Re-interpreting Religion   Leave a comment

Following this week’s public discussion of how religion is portrayed in The Simpsons (read the story here), I have been thinking about another artist who used the medium of something usually associated with children to send a strong message about religion.  In the case I am thinking of, the Polish modern artist Zbigniew Libera used the child’s toy Lego to represent the religious discrimination suffered by those who lived through the Holocaust.

As we approach the date of the last gassing of victims in the Auschwitz concentration camp (29 October 1944), I am drawn to thinking about the controversial artwork that I wrote an extended essay on for one of my BA Theology degree modules.  50 years after the end of WWII, in 1996, Polish artist Libera created Correction Device: Lego Concentration Camp Set.  It is actually part of a group of work which aims to ‘correct’ society’s views on certain things which surround a child’s upbringing and the human body.  The Lego Concentration Camp Set itself is what it sounds like: an imitation of all the parts which made up a Nazi concentration camp made out of Lego, complete with mock Lego packing (however, it is not endorsed in any way by the makers of Lego).  It is often thought that the concentration camp is meant to be Auschwitz, but as the work has an ambiguous title and Libera has never stated that it is Auschwitz, it is difficult to know whether it is based on theis infamous camp or not.

Much of Libera’s work is controversial, and this piece is no exception.  He is considered a ‘modern’ artist who is trying to shock people, but when it comes to the delicate matter of the Holocaust, artwork of this nature often just ends up offending people rather than merely shocking them.  However, the work does provoke debate about what is and what is not acceptable to do when your subject matter is the Holocaust.  This focus on challenging boundaries is what Libera was trying to do: “I want to pose questions – I do not want to control all possible points of view of the public.  There exists a category of surrealist objects, in which it is important that they raise greatest moral controversy.  That they be morally provocative.” Libera’s work has raised many important questions about whether or not unconventional Holocaust representations can actually aid our understanding of the event.

Libera feels a personal connection to the Holocaust, although he himself was not born until 1959; this is possibly due to the strong Polish national Holocaust memory.  It could also be suggested that Libera’s time in a prison camp influenced his Lego Concentration Camp, but Libera himself denies this and sticks to the claim that the main reason is because he is a Pole.

The ‘toy’ is packaged so as to seem like a real Lego set; it was made using real Lego blocks from other sets and the boxes are identical.  The reason it was created using Lego was because it symbolises the Western educational system which creates a certain way of looking at the Holocaust and it also mocks the growth of what is known as ‘Holocaust tourism’.  Libera was trying to show how consumer goods have manipulated our views on certain subjects and so he designed a toy to convey how “the innocence associated with children’s toys is deployed to introduce adult metamorphosis and concerns into the production of the object.”

When Libera created these Lego sets, he knew he had created a work of art which would provoke a divisive debate as he had connected the issues of aggression, cruel play and educational toys with games based on conflict and violence; also, anything controversial which includes a representation of the Holocaust is going to make waves in the media amongst many people.  Its message is made ever stronger as the Lego models are immobile, which contrasts starkly with other virtual toys such as animation and computer games.

It seems that this extremely controversial work of art was planned down to the very last detail in order to convey several messages about the Holocaust which Libera felt were important for society to be aware of.  His ultimate goal of trying to provoke a debate concerning the sensitive nature of what is (and what is not) considered an ‘appropriate’ representation of the Holocaust succeeded and I believe that this spirit is something which we shouldn’t be afraid of continuing.  Therefore, I think that television programme-makers and film-makers should be looking to push the boundaries to make us think ‘outside the box’ and re-evaluate how we represent important historical events and religious practices.  I would argue that two films which have successfully made me (and hopefully others) re-assess how religion is portrayed in the cinema were: Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Bruce Almighty.  Two TV series which have done the same were: The Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted.  I hope TV and cinema can keep this up in the future!


Posted 25/10/2010 by thinkmindy in art, conscience, History, Religion

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