Last month the Jewish Museum removed San Francisco artist Marc Adelman’s controversial photo installation “Stelen (Columns)” (2007–11) from its exhibition Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex. Adelman’s piece, which is part of the Jewish Museum’s collection, consists of 150 profile pictures found on the German gay dating site GayRomeo.com taken at Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin.
In an article in Tablet magazine last week, the International Center for Photography’s adjunct curator Maya Benton called the Jewish Museum’s decision “an act of censorship.” Although that seems debatable, the removal of “Stelen (Columns)” does raise complex questions about appropriation art, internet privacy and museums’ willingness to back art exploring sexuality and identity.
The controversy began when Tim Rooks, a German man featured in the installation, noticed his GayRomeo.com profile picture in an exhibition review on the Huffington Post. After Rooks contacted them to request the removal of his image, the Jewish Museum and Adelman chose to substitute another portrait in late April, thus preserving the integrity of the installation, which showed 50 of the 150 images that comprise the work. Adelman also stated both in the exhibition and on his website that any image would be taken down upon request.
But that apparently didn’t quell the privacy concerns of some of the men in the photographs or the worries of the Jewish Museum’s donors and trustees. The museum decided instead to take down the entire installation on May 7, with little discussion with Adelman. As the artist told the New York Times:
“I basically was called to say it was coming down off the wall. There wasn’t a question involved with that.”
Looking at the work itself, “Stelen (Columns)” relates queer sexuality and desire to history and the ideas of haunted memory and loss. Dating-site profile pictures taken at a Holocaust memorial are at first shocking, but when they are all displayed together, they make a powerful statement about the connection between of Jewish and queer history and sexuality.
The Jewish Museum also saw the strength of the work, featuring it in the exhibition’s promotion. The museum’s press release describes Adelman’s installation as exploring “the provocative transformation of a site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires.”
Perhaps the museum did not anticipate the accusations of invasion of privacy that would come from Adelman using dating-site photos without permission. Internet privacy is a difficult topic, particularly when it comes to free, public dating sites. While GayRomeo.com is technically public domain, a username and password is necessary in order to access the site, giving the impression and expectation of some sort of privacy.
Even though I’ve always suspected that whatever you put on public dating websites is, unfortunately, accessible to everyone, there are real problems with Adelman’s appropriation of these pictures. Are all these men out? Is there a risk of anti-gay violence against them if their images are broadcast worldwide?
What’s difficult to understand is why Adelman didn’t ask these 150 individuals about their willingness to participate in the installation. I bet more than a few would have said “yes.” It seems like lazy art making to ignore the obvious step of getting the permission of the men in the profile pictures, especially since they can presumably be contacted on GayRomeo.com.
Still, once the Jewish Museum decided to include “Stelen (Columns)” in an exhibition, it had a duty to stand by the art it chose to hang on the walls.
Taken in a broader context, the museum’s decision to take down Adelman’s installation from an exhibition on sexuality, desire and identity raises troubling questions about institutions’ obligations and motivations to protect artists’ work. Thinking back to the David Wojnarowicz controversy at the National Portrait Gallery, it seems that in exhibitions that present queer sexuality as a part of art history, museum directors, curators and other administrators are less likely to stand behind the artwork and explain to the public the artist’s intent. At one point, Adelman suggested that the Jewish Museum remove the photographs that brought complaints and just leave blank spaces on the wall, which seems to confront the controversy and protect the integrity of the piece more than removing it completely from the show. Why didn’t they do this? Rather than educate the public or deal with issues surrounding sexuality and art directly, the institutions have decided it’s easier to just avoid the topic all together and remove work.
Are museums afraid of standing behind art that deals with issues of queer desire and sexuality? Institutions like the Jewish Museum and the National Portrait Gallery should be applauded for presenting exhibitions that many other museums would be too conservative to even approach; however, when controversy appears — which, with exhibitions about sexuality, desire and politics, they invariably will — the choice to remove artwork should not be the go-to decision.
The Jewish Museum’s Composed: Identity, Politics, and Sex runs through June 30, without Marc Adelman’s “Stelen (Columns).”