"We all have evil within us. Even small children are evil towards each other," Danish-Norwegian artist Nina Maria Kleivan tells Haaretz as she explains why she chose to dress up her baby daughter as the most evil historical figures of the 20th century.
"Even my daughter could end up ruling Denmark with an iron fist. The possibility is still there. You never know."
In the controversial photo-series "Potency," Kleivan's daughter Faustina, then a few months old, depicts such infamous personalities as Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Chairman Mao, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic, and Adolf Hitler. The aim is to illustrate just one thing: We all begin life the same. We all have every opportunity ahead of us. To do good, or inexplicable evil.
"You need to be conscious that your actions have consequences that impact on your fellow human beings. The people I let my daughter portray didn't give a damn about the human cost, the casualties, their thoughts caused," Kleivan says.
"The responsibility is yours alone. You can't throw it away - as a parent, as human beings - and say that you just followed orders."
When Kleivan gave birth to Faustina, her second child, serious pelvic joint pain kept her in hospital for two months, then captive at home in a wheelchair for another four months. Bored out her mind and incapable of accessing her studio, she found a canvas in her newborn daughter. She began sewing small costumes using items at hand, dressing her child up as the worst dictators of recent history, and photographing the results. First was Stalin; Hitler was the last. When her husband saw the swastika armband lying on the desk, he cracked.
"'I'm aware that you're an artist, but this is wrong,' he told me. I've pondered that a lot myself: Could I really do this? I agree it's on the verge, especially Hitler, whom I and most others view as the incarnation of evil. He and Stalin were the hardest to do. It hurt."
And not for nothing. Kleivan was raised by a father in the Norwegian resistance movement who had been captive in a German prison camp.
"I grew up with a tremendous hatred towards the Germans," Kleivan says, reminiscing about how she would, as a child, carry a note in her pocket with the name of her father's prison guard, so that when the day came, she could identify him and kill him. "Even though my father stressed that you shouldn't hate anyone, not least the Germans. Hatred is a dead end."
Kleivan's art brims with references to World War II, often incorporating power and powerlessness, victims and culprits, innocence and guilt. Even so, none of her works have caused as much stir as this, and it's all because of one particular image.
"Nobody reacts to any picture other than the one of 'mini-Hitler'. Even though my generation doesn't speak out about the war, silently our cultural circle sees Hitler as evil incarnate."
But the reactions have been far from silent in Denmark, Sweden, Italy and Germany, where the exhibition has been shown. Especially when Kleivan's Jewish aunt stumbled across the exhibit in an art gallery in Sweden.
"Most of her family disappeared in the German camps, I felt so bad telling her it was my work, because she didn't know, and was sickened by it. But this is not a deliberate provocation, it calls for reflection. Even though comical, you're not supposed to only laugh at these pictures. You need to contemplate them, ponder where this evil comes from."
Right now, Kleivan is doing a piece on Stalin's favorite movie, a "silly, inane comedy."
"When all you see is a picture, Stalin could've been anyone's kind grandfather. You can't see the millions of people on his conscience or what a paranoid, dreadful human being he was."
Whether or not evil is inherent or generated mostly by environment, it lays dormant in even the smallest creature. Faustina is now 11 years old and shows a remarkable talent for playing the violin. Who knew?
A doctor specializing in psychopathy penned a text to accompany a Kleivan exhibition in Stockholm, describing what evil was, its occurrence in men and women (men are more prone to it, apparently) and how it affects us all. Later, he wrote Kleivan that he had been discussing with colleagues whether or not her daughter would sustain long-term mental damage from being dressed up as these modern psychopaths. She wouldn't, they had decided.
At the end of the missive he added a post script, perhaps as a potential future disclaimer, "Nevertheless, I recommend you save this letter."