What's the Anne Frank House Doing in Tel Aviv?

English artist Simon Fujiwara's ambitious project starts with a gift shop model of the Anne Frank House and incorporates donated copies of 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

“Untitled (extension),” Simon Fujiwara, 2017. A model of the house.
Elad Sarig/Courtesy the artist and Dvir Gallery

This is surely the most ambitious of the season-opening exhibitions in the local art world: the creation of a replica of Anne Frank’s house in a Tel Aviv gallery. The storeroom is in the basement, and Anne’s room, the bathroom, the bookcase, the ladder and the attic have all been replicated full-size in the Dvir Gallery’s multistory setting. The Berlin-based English artist Simon Fujiwara built the house according to a scale model – a construction kit that comes with assembly instructions – that’s sold in the gift shop of Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. He assembled the model, initially, the way many children who visit the site do, and then once again, enlarged it, restoring it to the dimensions of the original and adapting it to the art gallery’s three exhibition floors.

As the interior covers only part of the floor space of each level, visitors can not only walk inside the house – amid Fujiwara’s architectural, sculptural and figurative interventions – but can also view it from the outside. The result is a house within a gallery – in fact, a museum within a gallery. The fact is that Anne Frank House is one of the world’s top tourist attractions, a modern pilgrimage site that generates a powerful historical experience for more than one million visitors a year. Here, in the rear section of the Opekta food company, the Frank family and others hid for two years, cut off from the outside world, in increasingly deteriorating conditions. And here, a few company employees knew about the hiding place but kept mum, risking their lives to see to the needs of the secret annex’s occupants.

Exhibitory fiction

Fujiwara reverses the course of the museum, moving from the end to the beginning, deriving the historical experience from the gift shop. From the house that became a cardboard model, then reduced and duplicated, becoming an object of merchandise, he fashions the monumental and the acute, the all-embracing. At the same time, instead of turning to the house’s latent biographical and historical elements, he is occupied with its material content, with the stuff it’s made of, the form of its organization. In a visit to the museum in Amsterdam, he discovered that not all its belongings are from the war years. Fujiwara’s project begins there, with the reconstruction of the model that is actually the reconstruction of the original. What he’s reconstructing, then, is not the house as such, in the sense of the original, nor its reduced, commercial model, in the sense of a copy, but the principles of the reconstruction operation as an act of exhibitory fiction.

Fujiwara thus offers a visit of a different order in his Anne Frank house, representing the assemblage sequence of the historical experience. He begins at the basement level, where the museological principle is uncovered – the exhibition’s operational underpinnings. It’s a white space, capacious, minimalist. In a corner is the model of the house, its component parts placed on a high table. Abutting them is the primal object, Anne’s diary, in the iconic red binding, in multiple copies, as they’re sold in the gift shop, and with many blank pages, for the buyers’ use. The reconstruction entails duplication, the duplication involves merchandising, and the merchandising sends a message to the visitors: Continue writing the diary.

Simon Fujiwara, 'Hope House,' 2017.  A reconstruction of the already originally reconstructed Anna Frank house.
Elad Sarig/Courtesy the artist and Dvir Gallery

The intermediate level, the heart of the exhibition, presents the reconstruction as an act of temporal implosion, the assemblage of the present upon the past, an effective exhibitory manipulation. In this densely laden space, filled with rooms and nooks and crannies, Fujiwara creates an array of acts of reflexive intervention: photos of the movie stars that Anne hung in her bedroom here become pictures of the celebrities who visited Anne Frank House and entered the bedroom, in a self-mirroring posture of celebrityhood. A black mannequin dressed in a simple blue suit and bent over in submissiveness has been placed in a corner of the room. It’s a simulacrum of Beyonce, whose media-intense visit to the Amsterdam house generated a host of images of high economic value (the suit she wore sold out of stores an hour after the images were posted on the social networks).

The artist has filled the bookcase that leads to the hiding place with multiple copies of “Fifty Shades of Grey” – whose avid readers afterward got rid of the books by donating them to charity foundations (an allusion, perhaps, to the sexual content that Otto Frank excised from his daughter’s diary).

Patchwork nonsense

All these elements foist on the house an image of it not as a later, foreign aspect, but as it functions in our time. And it’s only on that basis that one can proceed to the upper level of the exhibition, the attic, to which viewers have no access but can only peek at from the outside. It contains genuine periodic items – hanging textiles, tools and boxes: the historical truth, from the original, in contrapuntal juxtaposition.

“Hope House,” as the exhibition is titled, is large in scale, exudes impressiveness, is fraught and elaborate. And, at the same time, it is also patchwork nonsense. Is there anything that hasn’t been crammed into the house? Tickets from the Apartheid Museum in South Africa that reenact the separation between whites and blacks. Photographs of the candidates for the French presidency in the last elections, in which questions of refugees and migration were the central issue. A record of the height of Malala Yousafzai, the young winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from Pakistan. Even a home video that shows the artist himself as a young boy singing, in German (what else?), a song from “The Sound of Music.”

Simon Fujiwara, 'Hope House,' 2017.  A reconstruction of the already originally reconstructed Anna Frank house.
Elad Sarig/Courtesy the artist and Dvir Gallery

Each such gesture is easily identified and immediately figured out, often with the aid of an accompanying elucidatory text. Rich as the project is in production terms, it’s conceptually meager. It comprises not only a reconstruction of the already originally reconstructed house, and a reconstruction of its principles of organization and display, but a reconstruction of quite basic insights from the showoff society. It’s not only the images of the celebs, the movie posters and the Ikea armchair that are wearisomely familiar, at bottom duplicated. So too is the recognition of the way in which they populate our lives, at a level beyond excess. What’s left is the skill of the implementation, the immaculateness of the exhibition, the high-tech finish, which together ultimately create a sterile, clinical space, flaccid and sad.

Clearly, Fujiwara wants nothing to do with critical art (possibly considering it outmoded). He’s careful to avoid being directly critical of Anne Frank House as an institution, or to delve into the ideology of the economics of the victims – certainly from his place of residence in Germany, certainly in Israel. Nor does he confront in any form the fact that the venue of his project is south Tel Aviv, where a large number of asylum seekers live. In the face of the institutional engineering of emotional experience, this critical art puts forward cold disillusionment, disassembling ideological manipulation and exposing its sources like some cantankerous, punctilious investigator. But Fujiwara isn’t interested in the scandal of disassembly to the source point, but in producing an alternative act of assemblage: He too wants visitors to “Hope House” to undergo an experience. That’s the weakness of the work. For, if we accept the principle of experience, what can possibly compete with the experience of Anne Frank House itself?

Dvir Gallery, 14 Reshit Khokhma St. (03) 604-3003. Fri-Sat 10.00-13.00; Tues-Thur 11.00-18.00; until December 2