

My interest in the images only returns once I cast aside the intended political message. Following Barthes, one might locate the 'punctum' of the more recent image - the place, the riddle to which the gaze returns again and again - in the hand of one soldier to the right which appears to form a gun, ring finger and little finger folded away, and which is itself encircled by the grip of another soldier's hand. These gestures and the interaction that must have brought them about for a fleeting moment are ambiguous and call for interpretation. (I also cannot make out what the soldier who seems to control the other soldier's wrist holds in his lowered hand.)


1. Rewarding in what sense? Clearly in the selfish sense that it helps to get bearings on objects, developments, experiences that relate to my own interest. It is too obvious nearly to admit that any art-making has a strongly narcisistic element - so it is what resonates to what you think or do which creates a sense of 'being on the right track', being in 'good company' etc, or inversely, to feel more strongly what you don't want to engage in, what attitudes you resent.

Reply by Alan Schechner

Apr 12, 2003

It is always good to hear from you Detlev and I appreciate your careful analysis of my work. The legacy of abused children of has got a mixed response but that often seems to be the way with my work, sometimes it takes many years for people to work out how to deal with the work, Self Portrait at Buchenwald and The Bar code to concentration Camp Morph piece that were recently shown in NYC have been around for over 12 years now, and the discourse has still not died down.

Early on in the controversy that emerged over the exhibition of my work at the Mirroring Evil exhibit at the jewish Museum in NY I spent a lot of time carefully poring over the various media criticisms of my work. There was a part of me that thought if I was receiving so much negative feedback I was obliged to try and understand where much of that criticism was coming from.

I feel that 99% of it was reactionary crap but there was one argument that I think held some credence and that was that any work that causes pain to Holocaust survivors should be avoided. My counter argument would be something like: Is the fact that six million Jews died over fifty years ago; is their memory or their victimhood more important than the fact that ten Palestinian kids died today or five Palestinian kids are going to die tomorrow? These are difficult questions?its not about taking one side or the other but six million people have died, there is not a lot I can do about that. That people are dying now, maybe there is something I can do there. Maybe I can make people more aware of the issues I am trying to bring up. It?s not a pleasant thing to say but that is where my allegiances lie. With preventing tomorrow's potential victim rather than worrying about yesterday?s victim, obviously it?s not as black and white as that, but if forced to make that stand I will.

This has nothing to do with the Holocaust and the Intifada being on the same register of events but it is an aknowledgement that they are linked. Put simply without the Holocaust there would be no Israel without Israel there would be no Palestinian tragedy.

In contradiction to your response I find it a strangely hopeful work. I don't believe as you put it that the legacy of abused children, the fact that the abused untreated go on to be abusers is a psychological cliché. In fact research shows it to be an almost universal fact. And I believe that the jews not just post holocaust but post 2000 years of persecution were (and still are) psychologically damaged, that to give them the power of statehood, that to validate a stream of Zionist ideology based on ideas of racial separation and superiority was horribly shortsighted and has led us to where we are today.

The most powerful example of Israel as abuser in denial is golda meir's famous quote when she said that we (the Israelis) can never forgive the arabs for forcing us to kill their children. If this isn?t the voice of a pedophile claiming that their victim was ?asking for it? I don?t know what is.

The legacy of abused children points out this but in it?s title suggests hope, the hope of a cure, and of an end to the cycle of violence. Your trouble with the image comes from your inability (and given your background it is an inability I understand) to recognize the Holocaust as a relative horror. Making it sacred is dangerous, it takes it out of history out of the material and into the spiritual My way though painful places it back in history, says that if genocides and massacres based on race or religion are happening anywhere then holocaust education is failing, that Holocaust memories are being abused.

The best memorial we can create for those who died in the Holocaust is to fight so that no more have to die, that does not mean just no more jews, that means no more period.

One final thing and this is just a suggestion but is your trouble with the piece based on the fact that the image of the Palestinian child being dragged off is (despite all that we know about the child in the Warsaw ghetto and what happened to him) the more powerful of the 2 images? That images are untrustworthy and that I maybe place too much trust in them?

And by the way you are wrong about the punctum, the punctum is the wet stain on the Palestinian childs trousers where we has wet himself with fear.

In peace as always and with love


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