WASHINGTON, DC — In 1996, a Holocaust denier sued a Holocaust scholar for libel. More than a half-century after the end of World War II, the British author David Irving had devoted himself to obfuscating the Nazi genocide of some six million Jews in an antisemitic and often racist effort to retroactively exonerate Adolf Hitler’s regime from one of the worst war crimes in recorded history. Through his lawsuit, Irving attacked the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher for characterizing him as a falsifier and bigot who manipulated evidence of Germany’s killings in one of her books. And because the burden of proof for British libel cases lies with the accused, Lipstadt and her lawyers were tasked with proving that Irving had lied about the Holocaust.
An architectural manifestation of the ensuing courtroom battle now occupies the Hirshhorn Museum. The Evidence Room is an installation of three reconstructions and 65 plaster casts reproducing various blueprints, documents, hatches, and doors from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp used by Lipstadt’s defense team to debunk Irving’s conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened. Joined together, these objects become haunting talismans of the Nazi death machine. Visitors can examine the full-scale replica of a gas chamber door, built with hinges on the outside and a cage around its peephole to prevent victims from easily breaking it down. Also on view is the gas column built by the death camp’s practitioners to introduce Zyklon pellets, which degassed cyanide fumes, and allow for the quicker removal of chemicals to expedite the transport of victim bodies.
Originally commissioned for the Venice Architecture Biennale, the installation was designed and built by a team from the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture in Ontario, Canada in consultation with Robert Jan van Pelt, an expert witness in Lipstadt’s libel case famous for compiling a 700-page report on the historical evidence surrounding Auschwitz. Donald McKay designed the installation and oversaw construction while Anne Bordeleau was responsible for the casts.
Here at the Hirshhorn, curator Betsy Johnson has organized the installation within the confines of another exhibition, What Absence Is Made Of, which documents how the avant-garde has over the last 70 years infused its conceptual practices with themes of memory, disappearance, and death. The juxtaposition is instructive, illustrating how the political has become its own aesthetic category over the last few generations. And whereas Absence predominantly represents memory as the dematerialization of history, The Evidence Room argues the exact opposite: memory as the manifestation of history.
Writing about the dynamics of forgetting and remembering, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once said that “the wounds and scars of history can be worked through and transformed by certain uses of memory. Memories must be understandable and acceptable, it is this acceptability which is at stake in the work of memory and mourning.” According to this theory, tragedy demands reason. But when something as unfathomable as the Holocaust occurs, no amount of logic can provide a resolution from grief.
If the generation that lived through World War II developed abstraction as a psychological tool for grappling with the existential crises of genocide and nuclear proliferation, then later generations have learned to approach these apocalyptic scenarios head-on. Conceptualists like Hans Haacke first began experimenting with documentary art during the Vietnam War. Two decades later, artists would transform this genre into social practice works. Today, the style has evolved into something akin to investigative journalism; collectives like Postcommodity and Forensic Architecture stretch art’s capacity for staging political inquiries into various miscarriages of environmental and social justice.
The realization that evidence can have a greater political impact when it is aestheticized, monumentalized, and memorialized, has redefined the potential impact of art as a political operative. Not coincidentally, the development of evidence-based artistic practices substantially benefited from the codification of Holocaust studies in universities and museums.
In 1947, the Polish government created the world’s first Holocaust museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But early on, critics accused administrators of underplaying the deaths of 960,000 Jews at the Birkenau site by constructing all the tourist and exhibition facilities at Auschwitz proper — the location where Polish prisoners were predominantly held. Museum officials defended their choice, as documented by van Pelt and the historian Deborah Dwork in a later article about the memorial-museum’s founding, saying they wanted to keep the Birkenau grounds sacrosanct. But as Auschwitz became a primary site for Poland’s commemoration of the wartime dead, government officials began to omit mention of the Jewish murders. The public manifestations of memory there were inevitably infused with both patriotic zeal and political agendas. In a 1995 commemorative service, Polish President Lech Wałęsa (who holds a Nobel Peace Prize) initially refused to acknowledge the Holocaust, preferring to focus on the murder of Poles. A refusal to acknowledge Polish complicity came to a head last year when the government passed a law effectively criminalizing the term “Polish death camp” within the country.
Combating these attempts to minimize and erase the Holocaust from history, scholars have turned to the concept of “living memory,” which emphasizes testimony and evidence as the primary tools needed to convey the gruesome breadth of genocide. Other institutions tasked with educating the public about disasters — like the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which was organized by many of the same people involved in building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC — have adopted the same approach. Amid the videotaped recollections from eyewitnesses, piles of burnt shoes and belongings from murdered victims and disappeared persons, history needs interlocutors from the past to tell its story.
The Evidence Room subverts this pedagogical approach with chilling effect. The white uniformity of the exhibition functions as a negation, a petrified history, a symbol of Irving’s denialism. Walking through the room, I was reminded of startling statistics: 66% of millennials say they have never heard about Auschwitz; 22% said they had never even heard of the Holocaust.
We say never forget, but some degree of forgetting is always inevitable. In a few generations, the Holocaust may become as distant a memory as the Napoleonic Wars. But there is also something spectrally permanent about the truth: it haunts memory. The Evidence Room ossifies this dynamic of remembering and forgetting into plaster, providing visual testament to the architecture of atrocity.
The Evidence Room continues through September 8 at the Hirshhorn Museum (Independence Ave SW &, 7th St SW, National Mall). This exhibition was organized by assistant curator Betsy Johnson in collaboration with The Evidence Room Foundation.