Our Struggle (Responding to Mein Kampf), Contemporary Jewish Museum

Today I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco to see the exhibition Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf before it closes this coming week.

The exhibition, which is based on the book Notre Combat (Our Struggle) is the result of French artist Linda Ellia’s encounter with a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, specifically a French-language copy that her daughter happened to bring home in 2005. Her response to the book, defacing the pages and using them to create new works of art in response, mirrors the larger question of how we should collectively deal with this book: we could attempt to ban it (which it would only lead to copies being secretly shared), we could destroy or burn every copy (which would be repeating what the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes have tried to do), or we can respond to it with our own statements and try to take ownership of it.

The exhibition includes 600 such responses created from the pages of the French copy that Ellia had found. Several are pages she altered herself, while others were contributed by artists, musicians, writers, teachers, survivors, and others whom Ellia invited to participate. Some pages were used as canvases for new drawings or paintings, others were cut apart and reassembled. There were grouped into sections, such as one section that featured images of hearts, both symbolic and anatomical, created on top of pages. There were plays on words, including blocking out words and leaving only a few to create new sentences. There were numerous caricatures of Hitler. There was a group of that seemed to just use the pages as surfaces for graffiti and surrealist images, which were among my favorite artistically. There was one with a young girl dressed in red sitting between two large black columns, with the words from the original page visible in the empty space behind her. Another featured a goth-looking figure with what appeared to be red cats being emitted from her mouth. One featured a very literal reference to the train cars that carried victims to the concentration camps. Another poignant work depicted figures walking in a long and meandering line, with the single word non.

Although the history and evil associated with the book was ever present in many (or most) of the responses, it was also at the same time being displaced by the new work being created, i.e., “here is a large conceptual work made with pages from a published book”.

Taken as a whole, the work functions as a new kind of memorial, one in which the participatory nature of its creation holds as much cathartic power as the finished product. The artist pages in Our Struggle don’t dwell on the original text, but instead diminish its power by turning it into the backdrop for profound acts of symbolic reclamation, a process Ellia feels is universally applicable. (from the press release.)

The exhibit does include an actual 1941 copy of Mein Kampf, a large and elaborate edition that was presented to one of the regional governors of the Third Reich. Its inclusion bring the reality and history back into focus just as one gets absorbed into the pieces as new works of art.