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Gas Chamber ‘Game of Tag’ Video Installation Continues to Rile at Krakow Museum

Art from Polish filmmaker Artur Żmijewski attempts to therapeutically ’emancipate ourselves from the trauma’ of the Holocaust

Jonathan Zalman
July 08, 2015

One video installation, in a larger exhibition about the Holocaust at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, is distressing a few leaders of the Jewish community. The artwork in question, a short film called Berek, translates to “Game of Tag,” and was created by Polish filmmaker Artur Żmijewski in 1999. (Żmijewski should not to be confused with the actor of the same name.)

Here’s 51 seconds of the 3:50-long video, which is the most complete version I was able to find available outside of the museum itself. Note that the naked participants don’t begin to play tag until the final three seconds. (And here are more screenshot-type stills from the installation.)

When Berek was shown at the 2012 Berlin Biennale, an event Żmijewski also curated, he described his video project thus:

In it a group of people play a kid’s game. They are naked, they run around, they laugh a lot. But they are also very serious. They know where they are—in the gas chamber of a former Nazi extermination camp. Berek is about a part of history that is treated as “untouchable” and about overly painful memories, when the official commemorations of this history are not enough. The murdered people are victims—but we, the living, are also victims. And as such we need a kind of treatment or therapy, so we can create a symbolic alternative; instead of dead bodies we can see laughter and life. Berek is about how we can engage with this brutal history and work with imposed memory. It’s possible to have active access to history, and to attempt to emancipate ourselves from the trauma.

Even though Żmijewski states that participants in the video are “in the gas chamber of a former Nazi extermination camp,” it’s unclear whether Żmijewski filmed his video in an actual former Nazi death camp, or in a space intended to resemble one.

On Tuesday The AP reported that Berek, a 16-year-old video project, “has for years been accused of taking the Holocaust lightly,” having “been shown at museums in Germany and Estonia, where it has also caused protests.” Recently, in 2012, Berek was removed from the Martin-Gropius-Bau “Side by Side: Poland–Germany. 1000 Years of Art and History” exhibition in Berlin. The show’s director, Gereon Sievernich, said Żmijewski was guilty of “not respecting the dignity of the victims of the Holocaust,” and that he “seems not to be conscious of the fact that acts of censorship always hurt the dignity of the living.”

Żmijewski video is currently being exhibited alongside the works of over 20 other artists at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow through the end of October.

Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the AP that he felt the “incomprehensible” video was “so offensive and so disgusting that we found it necessary to protest.” The AP also reported that The World Jewish Congress and Yad Vashem also “asked the museum to remove the installation.”

Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, a city with a once-vibrant Jewish community nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, said survivor groups from around the world have contacted him recently to tell him how upset they are.

“They feel that it shows a lack of respect for the victims, that it is not necessary and that it takes the Holocaust lightly,” Ornstein said.

On Tuesday, Maria Anna Potocka, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, said in a statement that the museum’s intention is not to disrespect to the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, she said, “we have tried to awaken (the) young generation’s empathy with the tragedy of the Holocaust by stirring their imagination.” The museum has since put the video “behind an enclosure with a warning,” the AP reported.

Żmijewski was born and educated in Warsaw, where he continues to live. He is currently the Arts Editor of the left-leaning at Krytyka Polityczna magazine. It is unclear if he is Jewish.

For context, here is a list four other videos Artur Żmijewski has produced. You can watch clips of these films here at the The Israeli Center for Digital Art’s online archive, where Żmijewski is described as an artist who “often refers to the problem of the corporality and physicality of the human being, perceived from the perspective of our basic biological functions:”

This film features “amputees in the company of the healthy. The completely able-bodied enter into an intimate, troubling, situation with the handicapped, somehow ‘lending’ them their missing limbs.”

2. A Pilgrimage (2003)

Żmijewski together with Paweł Althamer “took part in a traditional pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Mixing with the devout, [they] visit and film landmark sites Christians the world over dream of seeing.”

3. Aldo (2007)

Żmijewski follows a man for 24 hours at his place of work, at home, at the supermarket, and while he sleeps. (The final cut is 15 to 18 minutes, according to The Israeli Center for Digital Art),

4. 80064 (2005)

Żmijewski persuade Józef Tarnawa, a 92-year-old former prisoner of Auschwitz to ”renew” his prisoner number tattooed on his forearm.

“When I undertook this filmexperiment with memory, I expected that under the effect of the tattooing, the “doors of memory” would open,” Żmijewski said, according to the website.

The film was made for an exhibition at the Fritz Bauer Institut about 40 years of trials against Nazi war criminals in Frankfurt, but was eventually rejected.

Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.