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Tag Archives: Alan Schechner

Self Portrait at Buchenwald: It’s the Real Thing (Digitally manipulated Photograph, 1991–1993)

In this artwork, shown at the exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art (New York, Jewish Museum, 2002), English Jewish artist Alan Schechner inserted himself in a famous photo taken by Margaret Bourke-White after the liberation of Buchenwald (1945), with a Diet-Coke can in his hand. “The Coke can marks a rupture between the moment in 1945 in which Bourke-White took the original photograph and Schechner’s contemporary presence in the image. The differences between the present and the past are divided by this ideological and historical gap. In this sense Schechner’s image works like an allegorical ruin” (Alessandro Imperato). Schechner is interested in a cultural re-appropriation of signs and icons from the Holocaust through the radical rupture marked by historical distance and touristic perception of memory. A gap that is here symbolized by the Diet-Coke can, a single element that functions as a paradoxical punctum of the image (something that “pierces the viewer”, as defined by Roland Barthes). Below, the original picture by Margaret Bourke-White.

Still from The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984). In 2029, artificial intelligent machines dominate the world and seek to exterminate the human race. The machines send back in time to 1984 a cyborg assassin, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), with the mission of killing Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and preventing her from giving birth to John Connor, the future leader of human resistance. Kyle Reese (Michael Biene), resistance fighter sent from the future to protect Sarah from the Terminator, shows her the bar code tattooed by the machines on his arm and describes the post-apocalyptic world with clear references to the Holocaust and the deeds of the Sonderkommandos. From the original script (fourth draft):

REESE

Hunter Killers.  Patrol machines.
Build in automated factories.
Most of us were rounded up, put in
camps… for orderly disposal.

He pushes up the sleeve of his jacket and shows
her a ten digit number etches on the skin of his forearm.

Beneath the numbers is a pattern of lines like the automatic-
pricing marks on product packages.

REESE

(continuing)
Burned in by laser scan.
(pause)
Some of us were kept alive…
to work.  Loading bodies.  The
disposal units ran night and day.
We were that close to going out
forever…

The tattooed number functions as a synecdoche for the Holocaust in many films – e.g. Marathon Man (1976), Harold and Maude (1971), etc. The same is true for other elements of the fragmented Holocaust iconography. As Annette Insdorf puts it, “films about the Holocaust have provided images – of smoke, of barbed wire, of sealed train cars, of skeletal bodies – that now function as synecdoches, the visual part representing the unimaginable whole” (Indelible Shadows. Film and the Holocaust, Third Edition, p. 248).

Below, Bar Code to Concentration Camp Morph (Digitally Morphed Photographs, 1991-1993), by English Jewish artist Alan Schechner. “As numbers morph into human faces and the mark of merchandise becomes the dress of affliction, the troubling association of commodification, concentration camps, and digital imaging emerges. The larger message speaks of the bar-coding of human life, the transformation of beings into numbers. But the upper part of the screen – the metamorphosis of numbers to faces – alludes in reverse to a specific condition of digital technology, which transforms images constituted in reality into bytes of information, rhyming with the death camps as it transforms life into a sequence of numbers” (Noam Milgrom-Elcott). Other works by Schechner are available at the artist’s website.

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