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Anne Teahan: Sharing Cultures: Disability and Visibility - disability arts online
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Anne Teahan reflects on a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and finds common themes in ‘Revealing Culture’ the Disability Arts exhibition at the Smithsonian / 12 July 2010

One of my aims in visiting ‘Revealing Culture’ in Washington is to see how the art relates to surrounding mainstream spaces.

The Holocaust Memorial Museum is purpose-built. From outside, the white stone façade echoes the nearby Washington monuments and Smithsonian Galleries. The arched entrance has a feeling of permanence, weight and solidity. But inside, everything changes … The entrance or Hall of Witness combines glass, metal and stone. Colours are grim and industrial. Floor and ceiling are sloped and sliced into diagonals, as though gravity has shifted.

I think of Loretta Bebeau’s ‘Jibberish’ in ‘Revealing Culture’. Her grey-metallic squares are intersected by diagonals and fragments of words and letters. The Museum seems to carry embedded messages and anxious architectural references.

We wait for timed entry to the main exhibition and I wonder about the experience ahead. Liz Crow’s film ‘Resistance’ describing the Nazi T4 euthanasia programme, is still fresh in my mind. And my friend Sue is Jewish. She explains that however harrowing it may be, for her, this museum and the presence of so many visitors including children, is a reassurance.

We travel by lift to the upper floor and the journey through recent history begins. A gigantic photograph from 1945 shows the first shock of discovery when allied forces opened the camps to reveal genocide. The rest of the exhibition tracks the events which lead there through a timeline of photographs, personal artefacts and archival film of anti-Jewish propaganda. The narrative reaches the inevitable conclusion in stages. However familiar, each stage remains shocking.

And the building itself echoes these stages. Repetitious structures embody the idea of processing, with tunnels and towers, and factory-like features. As visitors, we start to feel that we ourselves are being primed and processed. I think of Sunaura Taylor’s ‘Chicken Truck’ paintings in Revealing Culture, showing parallel rows of boxed-in hens.

The Museum also documents the de-humanisation of non-Jewish groups: Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Communists and Roma. The Disabled were the first to be systematically destroyed as children in institutions and then as adults. Here in the Holocaust Museum we see their faces, photographed as medical specimens, counted and categorised as ‘people unworthy of life’.

Throughout this journey, there are numerous cross-connections with the work of contemporary artists in Revealing Culture prompting links between past and present which are both encouraging and disturbing. Encouraging, because the targeted victims of the past are now behind the camera directing the narrative and discussing their roles as actors. This happens in Liz Crow’s film ‘Conversation’ - a companion to ‘Resistance’ exploring individual stories of disability and euthanasia.

Artists are also satirising contemporary notions of bodily perfection and ideal health; of being on the receiving end of medical and pharmaceutical interventions. Gwyneth Van Laven’s installation ‘Waiting Room’ explores the unease of undergoing medical processing and the chillingly neutralised appearance of doctor’s waiting rooms. 

Ju Gosling’s ‘Abnormal’ project explores human characteristics in relation to genetic coding with its potential for sifting out ‘abnormal’ traits. Her print ‘Abnormal 2 ’ exposes the absurdities of human and medical categories with a trail of identifying labels, starting with ‘Female’ and finishing via ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Kyphoscoliotic’ with ‘Abnormal’. In the fascist past, ‘Aryan’ was the perfect category; survival meant concealment of race, impairment or sexuality. Ju’s work prompts questions about contemporary ideas of perfection. What makes us worthy of life now?

The Holocaust Museum shows how ideas can so easily and rapidly become embedded in a whole culture. Are there things today that we just don’t see because they are so embedded in our media environment? The exhibition documents how repetitious propaganda and the language of hatred helped facilitate euthanasia on an industrial scale, starting with the Disabled.

In Britain today, language is different: public broadcasters cannot incite hatred on grounds of disability, race, age or sexuality. The mainstream Euthanasia debate uses language of love, care, and medical compassion. Are we therefore kinder, gentler, less prejudiced, and safer now? We know how to sound it.

I think of Janet Morrow’s spectacular cake sculptures in Revealing Culture. Her ‘Pharmacake’ looks so sweet and comforting till you get close and discover that some of the tiny decorations are lethal. At closing time, on the way out, we pass a large, bare room with a single burning candle. The Hall of Remembrance, a space without images, invites contemplation, prayer or meditation for people of all religions and none.

As we share our reactions, Sue explains how her Jewishness means that the Holocaust is never safely relegated to the past; for her, it remains a reference point which signals ‘Danger’ whenever ideas of ‘Us and Them’ emerge in contemporary life.

Outside the oppressive heat has turned to heavy rain. There is a sense of relief and of a city cooling down. Later on, as the shadows lengthen, we go to see the White House for Sue’s last Washington evening. We photograph each other outside the railings. There is speculation among a group of tourists: are the Obamas at home? We peer through the bars. Are they peering back out at us? And how reassuring to think they might be.

Artists’ websites:
Loretta Bebeau www.mnartists.org and www.local-artist-interviews.com (interview)
Liz Crow: www.roaring-girl.com/productions
Sunaura Taylor sunaurataylor.org
Gwynneth Van Laven www.gwynneth.vanlaven.net/
Ju Gosling www.ju90.co.uk/
Janet Morrow www.defcakelady.com

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