[[With profound thanks, JPP is delighted to host as a guest-blog these reflections by Laura Levitt on “The Evidence Room.” About the exhibition, you can get your bearings here and here in this review that appeared in the NYT, and here. Among the keenest and cool-minded scholars writing on Holocaust memory and on the arts in Jewish Studies, Levitt follows the exhibit from the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, to The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, to its current location at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. The key concepts in this analysis turn around the invisible and visible, the placement and setting, the stark appearance of truth, ethical indictment, shadows and the material texture of memory.]]
“The Evidence Room” was built around the key forensic evidence Robert Jan Van Pelt presented in the British High Court as part of the 2000 libel case brought against Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. It was made for the 2016 Architectural Biennale, a stark, all white room, walls made up of plaster casts of key documents, and scale replicas, monuments to this horrific legacy. The room offered as a powerful critique of the ethics of architecture.
By now, I have seen “The Evidence Room” many times. I made pilgrimage to Venice to view it as a part of the 2016 Architectural Biennale. I then went to Toronto where I saw it on exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), and recently I went to Washington, DC to attend its American premiere at the Hirshhorn Museum. In these shifting venues the piece has taken on a range of textures and meanings moving between architecture, history, art, memory and commemoration.
Although placed at the center of a key pavilion at the Biennale, in many ways, its subtleties were not fully realized in that space. Given the contours of the room with large openings cutting through its center, many visitors just passed straight through. They moved quickly to the louder and more color-filled exhibitions that surrounded it. Nevertheless, in the Biennale, its message was unmistakable. “The Evidence Room” was an indictment. It raised powerful ethical questions about all of those professional architects, engineers, and craftsmen who created this horrific architecture of destruction at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The piece carries this message forward in all of its subsequent venues.
In Toronto “The Evidence Room” became more overtly about the Holocaust. At the ROM it was surrounded by additional antechambers. These included a space for reflection on the legacy of survivors, a quiet room across from the exhibition, and two additional chambers. The first of these presented a replicate of Auschwitz-Birkenau done in white with new casts of newspaper headlines announcing the outcome of the 2000 trial. The second offered more newspaper casts and a short video about the piece. But perhaps the most important innovation at the ROM was a reconfiguration of the room. Visitors could not walk straight through this version of the room. At the ROM the entry ways were now on a diagonal. This made the actual room feel more contained.
At the ROM that I got to spend substantial time in the room with Robert Jan van Pelt and some amazing docents who helped make vivid the complicated tale the room tells. I also got to meet other members of the Waterloo School of Architecture’s team. Through them I came to understand how the process of making the casts itself makes what is invisible visible, the negative space of the mold filled in by the plaster. I also came to appreciate more fully how in the stark whiteness of the room, light matters, some images and texts become more or less visible and learned that I could touch the casts and feel the weight of the door, hear the slam of its heavy functioning metal lock.
At the Hirshhorn “The Evidence Room” is presented more starkly, in a setting unto itself. Here the work seems strangely to fit into the modernist aesthetics of the building. It is also in conversation with the kinds of critical questions posed by many of the artistic works around it. This was a point powerfully made here by the director of the museum as she introduced the artists at the opening forum
The Hirshhorn exhibit includes a newly commissioned video at its conclusion and only a brief description of the work as viewers enter the room. This show marks the inauguration of The Evidence Room Foundation and its efforts to preserving and exhibiting this work.
The story Robert Jan van Pelt, Anne Bordeleau and Donald McKay—the artists at the heart of the Waterloo team—told in the room and at the opening forum at the Hirshhorn were more about truth, evidence, and legal matters than what I heard at the ROM. They spoke about the plaster casts as an ancient practice used at crime scenes. Plaster has long been used to capture, for example, the trace of a footprint. And they talked about the wire of the gas column as well as the other ways that the room echoes a police property room, simple and utilitarian. But they also stressed again the crimes this evidence attests to–how the Nazis created with their own hands, this architecture of destruction. They used all of their skills and training to make these horrific things.
The artists stressed the evidence, the need to prove, without a doubt, that the Holocaust happened. They reminded all of us that the room is made up of the forensic evidence, blue prints, plans, drawing, memos showing how carefully planned the gas chambers and the crematoria were. And, as hard as it is to take this all in when in the room, we were reminded that the room’s walls are formed by those plaster casts of critical documents that point directly to the specifications for the monuments at the heart of the room. The gas column, the door to the gas chamber, and a gas hatch, those full-scale reproductions were built from the evidence collected on walls of this room.
As the artists explained at the Hirshhorn, the evidence at trial was all about not allowing the deniers to chip away at the veracity of our knowledge of the Holocaust.
Bone white, “The Evidence Room” is a stark space of Holocaust commemoration where light makes visible, from different angles, the texture of these horrible memories even as they cast large shadows. Remembering, learning about this legacy is neither simple nor direct. It is not easy and neither is “The Evidence Room.” How could it be.