Naturally, the choice of Sunday is nonetheless suggestive of the Christian churches’ share of the blame for past pogroms and genocides of Jews. It was important to Sierra to take as direct, concrete and current an approach as possible – perhaps an almost pragmatic one – to the task of finding an artistic response to the question the Holocaust continues to pose, this being a task actually impossible to solve.
The carbon monoxide generated by the internal combustion engines was supposed to collect in the Synagogue’s interior in a density sufficient to put a person to death within half an hour. Images of the Nazis’ first improvised “attempts at mass killings” that preceded the horrifying perfection of the later death factories come to mind, when Jewish women and children were packed into the cargo space of trucks in order to be asphyxiated with carbon monoxide generated on the road, or poorly insulated basement facilities into which the exhaust fumes of running engines were funnelled. These and similar means were used primarily during the Eastern European campaigns of the years 1939 through 1941, approximately.
It does not take a lot of fantasy to imagine what kind of uproar and outrage this work by Santiago Sierra stirred up in 2006: an artist pumping exhaust fumes into a Jewish memorial, into a former Jewish temple, and this in the middle of Germany! Sierra himself had refrained from contacting representatives of Jewish, Christian or political organisations ahead of the show. The artwork itself was supposed to initiate confrontation and, if possible, dialogue and discourse.
To enter the Synagogue you had to wear a respirator. At the entrance to the otherwise empty showroom was a control or check-in situation, where each visitor was briefed about the safety features and the rules of conduct to be observed in order to avoid a health hazard. Admissions to the Synagogue itself were limited to individual visitors during the events. Sierra was doubtful whether anyone would actually enter the room, whether anyone would even dare, for whatever reason.