- A sign for passers by in Manitou Springs.
Feelings about the swastika are imprinted on our souls, and they’re bubbling to the surface in response to a Manitou Art Center exhibit. It’s stirring up conversations about what art is, what artists can and should depict, and what’s acceptable in galleries and museums.
Larry Kledzik’s installation Heleg includes a variety of objects in various media. But the swastikas are getting all the attention.
Kledzik, a 73-year-old Chicago native, has lived in Manitou since 1973. He was raised Catholic, and is 75 percent Polish and 25 percent Irish. Heleg is the final installation in a trilogy that’s appeared in the MAC. He’s been thinking about this exhibit for about 10 years, but it really coalesced in 2017.
In late May, Kledzik was reluctant to spell out his motivations for including depictions of swastikas in Heleg. But by early June, he had to speak openly.
MAC Executive Director Natalie Johnson had received calls from individuals and organizations including the Anti-Defamation League.
Approximately 25 people showed up Thursday, June 6, for a community discussion in the MAC’s First Amendment Gallery — just steps away from the Hagnauer Gallery, which displays the installation. The discussion was organized to address reactions to the swastikas.
- Artist Larry Kledzik talks about what he did and didn’t intend to convey.
That evening, attendees arrived to discover that Kledzik had removed the pieces, large squares of building materials with empty swastika-shaped spaces cut out. They had been displayed alongside similar depictions of the hammer and sickle.
Moderator Nancy Wilson asked the artist to share his motivations. Kledzik spoke about his history of creating installations, and said this one is a philosophical inquiry into Nazism and communism.
“The symbols there are more than just symbols, they dominated the 20th century,” he said. “I get my rewards when someone walks up to me and tells me that they’ve seen something that I didn’t see.”
Wilson asked Kledzik why he removed the swastikas, and he talked about the MAC receiving calls from the ADL and a local synagogue.
“This is not what I wanted to happen,” he said. “I’m not sure what to do, but we have to find a solution to this.”
Kledzik chose to honor their wishes.
“The installation has only just started. I think it’s got to go on, but I’m not exactly sure how because we’ve had this intervention,” he said. “I usually do the interventions, because my installations change, almost day-to-day.”
- Heleg has continued to shift around as it remains on display at the MAC.
Kledzik also talked about how it was never his intention for Johnson, and the MAC staff and board, to bear the brunt of negative reactions. Johnson said that the ADL just wanted to talk about the exhibit.
“But I would say within two minutes, they sort of understood what was happening. And they said, ‘Just so you know, at no point would we ever request any sort of censorship,’” she said.
“And they said, ‘Swastikas are showing up all throughout the country. This is a serious thing. We’re very glad you’re talking about it.’”
Johnson also explained that people in the community called the ADL.
“They were afraid the installation is anti-Semitic, and it’s the complete opposite,” Kledzik said. “But to get to this point, I have to use those symbols. It’s like saying, ‘Write a book, but don’t mention that.’ We’re at a point now where we do need to confront and defuse this.”
Someone asked Kledzik if he feels it’s his duty to be a provocateur.
“No, I don’t feel a duty, and I don’t try to be provocative. I try to address the material. It’s a philosophical inquiry, to keep philosophizing. You might end up drinking the hemlock, but that comes with philosophizing if you do it correctly,” he said.
“I actually have to be neutral with these images. … I have the material, the ideas, spiritual and other otherwise, that I find enlightening, so I try to put them in a form.”
Manitou artist kj becker spoke about her thoughts.
“I love that you’re putting what needs to happen now, not only about this topic, but a lot of other hot-button topics that are triggering to all of us every day. … I wish the people who had a problem with it were here today; I don’t know if they are or not. But I think that would have been a great addition to the conversation for them to hear your perspective,” she said.
Becker talked about the artists who show their work in the First Amendment Gallery, and said that people upset with Kledzik’s installation don’t realize what the gallery stands for.
“That just means to me they didn’t do research about who we are and what we do in this gallery. So I love it. I sing its praises. I’ve been talking about it.”
Then, Julia Wright of Commonwheel Artists Co-op spoke.
“All I know is, I walked into that room and had a feeling of hate. I’ve had so many people come to me, freaked out when they see it through the windows,” Wright said.
“If you want to have it in a gallery space that people have to walk into, fine. But we are a town that has thousands of people coming by right now, who see that symbol and wonder what type of town they are driving into.”
- Community members hold a civil discussion around the exhibit to share thoughts.
Becker suggested that they go into the gallery and find out what it’s about.
“No, no, they’re not going to come in and find out, they’re not coming here to see a show that freaks them out. To me, if you want to have that show, block the windows off,” Wright said.
“I just don’t understand filling a room with that symbol without any explanation. … I just don’t understand it as an artistic concept.”
Becker said that she thinks many people driving by don’t realize that the MAC is an art center. If they did walk in, they may not see the warning sign outside the gallery.
“One of the problems is that if that was closed off, it actually exists out there, it’s all over the country, everywhere. People are blocking it out. And I’m going to close it up? No. I’m not going to close the exhibit,” Kledzik said. “… It’s being used as entertainment on the national stage.”
MAC artist Yuriy Luzov, who grew up in the U.S.S.R., shared his perspective.
“I think the environment is both ripe for it, and it’s a powder keg. To me, it’s provocative, and it’s kind of presumptuous to put it out there like that …”
“I understand your intention is specifically to address that divide, and try to end it. But this is more like pouring gasoline on a fire. Because those are the results if you have people who are sensitive to this kind of material, and it should absolutely be a choice for them to see it, they shouldn’t have to see it.”
Luzov emphasized that he respects Kledzik and his work, and censorship is against his principles.
“Just support the position that being offended is perfectly all right, if it starts a conversation,” Luzov said. “It’s important. But as far as putting it back up, I think it should go back up, I think blocking the windows is going to have to be the compromise. Unfortunately.”
Wilson asked for other comments, and although Becker said it was unfortunate that people assumed the worst before thinking about the artist’s intentions, Wright talked again about people being forced to see something they find disrespectful.
“I grew up with people who were in that war. I knew people who had numbers on their arms. They’ve all passed away, but I’m glad they didn’t live to see this show,” Wright said.
“I’m afraid I don’t really see much artistry to the show. I’ve seen your other installations; they are interesting. But this one is just in your face.”
Wilson asked Kledzik if he feels the exhibit has been censored, and he replied that he can self-censor it — although the symbols and what they represent are all around us.
“It’s right on the national stage. It’s dancing all over the place. It’s taking over the country in ways that are kicking out the walls. You’re going to wake up one morning and you’re going to get a headline that says, ‘The Constitution is fake news.’ And you’re going to go, ‘maybe it was,’” Kledzik said.
Manitou artist Robyn Sean Peterson spoke of feeling that the forces behind the swastika have been bubbling under the surface, but they’re coming back into the open.
“When I looked at the exhibit, I thought, ‘This is good because it will promote an important conversation that we need to have.’ It takes it off the street and from the hands of extremist people whose aim is violence, and brings it into a place where people come in, to look and to think and to feel without that kind of situation,” Peterson said.
“This show is a warning. And we do need to talk about this, and it’s worked. It took the power away. … We’re having civil, calm, respectful conversation with one another about an energy that really has the potential to do great destruction.”
Becker spoke about her Air Force service and how it influences her principles.
“I served for this freedom of art and for this choice. And for anybody to try to censor this is to me personally offensive, because that negates my entire service,” she said.
Luzov talked to Kledzik about how he sees the exhibit’s effect on people.
“I think part of the problem is we can’t expect people to understand it from your perspective without clarifying what your perspective is. You can’t expect people to know Jungian philosophy or archetypes,” Luzov said.
“People in general look at something for a moment and respond emotionally. … You can’t just trigger painful experiences for people that’s forced upon them, the whole choice thing is still there. I think I’m just a fan of being able to choose. I understand the whole point is making people confront it so we can actually heal.”
Wright spoke about not seeing any other galleries with such controversial material readily visible from the street, and Wilson clarified Wright’s objection: that someone may be triggered seeing the installation from the street.
“And I’m hearing other folks say that’s the purpose of art,” Wilson said. “It is the purpose, to raise an emotional awareness or to get a reaction … although we’ve heard from the artist that is not necessarily the purpose.”
Peterson pointed out that Hitler was an artist, but galleries rejected his work. “And when he came to power, he decided to be the arbiter of what was art and what was not,” he said.
“Every one of us has our own personal taste, right? And what we value and what we don’t value, but it’s a dangerous line, a really dangerous line to say, ‘This has no artistic value.’”
Peterson talked about the artists whose work was confiscated by the Nazis, and added that it was important viewers ask themselves “how much of this is coming from me? How much am I projecting onto the artist, or the work or whatever?”
Manitou photographer/writer Adam Williams spoke about the perils of trying to protect others from being offended.
“When we’re trying to guess what other people might think, when we’re deciding on their behalf, and we’ve not even given them a chance to think, then we’re already cutting off the dialogue, we’re cutting off that expression and experience,” he said.
“We’re also presuming somehow that we are more intelligent, sensitive, aware, that we somehow know something more. And that we have the right to say, ‘They don’t need to experience that for themselves.’ … So when we are censoring to that degree, there’s an irony in supporting, essentially, what those symbols mean, and suppressing the voice,” Williams said.
Kledzik has been spending time in the Hagnauer Gallery in case anyone wants to talk with him.
“From my experience, 99 percent of the people that come in here, shake my hand and say, ‘This is great,’” he said.
As the discussion wound down, Johnson said she would talk to the MAC board and to Kledzik about the discussion.
Kledzik re-hung the swastikas for the June 7 opening, but they were gone June 8. Afterward, he added about two dozen photos of a man with his finger to his lips, shushing the viewer.
What does it mean? Maybe Kledzik will say. Or maybe he won’t.
— A version of this story first appeared in the Pikes Peak Bulletin.