Artist Ryan Bock was wandering around an exhibition of Etgar Keret’s writings at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, stumbling across crumpled pieces of paper. As directed by the museum, he picked them up, and read them one by one. “It was a son recounting his experiences as a young child of his mother talking about escaping the Nazis,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview.
These crumpled pieces of paper echoed the reason Bock traveled to Germany in the first place: to witness the unveiling of his family’s Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, in Frankfurt. Since 1992, these brass-plated concrete cubes have been inlaid in sidewalks in front of the homes of Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution.
In sharp contrast to the past, Bock received a warm welcome from the mayor and residents of Lich, a small town near Frankfurt back to which his family’s ancestry can be traced. “I’m going to try to move to Lich for a few months,” he said. “I think there hasn’t been a Bock in that town for 400 years. So in a lot of ways it’s like a return, a ‘fuck you; you can’t get rid of us.’” He said this with a quiet laugh, still expressing affection for the kindness the citizens of his ancestral home had shown him.
In Frankfurt, Bock met a high school student who had found the records of one of his ancestors. Apparently, his ancestor was constantly skipping school, and yet managed to ace all his classes. “He was in a choir that’s over 200 years old, which is still in existence,” the artist said. “They performed several of the Jewish songs that the Nazis allowed them to sing in their last performance before the regime takeover.”
“It was unfamiliar but familiar at the same time,” he said. “I wasn’t raised religious at all. So I didn’t really think that something like that would affect me so deeply. But it really did. It was incredible.”
The origin of the term “Stolpersteine” is one of many examples of how Jews have empowered themselves using aspects of the oppressor’s culture. It comes from an antisemitic saying from the Nazi era, when people would trip over a stone poking out of the ground and say, “A Jew must be buried here.”
This kind of irony and dark humor run through Bock’s art. His work’s cutting inquiries into how the United States is perpetuating authoritarianism is accompanied by a rueful laugh, if you know where to look. The artist’s high-contrast, sharply-edged aesthetic draws from the crystalline forms of the under-celebrated Czech Cubist movement and the shadowy world of the German expressionist horror filmmakers. Almost exclusively working in black and white, Bock’s cartoonishly exaggerated paintings, sculptures, and puppets lead viewers to simultaneously gasp and giggle.
His latest installation is a full-sized chess set, recently exhibited at Artist Project in Toronto, Canada. Bock said that children quickly descended on the gameboard as soon as they saw it, eager to play. Adults soon joined in, lugging around game pieces crafted from discarded piano legs. “It’s sort of like tricking people into having fun,” said Bock. “But it’s like ritualized violence.” Noting its use in military training, Bock notes that chess is “about killing political opponents. This is a simulation of war.”
Previously displayed in an exhibition at Ki Smith Gallery in New York City, the chess set installation Ode to Duchamp: A Liar (2022) references the artist who many see as the father of “Readymades”: sculptures made out of mass-produced objects divorced from their original use and “elevated” to art. But while Duchamp’s readymade objects, like urinals and bicycle wheels, are left in their original form, Bock’s repurposed piano legs blend seamlessly together to create completely new shapes. Without their hulking bodies, all that is left of the pianos is their ornament: spiral feet, leafy tendrils, a few pedals, and even a full ram’s head.
Back at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, one tale in particular stuck out to Bock from the dozens he found on the ground. Safe in her new home after the war, a survivor described insisting on blasting music by the antisemitic composer, Richard Wagner. A Jewish neighbor came over and said, “What is this? You can’t listen to this!” To which the woman replied, “Well, Nazis ate apples. Am I going to stop eating apples? Am I going to stop making strudel?” Chuckling, Bock said, “The sense of humor that this woman continued to have was incredible.”
Likewise, Bock noted, “I do borrow a lot of visual cues from fascist movements and artworks,” including Neoclassical architecture and the potent diagonals of propaganda posters. “I want to use the language that’s been used by these regimes … to warn people so that this doesn’t happen again.”
This is a delicate dance: Rather than simply repeating fascist aesthetics, the artist magnifies their grotesqueness so it’s impossible to see the pieces as anything but a wry takedown of authoritarianism. His 2018 Paris installation, I’m Afraid of Americans, lured viewers into a dizzying carnival funhouse of distorted American flags, collapsing neoclassical columns, and a looming Statue of Liberty fashioned out of an armoire. Likewise, his grinning and grimacing cardboard masks in his 2022 exhibition Bockhaus’ Haunted Haus in a brownstone in Brooklyn, call to mind the clownish costumes of Purim Spiels. Here, they poke fun at Uncle Sam, the judicial system, and the Devil himself.
Bock, also known as Bockhaus, knows the power of a good performance. A former street artist, he often dons his own disguise as a “semi-anonymous” figure who is only photographed in a ski mask. In preparing the chess set, he wrote: “I struggled to justify my continued participation in the art market in the face of so much mounting pain and struggle in the world … What power of real truth and change could art sway over its viewers if presented as mere commodity?” His performance as a mysterious artist, shrouding his true face, highlights the ridiculousness of the art world he exists within.
Especially in the doom and gloom of recent years, I’ve lost count of the number of times “edgy” stand-up comedian fans have lectured me on why transphobic ridicule, stories about assault, and thinly veiled antisemitism are nothing but so-called jokes. “You just don’t understand dark humor,” they say. They fall into the trap of nihilism masquerading as satire: These jokes express the desire to embody the power of oppressors. A good Jewish joke, on the other hand, laughs in the scowling face of white supremacy. It magnifies the surreal nature of a truly terrible situation, allowing us to smile through pain. It is both a folk craft and a survival mechanism that’s handed down from generation to generation.
Bockhaus has inherited this ability and takes it to a place all his own: Plunging into the darkness of those jokes, he blurs the line between humor and horror. But while his pieces travel to those depths, he does not indulge in darkness. In his shadowy, cackling universe, there is always a way out.