When Art Tarnishes A Masterpiece Of Architecture

Phillip Johnson Glass House (with Kusama dots)
Phillip Johnson Glass House (with Kusama dots)
Norberto Feal


BUENOS AIRES â€" Exploiting architectural masterpieces as props for so-called ephemeral art is starting to become something of a permanent habit.

Perhaps the first example that comes to mind is what happened to Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House. Alongside the Farnsworth residence â€" designed by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe and completed in 1951 â€" it was one of two pioneering, and controversial, homes that sought to be entirely transparent. The house, which Johnson began drawing in 1945 and which would become his home, was based on the Thesis House he had imagined and built in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for his graduate project.

In 1946, Johnson bought some 18 hectares of rolling woodlands in New Canaan, Connecticut, an hour's drive north of Manhattan, so he could build the house. Construction of the 14-room structure was completed in 1949, and the Glass House became the first of its kind, and perfect in its design. The wall of the structure, made to disappear, gives way to an uninterrupted glass membrane from the roof to the floor, which encases the living space and gently divides the inside from outside. Johnson would reside there until his death in 2005.

Christmas window?

Since 2007, the Glass House is open to the public between May and November. This year it is has been temporarily hosting Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's month-long residency, which consists in sticking hundreds of self-adhesive dots onto the glass walls. The artist explained that the dots sought to "measure and to make order of the infinite, unbound universe from own position." Every dot, she wrote, is "my own life, and I am a single particle amongst billions."

Phillip Johnson Glass House (without Kusama dots) â€" Photo: Tom Hart

So anyone wishing to visit the Glass House this year â€" after making the long trip up to Connecticut and paying the $140 entrance fee â€" will have to take in this marvel ruined by Ms. Kusama's dots, which are about as pretty as a shop front display at Christmas time.

Such interventions on architectural landmarks risk becoming more and more common, as artists and curators are finding museums and public spaces too restricted for their shows now. And so some of the world's finest building are subject to these kinds of "reboots."

Explained away as ephemeral and removable, the constant repetition of such interventions may not turn out to be so harmless, with the risk that a series of provisional phenomena becomes a permanent fixture. We've seen it at the German Pavilion in Barcelona, which is always being exploited as such; or Versailles, whose grand canal has most recently become the setting for Olafur Eliasson's The Waterfall. Until the end of October, this vertical platform spewing water will ruin the view of a crucial axis of the 17th-century gardens. Eliasson says it is intended to reactivate the "engineering innocence of the past."

Palace of Versailles (with Jeff Koons Balloon Flower) â€" Photo: Dalbera

In Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi's façade was covered with orange life rafts, part of a massive installation by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to remind viewers of the plight of refugees. Why are masterpieces of architecture treated this way? One wonders, what would happen if Velásquez's Las Meninas in the Prado were covered with Kusama's polkadots or David's Oath of the Horatii, plastered over with pictures of refugees?

Nobody doubts that Kusama, Eliasson and Weiwei are great artists, or that the use of installations can be striking, thoughtful and innovative. But with so many buildings around the world, why not leave the true masterpieces for us to see in their original splendor?

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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