Latest News | 31. January 2023

Statement on the exhibition "100 Misunderstandings about and among Jews"

by Jewish Museum Vienna
© Foto: Arye Wachsmuth Aus der Rauminstallation Im Schatten der Verdrängung, Arye Wachsmuth und Sophie Lillie, 2021 im Rahmen der Ausstellung Dispossession im Künstlerhaus, 2021
The current exhibition 100 Misunderstandings About and Among Jews at the Jewish Museum Vienna is being widely discussed. In principle, this is to be welcomed, since art and culture should stimulate discussions, which can also be controversial. However, what the exhibition does not want is to create new misunderstandings, which unfortunately has happened.
100 Misunderstandings About and Among Jews is not a specific exhibition about antisemitic prejudices or even the history of antisemitism, but rather one about ideas (clichés, stereotypes, as well as prejudices) concerning “Judaism” or “the Jews.” The quotation marks already indicate it: “Judaism” and “the Jews” are only a monolithic block in stereotypical images. In reality, Judaism is just as diverse as the Jewish population. The generalizing view is not necessarily negative but can also be exaggerated.
The exhibition, therefore, deals with the images in our heads, with our notions, as well as with our projections. The very first work of art in the exhibition, which presents almost exclusively Jewish positions, points this out: Cary Leibowitz’s Hi Jewboy / Hi depicts a conversational situation. A “blank slate,” a “normal person,” designates another as a Jew. “Hi Jewboy,” he says. From this moment on, the other can no longer be a blank slate, because he is perceived as a representative of all Jews, as something “special,” as “different.” This does not always have to be bad in individual cases – Who wouldn’t like to be “special?” – but overall it is an expression of a relationship between the non-Jewish and Jewish population that is still largely tense, characterized by projections and anything but normal. Addressing this is the aim of the exhibition.
In addition to clichés, the exhibition also addresses the memory of the Shoah. The focus lies on the question of who is the authority that determines how “correctly” one must remember and how one’s own idea of what “one is allowed and not allowed to do” is challenged. In a video, a Holocaust survivor dances with his family in the former Nazi extermination sites. Produced in 2010 and released on YouTube, the film caused a great deal of discussion at the time and remains controversial today.
A collage shows a flatbed truck full of corpses and a pin-up girl. The survivor Boris Lurie turned against the sensationalism of the press with this work of art, which was displayed in a consistently positively reviewed exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin in 2016 and at several other German museums: while reports about the Shoah did not make the front page, the images of the Nazi crime were presented alongside pin-ups and advertisements. Boris Lurie works through his trauma here.
In 1993, Alan Schechner, half of whose family was murdered in the Nazi concentration camps, superimposed himself, holding a Diet Coke can, into one of the best-known photos taken after the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. In doing so, he protested against the trivializing portrayal of the concentration camp in Hollywood films. The suffering in the concentration camps, he says, cannot be understood. Unlike Boris Lurie’s work, his photomontage, which can be seen at the Jewish Museum New York, was sharply criticized in the 1990s and sparked a debate about how to deal appropriately with Holocaust symbolism.

Are they allowed to do that?
Aren’t these legitimate positions, even if they are challenging? Endsieger sind dennoch wir (We Are the Ultimate Winners After All), a modified quote from the resistance fighter and Auschwitz survivor Heinrich Sussmann, can be seen in the exhibition as a neon installation by Arye Wachsmuth and Sophie Lillie. The two artists believe that the culture of remembrance must disturb and unsettle in order to be noticed at all. With “I’m the ultimate winner after all,” Sussmann meant his own survival; translated into the plural, the quote means the survival of the Jewish people. Purchased by the Friends of the Jewish Museum Vienna, the work was already featured in the Dispossession exhibition at the Vienna Künstlerhaus in 2021. Lying in front of it is the Hitler-Rug – a silicone skin with Hitler’s head, similar to a bearskin – by the Israeli artist Boaz Arad, whose works are shown at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, among other places. If Judaism, he said, was actually a revenge religion, it would look like this. The baseball bat standing next to it from Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds from the collection of the Jewish Museum Vienna, which was also recently seen in the successful exhibition Rache (Revenge) at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt, addresses the avoidance of the term “revenge” in German-Austrian postwar discourse.
This and other artworks are certainly challenging and, we have found, disturbing and hurtful to some. For this reason, the museum has decided to bring another level of context into the exhibition, which explains the intentions of these works in more detail and is intended to avoid further misunderstandings. Because no exhibition wants to hurt its visitors.
No matter how challenging some objects may be, they are Jewish positions. They are works of art intended to stimulate thought. However, neither in the past exhibitions in which they were displayed nor in our experience with our museum audiences have they encouraged antisemitic reflexes, as has been feared. The educational team could not verify that school classes, who visit the museum as a class with a guided tour anyway, would have laughed at these exhibits, as Paul Lendvai stated. It should happen that students also laugh in a Jewish museum. However, we should be careful not to accuse them, as well as other visitors, of bad intentions. Evidence should still outweigh felt truths.
Likewise, it is absurd (as in Ben Segenreich’s exhibition review) to accuse the exhibition team of hostility towards Israel and to substantiate this with quotations from the exhibition catalog, which are expressly stated to be the opinion of others and not of the museum. This finally culminated in an exhibition review in an Austrian daily newspaper, in which a souvenir from Israel, which has been on display in the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Vienna for ten years, and the aforementioned artistic examination of the culture of remembrance were defamed as antisemitic.
An exhibition should and must be discussed. Therefore, a debate club was set up to accompany the exhibition, in which topics related to it are discussed every two weeks. It goes without saying that the museum team continues to seek dialogue, as well as to react to the dismay of some visitors.
Several media outlets asked whether the Viennese audience was ready for such an exhibition. In his recent review of the exhibition, David Myers, Professor of Jewish History at UCLA Los Angeles, reminded us that there is still another Austria, an Austria that grows through such discussions. We want to believe in that.