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Dachau, 2009, Robert Priseman

Gas Chambers / Robert Priseman

Tonight an exhibition opens that invites the public to view the Nazi Gas Chambers from a whole new perspective

Robert Priseman is having a busy week. Just two days ago, he opened a new exhibition of his execution paintings at London's 12 Star Gallery (as part of Amnesty International's World Day Against The Death Penalty initiative); this weekend he launches his book No Human Way To Kill simultaneously in London and Paris; and tonight he unveils his latest works at The Minories Gallery – a series of large-scale paintings of the Nazi gas chambers. Being chiefly interested in the residual energy left in spaces after extreme emotional turmoil, or in this case mass-execution, these paintings could be said to represent something of a zenith for the artist. We managed to grab ten minutes with him to discuss the reasons why he has turned his talents to painting the spaces that housed humanity's greatest shame...

Dazed Digital: When I first saw these paintings at your studio you described how the work had been a very difficult process for you. What was your purpose in framing these spaces in the context of fine art?
Robert Priseman:
 I have been considering painting a series of pictures on the Holocaust for 20 years. It is an event in human history which seems to defy understanding, and the more I look at it, the less it seems to make sense. At the heart of it is a process of de-humanisation. This is a process we see around us all the time – in pornography, in mockery and in alienating those we don’t like. The Holocaust is de-humanisation on an unimaginable scale, yet its seeds are in the small things.

DD: For me, there is a sense of trying to overcome the desensitisation we have to the photographic image. Is it your intention to place the viewer in a position where they have to re-consider what happened? 
 Yes. One thing that often puzzles me is how quickly we become de-sensitized to pictures of brutality. As horrific as images of the Holocaust are – almost everyone is familiar with photographs of piles of dead bodies, starving prisoners and the poverty of the ghettos – as time passes, the shock of what one is looking at subsides. What I am attempting is a renewed look at the subject, a reflection which aims to explore deeper issues of an underlying darkness that resides in all of us.

DD: What surprised you most about your researches into the gas chambers?
 It is the banality of evil which most surprised me. What occurred to me is that evil is allowed to occur because it takes root in the mundane. I was struck that someone would have received an order for tiles to tile the gas chamber, someone will have been contracted to make and fit the pipes, supply the bricks make the metal doors and their hinges. All these people and many more will have received money for their work and not thought of themselves as directly responsible for the atrocities because they did not carry out the actual killing or come up with the original policy. They were in fact just getting on with their lives. It is all the people who could have refused to participate in lots of small ways that enabled the holocaust to happen.

DD: I find it interesting that as the gas chambers get larger and capable of killing more people, the paintings get darker, there is this sense of descending into hell…
 If there is, then it was not a deliberate act on my part. My aim was to show the gradual moving away from the pretence of a gas chamber being seen as a shower room to the final realisation of a room built for purpose. In painting I aim more for a detached reflection. But I do see what you mean, the paintings do get darker as the series progresses, I don’t know though whether that was a reflection of the actual spaces or a reflection of my increasing sadness at contemplating these spaces as work on the series progressed.

DD: Do you have any apprehensions about exhibiting the work at all?
 Naturally. I worry that people will interpret what I am trying to achieve in the wrong way or take offence at my attempt to examine what I consider to be the darkest chapter in human history. For these reasons it was not easy to undertake the work. But I believe we have a duty to examine our past for clues as to how we might live better lives in the future. And I believe that after 60 years we are reaching a point where survivors of the Holocaust are nearing the ends of their natural lives and a space is opening up for Holocaust Denial to dig deeper roots. For this reason I think anything which helps to shore up the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust and which enables contemplation of its events can only be a good thing.

DD: What do you think about the rise of the far right in Europe and the election of somebody like Nick Griffin, who would of course deny that the holocaust even happened?
 I think free speech is a cornerstone of our society, and as such, I feel people like Nick Griffin should have a platform to speak and that we should take the time to listen. Free speech is not in my view an opt in opt out policy, where one only listens to the views of those we agree with, but instead I see it as one where we will occasionally have to hear things we find repulsive or disturbing. Perhaps in engaging in this process we enable all members of our society to feel as though they belong, and to feel valued. It would be my hope that hatred subsides as a result. As for Holocaust Denial, I find this fascinating. To me, denial is a much bigger issue than anything connected to a single tragic event. It can be found throughout life as a coping mechanism. If I ignore or disbelieve what seems so overwhelming as to be debilitating to the continuation of existence, then it enables the everyday to continue. I am thinking in this case of climate change and how many, including myself, say, ‘Where is the evidence?’, ‘what might I do? I am only a single individual...’, ‘If this is happening, it doesn’t seem to effect me’. These are all arguments one might have heard when the Holocaust was actually happening, and to my mind, Holocaust denial is an extension of this phenomenon.

DD: Could you envision a future where this industrial form of politically-sanctioned mass-murder could ever happen again?
 Not only can I envision it, I expect it. Genocide has occurred around the world many times since WWII. Think of Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge killed over a million people between 1975 and 1979, or the "disappearances" in Guatemala between 1981 and 1983 which saw some 200,000 people "vanish", or the loss of three million Bangladeshis during secession from Pakistan in 1971. Genocide seems to be hardwired into human nature. Interestingly, genocide does not have to involve actual killing. It is a process of ridding the world of a people and their culture, and that can be carried out by means of forced sterilisation, intermarriage, or integration of children into a different/dominant culture, as happened in Australia with Aboriginal families.

DD: As a species do you think we are still obsessed with notions of the superman?
 It seems inevitable. We all wish to imagine ourselves living forever in a beautiful future, untouched by hardship, bitterness and illness. A paradise of peace which will always be somehow just out of reach.

The exhibtion runs at The Minories Gallery, October 9 – November 27, 74 High St, Colchester CO1 1UE