Facing a dark past with playful art

At a glance, the twisted body of a woman chained to a bed inside a prison cell constructed inside The Container gallery in Tokyo, an art space converted from a container that sits inside a hair salon – spaces containing each other like Russian nested dolls – seems more cute than provocative. But at closer inspection, the contorted figure, colourfully knitted by Israeli artist Gil Yefman, conjures a darker figure – the female sex worker in World War II’s history.

For the exhibition, curated by maverick Tokyo-based curator, Shai Ohayon, also originally from Israel, Yefman plays the role of Frankenstein, stitching together an anthropomorphic creature that appears to have been mutilated – grisly if not for the playful, anime-like aesthetics.

Yefman has apparently conflated the various meanings embedded in the character H for this installation – H for the Holocaust, H for Hentai in the Japanese language (to mean distorted and strange figure, and pornography), and “H” to mean sexual aberration, also in Japanese (pronounced as “echi”).


Yefman’s piece was also inspired by the discovery of Block 24 in the Auschwitz concentration camp, a brothel that serviced its Nazi guards and officials during World War II. The association with “comfort women” is also obvious here: a war crime perpetrated against women by the Japanese military during the same war.

In Ian Buruma’s book, The Wages of Guilt, the influential author tells of the pervasive rape of women by Japanese soldiers and officers at military brothels, or “sexual comfort facilities”, near the front lines, “stocked with Chinese, Korean, Southeast Asian, and some European women, taken from villages, towns, and POW camps”, and how “most of these ‘comfort women’ died, of disease, murder, or enemy fire”.

In the shadow of these two uncomfortable accounts from World War II – whether accepted or denied by German and Japanese historians – Yefman forces his viewers to look at figure H with heavier eyes, and not with the usual insouciance associated with viewing pop art. I spoke to Ohayon about the show, and how art can shed a harsh light on war crimes.


Can you walk the readers through the installation a (for the benefit of those not living in Tokyo)?
The installation consists of a variety of elements: a bed with a life-size knitted sex doll made in the same physical dimensions detailed in a Personal Prisoner’s Card found at Block 24 in Auschwitz to identify a sex worker; a black mirror made of Plexiglas, shaped and cut to the same measurements of a furnace entry used in Auschwitz to exterminate workers, and hanging above a shelf to resemble a toilette; a small monitor presenting a looped video with nature footage from the surrounding area of Ravensbrück concentration camp; a portrait of Adolf Hitler’s mother, Klara, who incidentally, fits the exact physical description depicted in the sex-workers’ identification card; a neon sign with the inscription “Schlampe” meaning in German a bitch or a slut; and a CCTV (surveillance) camera, monitoring the inside of the container and projecting the recorded footage outside the space, replacing the peepholes one would have found in the original brothels.

Why did you select Gil Yefman as your artist for the current show?
I selected Yefman for the current show at The Container because I am interested in the way that he communicates social issues through craftsmanship. Knitting is often used for utility and not for the communication of conceptual ideas. There is an element also of playfulness in the dolls that he makes, and that, creates a dichotomy and an unusual tension which I find interesting.

In addition to that, The Container evolved to be a site where artists that are usually unlikely to show in Japan get an opportunity to exhibit here and I think that this is important both in order to strengthen the local art scene as well as to provide avenues for artists to show in one of the world’s most interesting cities.


Can you elaborate more on his oeuvre?
Yefman’s practice deals with sexuality, gender, identity, and the collective Jewish memory through a wide variety of media – drawings, knitting, installation, and video. He has a tendency to explore severe social issues with what appears to be at first sight playful and perhaps shallow, but there are many layers of context that draw the viewers to a much stronger and serious discourse. In particular, his knitted dolls, are easily associated at first with what may appear to be a “toy”, but of course this playfulness is offset by the subject matter of his works, and often, in the grotesque nature of the works.

Why did the artist call his show H?
The title for the show was chosen for a couple of reasons. Initially, the artist was fascinated with the Japanese connotation with the letter “H” (pronounced “echi”) which loosely translates to a pervert. This Japanese preoccupation with the letter H evolved actually from westerners’ abbreviation of the word “Hentai” which traditionally means distorted or strange, to describe pornographic anime or manga. In Japanese, the actual word Hentai doesn’t usually have a sexual connotation, but the letter H on its on, does.

But of course, since the exhibition is about WWII, H also stands for the Holocaust, Hitler, and Himmler.


What’s the show’s connection to the Holocaust?
The exhibition abstractly recreates a residence of a sex-slave from unit 24 in the Auschwitz concentration camp of WWII. The actual phenomenon is rarely discussed in history books both because the women who were exploited rarely want to talk about their experiences, but also because the men who attended these concentration camp “brothels” were mainly other prisoners, and they are as well, not too proud.

The research I have conducted in the run up for this show reveals that the Third Reich had a complex relationship with sexuality as a whole, and in particular prostitution. The regime was very conservative, and indeed, opposed to Germany’s nationwide abolition of state-regulated prostitution in 1927, which led to significant improvements in prostitutes’ civil and legal status, but by 1939 the situation has changed, and historians believe that by the end of the war some 5,000 brothels were opened by the Nazis throughout Germany. It is believed that by 1945 nearly every concentration camp housed also a “brothel” similar to unit 24.

How does this connect with pornographic anime?
The short answer is that is doesn’t, but as most people are aware, artists often work with associations and links they process in their own heads to communicate an idea. In Yefman’s case, I think the connection was with the perceived relation between echi and perversion, and as I explained before the tie between Hentai and pornography is superficial and actually perpetuated by western manga and anime lovers, not by the Japanese.


I suppose that visually, at first sight, the knitted sex doll Yefman created as the focus of the exhibition, can be likened in its absurdity and colourfulness to something that came out of anime, but conceptually, the intention of the work is to discuss sex slavery and WWII, and not anime.

Do you think sexual deviance and violence are inextricable?
Well, yes. I think that sexual deviance many times is violence in itself, so obviously there is a connection there that is impossible to disentangle. Saying that, not every violent act is also sexual, but yes, the connection is there.

I think it is important also to look at violence, as a whole, in the context of war and to recognise that throughout the history of humanity sexual deviance, sexual slavery, exploitation, and rape, were used to exercise control, dehumanise, and demoralise the enemy. This link between sexuality and violence always existed, and I suppose will always be there.


You’re an Israeli living in Tokyo. Is this an emotional show for you, historically?
I wouldn’t say that the show was emotional for me because of my ties to Israel, but of course as an individual that met as a child many survivors of the Holocaust and have a deep understanding of the aftermath of this war, both on individuals and the collective Jewish memory, I have strong feelings about WWII. I think that anyone who visits the exhibition, Israeli or not, Jewish or not, feels a bit uncomfortable. To add to that, I have spent a few years, while a university student in Canada, working at a prostitutes’ rights organisation, so my relationship to the exhibition is perhaps more complex. While I strongly believe in the rights of women or men to work as prostitutes, sexual exploitation is a different story, and quite unforgivable.

What is Block 24?
Block 24 is an isolated unit in the Auschwitz concentration camp that was used as a brothel to relief male prisoners and some army officials. It is believed that the Third Reich opened these brothels (referred to by the SS as “joy divisions”) to create hierarchies between camp workers and a echi prisoner aristocracy, to reward industrious workers as an incentive for others to work harder.

The women that were exploited were usually not Jewish (to “protect” the Aryan race,) but there are some documented cases also of Jewish sex workers. Typically the women were chosen by the SS, but many women also volunteered, realising this may be the only chance they have to survive the war in a concentration camp. Women that did speak up about their experiences after the war describe the sexual experiences as detached of any kind of eroticism, as a mere animal function for the physical gratification of the attending men. By the summer of 1944, brothels had been opened in eight major concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau.


Does the show also address the thorny issue of the comfort women in Japan?
The exhibition does not directly address the issue of comfort women in Japan, but of course, it would have been silly, if not strange, to avoid the issue altogether. While the exhibition itself does not refer to Japan and Comfort Women, the catalogue for the show does contextualise the issue, and includes a piece that the Japanese journalist Hiroko Tabuchi wrote for Associated Press in 2007.

What’s the public’s reaction to the show?
The reaction was mixed, while most visitors were very impressed with the show, some found it too harsh and offensive. Largely though, the reaction was very positive. Many people are very touched by the show and appreciated both highlighting the issue and also finding an opportunity to learn more about the subject matter. Visually, although sever, the actual installation is quite striking.

Does the cartoonish figure make light of these very serious issues?
I don’t think that the playfulness of the doll makes light of the seriousness of the subject matter. There was never any intention to deride the Holocaust and certainly not the sexual exploitation of individuals. Personally, as a curator who has always been very interested in making contemporary art accessible to the general public.


I think that the “cartoonish” nature of the piece allows us to draw people to investigate an important issue further. It is a “honey trap”. There would have certainly be less interest in the show if I was just showing documents about unit 24. I also think that having any show that allows for an actual physical interaction with the works always facilitates “an experience” and new opportunities to build a relationship with contemporary art.

Finally, can you tell our readers more about your gallery?
The Container is an actual constructed shipping container, made to the same dimensions of old traditional Japanese containers, which are smaller than the standard ones (177H x 180H x 485L) and is housed in a hair salon in one of Tokyo’s trendiest neighbourhoods (Nakameguro). I curate and host at The Container four shows a year, each for a duration of two-and-a-half-months, showcasing both Japanese and international artists.


The artists chosen are from all different levels of career – from emerging to established. Artists are usually selected to highlight my curatorial interest in works that explore socialist, conceptual, or activist works, of any medium, and invited to develop a site-specific installation to fit with the restrictions of the space. Another important aspect of the exhibition space is that it seeks to make contemporary art more accessible to the general public and to democratize or demystify current art practices.

Our upcoming exhibition in November, entitled, Multi(Multi)(ple(s)), will showcase works in multiples (limited edition) of a variety of Japanese and international artists, and will coincide with the launch of The Container’s online shop, and in March 2014 we will exhibit a site-specific video installation by the Japanese artist Yu Araki. As of January 2013, we have also started to publish full-colour bilingual (Japanese/English) catalogues for each of our exhibitions. They are available on Amazon.

by Peter Yeoh

All images: Installation view. Mixed media © Gil Yefman, 2013
Photography: James Bingham. Courtesy of The Container, Tokyo

Gil Yefman’s H runs from August 19 – October 28 at The Container, 1F Hills Daikanyama, 1-8-30 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo

A video of Gil Yefman performing at the opening of his show:


About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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