In a dramatic tour-de-force of working with a tricky, constrained space, Yefman has transformed the gallery (an actual shipping container measuring slightly less than five meters long) into a mockup of a sex slave’s residence based on actual fieldwork he conducted at “Block 24” in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Block 24 was the term used to refer to a functioning brothel that satisfied the sexual needs of concentration camp officials, in addition to serving as a “reward” for camp workers that performed exceptionally well in their duties. At the height of the Nazi empire, it is estimated that around 5,000 of these “joy divisions” functioned to service military men, foreign workers, and even the general German male population.
Yefman’s dry, dolorous recreation of the personal quarters of one of these sex slaves strikes a delicate balance between poignant elegy and bawdy irony. Although the drab confines of the cell are painstakingly fabricated to evoke the manifold indignities suffered by these women, the gaudy pink knitted doll — which resembles something that Mike Kelley and Antonin Artaud might have produced if they’d run a sock puppet workshop together — is a ridiculous and uncomfortably camp gesture that brings down the serious tone of the work.
Which may be precisely the point. According to the artist, the intentional choice of this homely knitted figure was a way of embodying violent, contradictory sentiments and avoiding an overly didactic or moral approach to his subject. “In my work, I tend to indulge in the therapeutic virtues of knitting as a means of dwelling on personal and collective traumas. The doll here has lots of ambivalent features — it is roughly deformed, but also soft and tactile. Its features could have been taken from hentai (perverted) animation films, but knitted while watching hundreds of Holocaust documentaries.”
Even though the expected audience for this exhibition would naturally be largely Japanese, Yefman was also careful not to confront the touchy historical issue of Japan’s own comfort women during World War II. Rather, the work seems to be a more universal memorial that remembers all the women who were the victims of sexual crimes regardless of nationality, as well as an oblique reference to sexual obsessions that still crop up in the midst of contemporary, “civilized” societies.
Gil Yefman’s “H” runs from August 19 until October 28 at The Container (1F Hills Daikanyama, 1-8-30 Kamimeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo).