Ukraine Unveils Plans for a $100 Million Interactive Holocaust Memorial, But Faces Criticism Over Director’s Proposal to Experiment on Visitors

As the world recognizes Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev has unveiled plans for a major—and highly unconventional—memorial and museum complex in Babyn Yar, a ravine outside the Ukrainian city where Nazis executed 100,000 people.

The $100 million project’s artistic director is the controversial filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who is consulting with a team that includes performance artist Marina Abramović, who appeared in one of Khrzhanovsky’s films, and architect Maks Rokhmaniyko.

The Babyn Yar massacre took place on September 29 and 30, 1941, and was the Nazis’ largest, wiping out the city’s entire Jewish population of 33,771 people (only 29 are known to have survived). Thousands more died in the months that followed, in what is now called the Holocaust by Bullets.

“The establishment of the center is essential for the commemoration of the Holocaust,” said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in a statement. “As Europe’s largest mass grave, Babyn Yar represents unimaginable destruction. Thanks to these plans, it will become a place of peace, reflection and tranquility.”

The Babyn Yar ravine where 100,000 Holocaust victims were brutally executed. Photo ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

The Babyn Yar ravine where 100,000 Holocaust victims were executed. Photo ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

The complex will include a dozen buildings, including two separate museums—one for Ukrainians and Eastern European Jews killed in the Holocaust, and one specifically memorializing those who died at Babyn Yar. There will also be a church, a mosque, a synagogue, a multimedia center, a research center, and a conference building.

Organizers aim to complete the project by 2026, but to open the synagogue, designed by Manuel Herz, and a portion of exhibition space this September, in time for the 80th anniversary of the massacre.

Manuel Herz Architekten's rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Manuel Herz Architekten’s rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Since the Babyn Yar site was turned into a park during the Soviet era, the center has worked with Martin Dean, a former Scotland Yard detective who now investigates Nazi war crimes, to pinpoint the exact location of the shootings. Last year, they used that research, including historical photographs and maps, to create a 3-D simulation of the 500-foot-long massacre site.

“Currently, there are far too many people unaware of the nature of the place,” Khrzhanovsky told the Times of Israel. “If you visit Babyn Yar today, you will see families relaxing and playing as if it were a regular park.”

Manuel Herz Architekten's rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Manuel Herz Architekten’s rendering of the Babyn Yar Synagogue. Image ©Manuel Herz Architekten.

Khrzhanovsky, the center’s director, is best known for making the wildly ambitious film installation DAU, a 15-year project that recreated life in Soviet Russia on its sets, including a three-year shoot where non-professional actors were filmed around the clock in a replica of a Soviet scientific institute that was built in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

The project generated significant controversy, including accusations of sexual misconduct and child abuse on the three-acre set. Its 2018 debut in Berlin was cancelled over concerns about plans to rebuild a section of the Berlin Wall for the immersive presentation. A pared-back version opened in Paris the following year amid much chaos. DAU‘s two feature films, Natasha and Degeneratsia, screened last year at the Berlin International Film Festival, with the former winning the Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution.

Khrzhanovsky’s plans to remind visitors of the horrors that occurred at Babyn Yar have also been met with criticism. One former curator called it a “Holocaust Disneyland” when he quit.

Last spring, Karel Berkhoff, the project’s chief historian, announced his resignation over what he said were Khrzhanovsky’s plans to subject museum goers to “psychometric algorithms” and experiments “in which visitors would find themselves playing the role of victims, collaborators, Nazis, or prisoners of war who were forced to burn corpses.”

Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Photo via YouTube screengrab.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Photo via YouTube screengrab.

As Khrzhanovsky required of visitors to DAU in Paris, attendees of the memorial would have to fill out an invasive questionnaire, take a psychological test, and provide access to their social media channels in order to be profiled and cast either as a victim or perpetrator.

There would be “interactive, role-based experiences” with virtual reality goggles that would allow visitors to witness the events of the Holocaust as if they were taking part, according to the Ukrainian online newspaper Istorychna pravda. Other possible attractions could include a restaging of the infamous Stanford prison experiment.

A screenshot from Dau. Photo courtesy of Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

A screenshot from Dau. Photo courtesy of Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

Others involved in the project have quit as well, including director general Hennadiy Verbylenko and executive director Yana Barinova, who both resigned in 2019, around the time Khrzhanovsky was appointed. Dieter Bogner, a curator on the center’s planning committee, resigned in April.

It is not clear to what extent the current plan incorporates these interactive elements, but Khrzhanovsky told the Times of Israel last year that “VR technology will enable the audience to feel closer to the victims, understand who they and their families were, hear sounds from the past, and share their feelings, thoughts and actions.”

He added elsewhere, however, that many of the characterizations of the project in the press are untrue. “I did not plan and do not plan anything resembling an amusement park or ‘Disneyland’ on the site of the tragedy. I consider this blasphemy,” he told the Daily Beast.

More than 80 Ukrainian academics, artists, and historians penned an open letter in May calling for Khrzhanovsky’s removal from the project.

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Coachella Officials Have Rejected a Proposal for an Ambitious Desert X Artwork, Claiming It Would ‘Exploit’ Local Plight for Tourism

Desert X, Southern California’s Coachella Valley art biennial, has always confronted environmental themes head on, using the harsh desert landscape to speak to global concerns about climate change.

But during preparations for the event’s third edition, Coachella natives took umbrage with a planned installation about water insecurity by Ghanaian artist Serge Attukwei Clottey.

The city has now refused to grant permission for the project, citing ongoing problems related to arsenic-tainted groundwater in the eastern Coachella Valley. Instead, reports the Desert Sun, the work will be installed at a new, to-be-announced location.

“Ensuring that people don’t feel that their issue is being appropriated and exploited for tourism is something that is very sensitive to our communities,” council member Neftalí Galarza said during a December meeting. Desert X had been seeking a $30,000 grant for the artwork.

“We are deeply disappointed that the Coachella City Council made a decision not to host the work and troubled by the fact that the conversations it is intended to provoke proved too problematic for a district which struggles with precisely those issues,” Desert X 2021 co-curator César Garcia-Alvarez told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “We are excited for audiences to experience this work in a remarkable location.”

Clottey has coined the term “Afrogallonism” to describe his work, in which he recycles plastic yellow gallon containers that are ubiquitous in his native country. Originally filled with cooking oil, the containers are reused to transport water throughout Ghana, with villagers carrying the vessels long distances to reach potable wells.

“My work aims to shed light on and create a dialogue about the challenges communities around the globe experience in their fight for equitable water resource,” Clottey told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “It’s my dream to inspire local communities with the understanding that their unique environmental conditions are shared by many people around the world.”

For Desert X, he planned to display two nine-foot-tall cubes of stacked containers overlooking the Coachella Valley, with a paved pathway of cut-up containers between them, evoking the Yellow Brick Road.

The biennial described the artwork as “an act of global solidarity” that warns “us of a coming global water crisis.”

City council members suggested the artwork would be better placed in more wealthy areas of the Coachella Valley that might not be aware of the water issues facing much of the community.

This isn’t the first time Desert X has been embroiled in controversy. Its organizers were roundly criticized for collaborating with Saudi Arabia on a 2020 exhibition following the Saudi state-sponsored murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Desert X will be on view in sites throughout the Coachella Valley, February 6–April 11, 2021. 

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