Upon entering the University Art Gallery, I didn’t know what to expect from the ambiguous title of the exhibit: “Criminal Case 40/61: Reverb.” Picking up a pamphlet, I walked around the corner and found myself standing in a room with six projector screens, oriented hexagonally and facing inward around five small stools in the center of the hexagon.
On each screen, a performer is projected, portraying a different character in the historic trial of Adolf Eichmann before the Israeli Supreme Court. Since there are six screens, there are six characters present: the accused, the defense, the prosecutor, the audience, the reporter and the judge.
These characters are not specifically named, save for Eichmann, and are portrayed instead as abstractions in order to resonate with current issues of historical responsibility that we face even in the world today.
As the viewer quickly notices, one of the central themes to this piece is personal responsibility and whether or not this responsibility can be deferred to political institutions. In Eichmann’s case, he makes the claim that he was simply following orders. His defense case also consisted of the fact that during the time of his terrible actions, they all fell within the parameters of German law.
In the end, as Geyer stated in a report she published for The New Yorker, she is challenging us with a question: “Is our ability to judge, to tell right from wrong … dependent upon our faculty of thought?” Her piece also challenges us to question personal responsibility, even if it goes against legal boundaries.
Perhaps what makes this piece unique is that Geyer places the viewer directly in the middle of the scene, forcing them to turn to listen to whichever character is speaking, rather than have all the characters on the same screen and have them face the audience, much like any movie would we watch.
During all the dialogue exchanged between the different characters, the viewer may notice that there are a significant amount of quick cuts to black, after which the trial is quickly resumed. While it was unclear to me whether this was being used to stress certain parts of the ongoing speeches or if it was simply for stylistic purposes, it proved interesting and was a nice break from the constant barrage of dialogue which the viewer can quickly find themselves wallowing through.
Since this is not just a simple re-enactment, the same performer is used in all six screens and are all portrayed behind the same desk. The viewer, then, is supposed to recognize that even though the whole thing is scripted, we should be recognizing the moral and legal questions that were raised during this trial and how they still reverberate (hence the “Reverb” in the title of the piece) in modern socio-political issues.
While this is all a very intriguing and interesting take on this trial that occurred in 1961, it seems as though Geyer might be assuming too much of her
viewers. Without reading the accompanying pamphlet or having a deep prior knowledge of the event, much of the rhetoric can be lost on the ears of those who are simply trying to keep up with the verbose language used in Geyer’s portrayal of the trial.
There is also a smaller, less significant portion of the exhibit towards the back that displays seven framed photos, each displaying something that is found on the desks of each of the characters. Each of these objects is likely to be representative of each of the abstractions that Geyer is portraying here. For example, the focal items on the judge’s desk were containers of papers, and the focal item on the desk of the reporter was an old radio. Each of these items tells the viewers a little extra something about what each of the characters are supposed to represent to us.
And as with all art, our individual interpretations will surely all differ, if only slightly. This brings me to another important aspect of this piece: Geyer, as much as she is guiding our thoughts through a scripted performance, leaves the viewers in an ethical quandary. With no crystal clear answer in sight, Geyer is showing us that issues such as this are never easy, confusing and sometimes difficult to even wrap our heads around in the first place.
Go to the exhibit and watch this piece from start to finish and perhaps you’ll learn something about these issues — or leave more confused than you were before you decided to watch it. Either way, it’s worth the time to see a highly-thought provoking, unique piece of art right here at UCI.