Saturday, February 09, 2008

Ian Thal on Peter Schumann

Last year, Bread and Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann sparked a small stir at the Boston Center for the Arts and later a larger stir in Burlington, Vermont, when he exhibited paintings protesting what he sees as Israeli oppression of Palestinians, matched with passages from John Hersey’s 1950 novel "The Wall" about the Nazi extermination of Warsaw ghetto Jews during World War II. Schumann says his theme was an “oppressed people who oppresses a people.” Critics charged that Schumann was equating Israelis today with Nazis, which he says “wasn’t my intent.”

Below are edited excerpts from an e-mail conversation I had with Somerville performer Ian Thal, one of the most outspoken critics of Schumann’s paintings last year, who has posted much about the matter to his blog, including charges of anti-Semitism against Schumann. I’m posting both Schumann’s (see here and here) and Thal’s comments to document the range of the issues and the dispute. These posts are not endorsements of either man’s views. (For a more complete introduction to the issue see here.)

NEJAR: What are your feelings about Bread and Puppet – and Peter Schumann – now?

Thal: He is a great and innovative artist who lives in denial regarding extremist politics, anti-Semitism, terrorism, and the legacy of the Third Reich. I've come to see him almost as a Leni Riefenstahl figure. Though I think he's a better artist.

I'm left to wonder how much of this is a hangover from the Nazi propaganda he was fed as a child of the Reich – which I note, is a subject he cleverly skirts around in interviews – In his nostalgia for Silesia he never mentions Hitler or that Silesia contained the site of the largest mass murder in history: Auschwitz-Birkenau. He only talks about his happy childhood being interrupted by Allied bombing and post-WWII redrawing of borders.

Indeed, at last year's talk at the BCA he avoided mentioning that the Germans had anything to do with the Warsaw Ghetto – instead blaming the Jews for not reaching out to their Polish neighbors. This is untrue if one reads any historical account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising: the Jewish Combat Organization and Jewish Military Union received arms and assistance from the Polish Home Army, the Polish Communist People's Guard, and unaffiliated Partisans: all of whom sent troops in to battle the German and Ukrainian forces and their Polish collaborators during the Uprising.

Schumann says the theme of his paintings last year – and, I take it, the wall part of last year's BCA performance – was an "oppressed people who oppresses a people." He says it "wasn't my intent" to equate Israelis today with Nazis. What's your sense of this?

My sense is that he is dissimulating. Note that he only denies it was his intent when responding to criticism, when his defenders see the equation and vocally claim some equivalence between Israel and the Third Reich, he has been silent and does not try to correct them. Even after it was obvious how the work was being interpreted, he continued to exhibit the work.

If his intent was not to equate Israelis with Nazis then he would have picked very different images. He's 73 years old and has a wide palette of iconography from which he could choose. He deliberately chose the icons for their divisiveness. He doesn't have the excuse of youthful naiveté.

Remember, living with a legitimate fear that someone you love will be blown up just for riding the bus, or for going out for a slice of pizza is oppression as well. But Schumann doesn't want to see that part of the equation, in fact, this appears to be an ongoing trend theme in his recent work to belittle the suffering caused by terrorist actions.

The West Bank wall is the most effective non-lethal means Israel had of preventing suicide bombers. No suicide bombers means no Israel Defense Forces reprisals. So both Israeli and Palestinian lives were saved, and Palestinians have been able to rebuild after the destruction caused by what some call the "Al Asqa Intifada." The other option would be to allow a cycle of violence to continue – I don't think more dead Jews and more dead Arabs helps anyone but the extremists.

By contrast, the walled in ghettos created by Germany, were a deliberate attempt to destroy European Jewery – time caused the death of five to six hundred thousand people – roughly 20 percent of the Jewish population of Poland died inside those ghetto walls in roughly two years time. Nothing remotely similar has occurred in Israel or Palestine.

One of the questions this all raises is how can we ever discuss Israeli-Palestinian problems?

We need to make our best efforts to speak carefully and truthfully about the situation as it stands and to also understand the historical forces that created this situation. Schumann's statements in person and in interviews leads me to conclude that he has no interest in either endeavor, only creating propaganda. How can you have a serious discussion with someone who is morally unserious?

Seriously speaking, Israel, though often deserving of criticism, still has the best human rights record of any nation in the Middle East and certainly makes a greater effort to comply with international law than the United States or United Kingdom have done in the region.

Ian Thal performs “An evening of mime, poetry and masks” at 8 tonight, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008, at Willoughby and Baltic Gallery, 195g Elm St., Somerville.

Peter Schumann interview, part two

Peter Schumann discusses his six new large paintings called “The University of Majd: The Story of a Palestinian Youth” that he is exhibiting at the Boston Center for the Arts Cyclorama. (Majd is a man’s name and "university” is slang for prison.) Schumann also disuses the brouhaha over paintings he exhibited last year about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are edited excerpts from a Jan. 23 conversation I had with him. (Read my full introduction here and part one of the Schumann interview here.)

Schumann: The paintings that I have on the wall are my attempt to speak up to a particular fate in a family whom I met in Palestine. Their 18-year-old son, in the first Intifada in 2002, was arrested in Ramallah together with everybody, with all males in Ramallah. But he was kept in prison. Most of them were sent back. Lots of them were shot. And he was kept in prison and then they kept him for a few years and they tossed him through the military courts and then they pinned a drive-by shooting on him, or having participated in it. And finally they gave him 30 years. So anyway the family was devastated. And he happens to be the son of a prisoner advocate woman [his mother] and a union organizer [his father] so he was singled out, not only for himself but for what family he came from. His sister came [to Bread and Puppet in Vermont] this summer and participated and did wonderful short street political sketches about Palestine.

So my paintings are paintings that have text painted into them and all these texts are from emails that [were written by a friend of the family].

NEJAR: Do you know what he was doing when he was arrested?

Schumann: Nothing, he was just taken together with all the other males in the building. They were rounded up and the women and children were kept in the apartment at gun point and the men were lined up in the hallways with their hands up behind their heads. And then they are marched away. And then they were singled out. Quite a few were shot. Others were sent home. Then a lot of them were kept. And he was one of those.

You have traveled to the Palestinian territories twice since 2006. After visiting Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, in 2006, you made an exhibit of paintings inspired by the visit.

I made an exhibit about it and that made a lot fuss in Boston when I exhibited it, and then it made a lot of fuss in Vermont when I exhibited it here [in Burlington]. And in response to that I wanted to make this new exhibit. I didn’t want to be subdued by the criticism I got from the other exhibit. So I wanted to go on. And this is definitely the going on.

It seems like what most got people riled up was the comparison between the Warsaw Ghetto and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

Right because I quoted from a book [John Hersey’s 1950 novel “The Wall”] and I used quotations from that book, fairly arbitrarily.

Are you going to be making those kind of comparisons again?

Well I didn’t other than quoting the book. There were no other indications of a comparison, other than the fact that I quoted from the book.

It does seem like when you put those two things together it makes…

Oh yeah, sure there’s a hint of that. And I also feel that. An oppressed people who oppresses a people – that’s very much the case of what is being said with that, and what I want to say.

Did any of the discussions or arguments that came out of the stuff, did that make you rethink anything, or change your thinking at all?

Just that I may have unnecessarily hurt some people’s feelings. Yeah, it could be. By using that particular text, because that book, John Hersey’s book was very well known, not just in the Jewish community, it was one of the main novels that came out of the post-Holocaust era. And so it’s sort of in itself like a little Bible of Holocaust literature. People felt just automatically stepped on without reading what I quoted, they automatically felt insulted. That kind of thing may be unnecessary. I don’t know.

It seems to me one way it bothered people is it makes this sort of equation that says Israelis today are like Nazis.

No, it doesn’t. No, it doesn’t do that.

But it does.

It doesn’t say Israelis are Nazis. No. It just says that was a horrible situation for the ghetto population, and there’s a horrible situation for the ghetto population in Palestine. That doesn’t equate the Israelis with the Nazis. I don’t think so.

But you’re making the equation of the victims.


So why wouldn’t people make the equation of the oppressors?

Right. And that happened. People did make that, as if that was my intent. And it wasn’t my intent. But as I’m saying, maybe I would tread more carefully with the text, the chosen text. But I wish people would have referred to the text directly, and they didn’t. They only were insulted by the fact that I used the book and not the actual liftings of text. So it was very unspecific.

Does this one [the show of new paintings] have that kind of connection?

No it doesn’t because the texts in this case don’t use any other text, emails of somebody who knew the family in question very well and related the events as they unfolded to his friends in Seattle.

It seems like also part of the issue is that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is just something in our culture right now…

That people shun.

Well, it’s something that we can’t talk about because it’s so electric. It’s very difficult to even begin a discussion. It seems like you’re consciously going there because of that.

Yeah, I think it’s unfairly so. I think it’s awful that the Western community does not interfere with what Israel’s doing as an occupation force. The Western community does not do anything about it. They don’t even speak up against it. They don’t do anything. They basically serve as the Israeli propaganda for the events there. They give us what the embedded reporters give us from Iraq, which is the picture of the perpetrators.

Some of the critics of how you’ve handled it seem to call on you to show the other side or that you’re not giving enough weight to…

Because it’s well known. It’s continuously in the papers.

They also seem to say your work doesn’t represent that the Israelis are doing this to fight terrorism from the Palestinians. And so that by not representing the Israelis’ problems you’re being unfair.

I don’t know. It’s like when you go to any war naturally the guerillas who rise up against occupation forces are to be blamed for atrocities they commit, but that’s not on the same page with the atrocity of the occupation. Take an extreme case like the Nazis in Poland. Naturally what the Polish and the Russian guerillas probably did against the Nazi soldiers was probably pretty horrible, dismembering them or burning them or putting them into cement walls, or whatever they could to, probably, to punish them. Is that on the same page as the very fact of the invasion? It’s not. It’s not excusable, it’s morally wrong, but still you know our humanity will say you know that is more excusable than the other thing, the thing itself, the big thing, which is the occupation.

There is no ethical excuse for any of this violent dealings and revenging and so on. There isn’t. Ethically this is wrong. But a state always takes exemptions from these ethics. So as the U.S. does. And so does Israel. It’s a fascist democracy just like the U.S. is. And these fascist democracies that are not real democracies, but fake democracies, they do as they wish. They build their ethics with the help of ethics professors as they go. They just have to find the right ethics professors, and they do all the time. They pay enough and so they find another ethics professor. That’s the sad story.

Pictured: When Bread and Puppet Theater performed “The Battle of the Terrorists and the Horrorists” at the BCA in February 2007 some scenes referenced the wall Israel has erected around Palestinian communities in the West Bank. Photos copyright The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Peter Schumann interview, part one

Bread and Puppet founder Peter Schumann (above) discusses his new pageant, “The Divine Reality Comedy,” which plays through Sunday at the Boston Center for the Arts. These are edited excerpts from a Jan. 23 conversation I had with him. (Read my full introduction here.)

NEJAR: The show seems to go from shopping and commercialism to Guantanamo and to torture. Those are the two main themes of the show.

Schumann: It ends up with that as if Guantanamo is a logical sequence to the prevailing commercial attitude. I see the cruelty of this society is coming directly from the wonderful philosophy of capitalism, it’s directly related. This benevolent freedom and democracy are directly torturous. What are we importing into Iraq? Torture and destruction on the largest possible scale. And we call it freedom and democracy. And with what means? With the means of our bombardments and so forth, and invasions of Fallujah and other cities, but also with the prisons in which thousands of people are subjected to inhumane treatment. And we find that standard procedure. That’s how it goes. ...

What I’m saying simply, as the show shows it, is that Guantanamo is the logical result of the prevailing consumerism and capitalism in its shape as it is right now. It’s not illogical, it’s not an aberration, it’s a totally logical result of that. So I’m saying the School of the Americas or Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are not ‘rotten apples,’ as Bush called them, but are directly philosophically correct, pin-pointable climaxes of the system. The cruelty of the capitalist system, which is either cruelty within the range of how it provides for people in that it creates poverty and gigantic riches at the same time. Or it’s the direct cruelty of bombardments and creating slavery.

We are working with a lot of people who ... every year we have dozens and dozens of people who are slaves to the system and don’t know how to get out of it in that they come from universities. They just finished their studies and then they are committed for a couple of dozen of years to pay back their slavery loans. For having been allowed to study within the system. They suffer from this. And they are not free, not at all. They have to go into the system and prolong the system and participate in it in order to pay these goddamn loans. Which aren’t justifiable whatsoever. In that education shouldn’t be that kind of a luxury thing that you have to pay for. Not in a free society, or so called free society. …

A key scene has performers moving about small doll-like puppets as a narrator reads an account of a US government interrogation and one performer strikes the table the puppets are on with a hammer.

So we have papier-mâché figures from very small, six inches, to eight feet tall in this show. They are the sufferers. And with that suffering of these pieces of sculpture you get much closer to the real suffering than with what you would get if an actor fakes that kind of thing. I think that painting and sculpture are much more adequate means of showing such extremes than the art of acting. The art of acting suffers from its psychological limitations of always imitating something. And then you get the gist of that and you get turned off. At least that happens to me. Maybe that doesn’t happen to everybody, apparently not. That I feel is the logical reaction to it. Whereas in painting or for that sake literature you don’t have that effect because it’s distant enough that there’s enough for your brain to do the imagining yourself, you don’t need the actual imitation of the bedroom scene to feel for love and closeness and so on. It’s not necessary.

A subsequent scene has masked and costumed performers slowly, symbolically acting out torture.

Right, but it’s not striking the character, it’s striking a piece of sculpture in slow motion. And that is a transformation of the actual act of doing that to somebody. It’s not the same thing. It’s clean. It’s something that speaks and yet doesn’t force you into a particular image. You’re open. The hammer is not a torture instrument, the hammer is something we all know, it’s a household instrument. And in our play the hammer is also not used as a torture instrument, but just as something that shows you a form of brutality and a tool of brutality in a very ordinary way by slamming on the table. The hammer is a quite convincing thing there. Besides at the time the hammer is used there has been talk in these quotes from actual interrogation papers of a prisoner being bolted to the floor. So the bolting to the floor and the sound of the hammer on the table are closely related, if not the same.

Read part two here.

Pictured: A version of Bread and Puppet’s “The Divine Reality Comedy” as it was performed in Glover, Vermont, last summer. Photos copyright The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.

Peter Schumann’s Israeli-Palestinian problem?

Last year, Bread and Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann sparked a small stir at the Boston Center for the Arts and later a larger stir in Burlington, Vermont, when he exhibited paintings protesting what he sees as Israeli oppression of Palestinians, matched with passages from John Hersey’s 1950 novel "The Wall" about the Nazi extermination of Warsaw ghetto Jews during World War II. Schumann says his theme was an “oppressed people who oppresses a people.” Critics charged that Schumann was equating Israelis today with Nazis, which he says “wasn’t my intent.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a third rail for the Left. This is part of why Schumann headed right in. But there’s nothing like comparing someone to Nazis (intentionally or not) to kill possibilities for discussion. When a handful of audience members called him on it at a public discussion at the BCA a year ago, Schumann dodged the question. When they reiterated their questions, many in the audience shouted them down. Neither Schumann nor any of the other leaders of the event spoke up to calm the crowd and reestablish a civil, respectful discussion of the issue. It was an ugly, insulting, disappointing, shameful scene. And if Schumann was looking to encourage discussion and reconsideration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he failed.

Its repercussions are still playing out. When Schumann showed the paintings again in Burlington, Vermont, last fall, pro-Israel folks complained, and a dozen or two of them disrupted Schumann during a talk there. More ugliness. (See Burlington newspaper account here.)

I recount all this to introduce my upcoming posts of interviews with Schumann and one of his critics. I’ve split my interview with Schumann into two parts (here and here). In the first we discuss his new pageant “The Divine Reality Comedy,” which plays at the BCA through Sunday – and which I highly recommend. It is a dark, acid, heartbreaking indictment of the torture and abuse perpetrated by our government in the name of winning the “War on Terror.” And, as always, it is astonishingly beautiful. In the second part, we discuss the paintings Schumann exhibited at the Boston Center for the Arts last year which caused the stir, and his new set of paintings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are on view at the BCA through Sunday.

Following my interview with Schumann, I’ll post an e-mail conversation I had with Somerville performer Ian Thal (see here), one of the most outspoken critics of Schumann’s paintings last year, who has posted much about the matter to his blog, including charges of anti-Semitism against Schumann. (See here, here and here.) I’m posting both Schumann’s and Thal’s comments to document the range of the issues and the dispute. These posts are not endorsements of either man’s views.

Schumann deserves much more of the benefit of the doubt than Thal gives him. And Thal’s argument that Schumann is “morally unserious” is contradicted by more than four decades of Schumann’s work. But it is evident that Schumann’s handling of his art and the discussion of it last year did much to hurt his ongoing explorations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Jeremy Deller in ICA’s “The World as a Stage”

The Institute of Contemporary Art’s new exhibit “The World as a Stage,” as I wrote in my review this week,
has one terrific piece: London artist and 2004 Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller’s infrequently seen 2001 video “The Battle of Orgreave," which documents his large-scale re-enactment of an infamous clash during a British miners’ strike. The re-enactment is part community therapy, part exorcism; the resulting video is tense and visceral and heartbreaking.

It’s also an hour long. I know it’s difficult to devote that much time to a single video in a small uncomfortable museum gallery, but here’s how to do it: bring a pillow, sneak in popcorn, and skip the rest of the show. ...

Several thousand striking miners showed up at Orgreave in South Yorkshire one June day in 1984 to stop trucks from bringing coal from a processing plant there to steel factories. Thousands of police officers came to stop the miners. It turned into a brawl. The miners were routed; eventually they lost the strike, as well. The mines closed, and that devastated many of the communities around them. Watching the re-enactment with knowledge of the outcome, it’s still hard not to hope that the miners will win, that somehow history can be rerouted, that it all might go better for them this time around.
Read the rest here.

“The World as a Stage,” Institute of Contemporary Art, 100 Northern Ave., Boston, Feb. 1 to April 27, 2008.

Reading: Steve Hollinger’s umbrella

Boston artist and inventor Steve Hollinger is the subject of a big article by Susan Orlean in this week’s New Yorker (abstract only). It focuses on an improved umbrella (above) that he designed, and which could come onto the market this spring. Orlean writes:
The umbrella looks like a cross between a bike helmet and a sou’wester fisherman’s hat – in fact, Hollinger made the pattern for his prototype using his bike helmet. His original model was made of silky black fabric with a fire-engine-red underside, which he liked because even in a rainstorm it would make the user feel as though it were a really bright day.
  • Our review of “Atomic,” Hollinger’s last exhibition at Chase Gallery.
  • The Photographic Resource Center’s exhibition “Picture Show” – including Hollinger’s “Fatherdance” – was part of our “Best of 2007” list.

Check it out: Lee Friedlander

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently opened exhibit “Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks” features 36 photos of Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks that Friedlander shot over the past two decades. Late in his life, Olmsted kept a home and office in Brookline and did significant work in Massachusetts, including designing Boston’s Emerald Necklace. So, not surprisingly, Friedlander’s series includes this 1993 photograph “World’s End, Hingham, Massachusetts.”

“Lee Friedlander: A Ramble in Olmsted Parks,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, Jan. 22 to May 11, 2008.

Pictured: Lee Friedlander, “World’s End, Hingham, Massachusetts,” 1993, Gelatin silver print, lent by the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.