Asylum (2001)

During World War II Naples suffered for only twenty days from the Nazi occupation, before a popular uprising and the advance of the Allies pushed the German Army out of the city. There was therefore no time for the organization of a systematic persecution of the Jewish population and  “only” fourteen Neapolitan Jews died as a consequence of racial persecution, having been apprehended in other regions of Italy.
To work on the issue of Shoah in Naples means, though, to appeal to a universal, hopefully common, consciousness, rather than to recall a shared historical experience.
With regard to that, and to the peculiar surroundings in which I have been asked to work, the situation of Naples is far too particular to be taken as an example of a historiographic and museographic installation. It can be proposed, then, as a story.

The event took place in the Albergo dei poveri (or the “Poor’s Hostel”). Its construction began around 1750 on the instruction of the Bourbon king Charles III and was meant to emulate similar initiatives in Europe of that age. These buildings are of the type Foucault describes as the models both of the penitentiary and the factory. They express an authoritarian utopia that represents one of the many sides of the Enlightenment epoch. Such places were meant as a tool for the cleaning up of the nation: beggars, invalids, orphans, prostitutes, elderly or disabled people were taken out of the street and concentrated in such places, either to be just segregated from the public life or to be put to work.
The Neapolitan Albergo dei poveri was supposed to host up to eight thousand inmates (the whole of the estimated marginal layer of the population), but its conception was so megalomaniacal that it was never finished and only three of the original five wings were completed (although, this building remains one of the biggest in Europe). At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century its construction was eventually stalled, and since then it presents the aspect of a huge ruin, half inhabited and half abandoned. It housed, though, up to four thousand people before being progressively emptied. In 1980 an earthquake finally caused the death of eleven elderly residents and this de facto was the end of its use as an asylum. In the following years the palace was looted of almost all the remaining furniture and only in recent years has a project of renovation started. In the meantime social workers took possession of a wing of the Albergo, which as a whole is the property of Naples Municipality.

This then was the site of the proposed event that related to the Holocaust. There is, then, the question of the time period in which such an event could take place.
We have witnessed three phases in the historical recognition of the Shoah. The first one, extending from the end of the War to the mid-Seventies, is characterized by a relative silence about the persecution of the Jews; there have been, though, moments of debate and polemics (in particular around the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem) and the publication of some capital books (Wiesel, Levi, Hilberg). A second phase saw a wide enlargement of the knowledge of what happened, and also the revisionist phenomenon, along with a visual production that reached a large public, like the television series Holocaust (it is interesting to see how the widely accepted denominations for the extermination of the European Jews came from fiction –or documentary- films: today it is considered more correct to employ the term Shoah, that is still the title of a movie). A third phase, which we are living through today, sees the institutionalization and a sort of saturation of memory, where there are rising voices that Jews are “doing too much” (See the foreword to the new edition of Nicole Lapierre, Le silence de la mémoire, Paris 2000).

In January 2000 forty-five States sent their representatives to a conference in Stockholm, where it was decided to hold, in every country, a day of the memory. Such a day should be the 27th of January, the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp. Among the national institutions that complied with the indications of the Stockholm conference, was the Italian Parliament. In July 2000 a law declared the institution of the Day of Memory.
The social workers of the Albergo dei poveri, active for thirty years now with hundreds of boys from the slums that surround the building, hearing on news of the law, found that theirs was the “ideal” place to celebrate such a date. The Albergo, in fact, had been for Centuries a place of suffering, and the traces of such suffering were somehow still visible on its damaged walls and its decaying architecture. A more pertinent place to remember suffering and confinement could not be found. The children themselves could be involved, playing the role of the deported Jews in a sort of mimetic performance.
As you can see, then, a place that is just itself meets a time of remembering that is not in itself necessarily a moment of kitsch. But the two things together, through a procedure that, moving from compassion, creates identification, can easily originate a highly kitschy event. The problem, for somebody called to create an event in such a place and about such a subject, was: how, recognizing some historical analogies (the hygienic and paranoiac relation to the marginal and the different, the choice of their concentration in a separated space), to avoid a mimetic, sentimental approach without limiting oneself to a mere presentation of documents that have been seen hundreds of times.
I confess that I was more interested in the place than the subject. At that moment I was making works about the concept of shelter, refuge, hospitality and, after having built –last May, in Maastricht- a “parachute” that was meant as an exercise of unconditional hosting, I was wondering how to put the question of a shelter that would not be at the same time a prison. On the other hand, I did not want to make art “on” such an extreme subject. Such an event should be left, I thought, to its historicity and not be dealt with in terms of “art”. A form of aesthetic approach to an historical event is, though, unavoidable; even if you call it “design” or “installation”, there is a problem of setting a frame, of giving a shape to the re-presentation of catastrophe.

I came to Naples, then, with a couple of references in my head. First, an article by Gianni Vattimo called “L’impossible oubli” and published in the acts of the Royaumont symposium on Usages de l’oubli, “Usages of the oblivion” (Paris 1988). Starting from an early Nietzsche text on “the utility and damage of the history”, Vattimo points out how, in a time period that sees a “historical fever” and an excess of memory, one should recognize and extremisize such an excess, instead of taking refuge in the oblivion through religion or art as a ”unique, instantaneous, classical” work. The idea of a forgetful creation is, in fact, dependant on a “aesthetic of utopia”, which cannot be proposed anymore.
The second was a recent article by Régine Robin, “La mémoire saturée” (“The saturated memory”), published in L’inactuel in September 1998. Régine Robin is a French scholar who has been working extensively on the relationship between memory and fiction; in the text I am mentioning, for example, she states how at the liberation of the camps, some photographs were staged, as was the famous one of the US marines planting a flag on the mount Suribachi in the Iwo-Jima island. Robin’s position is that in facing the representation of the Shoah one should set spaces of meditation, rather than trying to re-create a trauma. What blocks the transmission in such official institutions as the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum, “is the excess of images and explanations”. One should rather open a third space, a “spectral” one, that could allow both the heritage and the transmission.
Finally, a third text containing perhaps the most famous lines on the possibility of art after the Holocaust, that I will, after all, quote: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben ist barbarisch”, “After Auschwitz to write a poem is barbarian… Through the aesthetic principle of stylization… an unimaginable fate still seems as if it had some meaning; it becomes transfigured, with something of the horror removed”; this statement, already expressed in 1949 (“Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft”) was reaffirmed by T. W. Adorno in a 1962 radio broadcast, to be published in Frankfurt in 1965 (“Engagement”, Note zur Litteratur, 2). I am not going to linger on that issue (I would rather refer you to John Felstiner’s “Translating Paul Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’: Rhythm and Repetion as Metaphor” in Saul Friedlander, ed., Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution”, Cambridge Mass. 1992, pp. 240-258), but I would like to cite a possible update of Adorno’s famous lines: in one of his last texts, the German philosopher states: «After Auschwitz… there is no word … not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation» (Negative Dialectics, New York 1983, p. 367). I would like to say that I took a credit from this correction, if it is one, to draw the lines of the Naples installation.

I decided that I would not build anything that would express an empathetic or emotional approach, precisely because this is the most common approach that is undertaken in dealing, in art or in educational programs, with the Shoah. And what is Kitsch, if not a form of representation that remains subordinated, forever linked, to its subject, and does not reach an autonomous form? And wasn’t the Hostel for the Poor, in its actual state of overwhelming and beautiful decadence, precisely the “ideal” place for another kitschification of the historical event of the Jewish extermination?
I decided, therefore, to leave the place in the state of abandonment in which I found it in, and to make it live again for a few hours, with sounds and short actions that, instead of just filling the space, would displace the visitor, who would find himself –if I may say so- in the presence of “absence”, faced with the recognition of loss and the fragility of the trace. An allegorical approach had to be defined, avoiding, though, the absolute distanciation that allegory can present. People should still feel that a poiesis was taking a place.
On the other hand, I thought that instead of proposing again the consolatory lullaby of the duty of memory, we should give a structure to the anamnesic work. Along with some local youngsters we entered the emptied alleys of the Albergo, where tons of archive papers, that did not appeal to the looters, laid on the floor, and found shelves and tables that we transported to the exhibition rooms and summarily repaired. We did not paint the walls but left them like they were. We just cleaned the floor and installed computers, printers, scanners, video projectors and bookshelves.
The principle of the exhibition, apart from the performances, which took place on the evening of the 27th, was a relational one. There was nothing to see, if people did not want to (most of the visitors were actually disappointed, precisely because there was, instead of a show of Holocaust art, “nothing to see”); but if people so wished, they could take and read a book, take and watch a movie, or use the computers to navigate the Internet sites devoted to the Shoah. We would offer research and educational tools instead of emotional recognition. The subject of the exhibition would not be the Jewish genocide as such, but rather the different forms of its representation in literature, music, performing arts, documentary and fiction cinema. We would set therefore the question of representability without proposing a solution, but rather present all the material that had been produced in Italy from 1945 to 2000 and leave the visitors the freedom of envisaging and utilizing this material. We were confident that the framework of the exhibition itself, whose principles seemed rather transparent, would be taken as a form of interpretation. Instead of crying to the scandal of history, we would take into account all the deposits, stratifications and works that history has presented us with.
Instead of “showing’ or “representing”, we would “project” history.

Naples 2001

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