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In the Jewish Museum’s Closet: Photos of Gay Men at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

The museum removed photos of gay men at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial from an exhibit on sex and identity

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Images from Stelen (Columns), series of 150 found images. (Marc Adelman)

In an act of censorship that was surely intended to go unnoticed, in early May the Jewish Museum in New York abruptly removed a provocative photography installation by artist Marc Adelman from its current exhibition, “Composed: Identity, Politics, Sex,” without any announcement or explanation. The work, titled Stelen (Columns), 2007-2011, consists of a compilation of 150 found individual portraits of men at Peter Eisenman’s 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. The photographs were then used as profile shots by the men in question on GayRomeo.com, a gay dating site, where Adelman appropriated them. The installation, purchased and exhibited by the Jewish Museum, consisted of 50 of these 150 individually framed portraits, each measuring only 3.5 by 2.5 inches, and hung in a tight grid. The museum’s press release—which lavished special attention on Stelen (Columns)—asserted that the “pictures juxtapose casually posed, flirtatious figures with the severe abstract forms of the memorial,” thereby exploring “the provocative transformation of a site of reverence into a social space where public remembrance collides with private desires.”

But, according to Artinfo, trouble began when a German man named Tim Rooks discovered that his posted profile image was used in the work after reading about it in a brief Huffington Post review of “Composed.” Rooks told the LGBT-oriented Bay Area Reporter that “even without my name attached numerous people saw it and knew who I was”—and threatened legal action. When initially contacted by Rooks, the museum promptly consulted with Adelman, who asked that the museum substitute another portrait in the series for Rooks’ profile portrait; the substitution was made on April 26. Adelman offered an apology to Rooks—explaining that “it was never his intention to create a stressful situation for anyone in regard to the project”—and removed Rooks’ image from his own website. Adelman took the further step of adding a note to his website, assuring that “Any image will be removed from the series upon request.”

Since the Jewish Museum’s Stelen (Columns) consists of 50 selected images from the larger group of 150 profile portraits, the initial substitution—according to the artists and the museum, done at the request of the artist and in collaboration with the curators—did not affect the integrity of the work. But on May 7, the Jewish Museum took the entire installation down. “The Jewish Museum’s Director and several senior managers, including one with curatorial oversight decided to remove the Adelman work from view,” Anne Scher, the Jewish Museum’s Director of Communications, wrote in an email, declining to clarify whether the decision involved any actual curators.

Stelen (Columns) installed at the Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum’s installation of Stelen (Columns). (Bradford Robotham)

The decision to remove a work of art is an action so rarely taken that all of the major museums I contacted, including MoMA and LACMA, could not recollect an instance in which an artwork was removed from the walls of an exhibition (conservation and provenance issues aside). Disconcertingly, Scher claimed in her initial email that “as issues have been raised with respect to this work, in consultation with Mr. Adelman, we have removed Stelen (Columns) from the in-gallery exhibition and images from the work from our website.” But Douglas Robbins, Adelman’s attorney, told Tablet that Adelman was decidedly not consulted. “The museum took down the work on their own,” he told me. “Mr. Adelman has had little to no dialogue with the museum since the removal of the work.” When asked about this discrepancy, Scher tweaked the museum’s official line in a subsequent email: “Before we decided to remove Stelen (Columns) from view in the exhibition, we had a conversation with Mr. Adelman.”

It is easy to see why the juxtaposition of gay-dating profile shots with a solemn memorial to the murdered victims of the Holocaust struck Adelman as provocative—and why his reframing of those images might provoke strong reactions in viewers. Surely the men who took flirty posed shots in front of a Holocaust memorial and posted them on GayRomeo did not expect to end up on the walls of the Jewish Museum. It is also easy to see how some of the Jewish Museum’s board members and trustees may have been made queasy by the legal implications of Adelman’s appropriation of semi-public material, or by the work itself. A public conversation about artistic freedom, protection of intellectual property, and the free flow of information on the Internet, as well as the role of a museum in navigating the tensions between these values, might have made the museum a place of informative and innovative discussion and debate, even if the museum administration chose—for whatever reasons—to take the work down. The Jewish Museum might have also chosen to state that its initial decision to show the work was wrong, on aesthetic or moral-historical grounds, and explained why. Instead, they chose to instruct staff to quietly take down a work of art and hope that no one noticed.

***

The Monument to Homosexual Holocaust Victims, in Berlin’s central Tiergarten, consists of a single pillar, nearly 12 feet high and 6 feet wide. Located just opposite the Memorial to the Murdered Jewish of Europe, the site underscores how the lives of Jews and homosexuals were both transformed by persecution and loss under the Nazi regime. “It’s a central aspect to both cultures,” Adelman observed in an email exchange, “and one that has greatly influenced my understanding of the images that comprise Stelen and their relationship to the cultural history of HIV and AIDS. … The Stelen series addresses sexuality vis-a-vis time; we can’t think about queer sexuality without thinking about temporality.”

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stannadel says:

Is this the Jewish Museum in Berlin or someplace else?

stannadel says:

Is this the Jewish Museum in Berlin or someplace else?

The first line of the piece has been amended to clarify.

stannadel says:

Thanks, I had a feeling it was NY but wasn’t sure.

rocky2345 says:

The photos are all in bad taste and the Berlin Jewish museum should have had no part of it. It is a desecration of the dead.

gaisavoir says:

I think that this is an important work and a tribute to the effectiveness of the Stelen, in their open and free marking of the city compared with the dreadful, Authoritarian and monolithically Zionist contro; freakery of the Libeskind building. I had the luck to discuss this piece with the artist and deeply understand the cleverness and importance of what he has done in an act of showing us something important in the socail world in an aesthetically complex seriality…
Adrian
gai-savoir.net

One of the best thought out and written articles I have seen on Tablet.

Hershl says:

Learn English before you choose to publicly make a fool of yourself.

diane kaston says:

This should have been, as Maya Benton correctly indicated, a discussion about privacy, the internet, and what does ownership of an image mean in today’s world. Facebook/Pinterest et al are all struggling with this same issue from a commercial copyright perspective. We all could have learned from a thoughtful dialogue, simply removing the art is a disgrace for such an esteemed museum, especially one that focuses on the “Jewish” experience with it’s inherent nature of otherness through out history. Sadly this has devolved into simple censorship.We need to do better.

The photos are neither here nor there. None of them is in the least offensive. But it’s clear what the artist intended, and you don’t have to be gay to see it. Here is a stark memorial to 6 million dead Jews. Far fewer gays died at the hands of the Nazis, but those who did suffered exactly as did the Jews: persecuted and slaughtered for something over which they had no control: their identity. Persecuting people for what they believe is unforgivable, but singling some out for being gay or Jewish is a denial of humanity. Jews were not killed for their beliefs, but because Nazi law defined them as wholly Jewish, half Jewish, one quarter Jewish and so on. Gays were defined over something none of us can control: their sexuality. For you to find the photos in ‘bad taste’ says a lot of disturbing things about you. Think about the Nazi response to modern art or jazz. They too considered them in ‘bad taste’. I don’t mean there is no such thing as bad taste, just that you have chosen your subjects for rebuke very badly.

rocky2345 says:

The photo shoot should not have taken place in the middle of a memorial to the dead. To gain some sort of commercial advantage
through shock value is in poor taste. The purpose of the photo shoot was
not to remember gays who died during the war at the hands of the Nazis
but to advance the interests of a gay dating service, for Pete’s sake.
You should watch the documentary “Paragraph 175″. Gays were sent to
labor camps if they were caught committing sodomy. But there was no effort to round up every last gay German and to
exterminate them. During the Third Reich, about 100,000 gays were
arrested for Paragraph 175 violations out of a likely gay population of
about 4 million (5% of the 1939 Reich population of 80 million) and were
sent to camps such as Dachau. Only 4,000 survived the brutal conditions
of the camps. But as far as I know, there were no special gay
deportations to Auschwitz, Sobribor, Treblinka or Belzec.

I agree that this is very insightful and well-informed! Its greatest success is opening up this minor incident in order to elucidate how museums and artists maneuver some of the possible complications of making and showing conceptually-driven work. This is a satisfyingly detailed account.

matjones says:

“…This is the role of the museum: to protect and defend the artist and the artwork and to provide a space for open discussion about sometimes conflicting and overlapping contemporary concerns…”

And this is the role of the artist as a conscientious human being: to be respectful towards the anonymous people’s rights who they’ve decided to appropriate when they take their images without consent to create their “artwork” which they then profit from monetarily. Go provide a discussion about that.

Pier-Paule Sansoucy says:

An exhibit of photos of fully clothed men posted on a gay dating site. Photos taken at the Berlin memorial for the Jews murdered during the Holocaust. 2,711 concrete slabs or “stelae” coated with an anti-graffiti substance, Protectosil, manufactured by Degussa – whose subsidiary, Degesh, manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in the gas chambers. Remind me. What again is the scandal here?

2000

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In the Jewish Museum’s Closet: Photos of Gay Men at Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial

The museum removed photos of gay men at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial from an exhibit on sex and identity