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Play as Topsy-Turvy Sacred

In his analysis of the photographs of Nazi toy figures by American artist David Levinthal and entitled Mein Kampf (1994-1996), James E. Young reminds us that toys are not so much anti-monuments as “demonumentalizations of their worldly counterparts,” diminished deflections of their subject’s pretensions within “the private fantasy world of children.”4 This particular aspect of toys contrasts the oversized monuments that play a role in the public sphere and that inflate the importance of their referent, transforming it into part of the (national rather than the domestic) landscape.

Van Alphen has further suggested that both figurative expressions and toy memory art are not only as legitimate as history or documentary narratives for historicizing the past but are in fact “more precise” because they have the capacity to represent events and experiences—I am thinking here in particular of absence/disappearance—that cannot be evoked by literal expressions.5 Like Young, van Alphen is particularly interested in the potentialities of toy art and playful memories of the Holocaust, as made evident, for example, by a text he wrote for a catalogue that accompanied the art exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, inaugurated at the Jewish Museum of New York on 17 March 2002, a few months before the release of Los rubios in Argentina.6

This exhibit contained works by thirteen young artists, born between 1954 and 1970, who explored the ways in which the iconography of National Socialism has been appropriated by mass culture, Hollywood cinema, fashion and the toy industry. Among the works on display, there was, for example, the 1996 LEGO concentration camp designed by Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, made up of three identical series of seven boxes that included sets of building blocks and other pieces of a miniaturized black-and-white concentration camp: models of the barracks, the crematoria, body parts, smiling skeletons and clothing. The images on the boxes are particularly disturbing. In one of them, two white skeletons carry a third to what is presumably the crematorium, while in the background we see a small pile of body parts. In another image, a white figure with a Hitler-like hairstyle is torturing a white skeleton with an electric device. Equally shocking artworks were Anselm Kiefer’s self-portraits posing on top of German monuments and performing Hitler’s Sieg heil salute (1975), Tom Sachs’ Prada Deathcamp (1998), a model of a Nazi camp made with the material of luxury fashion items, and Alan Schechner’s Barcode to Concentration Camp Morph (1994), in which he digitally transformed a barcode into a photograph of camp victims wearing striped uniforms. We find a similar playful spirit in other contemporary works on the Holocaust, such as in the videos made by the Dutch theatre company Hotel Modern established in 1997. In Kamp, for example, the company recreates the daily routine of mass murder at Auschwitz using puppets made of Plasticine.7

As with Carri’s use of Playmobil in her film, all of these works sparked controversy. They were variously considered to be scandalous, offensive, obscene and immoral; acts of dispassion, a dangerous flirtation with traumatic events and an insult to the victims.8 The playful spirit and use of toys led older generations to accuse the authors of being frivolous, self-indulgent and evasive, stripping politics and history from the reconstruction of the past. One thought-provoking aspect of these works was the way they destabilized the empathic nexus between viewers and victims, encouraging us instead, as van Alphen puts it, to “play” the perpetrator. The artists referred to here invite us to create our own concentration camp (Libera), to play at being Nazis (Kiefer) and to “become” Nazi photographers (Levinthal).9 But far from being just a provocative gesture, this temporary identification with the perpetrator is useful, and even desirable, for the purposes of memory and transmission.

Following Max Scheler, Kaja Silverman (cited in turn by van Alphen) suggests that identification takes two possible forms. On the one hand, there is what Scheler calls the “idiopathic” identification that focuses on similar features between the subjects involved in the process, simultaneously suppressing or ignoring dissimilar ones. Through this mechanism we take the other into the self, based on a link of likeness, so that the other becomes “like” the self. In the second form of identification, which he calls “heteropathic,” the self becomes momentously and partially (like) the other.10 For van Alphen, while the idiopathic identification with victims is useful to learn about their horror, it is also a way of reassuring us of our fundamental innocence, which is unhelpful when trying to reach the fundamental purpose of trauma education—namely, to prevent undesirable historical events from happening again. Conversely, the heteropathic identification with the perpetrator can help us to realize how easy it is to become an accomplice of crimes, to connect with certain aspects of “others” that attract us despite what we rationally and ethically think of them. This type of identification helps us to understand, for example, the enormous consensus that many authoritarian regimes enjoy among the civil societies that make them possible.

A second controversial aspect of works that use objects of play in the reconstruction of the past lies in the doubly imaginative nature of toys “as things to play with and to play out, as toys and art.”11 Some believe that toys are in this respect the opposite to historical genres and discourses such as documentary, memoir, testimony or the monument, which are often considered to be more effective, respectful and morally responsible modes for instructing us about the collective traumas of history. However, as Susannah Radstone has argued,

history and fiction both constitute forms of play. The crucial thing is rather the distinction between history’s concern with “the happened” and contemporary, more experiential engagements with the past—or, better put, the past in the present—(that) may nevertheless prove illuminating.12

It is thus not, strictly speaking, the mere use of toys per se in these works that has been criticized.

This distinction is important because it explains why not all of the works that have employed or referred to toys and games in their exercises of memory in post-dictatorship Argentina have generated polemics. To give a few examples, in the Centro Cultural de la Memoria Haroldo Conti, visitors were invited to play the Memotest (“the memory game”) with black-and-white faces of people disappeared during democracy. Seven years earlier, the Argentine Ministry of Education chose the image of a Memotest for the cover of a book that was sent to schools around the country, including iconic images linked to the dictatorship—the scarfs of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Malvinas/Falklands, a military hat— depicted as if they were illustrations for a children’s book. Moreover, Evidencias (Evidences) by Norberto and Lisandro Puzzolo is a permanent art installation exhibited in the Museo de la Memoria in Rosario, comprising pieces of a puzzle that contains the names of children disappeared during the dictatorship placed in one panel, and pieces with the names of the young men and women who have been found by Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo on another panel. When a lost child is found, the museum moves their piece to the other side of the puzzle. Finally, it is worth mentioning the pioneering 1989 play by the theatrical group El periferico de objetos, El hombre de arena, an adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s famous story recreated with dolls that evoked, albeit unintentionally, the disappeared.

What produced discomfort among certain spectators of the works of the Mirroring Evil exhibition or of Los rubios, therefore, is not the use of toys per se but rather a specific (reproachable) way of playing with toys that offended, albeit to different degrees, the sensibility of survivors and historians, as well the interests of toy manufacturers who did not like to see their products used in such provocative artworks. But just as one cannot, as Cecilia Macon puts it, dictate to another person how to remember,13 neither can one dictate to another person how to play. Play has rules, but these are agreed only among those who are participating in the game. What is more, it is only because Carri or Libera “misuse” toys—challenging and shocking our horizon of expectations of play—that they are able to bring to light hidden political narratives of childhood in objects of consumption that link those objects to violent events of the past.

As Jens Andermann points out, Playmobil toys “are not just any kind of toys but they reinscribe, from a child’s perspective, the dictatorship era as one of imposed social uniformation and economic surrender to transnational imports (the Playmobil brand started to be distributed worldwide in 1975, a year before the military coup).”14 His observation indicates why a Chilean artist, Marcela Moraga, has also deployed Playmobil figures in her own act of remembering the Chilean dictatorship. Her work Allende, Hitler, Lenin (2003) comprises photographs of plastic Playmobil figures carrying weapons or wearing swastikas, looking at posters of emblematic leaders of the twentieth century. These works suggest that the Playmobil figures are not just mediums for representing historical events but are themselves part of the history in question.

Overall, at the heart of both the debates about Los rubios and those about the Mirroring Evil exhibition lay the belief that playful memories of the Holocaust and Latin American dictatorships have violated something too sacred, too “serious,” to play with. Giorgio Agamben has noted that the realms of play and the sacred are closely linked, evident in the origins of most games, which lie in ancient ceremonies, dances, ritual combat and divinatory practices. At the same time, “if it is true that play derives from the realm of the sacred, it is also true that it radically transforms it—indeed, overturns it to the point where it can plausibly be defined as ‘topsy-turvy’ sacred.”15 Following Benveniste, Agamben argues that the difference between the sacred act and play is that if the former is made up of the myth that articulates history and the ritual that reproduces it, the latter preserves the ritual form of the sacred drama, abolishing and forgetting the myth, “the meaningfully worded fabulation that endows the acts with their sense and their purpose.”16 Thus, concludes Agamben with reference to Collodi’s Pinocchio, “Playland is a country whose inhabitants are busy celebrating rituals, and manipulating objects and sacred words, whose sense and purpose they have, however, forgotten.”17 The crucial thing here is that while rites seek to adjust “the contradiction between mythic past and present, annulating the interval separating them,”18 play breaks the connection between past and present, thus highlighting the loss of meaning of certain words, myths and narratives in the present.

Agamben also suggests that “to return to play its purely profane vocation is a political task.”19 Play opens up the possibility of new temporalities. The time of play is an alternative time to the homogenous empty-time of the status quo: “in the wake of extreme technological domination and of the onset of the biopolitical horizon of humanity, play would be the form in which resistance and disruption would occur. Or better, it would be the way in which reified social-political institutions might be rendered inoperative.”20 Play allows the non-instrumental use of play objects that once belonged to the realm of the practical-economic. Play is thus profane not only in the religious sense: “Children, who play with whatever old things fall into their hands, make toys out of things that also belong to the spheres of economics, war, law, and other activities that we are used to thinking as serious.”21

In addition, van Alphen argues that traditional conceptions of pedagogy imply that learning is cumulative and progressive, and leads to the mastery of the subject studied. From this perspective, to prevent another crime against humanity, later generations have to accumulate as much knowledge as they can to know, and ultimately dominate, the past and keep it under control. But this kind of teaching fails in the face of extreme experiences that resist mastery and comprehension. The history of trauma, he concludes, is the history of non-mastery. The proof of this failure is that what many young people are left with after facing this accumulative notion of teaching is not mastery but what Regine Robin has called a memoire saturee (saturated memory) and consequently boredom. Libera has confessed in this sense to being “poisoned” by the way the Holocaust has been transmitted to him over the years. Van Alphen himself said he “was bored to death by all the stories and images of that war, which were held to me ‘officially’ as moral warnings.”22

Similarly, in the case of the transmission of the Argentine dictatorship, playful memories positioned themselves in opposition to the sentimental and nostalgic evocations of the traumatic past—certain songs of Leon Gieco, for example—still used in Argentine schools to teach the period. For Javier Trfmboli, Los rubios is thus an uncomfortable film, partly because it reminds us that certain narratives of the post-dictatorship period “have lost the power to convince new generations ... when they talk about the past these generations do not repeat nor change an inherited narrative ... but say something completely new.”23 Albertina Carri has claimed in this vein and in various interviews that she was never able to relate to most of the fictional films on the dictatorship that always used the same images of the past and that delivered what she calls a “supermarket memory.”24 Together with the frozen, unchangeable images of culture, epic narratives of the 1960s and 1970s led to what Carri has called a “sanctification of Argentine history.”25 In its rejection of realism, mere reproduction and faithful representations of the past, toy memory art revitalizes these images and allows these young artists to appropriate them, at the same time as suggesting, in van Alphen’s words, the essential impossibility of completely and comprehensively mastering trauma.

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