This Artist Didn't Steal From Auschwitz, but Rather, From Other Artists

Even after the international outcry over the items Rotem Bides was accused of stealing from Auschwitz, her work is still interesting

Rotem Bides. The noise surrounding the scandal gives way to an interesting and multi-layered work.
Tomer Apelbaum

What are the chances that behind a highly publicized scandal stands an excellent work of art? This is certainly one question that visitors to Beit Berl Academic College’s graduate exhibition ask themselves just before they step foot on the green campus.

Ten days before the show opened, one of this year’s graduates, Rotem Bides, said in an interview that her final project was made up of objects she took without permission from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps: A spoon, broken glass, a screw and a visitor sign.

Rotem Bides' project at the Beit Berl Academic College’s graduate exhibition.
Tomer Apelbaum

Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors. She is worried about the loss of live testimony and diminishing memory, and that is “how I felt that this is something I needed to do.” “Millions of people were murdered according to the morality laws of a certain country, under a certain regime. And if those are the laws, I can come and act according to my laws,” she told the Ynet news site last month.

The story of the theft was publicized all over the world. The college administration decided to remove her work from the exhibition. The art faculty disagreed. In the end Bides wrote a statement declaring that she collected the items outside the camp and museum, and did not steal anything. Her work is now on display as part of the show.

That is the scandal, composed of all the worn-out clichés of our existence here: The second and third and fourth generation, until the end of time; the scheming and thieving Israeli; the Holocaust as the litmus test of morality; art thrown out of a conservative institution; and all this in the art world where everything it touches upon – whether openly or in secret, with permission or stolen, beginning with artists Erez Israeli, through Uri Katzenstein and ending with Yael Bartana – is taken from killing sites, in the name of the victims’ account, the withered memory and mostly the inexhaustible guilt.

The main gate at the former German death camp of Auschwitz, in Oswiecim, Poland.
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Then we enter the space of the art, and the noise surrounding the scandal gives way to an interesting and multi-layered work. Along the walls of the room is a pipe into which the artist drew her blood. But the pipe is small and narrow, and the blood that flowed freely at its beginning thins out and fades away. In the center of the room is the table with the evidence and on it lay the numbered objects: Two spoons, a rock and a little dirt, feathers and small wooden rabbit, rabbit-skin glue and a rabbit’s foot. All are small, miniatures, anti-monumental; food utensils and natural materials, models and tools. They are laid out in isolation, not connected to any unifying whole.

Loss of memory

These objects do not preserve the memory, they do not unite into an image of the past. They themselves are the loss of memory, its rupture, its detachment. They are a screw in the sense of a screw. If they have been taken from anywhere, stolen from any system, then they signify a certain direction in the history of art – from the Joseph Beuys’ hare to the rabbit of Michal Na’aman.

They do so as entertainment, with a wink: Not only do you need to “steal” from the museum at Auschwitz in order to make art in Israel, but also from the museum works of the great masters (and then it is no longer stealing, but inspiration, dialogue, resonance).

Rotem Bides' final project was made up of objects she took from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps.
Tomer Appelbaum

This is how the guiding question of the scandal – “Was there a theft?” – is embedded into the work and becomes part of its mode of operation: On the table sits a sign that was “found in a corner of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, from the perimeter fence,” which makes it clear in English and Polish that it is forbidden to remove anything from there; in the list of items at the corner of the table, it explicitly says that a few of the objects were taken from the camp; in the statement on the wall the artist writes that the objects were taken from outside the camp area, not inside of it.

The work is made up of rings upon rings and everyone offers a different interpretation of what it holds inside. It is all done through the use of verbal markers, pointing out in language that reverses itself a number of times. Without them, it is just a spoon, stuck firmly onto the table with rabbit glue, until it becomes a part of it. The exhibit needs the text, and the text in this work – what is written there and what is written about it – is put to work as the guardian of the memory and as the creator of the fiction.

Bides’ work shows the importance and deceptiveness of the relationship between text and image, how it is always part of the work, explicitly here and concealed in other cases. This makes it odd that except in a few special cases, the artists’ statements are not hung on the walls.

It was the same at master’s students exhibition at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Other graduate exhibitions do have accompanying texts, including those for students who continue at Beit Berl. Some people object vehemently to such “explanatory” texts: Many times they are artist statements that put the work into its immediate biographical context and in doing so, limit its meaning, encourage lazy eyes and lead the viewers to a path marked for them in advance.

In a more principled fashion, the text is external to the work and is like a confession that it is weak and lacking, that it needs support. But the text, when it is not just vague or illustrative, is part of the process of the work, its formulation, its raw materials. The goal is not to direct the view or imprint the meaning of the work before it is revealed to the viewer – so it shouldn’t be the first impression – but to realize the work within a wider context, as part of an internal and external artistic discussion.