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Is this the most offensive artwork ever made?

A Swedish gallery is defending the exhibition a painting made from stolen ashes of Holocaust victims.

Modern art, its safe to say, has never been shy of controversy. In fact, from the early Impressionists to Damien Hirst, it often thrives on public outcry.  Many of the most renowned artworks of recent years have embraced the philosophy that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, whether that involves making art out of the scatological (Chris Ofili), pornographic (Jeff Koons) or iconoclastic (Andres Serrano).

However, such high-profile examples have the unfortunate side-effect of causing mediocre artists to confuse a capacity to offend with a positive artistic reaction.

Take Carl Michael von Hausswolff as an example - a Swedish artist who has seemingly set himself the challenge to be as gratuitously offensive as history permits. He has just exhibited a new painting in a gallery in Lund, created by the ashes of holocaust victims stolen from a former Nazi concentration camp.

The ashes, which he took from a Polish museum and former camp, were stolen in 1989. Hausswolf claims they were mixed with water and used to paint a series of grey streaks in his small painting.

His actions have, predictably, ignited widespread condemnation. The Majdanek camp from which Hausswolf claims he took the ashes has called it an ‘unimaginably barbaric act’. Salomon Schulman, a key figure in Sweden’s Jewish community, described it as ‘repulsive in the extreme’, later writing in a local newspaper that he was ‘sickened’ by an act which could have involved the ashes from some of his relatives.

The art gallery that displayed the piece are defending their decision. Martin Bryder, the owner of the Lund gallery, told the Polish News Agency:

"Please come to the gallery, see the painting and judge for yourselves whether it's controversial".

Bryder and Hausswolf’s thought processes in producing and hanging the painting are almost more baffling then offensive – reminiscent of the infamous incident in 2009 when five men stole the ‘Arbeit Mach Frei’ sign above the Auschwitz entrance.

Their actions barely warrant debating. Much like Wlodzimierz Umaniec (a.k.a. Vladimir Umanets) who recently defaced a priceless Rothko masterpiece in the Tate, ostensibly in artistic protest, these men prove once again that there  is no greater disguise for a lack of talent than a cloak of controversy.

Shock tactics in art are no more than the last refuge for those without originality or opinion. Neither provocative, intellectual or remotely creative, he is one thing only - myopically obnoxious and not deserving of the extra publicity that even this article has given him.

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.



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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis