Libera’s LEGO Concentration Camp

Zbigniew Libera’s LEGO Concentration Camp, 1996

Next week my new students will learn a little bit about Zbigniew Libera’s project LEGO Concentration Camp (1996). Libera worked with the LEGO corporation to create a seven box set of different buildings within a concentration camp. Although much of the set contained LEGO materials, some of the faces of the guards and prisoners were manipulated with paint (to suggest expressions of sadness or glee). The last box of the set was full of personal objects and possessions, inspired by the loots that were taken from prisoners during the period.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of controversy around this project. You can read a little bit more about the controversy and background of the project in this article (start about 1/3 of the way down the page). Even LEGO launched legal complaints against the artist.

In some ways, it seems like “anything goes” in relation to contemporary art, especially when it comes to readymade/found objects. Today artists seem to scramble for any kind of readymade/found object that hasn’t been used (or hasn’t been used in a certain way). Libera’s work is an example of how nothing can be considered taboo in the contemporary art scene, not only in its readymade medium but also in subject matter.

What do you think of Libera’s work and idea? To be honest, I haven’t completely made up my own mind. I fluctuate between being offended and feeling that Libera is bringing attention to the Holocaust in a creative way. The thing I don’t like to envision, though, is the possibility of little children playing with a LEGO set like this one. And I think that reminder of childhood innocence is part of Libera’s point.

(e, I know that Libera’s sets were only available in a limited edition. Does the Holocaust Museum own any of the sets?)

  • e says:

    When I was reading this post and then reading the link you gave, before I even reached the part where the survivors opinions were stated (in the link), I already KNEW it.

    After knowing so many Holocaust survivors personally, and being around them everyday, I instantly knew their reaction — they all would hate it and find it extremely offensive. So, not surprising that the victims in the article were offended, too.

    I can't blame them. Part of me, when initially seeing it, isn't offended. It's interesting and thought-provoking, and yes, I suppose it brings attention to the Holocaust … but, some things are sacred and the Holocaust is one of them.

    I think it someone made a LEGO set depicting my mother's death or any other tragedy in my life, I wouldn't be so apt to find it "art" as I would find it in very bad taste. I think these LEGO sets are very much the same thing.

    When we take human tragedy of such enormous proportions and minimize it or dehumanize it in anyway — even if it brings "attention" to the cause — we are making things worse. We have enough problems in the museum with teenagers (and often times, adults) behaving themselves appropriately, being respectful, and recognizing that 11 million people died and they see actual footage, photographs, and artifacts of the suffering firsthand! I don't think a LEGO set is going to make people realize the grave situation any better if real evidence doesn't already.

    Plus, I can just picture countless people gawking over the LEGO set in some sort of a museum setting and thinking it was "cool" or laughing at the "victims faces" that were painted on. Not good.

    When I think of all that, I just think it was a bad, bad idea that has no value and doesn't contribute to the Holocaust cause.

    To answer your question, I am 90% sure we do not have any of the sets in our collection. The museum is extremely strict about only accepting (or at times purchasing) material that is ONLY about the victims and does not glorify the Nazi's in any way. I think one could argue that these sets could be interpreted as making the Nazi's or the camps somehow "cool." I know we've been offered very historical and interesting things before — like possessions of Hitler's or Himmler's — and we've turned them down because even though they are super historical and interesting, we will not having anything that could be viewed as a shrine to the Nazi's. It's ALL about the victims at the museum. Matter of fact, we only display the Nazi flag twice in the permanent exhibit — and one time it is on the ground to symbolize the fall of the Third Reich.

    But, I'll check with out collections and curator on Tuesday (when I work next) and ask. I'll let you know.

    Finally, interestingly enough, the Danish were the only country in Europe that saved their Jews. The only country. Interesting.

  • e says:

    Um, even though I proof read that before I clicked submit, I just found at least two errors. Sorry. It's midnight here and I have to get up at 5. Ack! 🙂
    Hopefully, you understand what I was trying to say!

  • heidenkind says:

    I agree with e completely. I think this so-called art piece does dehumanize the Holocaust and is in very poor taste.

    This piece pretty much highlights exactly what I hate about contemporary art–the idea that anything goes and it's art as long as it pushes boundaries or makes people question something. I HATE that definition of art.

    And just because this piece might create controversy doesn't make it interesting.

  • M says:

    e, I think you brought up some really great points. I never even considered how Libera's "cool" work would fall outside the interests of the Holocaust museum. Of course! That totally makes sense. Besides, the set is not a real artifact of the Holocaust, anyway.

    I completely agree with both e and heidenkind. This LEGO work is in poor taste. Really, now that I think about it, "LEGO Concentration Camp" brings more attention to Libera than toward the Holocaust. If Libera was really interested in raising issues about the Holocaust (instead of getting attention for himself and his work), then he should have gone about the situation in a different way.

  • Rebekah says:

    M – I think there's a sort-of sub-cult of toy-based ironic art about things considered taboo or sacred. The Brick Testament is a more widely-known phenomena of this kind of art (and also Lego), but there are several large-scale projects out there which depict very serious historic tragedies or stories using children's toys. I'm not sure that I completely agree that it's disgusting or offensive as much as ugly. In my opinion, it's a different way of examining serious matters. And it has it's own subtext of dehumanization which one could argue comments on the way in which horific human tragedies like the holocaust have become flattened and commodified.

  • e says:

    I'm sorry I have no update on the status of Libera and if it is in the museum collection. The curator is on vacation. I tried to go see her on Tuesday, but she's out for a week. But, when she's back, I'll ask. 🙂

  • M says:

    Rebekah, I think you have a really good point about the subtext of dehumanization.

    Maybe that's why it's so disturbing for me to envision children playing with "LEGO Concentration Camp," since I don't want young children to take part in dehumanizing the subject matter (or consequently to become dehumanized themselves?).

    I'd heard about Brick New Testament (I just looked it up), but I bet that J already has. J's pretty LEGO savvy, given his childhood obsession with the toy. 🙂

  • Charles says:

    I agree with the previous posts in that at first, this piece does dehumanize the Holocaust, but only if you put little thought beyond that. Simply because LEGOs are a child's toy does not mean that this piece is meant for play. It is meant to inspire thought. Look behind the medium, why did the author use LEGOs? What point is he trying to get across? For me, a possible explanation of the medium is his attempt to illustrate his views on God. Perhaps the fact that he depicts such a tragic event in a child's toy mirrors his view that we are entertainment for God or the gods. Its an ancient view of gods seen in mythology. Callous gods seeking entertainment through the trials of those they control. Choosing one of the worst events in history to make this point is questionable but it definitely strengthens and stresses the seriousness of his rather negative view of a higher power. Again, just one way of looking at it, there are probably a million more ways to see it. I see value in this piece of art work, it is certainly not meant for those who cannot see past the apparent dehumanization of the Holocaust; because for them it does just that. For others though, it transcends that base interpretation.

  • Chuckk says:

    I agree that it's not at all surprising what survivors would think of this, but I feel I have the right to consider their opinion in context, not necessarily as a guide to how I should feel.
    There are plenty of ways to interpret the work. I would point to how much money news organizations made by sensationalizing the 9/11 attacks. Not just reporting them, but accompanying the reports with dramatic music, fiery digitized explosions behind news titles, and a great rush to get survivors and firemen crying or yelling on camera. "Get the widow on the set, we need dirty laundry," as Don Henley said.
    LEGO represents not just children playing, but very successful capitalism and marketing. I have nothing against the LEGO brand specifically- I don't know that they've engaged in any underhanded business (like Mattel did by buying the Bild Lilli brand to keep people from knowing that Barbie was a copycat).
    Regardless of any opinion of the LEGO company, the work clearly criticizes society and implies that people *already have* a belittling attitude towards the Holocaust. The artist is merely confronting people with that fact; he didn't invent it.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.